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Tag: Knowlson

Eco: An Open Classification?

John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, 1668, p. a from the Epistle

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page a from the Epistle. London, John Martin, 1668. GoogleBooks offers a digital version of the complete text. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In reality, Wilkins’ classification ought to be regarded as an open one. Following a suggestion of Comenius‘ (in the Via lucis), Wilkins argued that the task of constructing an adequate classification could only be undertaken by a group of scientists working over a considerable period of time, and to this end he solicited the collaboration of the Royal Society.

The Essay was thus considered no more than a first draft, subject to extensive revision. Wilkins never claimed that the system, as he presented it, was finished.

Looking back at figures 12.3 and 12.4, it is evident that there are only nine signs or letters to indicate either differences or species. Does this mean that each genus may have no more than nice species? It seems that the number nine had no ontological significance for Wilkins, and that he chose it simply because he thought nine was the maximum number of entities that might easily be remembered.

He realized that the actual number of species for each genus could not be limited. In fact, certain of the genera in the tables only have six species, but there are ten species for the Umbelliferous and seventeen for the Verticillates Non Fruticose.

To accommodate genera with over nine species Wilkins invented a number of graphic artifices. For simplicity’s sake, let us say that, in the spoken language, to specify a second group of nine species an l is added after the first consonant of the name, and that to specify a third group an r is added.

Therefore if Gαpe is normally Tulip (third species of the fourth difference of the genus Herbs according to their leaves), then Glαpe will be Ramsom, because the addition of the l means that the final e no longer indicates the third species in the genus but the twelfth.

Yet is precisely at this point that we come across a curious error. In the example we just gave, we had to correct Wilkins‘ text (p. 415). The text uses the normal English terms Tulip and Ramsom, but designates them in characters by Gαde and Glαde rather than Gαpe and Glαpe (as it should be).

If one checks carefully on the tables, one discovered that Gαde denotes Barley, not Tulip. Wilkins‘ mistake can be easily explained: regardless of whatever botanical affinities the plants might possess, in common English, the words Tulip and Barley are phonetically dissimilar, and thus unlikely to ever be confused with each other.

In a philosophical language, however, members of the same species are easy to muddle either phonetically or graphically. Without constant double-checking against the tables, it is difficult to avoid misprints and misunderstandings.

The problem is that in a characteristic language, for every unit of an expression one is obliged to find a corresponding content-unit. A characteristic language is thus not founded–as happens with natural languages–on the principle of double articulation, by virtue of which meaningless sounds, or phonemes, are combined to produce meaningful syntagms.

This means that in a language of “real” characters any alteration of a character (or of the corresponding sound) entails a change of sense.

This is a disadvantage that arises from what was intended as the great strength of the system, that is, its criterion of composition by atomic features, in order to ensure a complete isomorphism between expression and content.

Flame is Debα, because here the α designates a species of the element Fire. If we replace the α  with an a we obtain a new composition, Deba, that means Comet. When designing his system, Wilkins‘ choice of α and a was arbitrary; once they are inserted into a syntagm, however, the syntagmatic composition is supposed to mirror the very composition of the denoted thing, so that “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

This creates the problem of how to find the name for yet unknown things. According to Frank (1979: 80), Wilkins‘ language, dominated by the notion of a definitively pre-established Great Chain of Being, cannot be creative. The language can name unknown things, but only within the framework of the system itself.

Naturally, one can modify the tables by inserting into them a new species, but this presupposes the existence of some sort of linguistic authority with the power to permit us to think of a new thing. In Wilkins’s language neologisms are not impossible, but harder to form than in natural languages (Knowlson 1975: 101).

One might defend Wilkins‘ language by arguing that it really encompasses a rational methodology of scientific research. If, for example, we were to transform the character Detα (rainbow) into Denα we would obtain a character that we could analyze as denoting the first species of the ninth difference of the genus Element.

Yet there is no such species in the tables. We cannot take the character metaphorically, because only characters followed by transcendental particles may be so interpreted. We can only conclude that the character unequivocally designates an as yet to be discovered content, and that even if the content remains undiscovered, the character has at least told us the precise point where it is to be found.

