Universal language

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA072-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

2. Artificial schemes

During the seventeenth century, there occurred an explosion of interest in universal language schemes, conceived for the first time as systems of artificial signs or ‘characters’ constructed by human beings as a means of overcoming the limitations of natural languages. The causes of this newfound fascination with universal languages are complex. Clearly, a role must be assigned to the growing importance of vernacular languages and the decline of Latin as a shared medium of commerce, scholarship and diplomacy. An increase in millenarian religious sentiment, particularly in England, renewed the call for a recovery of the Adamic language. Finally, and most importantly, there was a growing recognition of the significance of language as a factor in the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

One of the earliest and most influential statements on the topic was Francis Bacon’s reference in The Advancement of Learning (1605 II: ch. 16) to languages such as Chinese, whose users ‘write in characters real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but things or notions’. To many seventeenth-century thinkers, Chinese provided a model of what a universal language might be: a single set of characters that could be pronounced differently in different languages, but which when written would offer a shared basis for understanding. Implicit in Bacon’s remark, however, was a further idea that pointed toward the scientific value of such a language. In his New Organon (1620 I: aph. 59), Bacon complained of how words commonly obscure ‘the true divisions of nature’. It was a short step from this to the idea that these ‘true divisions’ might be better represented in a language composed of ‘real characters’, which directly expressed ‘things or notions’ (see Bacon, F. §§4–5).

Most early proponents of artificial language schemes stressed the practical value of their inventions as instruments of communication. Their works were primarily attempts to devise a system of writing, modelled variously on Chinese characters, cryptographic codes or shorthand notation, whereby synonymous words in different languages would be represented by a common sign. It was not long, however, before the more ambitious idea of a ‘philosophical language’ took hold. In a 1629 letter to Marin Mersenne, Descartes had already expressed scepticism concerning the usefulness of artificial languages of the first sort. However, he went on to postulate another kind of language in which ideas would be represented so clearly that errors of judgment would be ‘almost impossible’. To realize such a language, all of our thoughts would first have to be given a proper order ‘like the natural order of the numbers’; and this presupposes the ‘true philosophy’, by which the analysis and ordering of thoughts would be carried out. Although Descartes pursues the plan no further, he is optimistic that ‘such a language is possible and that the knowledge on which it depends can be discovered’.

A philosophical language of the sort envisioned by Descartes is described in Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle (1636) and was pursued in many later works, culminating in George Dalgarno’s Ars Signorum (1661) and John Wilkins’ An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). Such schemes typically consisted of two parts: a system of categories summarizing the ‘true divisions’ of nature, and a set of characters suitable for representing these categories and the elements within them. Although informed by the discoveries of seventeenth-century science, the first part of the scheme was strongly indebted to the systems of categories propounded by Aristotle and medieval philosophers. In his Essay, Wilkins begins with forty genera (classified as transcendentals, substances, quantities, qualities, actions and relations), each of which he subdivides into its ‘proper differences and species’. He then proposes two ways of representing the composition of concepts from their respective genus, difference and species: (1) a real character, or system of ideographic signs formed from combinations of vertical and horizontal lines; (2) a speakable philosophical language, consisting of novel combinations of syllables, consonants and vowels. In both cases, additional signs must be added to play the role of particles underwriting the grammatical structure of the language.

Citing this article:
Rutherford, Donald. Artificial schemes. Universal language, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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