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Eco: Some Ghosts of the Perfect Language

Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Pearl of Wisdom, 1503

Gregor Reisch (1467-1525), title page of Margarita philosophica, or the Pearl of Wisdom, Freiburg, 1503. Multiple copies of this work are preserved. 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. 

“We have often paused to draw attention to side-effects. Without forced comparisons and without exaggerated claims, it seems permissible at this point to ask informed readers to reconsider various chapters of the history of philosophy, especially those concerning the advent of contemporary logic and linguistic analysis.

Would these developments have been possible without the secular debate on the nature of the perfect language, and, in particular, the various projects for philosophical a priori languages?

In 1854, George Boole published his Investigations of the Laws of Thought. He announced his intention to discover the fundamental laws governing the mental operations of the process of reasoning. He observed that without presupposing these laws, we could not explain why the innumerable languages spread around the globe have maintained over the course of centuries so many characteristics in common (II, 1).

Frege began his Begriffsschrift (on ideography, 1879) with a reference to Leibniz’s characteristica. In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918-9), Russell noted that in a perfectly logical language, the relation of a word to its meaning would always be one to one (excepting words used as connectives).

When he later wrote Principia mathematica with Whitehead, he noted that, although their language possessed a syntax, it could, with the addition of a vocabulary, become a perfect language (even though he also admitted that is such a language were to be constructed it would be intolerably prolix).

For his part, Wittgenstein, renewing Bacon’s complaint concerning the ambiguity of natural languages, aspired to create a language whose signs were univocal (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1921-2, 3.325ff) and whose propositions mirrored the logical structure of reality itself (4.121).

Carnap proposed constructing a logical system of objects and concepts such that all concepts might be derived from a single nucleus of prime ideas (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1922-5). In fact, the entire logical positivist movement was heir to the Baconian polemic against the vagaries of natural languages productive of nothing but metaphysical illusions and false problems (cf. Recanati 1979).

These philosophers all hoped to construct a scientific language, perfect within its chosen range of competence, a language that would be universal as well; none, however, claimed that such a language would ever replace natural language.

The dream had changed, or, perhaps, its limitations had finally, reluctantly been accepted. From its search for the lost language of Adam, philosophy had by now learned to take only what it could get.

In the course of centuries through which our particular story has run, another story began to disentangle itself as well–the search for a general or universal grammar. I said in the introduction that this was not a story that I intended to tell here.

I shall not tell it because the search for a single corpus of rules underneath and common to all natural languages entailed neither the invention of a new language nor a return to a lost mother tongue. None the less, the search for what is constant in all languages can be undertaken in two ways.

The first way is to follow empirical and comparative methods; this requires compiling information on every language that exists–or existed (cf. Greenberg 1963).

The second way can be traced back to the time in which Dante (influenced or not by the doctrines of the Modists) attributed the gift of a forma locutionis to Adam. On this line of thought, scholars have more often tried to deduce the universal laws of all languages, and of human thought, from the model of the only language they knew–scholastic Latin–and in 1587 Francisco Sanchez Brocense was still doing so with his Minerva, seu causis linguae latinae.

The novelty of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée of Port Royal (1660) was simply the decision of taking as a model a modern language–French.

Choosing this way requires never being brushed by the scruple that a given language represents only a given way of thinking and of viewing the world, not universal thought itself.

It requires regarding what is called the “genius” of a language as affecting only the surface structures rather than the deep structure, allegedly the same for all languages.

Only in this way will be be possible to regard as universal, because corresponding to the only logic possible, the structures discovered in the language in which one is used to think.

Nor does it necessarily alter the problem to concede that–certainly–the various languages do exhibit differences at their surface level, are often corrupted through usage or agitated by their own genius, but still, if universal laws exist, the light of natural reason will uncover them because, as Beauzée wrote in his article on grammar in the Encyclopédie, “la parole est une sorte de tableau dont la pensée est l’original.”

Such an argument would be acceptable, but in order to uncover these laws one needs to represent them through a metalanguage applicable to every other language in the world. Now, if one chooses as metalanguage one’s own object language, the argument becomes circular.

In fact, as Simone has put it (1969: XXXIII), the aim of the Port Royal grammarians…

“…is therefore, in spite of the appearances of methodological rigor, prescriptive and evaluative, in so far as it is rationalist. Their scope was not to interpret, in the most adequate and coherent way possible, the usages permitted by the various languages.

If it were so, a linguistic theory should coincide with whole of the possible usages of a given tongue, and should take into account even those that native speakers consider as “wrong.”