But what and where is that “point?” If the tables were analogous to the periodic table in chemistry, then we really would know what to look for. The periodic table contains boxes which, though momentarily empty, might, one day, be filled.

Yet the language of chemistry is rigorously quantitative; the table gives the atomic number and weight of each missing element. An empty space in Wilkins‘ classification, however, merely tells us that there is a hole at that point; it does not tell us what we need to fill it up, or why the hole appears in one space rather than another.

Since Wilkins‘ language is not based on a rigorous classification, it cannot be used as a procedure of scientific discovery.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 248-51.

Eco: The English Debate on Character and Traits


Anonymous, Gerardus Johannes Vossius (1577-1649), 1636, inscribed (verso): GERH.JOH. VOSSIUS CANONICUS CANTUARIENSIS PROFESSOR HISTORIARII AMSTELO…AET LX Ao 1636. Held at the Universiteitsmuseum Amsterdam. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In 1654 John Webster wrote his Academiarum examen, an attack on the academic world, which had allegedly given an insufficient amount of attention to the problem of universal language.

Like many of this English contemporaries, Webster was influenced by Comenius‘ propaganda for a universal language. He foresaw the birth of a “Hieroglyphical, Emblematical, Symbolical, and Cryptographical learning.”

Describing the general utility of algebraic and mathematical signs, he went on to note that “the numerical notes, which we call figures and ciphers, the Planetary Characters, the marks for minerals, and many other things in Chymistry, though they be alwaies the same and vary not, yet are understood by all nations in Europe, and when they are read, every one pronounces them in their own Countrey’s language and dialect.” (pp. 24-5).

Webster was not alone; other authors were taking up and elaborating ideas which had first originated with Bacon. Another writer championing universal characters was Gerhard Vossius in De arte grammatica, 1635 (1.41).

Nevertheless, for the men from whose ranks the Royal Society would later be formed, Webster’s demand for research in hieroglyphic and emblematic characters sounded too much like Father Kircher’s Egyptian linguistics.

In effect, Webster was indeed thinking of a language of nature in opposition to the institutionalized language of men (see Formigari 1970: 37).

Responding to Webster, in another pamphlet, also published in 1654 (Vindiciae academiarum, to which Wilkins himself added an introduction), Seth Ward denounced the mystic propensities of his opponent (see Slaughter 1982: 138ff).

Ward made no objection to the idea of the real character as such, provided that it was constructed upon the algebraic model invented by Viète in the sixteenth century and elaborated by Descartes, where letters of the alphabet stand for mathematical quantities.

It is, however, evident that what Ward thought of was not what Webster had in mind.

Ward argued that only the real character of which he spoke could be termed as “a naturall Language and would afford that which the Cabalists and Rosycrucians have vainely sought for in the Hebrew” (p. 22).

In his introduction Wilkins went even further: Webster, he wrote, was nothing but a credulous fanatic. Even in his Essay, which we will soon discuss, Wilkins could not resist shooting, in his introduction, indignant darts in Webster’s direction without naming him directly.

In spite of all this, however, the projects of the religious mystics did have something in common with those of the “scientists.” In that century the play of reciprocal influence was very complex and many have detected relationships between Lullists or Rosicrucians and the inventors of philosophical languages (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988; Knowlson 1975; and, of course, Yates and Rossi).

Nevertheless, in contrast to the long tradition of the search for the lost language of Adam, the position of Ward, with the aid of Wilkins, was entirely secular.

This is worth emphasizing: there was no longer any question of discovering the lost language of humanity; the new language was to be a new and totally artificial language, founded upon philosophic principles, and capable of realizing, by rational means, that which the various purported holy languages (always dreamt of, never really rediscovered) had sought but failed to find.

In every one of the holy and primordial languages we have so far considered, at least in the way they were presented, there was an excess of content, never completely circumscribable, in respect of expression.

By contrast, the search was now for a scientific or philosophical language, in which, by an unprecedented act of impositio nominum, expression and content would be locked in permanent accord.

Men such as Ward and Wilkins thus aimed at being the new Adam; it was this that turned their projects into a direct challenge to the older tradition of mystic speculation. In the letter to the reader that introduced the Essay, Wilkins writes:

“This design would likewise contribute much to the clearing of some of our modern differences in Religion, by unmasking many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases; which being Philosophically unfolded, and rendered according to the genuine and natural importance of Words, will appear to be inconsistencies and contradictions. (B1r).”

