A Real Character, and a Philosophical Language

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A couple of decades ago, in response to a long-forgotten taxonomic proposal, I copied into antique html Jorge Luis Borges' essay "El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins", along with an English translation. This afternoon, a reading-group discussion about algorithms for topic classification brought up the idea of a single universal tree-structured taxonomy of topics, and this reminded me again of what Borges had to say about Wilkins' 1668 treatise "An Essay Towards a Real Character, And a Philosophical Language". You should read the whole of Borges' essay, but the relevant passage for computational taxonomists is this:

[N]otoriamente no hay clasificación del universo que no sea arbitraria y conjetural. La razón es muy simple: no sabemos qué cosa es el universo. "El mundo – escribe David Hume – es tal vez el bosquejo rudimentario de algún dios infantil, que lo abandonó a medio hacer, avergonzado de su ejecución deficiente; es obra de un dios subalterno, de quien los dioses superiores se burlan; es la confusa producción de una divinidad decrépita y jubilada, que ya se ha muerto" (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, V. 1779). Cabe ir más lejos; cabe sospechar que no hay universo en el sentido orgánico, unificador, que tiene esa ambiciosa palabra. Si lo hay, falta conjeturar su propósito; falta conjeturar las palabras, las definiciones, las etimologías, las sinonimias, del secreto diccionario de Dios.

[I]t is clear that there is no classification of the Universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what thing the universe is. "The world – David Hume writes – is perhaps the rudimentary sketch of a childish god, who left it half done, ashamed by his deficient work; it is created by a subordinate god, at whom the superior gods laugh; it is the confused production of a decrepit and retiring divinity, who has already died" ('Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', V. 1779). We are allowed to go further; we can suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense, that this ambitious term has. If there is a universe, its aim is not conjectured yet; we have not yet conjectured the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms, from the secret dictionary of God.

Borges wrote that "No hay ejemplares de ese libro en nuestra Biblioteca Nacional" ("There are no copies of this book in our National Library"), but thanks to Early English Books Online, we can now read a searchable online version with human-corrected OCR, or peruse Google Books' digital facsimile of the 1668 printing.

Skimming the EEBO version turns up some interesting passages, e.g. this from the dedication:

[T]his design will likewise contribute much to the clearing of some of our Modern differences in Religion, by unmask∣ing many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases; which being Philosophically unfolded, and rendered according to the genuine and na∣tural importance of Words, will appear to be inconsisten∣cies and contradictions. And several of those pretended, mysterious, profound notions, expressed in great swelling words, whereby some men set up for reputation, being this way examined, will appear to be, either nonsence, or very flat and jejune.

And tho it should be of no other use but this, yet were it in these days well worth a mans pains and study, con∣sidering the Common mischief that is done, and the many impostures and cheats that are put upon men, under the disguise of affected insignificant Phrases.

Or again, this from the Introduction:

In the first Part I shall premise some things as Pracognita, concerning such Tongues and Letters as are already in being, particularly concerning those various defects and imperfe∣ctions in them, which ought to be supplyed and provided against, in any such Language or Character, as is to be invented according to the rules of Art.

The second Part shall contein that which is the great foundation of the thing here designed, namely a regular enumeration and description of all those things and notions, to which marks or names ought to be assigned according to their respective natures, which may be styled the Scientifical Part, comprehending Vniversal Philosophy. It being the pro∣per end and design of the several branches of Philosophy to reduce all things and notions unto such a frame, as may express their natural order, dependence, and relations.

The third Part shall treat concerning such helps and Instruments, as are requisite for the framing of these more simple notions into continued Speech or Discourse, which may therefore be stiled the Organical or In∣strumental Part, and doth comprehend the Art of Natural or Philoso∣phical Grammar.

Later, Wilkins explains how words in his Philosophical Language ought to be arranged:

That structure may be called Regular, which is according to the natural sense and order of the words.

The General Rule for this order amongst Integrals is, That which governs should precede; The Nominative Case before the Verb, and the Accusative after; The Substantive before the Adjective: Only Adjective Pronouns being Particles and affixed, may without incon∣venience be put indifferently either before or after. Derived Adverbs should follow that which is called the Verb, as denoting the quality or manner of the Act.

There's a sort of proto-IPA, and also an anticipatory plagiarism (in 17th-C pronuncation) of John Wells' Lexical Sets.

