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Eco: From Leibniz to the Encyclopédie


Johann Friedrich Wentzel (1670-1729), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), circa 1700. 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 1678 Leibniz composed a lingua generalis (in Couturat 1903). After decomposing all of human knowledge into simple ideas, and assigning a number to each, Leibniz proposed a system of transcription for these numbers in which consonants stood for integers and vowels for units, tens and powers of ten:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270. 

In this system, the figure 81,374, for example, would be transcribed as mubodilefa. In fact, since the relevant power of ten is shown by the following vowel rather than by the decimal place, the order of the letters in the name is irrelevant: 81,374 might just as easily be transcribed as bodifalemu.

This system might lead us to suspect that Leibniz too was thinking of a language in which the users might one day discourse on bodifalemu or gifeha (= 546) just as Dalgarno or Wilkins proposed to speak in terms of nekpot or deta.

Against this supposition, however, lies the fact that Leibniz applied himself to another, particular form of language, destined to be spoken–a language that resembled the latino sine flexione invented at the dawn of our own century by Peano.

This was a language whose grammar was drastically simplified and regularized: one declension for nouns, one conjunction for verbs, no genders, no plurals, adjectives and adverbs made identical, verbs reduced to the formula of copula + adjective.

Certainly, if my purpose were to try to delineate the entire extent of the linguistic projects undertaken by Leibniz throughout the course of his life, I would have to describe an immense philosophical and linguistically monument displaying four major aspects:

(1) the identification of a system of primitives, organized in an alphabet of thought or in a general encyclopedia;

(2) the elaboration of an ideal grammar, inspired probably by the simplifications proposed by Dalgarno, of which the simplified Latin is one example;

(3) the formulation of a series of rules governing the possible pronunciation of the characters;

(4) the elaboration of a lexicon of real characters upon which the speaker might perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.

The truth is, however, that by the end of his career, Leibniz had abandoned all research in the initial three parts of the project. His real contribution to linguistics lies in his attempts at realizing the fourth aspect.

Leibniz had little interest in the kinds of universal language proposed by Dalgarno and Wilkins, though he was certainly impressed by their efforts. In a letter to Oldenburg (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 11-5), he insisted that his notion of a real character was profoundly different from that of those who aspired to a universal writing modeled on Chinese, or tried to construct a philosophic language free from all ambiguity.

Leibniz had always been fascinated by the richness and plurality of natural languages, devoting his time to the study of their lineages and the connections between them. He had concluded that it was not possible to identify (much less to revive) an alleged Adamic language, and came to celebrate the very confusio linguarum that others were striving to eliminate (see Gensini 1990, 1991).

It was also a fundamental tenet of his monadology that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, as if a city would be represented from as many different viewpoints as the different positions of its inhabitants.

It would have been incongruous for the philosopher who held this doctrine to oblige everyone to share the same immutable grillwork of genera and species, without taking into account particularities, diversities and the particular “genius” of each natural language.

There was but one facet of Leibniz’s personality that might have induced him to seek after a universal form of communication; that was his passion for universal peace, which he shared with Lull, Cusanus and Postel.

In an epoch in which his english predecessors and correspondents were waxing enthusiastic over the prospect of universal languages destined to ease the way for future travel and trade, beyond an interest in the exchange of scientific information, Leibniz displayed a sensitivity towards religious issues totally absent even in high churchmen like Wilkins.

By profession a diplomat and court councillor, Leibniz was a political, rather than an academic, figure, who worked for the reunification of the church. This was an ecumenicism that reflected his political preoccupations; he envisioned an anti-French bloc of Spain, the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes.

Still, his desire for unity sprang from purely religious motives as well; church unity was the necessary foundation upon which a peaceful Europe could be built.

Leibniz, however, never thought that the main prerequisite for unity and peace was a universal tongue. Instead, he thought that the cause of peace might be better served by science, and by the creation of a scientific language which might serve as a common instrument in the discovery of truth.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 269-1.

Eco: First Attempts at a Content Organization


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Frontispiece of Obeliscus Pamphilius, Obeliscus Pamphilius: Hoc est Interpretatio nova & hucusque intenta obelisci Hieroglyphici, eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, published by Lud. Grignani 1650, held by Ghent 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. 

“Probably in 1660, three years before the publication of the Polygraphia, Kircher wrote a manuscript bearing the title Novum hoc inventum quo omnia mundi idiomata ad unum reducuntur (Mss. Chigiani I, vi, 225, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Marrone 1986).