This was nothing less than a declaration of war on tradition, a promise of a different species of therapy that would finally massage out the cramps in language; it is the first manifestation of that skeptical-analytic current of thought, exquisitely British, that, in the twentieth century, would use linguistic analysis as an instrument for the confutation of metaphysics.

Despite the persistence of the Lullian influences, there can be no doubt that, in order to realize their project, British philosophers paid close attention to Aristotle’s system of classification.

The project of Ward is an example. It was not enough simply to invent real characters for the new language; it was necessary also to develop a criterion that would govern the primitive features that would compose these characters:

“All Discourses being resolved in sentences, these into words, words signifying either simple notions or being resolvable into simple notions, it is manifest, that if all the sorts of simple notions be found out, and have Symboles assigned to them, those will be extremely few in respect of the other [ . . . ] the reason of their composition easily known, and the most compounded ones at once will be comprehended [ . . . ] so to deliver the nature of things. (Vindiciae, 21).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 218-21.

Eco: Kircher’s Polygraphy

Kircher, the Steganographic Ark, from Polygraphia Nova, p. 130

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the steganographic ark, Polygraphia nova et universalis ex combinatoria arte detecta, 1663. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Kircher wrote his Polygraphia nova et universalis ex combinatoria arte detecta in 1663, several years after his early works on Egypt and hieroglyphics, but he was concerned with the problem of universal writing from the beginning of the decade, and it seems evident that he was at the same time fascinated by the hieroglyphic mysteries and the polygraphic publicity.

It is also significant that in this same volume Kircher designed not only a polygraphy, or international language open to all, but also, in the wake of Trithemius, a steganography, or secret language in which to cipher messages.

What (at the end of the previous chapter) seemed to us a contradiction appeared to Kircher rather as a natural connection. He cited, at the outset, an Arab proverb: if you have a secret, hide it or reveal it (“si secretum tibi sit, tege illud, vel revela“).

Such a decision was not so obvious, after all, since in his works on Egyptology Kircher had chosen a “fifty-fifty solution,” saying something by concealing it, alluding without revealing.

Finally, the second part of the title of Kircher’s work reveals that, in designing his polygraphy, Kircher was also using Lull’s art of combination (contrary to the opinion of Knowlson 1975: 107-8).

In the enthusiastic preface that the author addressed to the emperor Ferdinand III, he celebrated polygraphy as “all languages reduced to one” (“linguarum omnium ad nam reductio“).

Using polygraphy, “anyone, even someone who knows nothing other than his own vernacular, will be able to correspond and exchange letters with anybody else, of whatever their nationality.”

Thus Kircher’s polygraphy was in reality a pasigraphy, that is, a project for a written language, or international alphabet, which was not required to be spoken.

It is easy to confuse Kircher’s project with a double pentaglottic dictionary, in A and B versions (both in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French and German). In Kircher’s time, English was not considered an important international language, and, in his Character, Becher had assumed that French was sufficient, as a vehicular language, for English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese native speakers.

Ideally, Kircher thought (p. 7) that his dictionary should also include Hebrew, Greek, Bohemian, Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Dutch, English and Irish (“linguae doctrinales omnibus communes“)–as well as Nubian, Ethiopic, Egyptian, Congolese, Angolan, Chaldean, Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Tartar, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian and Canadian.

Kircher did not, it seems, feel himself ready to confront such a gigantic task; perhaps he intuited that the missionary activity, followed eventually by colonialism, would drastically simplify the problem (transforming many exotic languages into mere ethnological remnants): Spanish would substitute for Mexican, French for Canadian, Portuguese for Brazilian, and various pidgins would substitute for all the rest.

Kircher’s A and B dictionaries each contain 1,228 items. The grounds for selection were purely empirical: Kircher chose the words that seemed to him most commonly used.

Dictionary A served to encode messages. It started with a list of common nouns and verbs, in alphabetical order. There followed alphabetic lists of proper nouns (regions, cities, persons), and of adverbs and prepositions.

