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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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English linguistic speculation from Francis Bacon
to John Locke ranges of course over a variety of very
disparate interests and problems: problems of semantic
logic and historical semantics; pedagogical interests;
discussions of the means of scientific communication,
of the reform of style, of the function and technique
of the comparative study of languages. Two themes,
however, seem constantly to recur, insuring the unity
of these inquiries and in a way constituting their
guideline; the critique of ordinary language, and the
gradual formation of the idea of the arbitrariness of
the linguistic sign.


The problem of language is, we know, not a primary
problem for Bacon, but is part of the more general
subject of a reform of scientific method. Despite this,
the Baconian encyclopedia of the sciences surely con
stitutes, even on the level of linguistic reflection, the
best review of the linguistic problems transmitted by
tradition and the best point of departure for their
discussion in the seventeenth century. In fact, besides
an inventory of the traditional linguistic problems, the
English seventeenth century inherited from Bacon that
kind of linguistic skepticism which will repeatedly call
for justification and reform of language, or outright
invention of language ex novo, to adapt it to the au-
thentic aims of communication. English thought seems
in short to find in the works of Bacon not only an
encyclopedia of the natural and human sciences, but
also a catalogue of the superstitions and prejudices
which obstruct the communication of knowledge.

A first aspect of this critique of language is to be
found in the examination Bacon makes of the arts of
communication, and in particular of the traditional
dialectics, inadequate and incompetent before the ob-
scurity and profundity of nature, which escapes its
grasp—whereas induction stimulates sense, imposes
itself upon nature, and almost identifies itself with
nature's works (cogitata et visa [1607-09], Instauratio
[1620], in Works, ed. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis,
D. D. Heath, London [1857-59], III, 606-08; Novum
[1620], De augmentis scientiarum [1623];
Works, I, 135-39, 151-54, 161, 614ff.). Nevertheless
dialectics still has a function, not however in respect
of the increase of knowledge but only of its trans-
mission. And it retains a privileged place in rhetoric,
thanks to its objectivity, to its power to appeal to the
intellect without the intervention of fancy or imagina-
tion. But its objectivity is not, all the same, the objec-
tivity of science. The true discourse of science is not
reasoning but experiment: to communicate scientific
knowledge means to exhibit the operations of science.
The ultimate objectivity of scientific discourse is given
not by its incontrovertibility on the plane of argument
but by its conformity to the facts, which is not rational
evidence but sensible evidence, the possibility of re-
peated experimental verification.

From this arises the second aspect of the Baconian
critique of language. Precisely because reasoning is no
longer endowed with self-evidence and demonstrative
rigor, the need arises of delivering scientific method
from the looseness and uncertainty of the common
language, in which errors and prejudices are deeply
imbedded. These prejudices and errors are a class of
the idols or false images of things which vitiate the
operations of science, and are among the most trouble-
some and most dangerous since they are implicit in
the very conferring of names: in the very learning of
their mother tongue children are forced to swallow
this infoelicem errorum cabala (cogitata et visa and
Advancement of Learning [1605], Works, III, 396-97,


599; Novum organum and De augmentis scientiarum,
I, 164, 170-72, 645-46).

The linguistic skepticism implicit in the doctrine of
the idola fori is confirmed by Bacon's occasional refer-
ence to the ideal of Adamic language (whose names
are endowed with immediate congruency with the
nature of things) as mythical limit of human language,
always conditioned by the nature of the human intel-
lect and reflecting distortedly the images of things
(Instauratio magna and De augmentis scientiarum,
I, 132, 434, 465-66). The opposing of Adamic
language to conventional human language—a tradi-
tional theme, beginning with patristic philosophy
—assumes in Bacon the value of a hypostasis of op-
position between the immaculate science of the first
days and human science since the Fall, between the
natural language of the first human knowledge and the
conventional language of recovered science. One might
in fact apply to Bacon the observation Basil Willey
makes (The Seventeenth Century Background, London
[1934], p. 174) touching Glanvill: the figure of Adam
becomes a sort of “wish-fulfillment” of the philosopher,
conscious of the limits of human science and language.

The conformity of word to thing, which scientific
communication must at any rate aim at, will therefore
never be the immediate congruency of the Adamic
naming. It will be rather a pragmatic conformity, so
to speak, the fruit of true induction, that is of the new
method of the interpretation of nature. Helpful in this
will be the science of grammar, and in particular phil-
osophical grammar, which has the double task of sub-
jecting current linguistic usage to analysis and of
studying the influence the “genius,” that is to say the
character, of different peoples has upon their respec-
tive languages (De augmentis scientiarum, Works, I,
476a, 654).

