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Eco: George Dalgarno


George Dalgarno (1626-1687), title page of Ars Signorum, printed by J. Hayes, London, 1661. Published 20 years before Didascalocophus, Ars signorum preceded Bishop Wilkin‘s speculations on a “real character and a philosophical language.” 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.

“It is difficult to make a precise evaluation of George Dalgarno’s Ars signorum, published in 1661. In contrast to Wilkin’s Essay, Dalgarno’s tables are summary and the text, in its expository sections, is written in a language that is extremely cryptic, sometimes contradictory, and almost always strikingly allusive.

The book is filled with printer’s errors, especially where Dalgarno provides examples of real characters–not an inconsiderable problem in reading a language where the misprint of one letter changes the whole sense of the character.

We might note that the difficulty in printing a text free of errors shows how cumbersome the philosophic languages were, even for their own creators.

Dalgarno was a Scottish schoolmaster who passed most of his life at Oxford, where he taught grammar at a private school. He was in touch with all the contemporary scholars at the university, and in the list of acknowledgements at the beginning of his book he mentions men such as Ward, Lodwick, Boyle and even Wilkins.

It is certain that, as he was preparing his Essay (published seven years later), Wilkins contacted Dalgarno and showed him his own tables. Dalgarno regarded them as too detailed, and chose to follow what seemed to him an easier path.

When Wilkins finally made his project public, however, Dalgarno felt himself to be the victim of plagiarism. The suspicion was unjust: Wilkins had accomplished what Dalgarno had only promised to do.

Besides, various other authors had already anticipated many of the elements appearing in the project of Dalgarno. Still, Wilkins resented the insinuation of wrong-doing. In the acknowledgements that prefaced his Essay, Wilkins was prodigal with his thanks to inspirers and collaborators alike, but the name of Dalgarno does not appear–except in an oblique reference to “another person.” (b2r).

In any case, it was the project of Wilkins that Oxford took seriously. In 1668 the Royal Society instituted a commission to study the possible applications of the project; its members included Robert Hook, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and John Wallis.

Although we are not informed of the conclusions that they finally reached, subsequent tradition, from Locke to the Encyclopédie, invariably treated Wilkins as the author of the most important project.

Perhaps the only scholar who considered Dalgarno respectfully was Leibniz, who, in a rough draft for his own encyclopedia, reproduced Dalgarno’s list of entities almost literally (see Rossi 1960: 272).

Wilkins, of course, was perfectly at home at the Royal Society. He served as its secretary, and could freely avail himself of the help, advice, patronage and attention of his fellow members. Dalgarno, by contrast, was not even a member of the university.

Dalgarno saw that a universal language needed to comprehend two distinct aspects: first, a content-plane, that is, a classification of all knowledge, and that was a task for a philosopher; second, an expression-level, that is, a grammar that organized the characters so that they can properly denote the content elements–and this was a task for a grammarian.

Dalgarno regarded himself as a grammarian rather than a philosopher; hence he merely outlined the principles of classification upon which his language would be based, hoping that others might carry this task to fruition.

As a grammarian, Dalgarno was sensitive to the problem that his language would need to be spoken and not just written. He was aware of the reserves Descartes had expressed about the difficulty of devising a philosophic language that might be pronounced by speakers of differing tongues; thus he introduced his project with a phonetic analysis which sought to identify those sounds which were most easily compatible with the human organs of speech.

The letters from which he later composed his character were not, as they might seem, chosen arbitrarily; he chose instead those which he considered most easy to utter. Even when he came to elaborate the syntagmatic order of his character, he remained concerned with ease of pronunciation.

To this end, he made sure that consonants were always followed by vowels, inserting in his character a number of diphthongs whose function is purely euphonious. This concern certainly ensured ease of pronunciation; unfortunately, it also rendered his character increasingly difficult to identify.

After phonetics, Dalgarno passed to the problem, of the semantic primitives. He believed that these could all be derived solely in terms of genus, species and difference, arguing that such a system of embedded dichotomies was the easiest to remember (p. 29).

For a series of logico-philosophical reasons (explained pp. 30ff), he excluded negative differences from his system, retaining only those which were positive.

The most ambitious feature of Dalgarno’s project (and Wilkin’s as well) was that his classification was to include not only natural genera and species (comprehending the most precise variations in animals and plants) but also artifacts and accidents–a task never attempted by the Aristotelian tradition (see Shumaker 1982: 149).

In fact, Dalgarno based his system of classification on the rather bold assumption that all individual substances could be reduced to an aggregate of accidents (p. 44). This is an assumption which, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Eco 1984: 2.4.3), arises as an almost mechanical consequence of using Porphyry’s Tree as a basis for classification; it is a consequence, moreover, that the entire Aristotelian tradition has desperately tried to ignore.

Dalgarno confronted the problem, even though recognizing that the number of accidents was probably infinite. He was also aware that the number of species at the lowest order was unmanageably large–he calculated that they would number between 4,000 and 10,000.

This is probably one of the reasons why he rejected the help of Wilkins, who was to persevere until he had classified 2,030 species. Dalgarno feared that such a detailed classification ran the risk of a surgeon who, having dissected his cadavers into minute pieces, could no longer tell which piece belonged to Peter and which to John (p. 33).

In his endeavor to contain the number of primitives, Dalgarno decided to introduce tables in which he took into consideration only fundamental genera (which he numbered at 17), together with the intermediary genera and the species.

Yet, in order to gather up all the species in this tripartite division, Dalgarno was forced to introduce into his tables a number of intermediate disjunctions. These even received names in the language: warm-blooded animals, for example, are called NeiPTeik; quadrupeds are named Neik.

Yet in the names only the letters for genera, intermediary genera, and species are taken into account. (Mathematical entities are considered as concrete bodies on the assumption that entities like points and lines are really forms).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 228-31.

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.

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