DS-1999-03: Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz

DS-1999-03: Maat, Jaap (1999) Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz. Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam.

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%Nr: DS-1999-03
%Title: Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz
%Author: Jaap Maat

The creation of a universal and philosophical language was a widely discussed
topic in the seventeenth century. One of the goals to be achieved by putting
such a language into practice was to overcome language barriers. Another goal
was to have a language that was more efficient and easier to learn than
existing ones. Furthermore, the envisaged artificial languages were meant to
incorporate an accurate representation of knowledge, so that learning the
language would entail acquiring knowledge of the world of nature. Some authors
even believed that a philosophical language could be instrumental in the growth
of knowledge in being a tool that greatly improved our thinking. Many efforts
were made towards the construction of artificial symbol systems of various
kinds. Among the schemes that were completed, those of two English authors
stand out for presenting fully-fledged artificial languages. These were 'Ars
Signorum' (1661) by George Dalgarno (c. 1620-1687), and the 'Essay towards a
Real Character and a Philosophical Language' (1668) by John Wilkins
(1614-1672). The present dissertation provides detailed description and
discussion of both languages. In addition, the work of Gottfried Wilhelm
Leibniz (1646 - 1716) in this area is examined.
A brief general introduction (chapter 1) is followed by an outline of
the intellectual background of the seventeenth-century philosophical language
schemes (chapter 2), which focuses on influential views concerning the
relationship between spoken and written language, and on elements of the
logical and grammatical traditions. Furthermore, some schemes for a universal
writing system are discussed.
Dalgarno's philosophical language (chapter 3) developed out of a series
of earlier schemes. The various stages that Dalgarno's scheme went through are
described, partly on the basis of a hitherto unpublished autobiographical
treatise. Shortly after moving from Aberdeen to Oxford in 1657, Dalgarno
endeavoured to improve a shorthand system. His efforts evolved into drawing up
a scheme for a universal writing system, which came to the attention of leading
Oxford scholars, among whom was Wilkins. Dalgarno and Wilkins collaborated on
developing the scheme further, but it soon turned out that they had
irreconcilable differences of opinion on how a philosophical language ought to
be structured. Dalgarno's approach was 'analytic', that is, he wanted to build
the language on a relatively small foundation of so-called radical words, which
were to designate basic concepts. Words for all other concepts and kinds of
things were to be formed by means of compounding radical words. In such a way,
Dalgarno was convinced, a language could be constructed that was rational,
efficient, and most suitable for the expression of a logical analysis of
thought. Wilkins's approach, by contrast, was encyclopedic. In his opinion, the
most important feature of the lexicon of the philosophical language was that
the radical words were based on a classification scheme modelled on the
Aristotelian theory of categories. In reflecting the classification, the
radical words contained descriptive information on the things designated by
them. For this reason, Wilkins wanted the lexicon of radical words to be much
more comprehensive than Dalgarno would allow. The collaboration ended, and both
Dalgarno and Wilkins pursued their own designs.
Dalgarno's language resulted from a deliberate compromise between the
encyclopedic, classificatory approach favoured by Wilkins on the one hand, and
the analytical approach he himself valued most on the other hand. The
compromise was necessary, Dalgarno believed, because neither method, if applied
consistently throughout, could lead to a practicable language. Consequently,
his radical words reflect an all-embracing classification scheme, but their
number is limited to about 1,000 words. All other words are to be formed by
means of composition, using the radical words as elements. As for the grammar
of his language, Dalgarno also resorted to a compromise. A strictly logical
language, in Dalgarno's view, does not contain word classes of different types,
but consists entirely of names of the primitive elements out of which our
thoughts are composed. However, as such a language would be unsuitable for
communication, he used various inflexions and affixes in his language that
indicated different parts of speech, and he distinguished a small number of
Wilkins's philosophical language (chapter 4) has been studied more widely than
Dalgarno's, partly because it is often erroneously assumed that Wilkins and
Dalgarno followed the same plan, while Wilkins elaborated it in a more thorough
and sophisticated manner. Just as Dalgarno, Wilkins drew up a comprehensive
classification scheme, from which the words of his language were derived.
However, whereas Dalgarno had deliberately restricted this method in order to
be able to express as many concepts as possible by means of compounds, Wilkins
carried it through much further, so that his lexicon of radical words consisted
of more than 4,000 radical words. Detailed examination of Wilkins's impressive
tables leads to the conclusion that the relationship between new developments
in natural science and Wilkins's language was more complicated than is often
assumed. Rather than claiming his language to be suitable for the expression of
scientific knowledge, he asserted that his language was modelled on the
vocabulary of ordinary language users and that scientific discoveries had
little bearing on this. Furthermore, it is emphasized that Wilkins made it
quite clear that he was not striving for a perfect language, his goals being
far less ambitious.
By contrast, Leibniz believed throughout his intellectual career that
is was possible to create a language that would be an important tool for the
advancement of scientific knowledge (chapter 5). Although he took the
Aristotelian categories as a starting point just as Dalgarno and Wilkins had
done, he proposed a thorough revision of this theory, giving more prominence to
combinatorial principles than to classificatory ones. After a sketch of the
logical and philosophical tenets and principles connected with Leibniz's plans,
the work he carried out in order to realize his schemes is described. Leibniz
studied both Dalgarno's and Wilkins's work very carefully. Although he rightly
emphasized that the language he envisaged differed fundamentally from the
languages constructed by his English precursors, he made use of their work in
executing his own plans. The dissertation shows that various manuscripts by
Leibniz that have recently been published for the first time contain extensive
summaries, interspersed with commentary, of parts of Dalgarno's and Wilkins's
work. It is argued that research on Leibniz's views must take the often unclear
status of his manuscripts into account. Furthermore, it is shown that Leibniz's
rational grammar project, which was aimed at explicating the semantics of
natural language expressions so as to determine their logical structure,
deserves to be further explored.
The dissertation concludes with a short chapter in which the languages
of Dalgarno and Wilkins are compared with one another, and the aims and
principles underpinning both these languages are compared with those of
Leibniz's grand but uncompleted project.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Report Nr: DS-1999-03
Series Name: ILLC Dissertation (DS) Series
Year: 1999
Subjects: Language
Depositing User: Dr Marco Vervoort
Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2022 15:16
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2022 15:16
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/2011

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