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Tag: Sanskrit

On the Ineffable


This 18th century depiction of Yamantaka, a violent expression of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, defeats Yama, god of death, and demolishes the cycle of samsara on the path to enlightenment. This painting, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was purchased in 1969 courtesy of a bequest by Florence Waterbury. Its Accession Number is 69.71. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional public domain work of art. 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.

This is my review of Nick Stockton’s “Time Might Only Exist in Your Head. And Everyone Else’s.” From Wired, 26 September, 2016. Published at 0600 hrs. I later modified this piece on 17 October, 2016. It keeps bothering me like a splinter in my mind. In its current revision, it comprises 2,537 words.

“Some physicists blame gravity for time. Others blame observers. Time, the arrow of time, the linearity of time flowing from the infinite past through the present into the indefinite future, cannot exist unless an intelligence, something sentient, exists to observe it, they say.

The moment when particle physics and classical mechanics merge is called “decoherence,” and it also happens to be the moment when time’s direction becomes mathematically important.

Mr. Stockton’s article points out that superposition in quantum mechanics means that an electron can exist in either of two places, a property called probability, but it is impossible to say where an electron is until that electron is actually observed.

Some physicists also say that what matters is not whether time exists, but what direction that time flows. (Claus Kiefer, “Can the Arrow of Time Be Understood From Quantum Cosmology?” in L. Mersini-Houghton and R. Vaas, The Arrow of Time, Springer, Berlin, 2010.) Read the rest of this entry »

Eco: Francis Lodwick, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, p. 311

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 311. Reproduced as Figure 13.2 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, “Francis Lodwick,” 1995, p. 264. 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. 

“This idea of a non-hierarchical organization seems, at one point, to have occurred to Wilkins as well. Figure 13.2 reproduces a table found on p. 311 of his Essay. The table describes the workings of prepositions of motion by relating the possible positions (and possible actions) of a human body in a three-dimensional space.

It is a table in which there is no principle of hierarchy whatsoever. Yet this is an isolated example, and Wilkins seems to have lacked the courage to extend this principle to his entire system of content.

Unfortunately, even Lodwick’s primitives for actions were not really primitive at all. It would undoubtedly be possible to identify a series of positions assumed by the human body in space–such as getting up or lying down–and argue that these were intuitively and universally comprehensible; yet the sixteen radicals proposed by Lodwick can be criticized in the same way as Degérando would later do for Wilkins: even such a simple notion as to walk must be defined in terms of movement, the notion of movement requires as its components those of place, of existence in a given place, of a moving substance which in different instants passes from one place to another.

All this presupposes the notions of departure, passage and arrival, as well as that of a principle of action which imparts motion to a substance, and of members which support and convey a body in motion in a specific way (“car glisser, ramper, etc., ne sont pas la même chose que marcher;” “since sliding, climbing, etc., are not the same as walking;” Des signes, IV, 395).

Moreover, it is also necessary to conceive of a terrestrial surface upon which movement was to take place–otherwise one could think of other actions like swimming or flying. However, at this point one should also subject the ideas of surface or members to the same sort of regressive componential analysis.

One solution would be to imagine that such action primitives are selected ad hoc as metalinguistic constructs to serve as parameters for automatic translation. An example of this is the computer language designed by Schank and Abelson (1977), based on action primitives such as PROPEL, MOVER, INGEST, ATRANS OR EXPEL, by which it is possible to analyze more complex actions like to eat (however, when analyzing the sentence “John is eating a frog,” Schank and Abelson–like Lodwick–cannot further analyze frog).

Other contemporary semantic systems do not start by seeking a definition of a buyer in order to arrive eventually at the definition of the action of buying, but start rather by constructing a type-sequence of actions in which a subject A gives money to a subject B and receives an object in exchange.

Clearly the same type-sequence can be employed to define not only the buyer, but also the seller, as well as the notions of to buy, to sell, price, merchandise, and so forth. In the language of artificial intelligence, such a sequence of actions is called a “frame.”

A frame allows a computer to draw inferences from preliminary information: if A is a buyer, then he may perform this and that action; if A performs this or that action, then he may be a buyer; if A obtains merchandise from B but does not pay him, then A is not a guyer, etc., etc.

In still other contemporary semantics, the verb to kill, for example, might be represented as “Xs causes (Xd changes to (- live Xd)) + (animate Xd) & (violent Xs):” if a subject (s) acts, with violent means or instruments, in a way that causes another subject (d), an animate being, to change from a state of living to a state of death, then s has killed d. If we wished, instead, to represent the verb to assassinate, we should add the further specification that d is not only an animate being, but also a political person.