Added to this there was also a list of the conjugations of both the verbs to be and to have. The whole material was subdivided into 32 tables, marked by Roman numerals, while every item of each table was marked by an Arabic numeral.

The dictionary was set out in five columns, one for each of the five languages, and the words in each language were listed in their proper alphabetical order. Consequently, there is no necessary semantic correspondence between the terms recorded on the same line, and only the terms scored with the same Roman and Arabic numbers were to be considered synonymous.

We can see this best by giving the first two lines of the dicti0nary:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 198

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 198. 

The Roman numerals refer to tables found in dictionary B; the Arabic numerals refer to the items themselves. Latin acts as the parameter language: for each specific term, the numbers refer to the Latin alphabetic ordering.

For example, the code for the French word abstenir is I.4, which indicates that the position of its Latin synonym, abstinere, is fourth in the Latin column I (obviously, to encode the Latin word abstinere, one also writes I.4).

To decode the message, it was necessary to use dictionary B. This too was arranged in 32 tables, each assigned a Roman numeral. But for each column (or language) the words did not follow their alphabetic order (except the Latin one), while the Arabic numbers marking each term were in an increasing arithmetical order.

Thus all the terms on the same line were synonymous and each synonym was marked by the same Arabic number.

Again, it is easiest to see how this worked by citing the first two lines of the first table:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 199

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 199. 

Thus, if one wants to send the Latin word abdere (to hide), according to the dictionary A one encodes it as I.2. A German addressee, receiving the message I.2, goes to dictionary B, first table, German column, and looks for the second word, which is exactly verbergen (to hide).

If the same addressee wants to know how to translate this term in Spanish, one finds in the same line that the synonymous term is esconder.

However, Kircher found that a simple lexicon did not suffice; he was forced to invent 44 supplementary signs (notae) which indicated the tense, mood and number of verbs, plus 12 more signs which indicated declensions (nominative, genitive, dative, etc., both singular and plural).

Thus, to understand the following example, the sign N meant nominative, while a sign like a D indicated the third person singular of the past tense. In this way, the ciphered expression “XXVII.36N, XXX.21N, II.5N, XXIII.8D, XXVIII.10, XXX.20” can be decoded as “Petrus noster amicus, venit ad nos” (literally, “Peter our friend came to us”), and on the basis of Latin, can be transformed into an equivalent sentence in any of the other four languages.

Kircher proudly claims that, by dictionary A, we can write in any language even though though we know only our own, as well as that, with dictionary B, we can understand a text written in an unknown language.

The system also works when we receive a non-ciphered text written in a natural foreign language. All we have to do is to look up the reference numbers for each foreign word in dictionary A (where they are listed in alphabetical order), then, with the reference numbers, find the corresponding words in dictionary B, in the column for our own language.

Not only was this process laborious, but the entire project was based on the assumption that all other languages could be directly reduced to the Latin grammar. One can imagine the results of such a method if one thinks of translating literally, word by word, a German sentence into an English one.

Kircher never confronted the problem of why an item-by-item translation should be syntactically correct, or even comprehensible, in the new language. He seemed to rely on the good will and good sense of whoever used his system.

Yet even the most willing users might slip up. In August 1663, after reading the Polygraphia, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz wrote to Kircher to congratulate him on his wonderful invention (Mss Chigiani f. 59 v., Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Casciato et al. 1986: table 5).

Appropriately, Caramuel chose to congratulate Kircher in his own polygraphy. Yet his first problem was that Kircher’s own first name, Athanasius, did not appear in the list of proper names. Adopting the principle that where a term is missing, an analogous one must be sought, Caramuel addressed his letter to “Anastasia.”

Moreover, there are passages that can be decoded fairly easily, while for others one suspects that the labor of consulting the dictionary to obtain reference numbers for every word proved so tedious that even Caramuel began to nod.

Thus we find ourselves in front of a passage which, in Latin, would need to be translated as follows: “Dominus + sign of vocative, Amicus + sign of vocative, multum sal + sign of vocative, Anastasia, a me + sign of accusative, ars + sign of accusative, ex illius + sign of ablative, discere posse + sign of second person plural, future active, non est loqui vel scribere sub lingua + ablative, communis + ablative.”