Instead, their aim was to emend this variety of uses in order to make them all conform to the dictates of Reason.”

What makes the search for a universal grammar of interest in our story is, as Canto has noted (1979), that in order to be caught within the vicious circle, it is only necessary to make one simple assumption: the perfect language exists, and it is identical to one’s own tongue.

Once this assumption is made, the choice of the metalanguage follows: Port Royal anticipates de Rivarol.

This is a problem that remains for all attempts–contemporary ones included–to demonstrate that syntactic or semantic universals exist by deducing them from a given natural language, used simultaneously both as a metalanguage and as object language.

It is not my argument here that such a project is desperate: I merely suggest that it represents but another example of the quest for a philosophical a priori language in which, once again, a philosophical ideal of grammar presides over the study of a natural language.

Thus (as Cosenza has shown, 1993) those modern day branches of philosophy and psychology which deliberately appeal to a language of thought are also descendants of those older projects.

Such a “mentalese” would supposedly reflect the structure of mind, would be purely formal and syntactical calculus (not unlike Leibniz’s blind thought), would use non-ambiguous symbols and would be based upon innate primitives, common to all species.

As happened with Wilkins, it would be deduced according to a “folk psychology,” naturally within the framework of a given historical culture.

There are perhaps more remote descendants of the a priori projects, which have sought to found a language of mind not upon Platonic abstractions but upon the neuro-physiological structures of the brain.

Here the language of mind is the language of the brain; the software is founded upon the hardware. This is a new departure; since the “ancestors” of our story never dreamed of venturing this far, and many of them were not even certain that the res cogitans was located in the brain rather than the heart or the liver (even though an attractive wood cut showing the localization of the faculty of language in the brain–as well as those for imagination, estimation and memory–already appears in the fifteenth century in Gregor Reysch’s Margarita philosophica.

Differences are sometimes more important than identities or analogies; still, it would hardly be a waste of time if sometimes even the most advanced students in the cognitive sciences were to pay a visit to their ancestors.

It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having seen a single work of Raphael, or a writer without having ever read the classics.

Such things are theoretically possible; but the “primitive” artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labelled as a naïf. It is only when we reconsider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects.

The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 312-6.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese

kircher_049-826x1024

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. 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 an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 4

kircher_058

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Universal horoscope of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. Comprising an olive tree as a sundial, the time in each Jesuit province can be read. From Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, 1646, p. 553, courtesy of Herzog August Bibliothek, and 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.

“In the British context, the Celtic hypothesis had naturally quite a different meaning; it meant, for one thing, an opposition to the theory of a Germanic origin.

In the eighteenth century the thesis of Celtic primacy was supported by Rowland Jones, who argued “no other language, not even English, shows itself to be so close to the first universal language, and to its natural precision and correspondence between words and things, in the form and in the way in which we have presented it as universal language.”

The English language is

“the mother of all the western dialects and the Greek, elder sister of all orientals, and in its concrete form, the living language of the Atlantics and of the aborigines of Italy, Gaul and Britain, which furnished the Romans with much of their vocables . . . The Celtic dialects and knowledge derived their origin from the circles of Trismegistus, Hermes, Mercury or Gomer . . . [and] the English language happens more peculiarly to retain its derivation from that purest fountain of languages (“Remarks on the Circles of Gomer,” The Circles of Gomer, 1771: II, 31-2).”

Etymological proofs follow.

Such nationalistic hypotheses are comprehensible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the larger European states began to take form, posing the problem of which of them was to be supreme on the continent.

In this period, spirited claims to originality and superiority arise no longer from the visionary quest for universal peace, but–whether their authors realized this or not–from concrete reasons of state.

In whatever case, and whatever their nationalist motivations, as a result of what Hegel calls the astuteness of reason, the furious search for etymologies, which was supposed to prove the common descent of every living language, eventually ended by creating the conditions in which serious work in comparative linguistics might become more profitable.

As this work expanded, the phantom of an original mother tongue receded more and more into the background, remaining, at most, a mere regulative hypothesis. To compensate for the loss, there arose a new and pressing need to establish a typology of fundamental linguistic stocks.

Thus, in this radically altered perspective, the search for the original mother tongue transformed itself into a general search for the origins of a given language.

The need to document the existence of the primeval language had resulted in theoretical advances such as the identification and delimitation of important linguistic families (Semitic and Germanic), the elaboration of a model of linguistic descent with the inheritance of common linguistic traits, and, finally, the emergence of an embryonic comparative method typified in some synoptic dictionaries. (Simone 1990: 331).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 102-3.

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