It is worth noting that Wilkins‘ dictionary also includes assassin, glossing it by its synonym murther (erroneously designating it as the fourth species of the third difference in the genera of judicial relations: in fact, it is the fifth species), but limiting the semantic range of the term by “especially, under pretence of Religion.”

It is difficult for a philosophic a priori language to follow the twists and turns of meaning of a natural language.

Properly worked out, Lodwick’s project might represent to assassinate by including a character for to kill and adding to it a note specifying purpose and circumstances.

Lodwick’s language is reminiscent of the one described by Borges in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in Ficciones), which works by agglutinations of radicals representing not substances but rather temporary fluxes. It is a language in which there would be no word for the noun moon but only the verb to moon or to moondle.

Although it is certain that Borges knew, if only at second hand, the work of Wilkins, he probably had never heard of Lodwick. What is certain, however, is that Borges had in mind the Cratylus, 396b–and it is by no means impossible that Lodwick knew this passage as well.

Here Plato, arguing that names are not arbitrary but motivated, gives examples of the way in which, rather than directly representing the things that they designate, words may represent the origin or the result of an action.

For instance, the strange difference (in Greek) between the nominative Zeus and the genitive Dios arose because the original name of Jupiter was a syntagm that expressed the habitual activity associated with the king of the gods: di’hoòn zen, “He through whom life is given.”

Other contemporary authors have tried to avoid the contortions that result from dictionary definitions by specifying the meaning of a term by a set of instructions, that is, a procedure which can decide whether or not a certain word can be applied.

This idea had already appeared in Charles Sanders Pierce (Collected Papers, 2.330): here is provided a long and complex explanation of the term lithium, in which this chemical element was defined not only in relation to its place in the periodic table of elements and by its atomic weight, but also by the operations necessary to produce a specimen of it.

Lodwick never went as far as this; still, his own intuition led him to run counter to an idea that, even in the centuries to follow, proved difficult to overcome. This was the idea that nouns came first; that is, in the process in which language had emerged, terms for things had preceded terms for actions.

Besides, the whole of Aristotelian and Scholastic discussion privileged substances (expressed by common nouns) as the subjects of a statement, in which the terms for actions played the role of predicates.

We saw in chapter 5 that, before the advent of modern linguistics, theorists tended to base their research on nomenclature. Even in the eighteenth century, Vico could still assume that nouns arose before verbs (Scienza nuova seconda, II, 2.4). He found this to be demonstrated not only by the structure of a proposition, but by the fact that children expressed themselves first in names and interjections, and only later in verbs.

Condillac (Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, 82) also affirmed that “for a long time language remained with no words other than nouns.” Stankiewicz (1974) has traced the emergence of a different trend starting with the Hermes of Harris (1751: III), followed by Monboddo (Of the Origins and Progress of Language, 1773-92) and Herder, who, in his Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1787), noted that a noun referred to things as if they were dead while a verb conferred movement upon them, thus stimulating sensation.

Without following Stankiewicz’s reconstruction step by step, it is worth noting that the reevaluation of the role of the verb was assumed in the comparative grammars by the theorists of the Indo-European hypothesis, and that in doing so they followed the old tradition of Sanskrit grammarians, who derived any word from a verbal root (1974: 176).

We can close with the protest of De Sanctis, who, discussing the pretensions of philosophic grammars, criticized the tradition of reducing verbs to nouns and adjectives, observing that: “I love is simply not the same as I am a lover [ . . . ] The authors of philosophical grammars, reducing grammar to logic, have failed to perceive the volitional aspect of thought” (F. De Sanctis, Teoria e storia della litteratura, ed. B. Croce, Bari: Laterza, 1926: 39-40).

In this way, in Lodwick’s dream for a perfect language there appears the first, timid and, at the time, unheeded hint of the problems that were to become the center of successive linguistics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 264-8.

Eco: Images for Aliens


Georgia Guidestone, closeup of the detail stone, with physical dimensions and weight of the guidestones. The Georgia Guidestones are a granite monument erected by anonymous philanthropists in 1980 in Elbert County, Georgia, USA. The Guidestones include 10 guidelines inscribed in eight modern languages and four ancient tongues, including Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Photo taken by KiltedEditor71 in August 2011 and published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  

“Perhaps the most discomforting document for the future of the language of images is the report drawn up in 1984 by Thomas A. Sebeok (Sebeok 1984). He had been commissioned by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation and by a group of other institutions to elaborate answers to a question posed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The American government had chosen several desert areas in the US for the burial (at the depth of hundreds of meters) of nuclear waste. The problem was not so much that of protecting the area from imprudent intrusions today, but rather that the waste would remain radioactive for another ten thousand years.