Schott says that Kircher kept his system a secret at the express wish of the emperor, who had requested that his polygraphy be reserved for his exclusive use alone.

The Novum inventum was still tentative and incomplete; it contained an extremely elementary grammar plus a lexicon of 1,620 words. However, the project looks more interesting that the later one because it provides a list of 54 fundamental categories, each represented by an icon.

These icons are reminiscent of those that one might find today in airports and railway stations: some were schematically representative (like a small chalice for drinking); others were strictly geometrical (rectangles, triangles, circles).

Some were furthermore superficially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were functionally equivalent to the Roman numbers in the Polygraphia (in both texts, Arabic numbers referred to particular items).

Thus, for example, the square representing the four elements plus the numeral 4 meant water as an element; water as something to drink was instead expressed by a chalice (meaning the class of drinkable things) followed by the numeral 3.

There are two interesting features in this project. The first is that Kircher tried to merge a polygraphy with a sort of hieroglyphical lexicon, so that his language could be used (at least in the author’s intention) without translating it into a natural language.

Seeing a “square + 4,” the readers should immediately understand that the named thing is an element, and seeing “chalice + 3” they should understand that one is referring to something to drink.

The difficulty was due to the fact that, while both Kircher’s Polygraphia and Becher’s Character allow a translating operator (be it a human being or a machine) to work independently of any knowledge of the meaning of the linguistic items, the Novum inventum requires a non-mechanical and quasi-philosophical knowledge: in order to encode the word aqua as “square + 4,” one should previously know that it is the name of an element–information that the term of a natural language does not provide.

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who published two volumes describing a sort of polygraphy (Ekskubalauron, 1652, and Logopandecteision, 1653), noted that, arbitrary as the order of the alphabet might be, it was still easier to look things up in alphabetical order than in a categorical order.

The second interesting feature of Kircher’s initial project is certainly given by the effort to make the fundamental concepts independent of any existing natural language.

Its weakness is due to the fact that the list of the 54 categories was notably incongruous: it included divine entities, angelic and heavenly, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, the dignities and other abstract concepts deriving from the Lullian Ars, things to drink, clothes, weights, numbers, hours, cities, food, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, months of the year.

It was perhaps the lack of internal coherency in this system of concepts that induced Kircher to abandon this line of research, and devote himself to the more modest and mechanical method used in the Polygraphia.

Kircher’s incongruous classification had a precedent. Although he regarded Kircher as the pioneer in the art of polygraphy, in his Technica curiosa (as well as in his Jocoseriorum naturae et artiis sive magiae naturalis centuriae tres) Gaspar Schott gave an extended description of a 1653 project that was certainly earlier than Kircher’s (the Novum inventum is dedicated to Pope Alexander VII, who ascended the pontifical throne only in 1655).

The project was due to another Jesuit, a Spaniard (“whose name I have forgotten,” as Schott says on p. 483), who had presented in Rome (on a single folio) an Artificium, or an Arithmeticus nomenclator, mundi omnes nationes ad linguarum et sermonis unitatem invitans (“Artificial Glossary, inviting all the nations of the world to unity of languages and speech”).

Schott says that the anonymous author wrote a pasigraphy because he was a mute. As a matter of fact the subtitle of the Artificium also reads Authore linguae (quod mirere) Hispano quodam, vere, ut dicitur, muto (“The author of this language–a marvelous thing–being a Spaniard, truly, it is said, dumb”).

According to Ceñal (1946) the author was a certain Pedro Bermudo, and the subtitle of the manuscript would represent a word play since, in Castilian, “Bermudo” must be pronounced almost as Ver-mudo.

It is difficult to judge how reliable the accounts of Schott are; when he described Becher’s system, he improved it, adding details that he derived from the works of Kircher. Be that as it may, Schott described the Artificium as having divided the lexicon of the various languages into 44 fundamental classes, each of which contained between 20 and 30 numbered items.

Here too a Roman number referred to the class and an Arabic number referred to the item itself. Schott noted that the system provided for the use of signs other than numbers, but gave his opinion that numbers comprised the most convenient method of reference since anyone from any nation could easily learn their use.

The Artificium envisioned a system of designating endings, (marking number, tense or case) as complex as that of Becher. An Arabic number followed by an acute accent was the sign of the plural; followed by a grave accent, it became the nota possessionis.