In the chapter on Syntax, Wilkins notes that conventional orthography provides no way to mark Irony. I wish he had proposed one, but if he does, I can't find it:

The manner of pronouncing words doth sometimes give them a different sense and meaning, and Writing being the Picture or Image of Speech, ought to be adapted unto all the material circumstances of it, and consequently must have some marks to denote these vari∣ous manners of Pronunciation; which may be sufficiently done by these seven kinds of marks or Interpunctions.

    • 1. Parenthesis.
    • 2. Parathesis, or Exposition.
    • 3. Erotesis, or Interrogation.
    • 4. Ecphonesis, Exclamation or wonder.
    • 5. Emphasis.
    • 6. Irony.
    • 7. Hyphen.


6. Irony is for the distinction of the meaning and intention of any words, when they are to be understood by way of Sarcasm or scoff, or in a contrary sense to that which they naturally signifie: And though there be not (for ought I know) any note designed for this in any of the Instituted Languages, yet that is from their deficiency and imperfection: For if the chief force of Ironies do consist in Pro∣nunciation, it will plainly follow, that there ought to be some mark for direction, when things are to be so pronounced.

For a sample of his labors' result, you can read Wilkins' annotated translation of the Lord's Prayer.




  1. languagehat said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    I don't see the point of retranslating Hume from Borges's Spanish; why not use the original?

    This world, for aught he knows, is very
    faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior
    standard; and was only the first rude essay of
    some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it,
    ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work
    only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is
    the object of derision to his superiors: it is the
    production of old age and dotage in some superannuated
    deity; and ever since his death, has
    run on at adventures, from the first impulse and
    active force, which it received from him.

    [(myl) Good idea.]

  2. Keith Houston said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 9:15 am

    Hi Mark – Wilkins proposed using the inverted exclamation mark for irony. I wrote about it here: https://shadycharacters.co.uk/2015/11/miscellany-67-irony-restoration/.

    [(myl) Thanks!]

  3. Jonathan Badger said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 9:44 am

    Certainly taxonomies of topics are ultimately arbitrary as Borges says of Wilkins' failed project, and this is even true of practical ones like the Dewey Decimal System that many libraries use. But most taxonomies these days are for things that have a non-arbitrary classification because they evolved. Taxonomies of organisms and languages, while imperfect, reflect the real structure of their evolution.

    [(myl) But then there's ICD-10, or the DSM, or MEDLINE's MeSH vocabulary, which presents as a fixed tree-structured taxonomy, but is actually a mutable directed graph, since as Wikipedia tells us,

    The descriptors or subject headings are arranged in a hierarchy. A given descriptor may appear at several locations in the hierarchical tree. The tree locations carry systematic labels known as tree numbers, and consequently one descriptor can carry several tree numbers. For example, the descriptor "Digestive System Neoplasms" has the tree numbers C06.301 and C04.588.274; C stands for Diseases, C06 for Digestive System Diseases and C06.301 for Digestive System Neoplasms; C04 for Neoplasms, C04.588 for Neoplasms By Site, and C04.588.274 also for Digestive System Neoplasms. The tree numbers of a given descriptor are subject to change as MeSH is updated. Every descriptor also carries a unique alphanumerical ID that will not change.


  4. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 11:07 am

    I had never realized that the Wilkins book was real rather tan one of Borges's conceits.

  5. DCBob said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 11:42 am

    What an interesting person Wilkins was, and what an extraordinary time to have been alive and participating in the scientific revolution. He was a friend of Thomas Willis, who did early research on the brain as the seat of consciousness. And he wrote a book arguing that space travel might be feasible in the future, and that the Moon might be inhabited. (See https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/john-wilkins-moon-mission.) Perhaps some of his interest in a universal language stemmed from his anticipation of encountering beings on other worlds. 

  6. Tom Gilly said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 11:52 am

    In programming languages the exclamation point is frequently used to denote a negation, for instance !(True) == False. The exclamation point is referred to as "not". This can be compared to irony, as in "What you said was really smart…not!", where someone might think the tone of voice is not be sufficient to signal the irony.

  7. ~flow said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 12:22 pm

    @Jonathan Badger—"Taxonomies of organisms and languages, while imperfect, reflect the real structure of their evolution."

    That's putting a lot of trust into the explanatory power of tree-shaped evolutionary taxonomies. It also assumes that the Linnaean/Darwinian model is a good fit for describing the historical course of human languages, which is doubtful (cf. Schleicher/Schmidt debate a.k.a. trees and waves).