That is more than enough time for great empires and flourishing civilizations to perish. We have seen how, a few centuries after the last pharaoh had disappeared, knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs had disappeared as well.

It is easily conceivable that, ten thousand years hence, something similar will have happened to us. We may have reverted to barbarism. We may even be visited by inhabitants of other planets: how will we warn these alien visitors that they are in a danger zone?

Almost immediately, Sebeok discarded the possibility of any type of verbal communication, of electric signals as needing a constant power supply, of olfactory messages as being of brief duration, and of any sort of ideogram based on convention.

Even a pictographic language seemed problematic. Sebeok analyzed an image from an ancient primitive culture where one can certainly recognize human figures but it is hard to say what they are doing (dancing, fighting, hunting?).

Another solution would be to establish temporal segments of three generations each (calculating that, in any civilization, language will not alter beyond recognition between grandparents and grandchildren), giving instructions that, at the end of each segment, the message would be reformulated, adapting it to the semiotic conventions prevailing at the moment.

But even this solution presupposes precisely the sort of social continuity that the original question had put into doubt. Another solution was to fill up the entire zone with messages in all known languages and semiotic systems, reasoning that it was statistically probable that at least one of these messages would be comprehensible to the future visitors.

Even if only part of one of the messages was decipherable, it would still act as a sort of Rosetta stone, allowing the visitors to translate all the rest. Yet even this solution presupposed a form of cultural continuity (however weak it would be).

The only remaining solution was to institute a sort of “priesthood” of nuclear scientists, anthropologists, linguists and psychologists supposed to perpetuate itself by coopting new members. This caste would keep alive the knowledge of the danger, creating myths and legends about it.

Even though, in the passage of time, these “priests” would probably lose a precise notion of the peril that they were committed to protect humanity from, there would still survive, even in a future state of barbarism, obscure but efficacious taboos.

It is curious to see that, having been presented with a choice of various types of universal language, the choice finally fell on a “narrative” solution, thus reproposing what really did happen millennia ago.

Egyptian has disappeared, as well as as any other perfect and holy primordial language, and what remains of all this is only myths, tales without a code, or whose code has long been lost.

Yet they are still capable of keeping us in a state of vigil in our desperate effort at decipherment.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 17-7.

Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die, 2



Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the philosophical tree, from Ars Magna Sciendi, 1669, digitized in 2007 and published on the web by the Complutense University of Madrid. This illustration courtesy of Stanford University. 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. 


“Again apropos of the crusty old myth of Hebrew as the original language, we can follow it in the entertaining compilation given in White (1917: II, 189-208).

Between the first and ninth editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1771 and 1885), a period of over one hundred years, the article dedicated to “Philology” passed from a partial acceptance of the monogenetic hypothesis to manifestations of an increasingly modern outlook in scientific linguistics.

Yet the shift took place only gradually–a series of timid steps. The notion that Hebrew was the sacred original language still needed to be treated with respect; throughout this period, theological fundamentalists continued to level fire at the theories of philologists and comparative linguists.

Still in 1804, the Manchester Philological Society pointedly excluded from membership anyone who denied divine revelations by speaking of Sanskrit or Indo-European.

The monogeneticist counterattacks were many and varied. At the end of the eighteenth century, the mystic and theosophist Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin dedicated much of the second volume of his De l’esprit des choses (1798-9) to primitive languages, mother tongues and hieroglyphics.

His conclusions were taken up by Catholic legitimists such as De Maistre (Soirées de Saint Petersburg, ii), De Bonald (Recherches philosophiques, iii, 2) and Lamennais (Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion).

These were authors less interested in asserting the linguistic primacy of Hebrew as such than in contesting the polygenetic and materialist or, worse, the Lockean conventionalist account of the origin of language.

Even today, the aim of “reactionary” thought is not to defend the contention that Adam spoke to God in Hebrew, but rather to defend the status of language itself as the vehicle of revelation.

This can only be maintained as long as it is also admitted that language can directly express, without the mediation of any sort of social contract or adaptations due to material necessity, the relation between human beings and the sacred.

Our own century has witnessed counterattacks from an apparently opposite quarter as well. In 1956, the Georgian linguist Nicolaij Marr elaborated a particular version of polygenesis.

Marr is usually remembered as the inventor of a theory that language depended upon class division, which was later confuted by Stalin in his Marxism and Linguistics (1953). Marr developed his later position out of an attack on comparative linguistics, described as an outgrowth of bourgeois ideology–and against which he supported a radical polygenetic view.