Numbers with a dot above signified verbs in the present; numbers followed by a dot signified the genitive. In order to distinguish between vocative and dative, it was necessary to count, in one case, five, and, in the other, six, dots trailing after the number.

Crocodile was written “XVI.2” (class of animals + crocodile), but should one have occasion to address an assembly of crocodiles (“O Crocodiles!”), it would be necessary to write (and then read) “XVI.2′ . . . . . ‘.

It was almost impossible not to muddle the points behind one word with the points in front of another, or with full stops, or with the various other orthographic conventions that the system established.

In short, it was just as impracticable as all of the others. Still, what is interesting about it is the list of 44 classes. It is worth listing them all, giving, in parenthesis, only some examples of the elements each contained.

  1. Elements (fire, wind, smoke, ashes, Hell, Purgatory, centre of the earth).
  2. Celestial entities (stars, lightning, bolts, rainbows . . .).
  3. Intellectual entities (God, jesus, discourse, opinion, suspicion, soul, stratagems, or ghosts).
  4. Secular statuses (emperor, barons, plebs).
  5. Ecclesiastical states.
  6. Artificers (painters, sailors).
  7. Instruments.
  8. Affections (love, justice, lechery).
  9. Religion.
  10. Sacramental confession.
  11. Tribunal.
  12. Army.
  13. Medicine (doctor, hunger, enema).
  14. Brute animals.
  15. Birds.
  16. Fish and reptiles.
  17. Parts of animals.
  18. Furnishings.
  19. Foodstuffs.
  20. Beverages and liquids (wine, beer, water, butter, wax, and resin).
  21. Clothes.
  22. Silken fabrics.
  23. Wool.
  24. Homespun and other spun goods.
  25. Nautical and aromas (ship, cinnamon, anchor, chocolate).
  26. Metal and coin.
  27. Various artifacts.
  28. Stone.
  29. Jewels.
  30. Trees and fruits.
  31. Public places.
  32. Weights and measures.
  33. Numerals.
  34. Time.
  35. Nouns.
  36. Adjectives.
  37. Verbs.
  38. Undesignated grammatical category.
  39. Undesignated grammatical category.
  40. Undesignated grammatical category.
  41. Undesignated grammatical category.
  42. Undesignated grammatical category.
  43. Persons (pronouns and appellations such as Most Eminent Cardinal).
  44. Vehicular (hay, road, footpad).

The young Leibniz would criticize the absurdity of arrangements such as this in his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria, 1666.

This sort of incongruity will affect as a secret flaw even the projects of a philosophically more sophisticated nature–such as the a priori philosophic languages we will look at in the next chapter.

This did not escape Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Wilkins, at second hand as he admits (in Other Inquisitions, “The analytical idiom of John Wilkins“), he was instantly struck by the lack of a logical order in the categorical divisions (he discusses explicitly the subdivisions of stones), and this inspired his invention of the Chinese classification which Foucault posed at the head of his The Order of Things.

In this imaginary Chinese encyclopedia bearing the title Celestial Emporium of Benevolent  Recognition, “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs. (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”).

Borge’s conclusion was that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. At the end of our panorama of philosophical languages, we shall see that, in the end, even Leibniz was forced to acknowledge this bitter conclusion.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 203-8.

Eco: Magic Names and Kabbalistic Hebrew


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), man inscribed within a Pentagram with an astrological symbol at each pointDe occulta philosophia, 1533 edition, p. 163, digitized as call number Z1f9 by the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 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.  

“The date 1492 is an important one for Europe: it marks not only the discovery of America, but also the fall of Granada, through which Spain (and thus all Europe) severed its last link with Islamic culture.

As a consequence of Granada, moreover, their Christian majesties expelled the Jews from Spain, setting them off on a journey that carried them across the face of Europe. Among them there were the kabbalists, who spread their influence across the whole continent.

The kabbala of the names suggested that the same sympathetic links holding between sublunar objects and celestial bodies also apply to names.

According to Agrippa, Adam took both the properties of things and the influence of the stars into account when he devised his names; thus “these names contain within them all the remarkable powers of the things that they indicate” (De occulta philosophia, I, 70).

In this respect, Hebrew writing must be considered as particularly sacred; it exhibits perfect correspondence between letters, things and numbers (I, 74).

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attended the Platonic academy of Marsilio Ficino where he had, in the spirit of the times, begun his study of the languages of ancient wisdom whose knowledge had gone into eclipse during the Middle Ages; Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean.

