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Tag: René Descartes

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes, Pasilogie, ou de la musique, consideree comme langue universelle, 1806

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes (1745-1819), Pasilogie, ou de la musique, considérée comme langue universelle, Paris, 1806. 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. 

“Nor was even this the end of attempts at creating a philosophic language. In 1772 there appeared the project of Georg Kalmar, Praecepta grammatica atque specimina linguae philosophicae sive universalis, ad omne vitae genus adcomodatae, which occasioned the most significant discussion on our topic written in Italian.

In 1774, the Italian-Swiss Father Francesco Soave published his Riflessioni intorno alla costituzione di una lingua universaleSoave, who had done much to spread the sensationalist doctrine to Italy, advanced a criticism of the a priori languages that anticipated those made by the Idéologues (on Soave see Gensini 1984; Nicoletti 1989; Pellerey 1992a).

Displaying a solid understanding of the projects from Descartes to Wilkins and from Kircher to Leibniz, on the one hand Soave advanced the traditional reservation that it was impossible to elaborate a set of characters sufficient to represent all fundamental concepts; on the other hand, he remarked that Kalmar, having reduced these concepts to 400, was obliged to give different meanings to the same character, according to the context.

Either one follows the Chinese model, without succeeding in limiting the characters, or one is unable to avoid equivocations.

Unfortunately, Soave did not resist the temptation of designing a project of his own, though outlining only its basic principles. His system of classification seems to have been based on Wilkins; as usual he sought to rationalize and simplify his grammar; at the same time, he sought to augment its expressive potential by adding marks for new  morphological categories such as dual and the neuter.

Soave took more care over his grammar than over his lexicon, but was mainly interested in the literary use of language: from this derives his radical skepticism about any universal language; what form of literary commerce, he wondered, could we possibly have with the Tartars, the Abyssinians or the Hurons?

In the early years of the next century, Soave’s discussion influenced the thinking of Giacomo Leopardi, who had become an exceptionally astute student of the Idéologues.

In his Zibaldone, Leopardi treated the question of universal languages at some length, as well as discussing the debate between rationalists and sensationalists in recent French philosophy (see Gensini 1984; Pellerey 1992a).

Leopardi was clearly irritated by the algebraic signs that abounded in the a priori languages, all of which he considered as incapable of expressing the subtle connotations of natural languages:

“A strictly universal language, whatever it may be, will certainly, by necessity and by its natural bent, be both the most enslaved, impoverished, timid, monotonous, uniform, arid, and ugly language ever.

It will be incapable of beauty of any type, totally uncongenial to imagination [ . . . ] the most inanimate, bloodless, and dead whatsoever, a mere skeleton, a ghost of a language [ . . . ] it would lack life even if it were written by all and universally understood; indeed it will be deader than the deadest languages which are no longer either spoken or written.” (23 August 1823, in G. Leopardi, Tutte le opere, Sansoni: Florence 1969: II, 814).

Despite these and similar strictures, the ardor of the apostles of philosophic a priori languages was still far from quenched.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Anne-Pierre-Jacques de Vismes (Pasilogie, ou de la musique considérée come langue universelle, 1806) presented a language that was supposed to be a copy of the language of the angels, whose sounds derived from the affections of the soul.

Vismes argued that when the Latin translation of Genesis 11:1-2 states that “erat terra labii unius” (a passage to which we usually give the sense that “all the world was of one language”), it used the word labium (lip) rather than lingua (tongue) because people first communicated with each other by emitting sounds through their lips without articulating them with their tongue.

Music was not a human invention (pp. 1-20), and this is demonstrated by the fact that animals can understand music more easily than verbal speech: horses are naturally roused by the sound of trumpets as dogs are by whistles. What is more, when presented with a musical score, people of different nations all play it the same way.

Vismes presents enharmonic scales of 21 notes, one for each letter of the alphabet. He did this by ignoring the modern convention of equal temperament, and treating the sharp of one note as distinct from the flat of the note above.

Since Vismes was designing a polygraphy rather than a spoken language, it was enough that the distinctions might be exactly represented on a musical stave.

Inspired, perhaps, indirectly by Mersenne, Vismes went on to demonstrate that if one were to combine his 21 sounds into doublets, triplets, quadruplets, etc., one would quickly arrive at more syntagms than are contained in any natural language, and that “if it were necessary to write down all the combinations that can be generated by the seven enharmonic scales, combined with each other, it would take almost all of eternity before one could hope to come to an end.” (p. 78).