After many heroic efforts, one can try to render it (in a sort of “Me Tarzan-You Jane” language) as “O Lord and Friend, O witty Athanasius, to me (?) you could learn from him an art (which) is not speaking and writing under a common language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 196-200.

Umberto Eco: Search for the Perfect Language


Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530-1569), The Tower of Babel (circa 1563-1565, oil on panel, Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen, Room 06, Rotterdam. Accession number 2443 (OK). Bequeathed to the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen by Daniël George van Beuningen. Brueghel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel. This one is in the collection of the Museum Bojimans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. A second version is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A third version, a miniature on ivory, is apparently held by a private collector. Its disposition is unknown. The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain”.

This is the first page of my serialization of Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995.

Editorial Note

This book is not available in electronic formats from Amazon or other vendors, and there are no .pdf versions lurking anywhere on the web. The lone electronic version that I did uncover is hosted on, and lending is controlled using Adobe Digital Editions. This so offended me that I digitized every page of the work. Making no apologies, I publish it here.

This book by Umberto Eco was mentioned in an article discussed earlier on this site, by Tzahi Weiss, “On the Matter of Language: The Creation of the World from Letters and Jacques Lacan’s Perception of Letters as Real,” 2009.

My post on this paper is published as Smoke Signals: Comments on Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah, “On the Matter of Language: The Creation of the World From Letters and Jacques Lacan’s Perception of Letters As Real,” JJTP 17.1, Brill, 2009.

Eco Begins

With no further ado, Eco opens with several excerpts, one from Herodotus, History, II, I, another from Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, III, pg. 5, and this one, from Leibniz, Letter to Duke of Hanover, 1679, which I excerpt in full.

“If only God would again inspire your Highness, the idea which had the goodness to determine that I be granted 1200 emus would become the idea of a perpetual revenue, and then I would be as happy as Raymond Lull, and perhaps with more reason . . . For my invention uses reason in its entirety and is, in addition, a judge of controversies, an interpreter of notions, a balance of probabilities, a compass which will guide us over the ocean of experiences, an inventory of things, a table of thoughts, a microscope for scrutinizing present things, a telescope for predicting distant things, a general calculus, an innocent magic, a non-chimerical cabal, a script which all will read in their own language; and even a language which one will be able to learn in a few weeks, and which will soon be accepted amidst the world. And which will lead the way for the true religion everywhere it goes.”

Leibnitz, Letter to Duke of Hanover, 1679.

“The dream of a perfect language did not only obsess European culture. The story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity, can be found in every culture (cf. Borst 1957-63). Nevertheless, this book will tell only one strand of that story — the European; and, thus, references to pre- or extra-European cultures will be sporadic and marginal.

This book has another limit as well; that is, a qualitative one. As I was on the verge of writing its final version, there reached my desk at least five recent projects, all of which seem to be related to the ancient prototypes I was dealing with.

I should emphasize that I will be limiting myself to those prototypes because Borst, whose own study concerns only the historical discussion on the confusion of tongues, has managed to present us with six volumes.

Finishing this introduction, I received Demonet’s account of the debate on the nature and origin of language between 1480 and 1580, which takes up seven hundred thick and weighty pages.

Couturat and Leau analyzed 19 models of a priori languages, and another 50 mixed or a posteriori languages; Monnerot-Dumaine reports on 360 projects for international languages; Knowlson lists 83 projects of universal languages during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and, though limiting himself to projects in the nineteenth century, Porset provides a list of 173 titles.

Moreover, in the few years I have dedicated to this subject, I have discovered in antiquarian catalogues a large number of works missing from the biographies of the preceding books.

Some, by obscure authors, were entirely dedicated to the glottogonic problems; others were by authors known for other reasons, who, none the less, dedicated substantial chapters to the theme of the perfect language.

This ought to be enough to convince anyone that our list of titles is still far from complete; and, that therefore, to paraphrase a joke by Macedonio Fernandez, the number of things which are not in the bibliographies is so high that it would be impossible to to find room for one more missing item.

Hence my decision to proceed by a campaign of deliberated decimation. I have reserved attention for projects which seemed to me exemplary (whether for their virtues or their defects); as for the rest I defer to works dedicated to specific authors and periods.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 1-2.


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