Pico rejected astrology as a means of divination (Disputatio adversos astrologicos divinatores), but accepted astral magic as a legitimate technique for avoiding control by the stars, replacing it with the illuminated will of the magus.

If it were true that the universe was constructed from letters and numbers, it would follow that whoever knew the mathematical rules behind this construction might act directly on the universe.

According to Garin (1937: 162), such a will to penetrate the secrets of nature in order to dominate it presaged the ideal of Galileo.

In 1486 Pico made the acquaintance of the singular figure of a converted Jew, Flavius Mithridates, with whom he began an intense period of collaboration (for Mithridates see Secret 1964: 25ff).

Although Pico could boast a certain familiarity with Hebrew, he needed the help of the translations that Mithridates prepared for him to plumb the depths of the texts he wished to study.

Among Pico’s sources we find many of the works of Abulafia (Wirszubski 1989). Mithridates‘ translations certainly helped Pico; at the same time, however, they misled him–misleading all succeeding Christian kabbalists in his wake.

In order for a reader to use properly the kabbalist techniques of notariqon, gematria and temurah, it is obvious that the texts must remain in Hebrew: as soon as they are translated, most of the kabbalistic wordplays become unintelligible or, at least, lose their flavor.

In the translations he provided for Pico, Mithridates did often insert original Hebrew terms into his text; yet Pico (in part because typesetters of this period lacked Hebrew characters) often translated them into Latin, so augmenting the ambiguity and the obscurity of the text itself.

Beyond this, Mithridates, in common with many of the first Christian kabbalists, also had the vice of interpolating into the Hebrew texts references supposedly demonstrating that the original author had recognized the divinity of Christ. As a consequence, Pico was able to claim: “In any controversy between us and the Jews we can confute their arguments on the basis of the kabbalistic books.”

In the course of his celebrated nine hundred Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae, among which are included twenty-six Conclusiones magicae (1486), Pico demonstrated that the tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God, Yahweh, turned into the name of Jesus with the simple insertion of the letter sin.

This proof was used by all successive Christian kabbalists. In this way, Hebrew, a language susceptible to all the combinatory manipulations of the kabbalist tradition, was raised, once again, to the rank of a perfect language.

For example, in the last chapter of the Heptaplus (1489) Pico, taking off with an interpretation of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”), launches himself on a series of death-defying permutational and anagrammatical leaps.

To understand the logic of Pico’s reading, notice that in the following quotation the Hebrew characters have been substituted with the current name of the letters, Pico’s transliterations have been respected, and he is working upon the Hebrew form of the word: Bet, Resh, Alef, Shin, Yod, Tau.

“I say something marvelous, unparalleled, incredible . . . If we take the third letter and unite it with the first, we get [Alef Bet] ab. If we take the first, double it, and unite it with the second, we get [Bet Bet Resh] bebar. If we read all except the fourth with the first and the last, we get [Shin Bet Tau] sciabat.

If we place the first three in the order in which they appear, we get [Bet Resh Alef] bara. If we leave the first and take the next three, we get [Resh Alef Shin] rosc. If we leave the first two and take the two that follow, we get [Alef Shin] es.

If, leaving the first three, we unite the fourth with the last, we get [Shin Tau] seth. Once again, if we unite the second with the first, we get [Resh Bet] rab. If we put after the third, the fifth and the fourth, we get [Alef Yod Shin] hisc.

If we unite the first two letters with the last two, we get [Bet Resh Yod Tau] berith. If we unite the last to the first, we obtain the twelfth and last letter, which is [Tau Bet] thob, turning the thau into the letter theth, an extremely common procedure in Hebrew . . .

Ab means the father; bebar in the son and through the son (in fact, the beth put before means both things); resith indicates the beginning; sciabath means rest and end; bara means he created; rosc is head; es is fire; seth is fundament; rab means of the great; hisc of the man; berith with a pact; tob with goodness.

Thus taking the phrase all together and in order, it becomes: “The father in the son and for the son, beginning and end, that is, rest, created the head, the fire, and the fundament of the great man with a good pact.”

When Pico (in his “Magic Conclusion” 22) declared that “Nulla nomina ut significativa, et in quantum nomina sunt, singula et per se sumpta, in Magico opere virtutem habere possunt, nisi sint Hebraica, vel inde proxima derivata” (“No name, in so far as it has a meaning, and in so far as it is a name, singular and self-sufficient, can have a virtue in Magic, unless that name be in Hebrew or directly derived from it”), he meant to say that, on the basis of the supposed correspondence between the language of Adam and the structure of the world, words in Hebrew appeared as forces, as sound which, as soon as they are unleashed, are able to influence the course of events.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 119-22.