As for the concrete possibility of replacing verbal sounds by musical notes, Vismes devotes only the last six pages of his book to such a topic–not a great deal.

It never seems to have crossed Visme’s mind that, in taking a French text and substituting tones for its letters, all he was doing was transcribing a French text, without making it comprehensible to speakers of other languages.

Vismes seems to conceive of a universe that speaks exclusively in French, so much so that he even notes that he will exclude letters like K, Z and X because “they are hardly ever used in languages” (p. 106).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 302-4.

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: Descartes and Mersenne


René Descartes (1596-1650), Principia philosophiae, Amsterdam: Apud Ludovicum Elzevirium, 1644. Held by the Chemical Heritage Foundation as accession number Q155.D473.1644, Othmer Library of Chemical History. 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. 

“More or less at the same period, the problem of a real character was discussed in France, with a more skeptical attitude. In 1629, Father Marin Mersenne sent Descartes news of a project for a nouvelle langue invented by a certain des Vallées.

We are told by Tallemant des Réau that this des Vallées was a lawyer who had an immense talent for languages and who claimed to have discovered “a matrix language through which he could understand all others.”

Cardinal Richelieu asked him to publish his project, but des Vallées replied he was only willing to divulge such a great secret against the promise of a state pension.

“This the Cardinal denied him, and so the secret ended up buried with des Vallées” (Les historiettes, 1657: 2, “Le Cardinal de Richelieu“).

On 20 November 1629, Descartes wrote back to Mersenne giving his thoughts about the story. Learning a language, Descartes noted, involved learning both the meaning of words and a grammar.

All that was required to learn new meanings was a good dictionary, but learning a foreign grammar was more difficult. It might be possible, however, to obviate this difficulty by inventing a grammar that was free from the irregularities of natural languages, all of which had been corrupted through usage.

The resulting language would be a simplified one and might seem, in comparison to natural languages, the basic one, of which all the other natural languages would then appear as so many complex dialects.

It was sufficient to establish a set of primitive names for actions (having synonyms in every language, in the sense in which the French aimer has its synonym in the Greek philein), and the corresponding substantive might next be derived from such a name by adding to it an affix.

From here, a universal writing system might be derived in which each primitive name was assigned a number with which the corresponding terms in natural languages might be recovered.

However, Descartes remarked, there would remain the problem of sounds, since there are ones which are easy and pleasant for speakers of one nation and difficult and unpleasant for those of another.

On the one hand, a system of new sounds might also prove difficult to learn; on the other hand, if one named the primitive terms from one’s own language, then the new language would not be understood by foreigners, unless it was written down by numbers.

But even in this case, learning an entire new numerical lexicon seemed to Descartes a tremendous expense of energy: why not, then, continue with an international language like Latin whose usage was already well established?

At this point, Descartes saw that the real problem lay elsewhere. In order not only to learn but to remember the primitive names, it would be necessary for these to correspond to an order of ideas or thoughts having a logic akin to that of the numbers.

We can general an infinite series of numbers, he noted, without needing to commit the whole set to memory. But this problem coincided with that of discovering the true philosophy capable of defining a system of clear and distinct ideas.

If it were possible to enumerate the entire set of simple ideas from which we generate all the complex ones that the human mind can entertain, and if it were possible to assign to each a character–as we do with numbers–we could then articulate them by a sort of mathematics of thought–while the words of natural languages evoke only confused ideas.

“Now I believe that such a language is possible and that it is possible to discover the science upon which it must depend, a science through which peasants might judge the truth better than philosophers do today.

Yet I do not expect ever to see it in use, for that would presuppose great changes in the present order of things; this world would have to become an earthly paradise, and that is something that only happens in the Pays des Romans.”

Descartes thus saw the problem in the same light as Bacon did. Yet this was a project that he never confronted. The observations in his letter to Mersenne were no more than commonsensical.

It is true that, at the moment he wrote this letter, Descartes had not yet started his own research into clear and distinct ideas, as would happen later with his Discours de la methode;  however, even later he never tried to outline a complete system of simple and clear ideas as the grounds on which to build a perfect language.

He provided a short list of primitive notions in the Principia philosophiae (I, XLVIII), yet these notions were conceived as permanent substances (order, number, time, etc.) and there is no indication that from this list a system of ideas could be derived (see Pellerey 1992a: 25-41; Marconi 1992).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 216-8.

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