Ironically, however, Marr’s polygeneticism (based upon a rigid notion of class struggle) in the end inspired him–again–with the utopia of a perfect language, born of a hybrid of all tongues when humanity will no more be divided by class or nationality (cf. Yaguello 1984: 7, with a full anthology of extracts).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 113-5.

Eco: The Indo-European Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Kircher’s museum at the Collegio Romano, frontispiece of Giorgio de Sepibus, Romani Collegii Musaeum Celeberrimum, Rome, 1678. Courtesy of Stanford University and the Zymoglyphic Museum. 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. 

“Between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries a new perspective opened. The battle for Hebrew had been definitively lost. It now seemed clear that, even had it existed, linguistic change and corruption would have rendered the primitive language irrecuperable.

What was needed instead was a typology in which information about known languages might be codified, family connections established, and relations of descent traced. We are here at the beginning of a story which has nothing to do with our own.

In 1786, in the Journal of the Asiatick Society of Bombay, Sir William Jones announced that

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the root of verbs and in the forms of grammar [ . . . ]

No philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.” (“On the Hindus,” The Works of Sir William Jones, III, London 1807, 34-5).

Jones advanced the hypothesis that Celtic, Gothic and even ancient Persian were all related to Sanskrit. Note that he spoke not only of similar verb roots, but also of similar grammatical structures. We have left behind the study of lexical analogies, and are beginning a research on syntactic similarities and phonetic affinities.

Already in 1653, John Wallis (Grammatica linguae anglicae) had posed the problem of how one might establish the relation between a series of French words–guerre, garant, gard, gardien, garderobe, guise–and the English series–war, warrant, ward, warden, wardrobe, wise–by proving the existence of a constant shift from g to w.

Later in the nineteenth century, German scholars, such as Friedrich and Wilhelm von Schlegel and Franz Bopp, deepened the understanding of the relation between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and German.

They discovered a set of correspondences in the conjugation of the verb to be in all these languages.

Gradually they came to the conclusion that not only was Sanskrit the original language of the group, its Ursprache, but that there must have existed, for this entire family, an even more primitive proto-language from which they all, Sanskrit included, had derived. This was the birth of the Indo-European hypothesis.

Through the work of Jakob Grimm (Deutsche Grammatik, 1818) these insights became organized in a scientific fashion. Research was based on the study of sound shifts (Lautverschiebungen) which traced how from the Sanskrit p were generated pous-podos in Greek, pes-pedes in Latin, fotus in Gothic, and foot in English.

What had changed between the utopian dream of an Adamic language and the new perspective? Three things. Above all, scholars had elaborated a set of scientific criteria.

In the second place, the original language no longer seemed like an archeological artifact that, one day, might actually be dug up. Indo-European was an ideal point of scholarly reference only.

Finally, Indo-European made no claim to being the original language of all humanity; it merely represented the linguistic root for just one family–the Aryan.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 103-5.

Comparative Deluge Myths

Flood myths are found in many mythologies both in the Old World and the New.

The violent and deceitful men of the mythical Bronze Age of Greece were destroyed by a flood. It is related that Zeus said on one occasion to Hermes:

“I will send a great rain, such as hath not been since the making of the world, and the whole race of men shall perish.

I am weary of their iniquity.”

For receiving with hospitable warmth these two gods in human guise, Deucalion, an old man, and his wife Pyrrha were spared, however. Zeus instructed his host to build an ark of oak, and store it well with food. When this was done, the couple entered the vessel and shut the door. Then Zeus “broke up all the fountains of the deep, and opened the well springs of heaven, and it rained for forty days and forty nights continually.”

The Bronze folk perished: not even those who fled to the hilltops could escape. The ark rested on Parnassus, and when the waters ebbed the old couple descended the mountain and took up their abode in a cave.

In Indian mythology the world is destroyed by a flood at the end of each Age of the Universe. There are four ages: the Krita or Perfect Age, the Treta Age, the Dwapara Age, and the Kali or Wicked Age. These correspond closely to the Greek and Celtic ages.

There are also references in Sanskrit literature to the destruction of the world because too many human beings lived upon it.

“When the increase of population had been so frightful,” a sage related, “the Earth, oppressed with the excessive burden, sank down for a hundred Yojanas. Suffering pain in all her limbs, and being deprived of her senses by excessive pressure, the Earth in distress sought the protection of Narayana, the foremost of the gods.”

Manu’s account of the flood has been already referred to (Chapter II). The god in fish shape informed him:

“The time is ripe for purging the world…. Build a strong and massive ark, and furnish it with a long rope….”