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia

Guillaume Postel, The Great Key, Eliphas Levi, The Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861

Guillaume Postel (1510-81), The Great Key, in Eliphas Levi (1810-75), La Clef des Grands MystèresThe Key of the Great Mysteries, 1861.

“A special place in the story of the renewal of Hebrew studies belongs to the French utopian thinker and érudit, Guillaume Postel (1510-81). Councillor to the kings of France, close to the major religious, political and scientific personalities of his epoch, Postel returned from a series of diplomatic missions to the Orient, voyages which enabled him to study Arabic and Hebrew as well as to learn of the wisdom of the kabbala, a changed and marked man.

Already renowned as a Greek philologist, around 1539, Postel was appointed to the post of “mathematicorum et peregrinarum linguarum regius interpretes” in that Collège des Trois Langues which eventually became the Collège de France.

In his De originibus seu de Hebraicae linguae et gentis antiquitate (1538), Postel argued that Hebrew came directly from the sons of Noah, and that, from it, Arabic, Chaldean, Hindi and, indirectly, Greek had all descended as well.

In Linguarum duodecem characteribus differentium alphabetum, introductio (1538), by studying twelve different alphabets he proved the common derivation of every language. From here, he went on to advance the project of a return to Hebrew as the instrument for the peaceable fusion of the peoples of differing races.

To support his argument that Hebrew was the proto-language, Postel developed the criterion of divine economy. As there was but one human race, one world and one God, there could be but one language; this was a “sacred language, divinely inspired into the first man” (De Foenicum litteris, 1550).

God had educated Adam by breathing into him the capacity to call things by their appropriate names (De originibus, seu, de varia et potissimum orbit Latino ad hanc diem incognita aut inconsyderata historia, 1553).

Although Postel does not seem to have thought either of an innate faculty for languages or of a universal grammar, as Dante had done, there still appears in many of his writings the notion of an Averroist active intellect as the repository of the forms common to all humanity, in which the roots of our linguistic faculty must be sought (Les très merveilleuses victoires des femmes du nouveau monde together with La doctrine du siècle doré, both from 1553).

Postel’s linguistic studies were connected to his particular vision of a religious utopia: he foresaw the reign of universal peace.

In his De orbis terrae concordia (1544:I) he clearly states that his studies in language would help to lay the foundations upon which a universal concord could be created. He envisioned the creation of a linguistic commonwealth that would serve as living proof to those of other faiths that not only was the message of Christianity true, but equally it verified their own religious beliefs: there are some principles of a natural religion, or sets of innate ideas held by all peoples (De orbis, III).

Here was the spirit that had inspired Lull and Nicholas of Cusa. Yet Postel was convinced that universal peace could only be realized under the protection of the king of France: among the world’s rulers the king of France alone held a legitimate claim to the title of king of the world.

He was the direct descendent of Noah, through Gomer, son of Japheth, founder of the Gallic and Celtic races (cf. particularly Les raisons de la monarchie, c. 1551). Postel (Trésor des propheties de l’univers, 1556) supported this contention with a traditional etymology (see, for example, Jean Lemaire de Belges, Illustration de Gaule et singularitez de Troye, 1512-3, fol. 64r): in Hebrew, the term gallus meant “he who overcame the waves;” thus the Gauls were the people who had survived the waters of the Flood (cf. Stephens 1989:4).

Postel first attempted to convert Francis I to his cause. The king, however, judged him a fanatic, and he lost favor at court. He went to Rome, hoping to win over to his utopian schemes Ignatius of Loyola, whose reformist ideals seemed kindred to his own.

It did not take Ignatius long, however, to realize that Postel’s ambitions were not identical to those of the Jesuits. Accepting Postel’s project might have placed their vow of obedience to the pope at risk.

Besides, Ignatius was a Spaniard, and the idea of turning the king of France into the king of the world would hardly have appealed to him. Although Postel continued long afterwards to look upon the Jesuits as the divine instrument for the creation of universal peace, he himself was forced to leave the company after a mere year and a half.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 75-7.

Eco: The Alphabet and the Four Figures


Raymond Llull (1232-1316), Ars magna, segunda figurageneralis et ultima, 1517, held in the Getty Research Institute and digitized by that institution in collaboration with the Internet Archive, generously posted on 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.