    There is much to say to both of these sub-questions but let me just say that while the branching-tree model does appear to capture some undeniable facts about the species in question, it also does not address a host of other undeniable facts that may be just as salient or important as ancestry in the narrow sense: the ecological interdependencies that exist at any given point in time between co-inhabitants of the same ecological space; convergent evolution that makes some species obtain features that make them look like other, genetically unrelated ones; horizontal gene transfer through bacteria and viruses (humans share all but ~4% of their genes with chimps, but their genomes also incorporate ~8% material acquired from viruses); and so on.

    Lastly, the guiding model of evolution has been evolving itself, as discussed by Kallie Moore in the PBS Eons episode "The Missing Link That Wasn’t" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwW40Dj5Sro): she demonstrates how evolutionary thinking has come from 1920s orthogenesis (linear "March of Progress" model of evolution) to 1950s phylogeny (branching-tree model) and, from the 2000s on, to a 'braided stream' model (akin to the waterways in a river delta that may branch and reconnect). Tomorrow's thinking will be again different from this last model, one should believe.

    The undoing of the long-preferred mode for building library catalogs and 'natural', irrefutable, logically structured inventories of the Universe—the hierarchical tree-shaped taxonomy—is to be partly attributed to the fact that, pragmatically speaking, a single hierarchy will never succeed in covering all the the interesting bases, all the pertinent aspects of a complex subject matter. To know that tomatoes and potatoes both belong to the nightshades is of value in many respects, however, it doesn't tell you not to use one for the other when preparing a meal.

  8. D.O. said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 1:20 pm

    In the last extract from Wilkins in the OP there is an interesting usage (for ought I know) and in the quote from Hume, supplied by esteemed languagehat, there is for aught he knows. This was unfamiliar to me, so I looked it up and it happens that this ought/aught was a word meaning roughly anything and derived from OE āht. It developed in parallel with the usual auxillary/modal verb, which comes down from OE āgan indicating ownership.

  9. John Shutt said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    Wilkins's philosophical language is fairly well-known in conlanging circles, as one of the more prominent early conlangs. (Conlang wikibook glosary entry.)

  10. Rick Rubenstein said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 4:27 pm

    Mark, you filed this under Computational linguistics AND Philosophy of Language! Just choose the correct one!

  11. John Wilkins said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 7:53 pm

    Wilkins (the other one) also motivated the development of modern systematics by making John Ray feel bad for doing the species tables according to Wilkins' system, and going out to do empirical taxonomy instead. See my book _Species: The Evolution of the Idea_ (CRC Press 2018)

  12. Bill Mitchell said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 9:43 pm

    The trouble with punctuation for irony is that it lacks the subtlety and ambiguity which is often intended in irony.

    [(myl) I'm also unpersuaded by Wilkin's suggestion that irony has a characteristic "pronunciation" (" if the chief force of Ironies do consist in Pro∣nunciation, it will plainly follow, that there ought to be some mark for direction, when things are to be so pronounced"). I had the same skeptical reaction to Steve Pinker's related claim that sarcasm has a characteristic intonation, and I checked it empirically — see "Speaking sarcastically", 7/16/2004.

    Perhaps the source of such ideas is the fact that the performance of ironic or sarcastic utterances "feels" different? ]

  13. Peter Grubtal said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 5:33 am

    DCBob said

    "What an interesting person Wilkins was, and what an extraordinary time to have been alive and participating in the scientific revolution "

    Yes the 17th century was amazing. This rang a few bells with me, thinking of Athanasius Kircher. He proposed a universal language in 1663, anticipating Wilkins by 5 years, but I don't think Kircher got far beyond suggesting the mere concept.
    Wikipedia under "philosophical language" doesn't mention Kircher, but does show the idea was in the air before Wilkins got serious.

    [(myl) The best known proposal from about the same time was Leibniz's Characteristica Universalis, though Leibniz never seems to have gone beyond a variety of programmatic suggestions.

    My favorite fragment of his (diverse) suggestions was the idea of assigning prime numbers to primitive concepts — as I wrote in "A smart person with a stupid idea" (4/8/2004):

    The key ideas were a characteristica universalis that assigns a different prime number to each primitive concept (we're guaranteed never to run out of primes), and a calculus ratiocinator that creates complex concepts by multiplication (since the prime factorization theorem guarantees a unique decomposition into primitives) and evaluates predication by division (are the factors of the predicate among the factors of the subject?).

