Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


John Wilkins athd the Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668)

John Wilkin's Essay is the most developed and the most complete of the 16th century Universal Language projects. It is the last attempt that tries to integrate Aristotelian, Modern, and Folk taxonomies with the Great Chain of Being, and the Baconian demand for scientific observation. After Wilkins, science becomes less ambitious and in some ways much less general. Wilkin's Essay might also be seen as the point at which science and philosophy in Western Europe diverge.

After this point, science (especially the mechanistic/corpuscular physics of Newton, Boyle, Gassendi and others) no longer adheres to the philosophical precepts of Aristotelianism or Platonism. From our perspective, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Spinoza, are all called philosophers, even though they might have seen themselves as contributors to a common project.

Wilkins Essay: Orbis Pictus for grown-ups

You will recognize in Wilkin's attempt the same kinds of divisions as in Comenius' picture book for children. There is a root taxonomy, followed by more and more specific divisions that eventually enumerate all of the things existing.

Once the list of all things is available (and not all spaces in the taxonomy are enumerated, but can be expanded to accomodate new finds), each specific item is given a character. Wilkins invented two systems, in a manner similar to Dalgarno and Lodowyck. One was a character that is entirely graphic ( 1 | 2 ), the other is a phonetic representation.

In each case, Wilkins demonstrates how to use them by writing the lord's prayer 1 | 2 ) in his Character.

Some, words, Wilkins admits, cannot be formed in his Language, and so he has an appendix of 15000 words and how to form them (either by synonym, by perphrasis, or by "transcendental particles).

Beyond this demonstration (and the some extravagant translation of it into 50 foreign languages), Wilkins offers no advice on how exactly to use this system. He does however, offer a very particular example of what it might be used for-- determining the Noah's Ark 1 | 2 ).


John Wilkins Essay 1668

Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Mon Mar 31 09:56:22 CST 2003