Today's reading: Eco, Ch. 10
Words and Things and Things and Words.
Francis Bacon's New Method
- The role of Chinese and Egyptian Characters
By "language" is meant a written representation of the
world. Bacon was the first to suggest that the world
needed a stable, universal, written script for the
communication of scientific truth. He was less interested
in the religious question of which language was the
origincal perfect language, and more interested in the
creation of an artificial one.
- Metonymic vs. Metaphoric (Iconic)
impressed with Chinese characters, and like Leibniz, suspected
them of being radicals: of representing notions directly,
rather than through speech (as in Latin). As spelling
normalizes, Latin (and English) become more ideographic, words
come to have a particular spelling, and therefore a stability
taken to indicate a stable meaning. Ideographs are assumed to
be Iconic/Metaphorical (they resemble or stand for the thing)
vs Indexical/Metonymic (they point to the thing).
- The need for accurate accounts of observation: the
problem of ambiguity in words
Bacon was also obsessed with
ambiguity in speech; the first part of the Novum
Organum (New Method) is concerned with all the ways
ambiguity enters language. (Aside:This point alone seems to
suggest that Bacon did not write Shakespeare's works, given
his disgust with ambiguity, metaphor, pun, inside jokes etc.)
- Bacon Identified several idola: The Idols of
The Tribe, The Cave, the Marketplace and the theatre. He
gave examples of the hopeless confusion of
common speech. (e.g. Slaughter p. 91-2).
- A new Method of observation would address this problem
accurate observations could be represented by accurate notions
and then by accurate words. As opposed to the Aristotelian
taxonomy which begins with categories and analyses everything
in terms of them, Bacon would have observation inform our
- This leads, naturally, to the question of completeness
to have a complete language when the observation of nature is
partial? His reply to this is that no general or universal
language can be complete: science will remain an incomplete
system until God wills otherwise. It cannot be perfect in a
divine sense, but it can become ever more accurate.
Scientists and Scientific Languages
The growth of observation.
In the 16th and 17th century, there is obviously no shortage of new
observations: Hooke and teh observation of cells, Boyle's
Law of Gases, Galileo's Siderius Nuncias
William Harvey's On
the Motion of Heart and Blood in Animals, and
many others. But there is no common language for all of them.
Between 1640 and 1700 about 20 or so attempts at a scientific
language by people of varying stature: Jean Douet, Des Vallees,
Jean Le Maine, Champagnolles, Philip Kinder, Reverend Jonson of
Ireland, Bishop Godwin (Man in the Moon), Comenius
(Orbis Pictus), Bermudo, Potter, Cave Beck, Francis
Lodowyck, George Dalgarno, Cyprius Kinner, John Wilkins, Father
Mersenne, Rene Descartes, Seth Ward, John Webster, GW Leibniz.
Amongst them the goals fell into three categories:
- utility (e.g. a universal language for communicating with
anyone-- usually built on the notion of "root" words)
- Baconian (e.g. The identification of simple notions, or
axiomatic words out of which a "perfect" language would be
- Taxonomic (e.g. a system either binomial, or hierarchically
organized to encompass a mass of facts-- complete/incomplete)
Eco further distinguishes between "Encyclopedia" and
- Encyclopedia amasses facts about a notion or thing.
- Dictionary attempts to give minimum possible facts that are
necessary to distinguish it from all other entries.
Primitives and the organization of Content
To create an artificial language then, one needs two things: radicals
(simple notions representing, in the case of Bacon, the
simplest observed component of nature) and a system of
characters, marks, signs, or pictures that capture the
structure of the taxonomy that organizes the radicals.
Some inventors started with natural language (e.g. Lodowyck below);
others like Wilkins tried to start with observations of
nature collected together and organized. One of the
things that divide language projectors is whether they
will classify everything that exists (all of the
"accidents" in Aristotelian terms) or only the most
essential components of all that exists (the
"substance"). It is this opposition that leads to the
constant destruction and renewal of taxonomic systems up
to the present day.
Eco gives us several different kinds of orgainzation: the table of
positive or negative differences, the hierarchy of
differences and the Porphyrian tree in which each genus
consists of opposites (rational/irrational) that determine
Example 1: Francis Lodowyck
A Common Writing (1647)
Groundwork for a Perfect Langauge (1652)
- attempt to creat universal language (not perfect)
- Basic building blocks are "root" words
- a system of characters to represent root words.
Example 2: George Dalgarno
Ars Signorum (1661)
- - Much more cryptic and allusive than the others.
- - More like a shorthand (a "tachygraphy") or a cryptography
- - Uses peculiar memory system
to record root words.
- - Eco's explanation
Early English Books online Search Page.
Title Page to Lodowyck's Common Writing (1646)
Title Page to Dalgarno's Ars Signorum (1661)