    Leibniz felt that this would allow legal, religious and political disagreements to be solved by calculation rather than by violence.

    I've always wondered whether Leibniz had a story to tell about how to use multiplication of primes to construct a logical formula other than a single predication. Suppose that A and B are propositions — whether atomic or complex doesn't matter — and we've assigned 27 to the concept "implies" — what about "A implies B" vs. "B implies A"? And what about more elaborate formulae where order matters? I can imagine various procedures for encoding string order or formula structure as products of primes, but did Leibniz have a story to tell about this? I've never learned enough about the details of his calculus ratiocinator to determine the answer.

    Then there's the problem of the algorithmic complexity of factoring products of really large primes — and there are surely enough primitive concepts and modes of combination that we'll need some big primes to encode them all. And there's the problem of relating logical formulae to the facts of the world. And then there's the question of whether human conflicts are really very often based on different (mis)understandings of propositions, as opposed to different interests and goals.

    Putting it all together, I think we have a winner. Leibniz was clearly a really smart person, and the proposal to solve political and religious disagreements by translating natural language discourses into products of prime numbers was a really stupid idea. It's a good premise for historical fantasy, though — the idea of a sort of Leibnizian underground, operating through history into modern times, is one of the fun background assumptions of Neal Stephenson's currently-unfolding historical trilogy.

    Of course, the idea that "ideas" can be represented as unique combinations of a standard set of primitive concepts is itself deeply problematic, as Borges explained.

    And if we want to go further down this rabbit hole, there's Goedel's attempts to defeat the conspiracy to suppress Leibniz's creations…]

  14. Trogluddite said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 10:47 am

    That use of "ought/aught" still lingers in the Yorkshire dialect of British English (usually spelled as "owt" in eye dialect – likewise "nowt" for "nought"). Together with definite article reduction, it's one of the dialect features most noted or satirised by "offcumdens" (folks from outside Yorkshire). As with many features of our regional dialects, they are becoming less common, aside from in a few fixed idioms.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 10:58 am

    Fowler, or was it Gowers, says irony always involves someone who doesn't understand (a fictional character, a less astute listener, etc.) as well as someone who does. Whether or not you agree with his circumscription of irony and classification of its species, would irony really be any fun if misunderstanding weren't possible, even just for a moment, even only in imagination?

  16. Nat Jacobs said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 10:01 pm

    In response to Mark’s comment on Peter Grubtal: It’s interesting that you mention Gödel, as Gödel numbering solves exactly the problem you raise. He uses primes to represent logical primitives and uses the exponent to indicate the order of the primitive. I assume that Gödel was inspired by Leibniz for his encoding. (Apologies if this is already well-known to you! And I realize that this doesn’t at all address your actual question of whether Leibinz himself has a solution. I’m just excited to learn of this cool historical antecedent.)

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 2:28 pm

    Nat Jacobs: Isn't Gödel numbering the other way around? That is, integers represent the logical and arithmetical symbols, and the primes tell you their order—the exponent of 2 is the first symbol in the expression, the exponent of 3 is the second, etc.

  18. Mark Stephenson said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:24 pm

    I can’t resist referencing Borges’s own parody of classifications:


  19. Nat Jacobs said,

    December 6, 2020 @ 10:55 pm

    Jerry Friedman: It looks like you’re absolutely right. Thanks for the correction!

  20. James Wimberley said,

    December 8, 2020 @ 11:35 am

    Species can be arranged n a tree. By the Darwinian hypothesis, there is just one True Tree (call it Yggdrasil), which the efforts of human cladistic taxonomists approach as an asymptote. Languages evolve more like a strangling fig tree: branches can recombine as well as fork, and share resources. Language evolution can't be reduced to a simple 2D graph.

  21. James Wimberley said,

    December 8, 2020 @ 11:47 am

    PS: Wilkins would have loved emoticons. There's potentially one for every emotional overtone that can be attached to a message. he first Unicode emoticon code block has 75 entries, mostly I think for emotions. There are vastly more ones that don't convey emotions at all.

  22. Chris Button said,

    December 8, 2020 @ 6:28 pm

    @ Keith Houston

    Your "Shady Characters" book is one of the best I've read in a while.

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