When the waters rose the horned fish towed the ark over the roaring sea, until it grounded on the highest peak of the Himavat, which is still called Naubandha (the harbour). Manu was accompanied by seven rishis.

In the Celtic (Irish) account of the flood, Cessair, granddaughter of Noah, was refused a chamber for herself in the ark, and fled to the western borders of the world as advised by her idol. Her fleet consisted of three ships, but two foundered before Ireland was reached. The survivors in addition to Cessair were, her father Bith, two other men, Fintan and Ladru, and fifty women.

All of these perished on the hills except Fintan, who slept on the crest of a great billow, and lived to see Partholon, the giant, arriving from Greece.

There is a deluge also in Egyptian mythology. When Ra, the sun god, grew old as an earthly king, men began to mutter words against him. He called the gods together and said: “I will not slay them (his subjects) until I have heard what ye say concerning them.”

Nu, his father, who was the god of primeval waters, advised the wholesale destruction of mankind.

Said Ra: “Behold men flee unto the hills; their heart is full of fear because of that which they said.”

The goddess Hathor-Sekhet, the Eye of Ra, then went forth and slew mankind on the hills. Thereafter Ra, desiring to protect the remnant of humanity, caused a great offering to be made to the goddess, consisting of corn beer mixed with herbs and human blood. This drink was poured out during the night.

“And the goddess came in the morning; she found the fields inundated, she rejoiced thereat, she drank thereof, her heart was rejoiced, she went about drunken and took no more cognizance of men.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Shiva, Kali, Illusion, Brahman

“The Shaivites envision the pure consciousness of Vast Face as Shiva, and the energy of that consciousness as His consort the Goddess Kali.

The Vedantic philosophy of advaita (non-duality) regards all Name and Form as illusory, and the Brahman (i.e. the Ayn) alone exists.

[Many] Buddhists perform variations of Vast Face meditation practices taught by Gautama Buddha (regarded as the eighth incarnation of Vishnu by Hindus) and other bodhisattvas (souls who reach enlightenment but remain incarnate to teach and help others awaken).

The Buddha practiced jnana yoga (lit. union through direct perception of the Ayn) and taught ashtanga yoga (lit. eight-limbed yoga of concentration and discrimination).

He sat under the Bodhi Tree, renouncing all experiences on all planes of existence. Seeing that all the koshas (Sanskrit words for shells of embodied existence) were empty, he perceived the ultimate Truth of Pure Being in nirvana.

The Vast Face Taoists follow “quietist practices” that lead them to Stillness in the Tao. The principal mood, or bhava, of Vast Face Yoga is called the “shanti bhava” peaceful mood).”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  172-3.

Seeking the Garden of Eden Alphabet

“The letterforms of the Sinatic and Ezra Hebrew alphabets bear little physical resemblance to one another, though they share the same twenty-two-letter format and have the same names for the letters.

Hence, the Sinatic Hebrew letter Alef transliterates with the Ezra Alef, the Sinatic Beyt with the Ezra Beyt, and so forth. Sinatic letterforms are basically built from the letters Alef and Ayin. Ezra Hebrew letter forms are built upon variations of the letter Yod.

Both alphabets have letters which overtly or covertly contain other letters, such as the Tav contained in the Sinatic Alef or the Beyt contained in the Ezra Alef (as described in the Sefer Bahir).

Unlike the Ezra alphabet, Sinatic does not have final letters, which were developed much later as a means of showing separation between words in crowded scrolls. The final letters became significant in the Ezra alphabet when given extended numerical value in gematria or qabalistic numerology.

The sudden appearance of the original Hebrew was paralleled several hundred years later by the sudden appearance of Brahmi Sanskrit in the Indus Valley.

Sinatic and Brahmi have many similar letterforms, and both were replaced by later alphabets claimed in present times to be the originals (i.e. Sinatic replaced by Ezra and Brahmi replaced by Deva Negari).

Some Qabalists and Tantrikas maintain that there is a parent alphabet, called the “Gan Aden Alphabet” (Garden of Eden), from which both Hebrew and Sanskrit are derived.

[ … ]

There is also said to be a Gan Aden Torah, an unbroken sequence of letters that may be broken into words and sentences in innumerable ways.

Hence, the written Torah is one such “translation” of the unbroken letter sequence, minus the letters and anusvara that were not included in the Hebrew alphabet.

A book called the Tiqunim HaZohar (“Perfections of Splendor”) discusses seventy ways of translating the first six letters of the Torah.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg. 57.

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