“The ars combinatoria of Lull employs an alphabet of nine letters–B to K, leaving out J–and four figures (see figure 4.1). In a tabula generalis that appears in several of his works, Lull set out a table of six groups of nine entities, one for each of the nine letters.

The first group are the nine absolute principles, or divine dignities, which communicate their natures to each other and spread throughout creation.

After this, there are nine relative principles, nine types of question, nine subjects, nine virtues and nine vices.

Lull specifies (and this is an obvious reference to Aristotle’s list of categories) that the nine dignities are subjects of predication, while the other five series are predicates. We shall see that subject and predicate are sometimes allowed to exchange their roles, while in other cases variations of order are not considered as pertinent.

First figure. This traces all the possible combinations between the dignities, thus allowing predications such as “Goodness [bonitas] is great,” “Greatness [magnitudo] is glorious,” etc.

Since the dignities are treated as nouns when they appear as a predicate, the lines connecting them can be read in both directions. The line connecting magnitudo and bonitas can, for example, be read as both “Greatness is good” and “Goodness is great.” This explains why 36 lines produce 72 combinations.

The first figure is designed to allow regular syllogisms to be inferred. To demonstrate, for example, that goodness can be great, it is necessary to argue that “all that is magnified by greatness is great–but goodness is what is magnified by greatness–therefore goodness is great.”

The first table excludes self-predications, like BB or CC, because, for Lull, there is no possibility of a middle term in an expression of the type “Goodness is good” (in Aristotelian logic, “all As are B–C is an A–therefore C is a B” is a valid syllogism because, following certain rules, the middle term A is so disposed to act as the, as it were, bond between B and C).

Second figure. This serves to connect the relative principles with triples of definitions. They are the relations connecting the divine dignities with the cosmos. Since it is intended merely as a visual mnemonic that helps to fix in the mind the various relations between different types of entity, there is no method of combination associated with the second figure.

For example, difference, concordance and opposition (contrarietas) can each be considered in reference to (1) two sensible entities, such as a plant and a stone, (2) a sensible and an intellectual entity, like body and soul, and (3) two intellectual entities, like the soul and an angel.

Third figure. Here Lull displayed all possible letter pairings. The figure contains 36 pairs inserted in what Lull calls the 36 chambers. The figure makes it seem that he intended to exclude inversions.

Yet, in reality, the figure does contemplate inversions in order, and thus the number of the chambers is virtually 72 since each letter is permitted to function as either subject or predicate (“Goodness is great” also gives “Greatness is good:” Ars magna, VI, 2).

Having established the combinations, Lull proceeds to what he calls the “evacuation of the chambers.” Taking, for example, chamber BC, we read it first according to the first figure, obtaining goodness and greatness (bonitas and magnitudo); then according to the second figure, obtaining difference and concordance, (differentia and concordantia: Ars magna, II, 3).

From these two pairs we derive 12 propositions: “Goodness is great,” “Difference is great,” Goodness is different,” “Goodness is different,” “Difference is good,” “Goodness is concordant,” “Difference is concordant,” “Greatness is good,” “Concordance is good,” “Greatness is different,” “Concordance is different,” “Greatness is concordant,” and “Concordance is great.”

Going back to the tabula generalis in figure 4.1, we find that, under the next heading, Questiones, B and C  are utrum (whether) and quid (what). By combining these 2 questions with the 12 propositions we have just constructed, we obtain 24 questions, like “Whether goodness is great?,” or “What is a great goodness?” (see Ars magna, VI, 1).

In this way, the third figure generates 432 propositions and 864 questions–at least in theory. In reality, there are 10 additional rules to be considered (given in Ars magna, VI, iv).

For the chamber BC, for example, there are the rules B and C. These rules depend on the theological definition of the terms, and on certain argumentative constraints which have nothing to do with the rules of combination.


Quarta figura, fourth figure.

Fourth figure. This is the most famous of the figures, and the one destined to have the greatest influence on subsequent tradition. In this figure, triples generated by the nine elements are considered.

In contrast to the preceding figures, which are simply static diagrams, the fourth figure is mobile. It is a mechanism formed by three concentric circles, of decreasing size, inserted into each other, and held together usually by a knotted cord.

If we recall that in the Sefer Yezirah the combination of the letters was visually represented by a wheel or a spinning disc, it seems probable that Lull, a native of Majorca, has been influenced here by the kabbalistic tradition that flourished in his time in the Iberian peninsula.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 56-60.


Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism



Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, Paris. 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.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.


The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

The Angel Sandalfon

“The theory of the intelligible points is connected with the reinterpretation discussed previously (p. 259) of the ideas as spiritual atoms and their application to the sefiroth. From these and similar Provençal sources, this theory then made its way to the kabbalists in Castile, above all to Isaac Cohen and Todros Abulafia, and from there to the author of the Zohar.

The same hierarchical structure is expounded regarding the origin and still more the place of the supreme beatitude of the prophets, the hagiographers, and the mystical scholars in the description of the seven palaces of the lowest heaven, which comes immediately after the aforementioned account of the ritual for the conjuration of the Prince of the Torah.

The sefirotic symbolism is here presupposed as self-evident. The palaces begin with the lowest and ascend in rank, just as do the archons in charge of them. The highest rank is held not by Metatron, who rules over the sixth palace, but by Sandalfon, whose name is associated with the secret of the conquest of matter by form. This is the oldest source of this mystical etymology of Sandalfon, and it was in use later among many Spanish kabbalists.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 361-2.

Revelation of Elijah

“Already in the case of the first Spanish kabbalists, among the disciples of Isaac the Blind, the magical elements in their doctrine of the kawwanah occasionally come to the fore, as we have seen. Similar elements are discernible in the “mysteries of the prayer” of the German Hasidim, in that he who prays must think of the various names of angels as they relate—in respect to the mysticism of words and numbers—to the words of the traditional prayer. But in the earliest kabbalist circles, as far as our information extends, this magical element is missing; at least it does not manifest itself openly.

The teaching of the mystical kawwanah in prayer corresponds perfectly, it seems to me, to the objective and psychological conditions surrounding a doctrine born into an exclusive circle of men who possess the gift of meditation. With it, a new layer is added to the old gnostic elements that were contained in the tradition of the Bahir, elements that these men continued to develop in greater detail.

The creation of this doctrine bears the seal of the vita contemplativa. No element of the old Kabbalah better corresponds to the tradition of a revelation of Elijah, and we may regard this tradition as testimony that in this circle something really new had burst forth from the depths. An indication, if not an absolute proof, of this connection may be found in the fact that the remarks concerning the revelation Elijah is supposed to have vouchsafed to Isaac the Blind or his teachers are found precisely in texts in which the kawwanoth of prayer were collected by the Spanish kabbalists at the end of the thirteenth century.

No other specific doctrine among the kabbalists expressly relates to this revelation and this, perhaps, provides us with a key to our problem. A notion analogous to that of gilluy ‘Eliyahu can be found in Sufi mysticism in the accounts of revelations of Khidr (the Muslim metamorphosis of Elijah). Reports or testimonies concerning such revelations exist with regard to Muhi al-din ibn Arabi (1165-1240) of Andalusia, who shortly before 1200 —the time of Rabad and Isaac the Blind—was still wandering about in Spain (cf. G. Husaini, The Pantheism of Ibn Arabi, 28.).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 245-6.

Two Angels at the Feast of Tabernacles

“The relatively simple content of that tradition also corresponds to Jacob’s other angelological statements, with which we have already become acquainted on page 208. Jacob is said to have received from a certain R. Nehorai in Jerusalem the tradition that the ritual of libations of water and wine on the Feast of Tabernacles was practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem because “at this ritual two angels were present, whose function it was to bring the fruits to ripeness and to lend them flavor.”

One of these angels is certainly Gabriel, whose function (according to B. Sanhedrin 95b) is to cause the fruit to ripen. The other is probably Michael. Water and wine seem to symbolize the qualities of Grace (water) and Sternness (wine), much as in the Book Bahir. Whether this symbolism came from the Orient—together with the angelological tradition —or whether it belongs exclusively to the Provençal stratum of the Bahir cannot be established with certainty.

We know nothing else about this R. Nehorai, and the doctrine of the sefiroth is implied in no other twelfth-century text that can definitely be said to have been composed in the Orient. This pilgrimage of “Rabbenu Jacob Hasid,” which I see no reason to doubt, must have taken place at the earliest not long after the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin, after 1187; before that, under the rule of the Crusaders, access to the city was generally forbidden to Jews.

It cannot be fixed at a date prior to the time Jacob the Nazirite commenced his esoteric studies; it was on the contrary, occasioned by those studies. According to the preceding argument, we have in fact every reason to suppose that such studies were already in vogue before 1187 in the circle of Posquières and of Lunel.

Later legends of the Spanish kabbalists related the visit of the old kabbalist of Lunel to the Orient to the interest in the Kabbalah allegedly displayed by Maimonides toward the end of his life. Our R. Jacob is supposed to have gone to Egypt, where he initiated Maimonides in the esoteric science. This legend, whose origin around 1300 I have examined elsewhere, has no historical value. Even the writings of Abraham, the son of Maimonides, whose penchant for mystical religiosity is quite obvious, draw their inspiration from Sufi sources and do not evince the slightest familiarity with kabbalistic ideas, as has already been mentioned on page 12.

Our discussion of the groups of Jewish ascetics in France devoting themselves to a contemplative life gives added urgency to the question of a possible relationship between the emergence of the Kabbalah and Catharism in the middle of the twelfth century. The only scholar who, to my knowledge, has raised the problem—albeit in a rather aphoristic style—was Moses Gaster in his programmatic The Origin of the Kabbalah (Ramsgate, 1894). It is doubtful, however, whether such a relationship can be deduced with certainty from an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic traditions.

The information regarding the beliefs of Cathar groups or individuals contained in Cathar sources or in the acts of the Inquisition reveal few if any elements parallel to kabbalistic doctrine. There is, no doubt, a general similarity in the fundamental assumption common to both groups regarding the reality of a separate higher world belonging entirely to God himself and in which there occur certain dramatic events that have their counterpart in the lower world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 233-4.

The Original Content of the Kabbalah

” … Traditions differ in matters of detail. According to some, it was Rabbi David, the father of Rabbi Abraham ben David (known in Hebrew literature by the acronym Rabad) and not Abraham ben Isaac, his father- in-law, who was the first to receive this Kabbalah. Albeck assumed Isaac the Blind was the son and not the grandson of Abraham ben Isaac, but the analysis of the oldest sources does not confirm this assumption. Around these scholars, but especially around Isaac the Blind, there crystallized the oldest groups of Provençal kabbalists that we are still able to identify.

The pupils of Rabad and his son, coming from Spain to study in the talmudic academies of Provence, were the principal agents of the Kabbalah’s transplantation to Spain and its propagation in that country. Nothing permits us to suppose that the Kabbalah, in the precise sense of the term, became known in Spain other than through this channel or by way of a parallel path that would point to Provence.

Here, to be sure, we must ask what the exact significance of the word Kabbalah was at this time in the circle of the kabbalists themselves. Kabbalah is a fairly common word in rabbinic Hebrew: it simply means “tradition.” In the Talmud, it served to designate the non-Pentateuchal parts of the Hebrew Bible. Later, every tradition was called by this name, without its entailing any specifically mystical nuance.

That it was already employed by the philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol in the sense it would acquire among the kabbalists is a widespread but completely false assumption. It has just a little to do with the Aramaic word qibhla, “amulet.” The Spanish kabbalists still knew very well several generations later what original notion their predecessors had in mind when they employed the term Kabbalah. As late as the year 1330, Meir ben Solomon ibn Sahula, a pupil of Solomon ibn Adreth, expressed himself clearly and directly on the origin and meaning of this new discipline.

“It is incumbent upon us,” he writes in the preface to his commentary on the Book Yesirah, “to explore all of these things according to the measure of our understanding, and to follow, in what concerns them, the path taken by those who, in our generation and in the preceding generations, for two hundred years, are called kabbalists, mequbbalim, and they call the science of the ten sefiroth and some of the reasons for the [biblical] commandments by the name Kabbalah.”

It follows, then, that in the eyes of these kabbalists the new theosophic conception of God, based upon the doctrine of the ten sefiroth of the Book Yesirah as well as upon the mystical reasons founded on this doctrine for certain ritual precepts of the Torah, constitute the original content of the Kabbalah.

In the author’s own opinion, this teaching is by no means ancient; it does not go back many centuries. Rather, it is about two hundred years old, which brings us back, for its initial stage, to the period of the first revelations of the prophet Elijah —that is, in Provence, toward the middle of the thirteenth century. The chain of kabbalistic traditions that contains the names mentioned previously accords perfectly with this information. It should be noted, also, that the clear awareness on the part of this later kabbalist of the relative youth of the Kabbalah in no way prevents him from considering it a path to knowledge that is ”incumbent upon us” to follow.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 37-9.

Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.