Since it is in the last analysis the trustworthiness of
sensory intuition that guarantees semantic congruity,
this congruity becomes the more precarious and com-
promised the more words depart from sensory evi-
dence. Hence the linguistic value attributed to gesture,
emblem, symbol, hieroglyph, all immediately endowed
with sensible analogy to the thing or idea they signify,
and all signifying without recourse to the mediation
of words. The mediation of imagination also guarantees
the sensible evidence of metaphor, which is not there-
fore merely an embellishment of discourse, but has an
essential function as an instrument of communication.


The debt to Bacon of seventeenth-century linguistic
speculation has been stressed by Richard Foster Jones,
who has shown how from the Baconian “distrust of
language” there descends that opposition of word to
thing, of philological science to experimental science,
which is amply documented in the scientific and
didactic writings of the time. Within this general
framework, with this general posture of mind, linguistic
speculation addresses itself to its particular problems.
Unquestionably the root problem is the problem of the
origin and nature of language. The conventionalist
thesis, generally accepted in entirety, manifests itself
in the first half of the century as confutation of linguis-
tic innatism, as confutation of the idea of a natural lan-
guage, innate, created by and in the logos, which
reveals itself both in the primordial language of hu-
manity and in the astrological signs, and is the common
cipher of macrocosm and microcosm. This idea of a
“language of nature” had been strengthened, doubtless,
by the wide diffusion (following perhaps in the wake
of the magical Platonism of Robert Fludd) of typical
expositions of the mysticism of the Logos: the Philo-
sophia occulta
of Cornelius Agrippa (translated into
English in 1650) and the writings of Jacob Boehme (all
of them translated into English between 1623 and
1661). The most devoted interpreter of this idea, in
England, is John Webster, author of an Academiarum
(London, 1654), a criticism of academic learn-
ing in which Baconian themes interlace with themes
drawn from Renaissance Platonism and from Rosicru-
cian doctrine. Unlike institutional language, which is
“acquisitive,” says Webster, the language of nature is
“dative”; it is the “mystical Idiome” which reveals
itself in “heavenly Magick” and is understood by all
creatures save “sinfull man who hath now lost, defac't
and forgotten it” and has superimposed upon it his
institutional languages (pp. 26-32).

This idea of a language of nature is challenged in
Vindiciae academiarum (Oxford, 1654), Seth Ward's
reply to Webster. Condemning in general the “Rosy-
crucian Rodomontados” of his adversary, Ward says
among other things that the universal language, which
Cabalists and Rosicrucians—these “credulous Fanatick
Reformers”—have vainly sought in Hebrew and in the
mythical language of Adam, will be rather the outcome
of science, which will make possible the construction
of a language—conventional, even artificial—founded
on an analysis of ideas and capable therefore of an
exact mirroring of them (pp. 18-23). The idea of an
innate language had already been confuted by John
Wilkins (Mercury [1641], in The Mathematical and
Philosophical Works,
London [1708], I, 1-2) with an
argument that was to be picked up by other authors,
for example by George Sibscota (The Deaf and Dumb
Mans Discourse,
London [1670], pp. 23-25):


... as Nature made Man without Knowledge that he may
be capable of all the Arts,... she created him without
any Language, that he may learn them all.

But the most radical challenge of the idea of an
original privileged language is to be found in Thomas
Hobbes (Leviathan [1651], English Works, ed. W.
Molesworth, III, 18-19; Logic [1655], English Works,
I, 16). It may be that Adam learned a few names
directly from God; but for the Adamic language in
general the rule holds, as for all human languages,
where the act of naming proceeds Pari passu with ex-
perience and the need to communicate. The Adamic
language too, accordingly, must have been arbitrary.

The denial of an innate and privileged character of
the Adamic language does not, however, mean denial
of the doctrine of the monogenesis of languages. The
idea of a primordial linguistic unity of the human race
is universally accepted. But almost all writers agree
on the impossibility of recovering or reconstructing the
primeval language with the tools of philology (etymo-
logical research, comparative study of languages, etc.).
This is the thesis of Wilkins (An Essay towards a Real
Character and a Philosophical Language,
[1668], pp. 2-5); of Matthew Hale (The Primitive Orig-
ination of Mankind,
London [1677], pp. 163-65); of
William Wotton (Discourse concerning the Confusion
of Languages
[1713], London [1730], pp. 6-15), to
mention only a few examples.


The epistemological premiss of linguistic conven-
tionalism, for all the authors thus far recalled, is the
explanation of the semantic relation given by Aristotle
at the beginning of De interpretatione: names are the
conventional signs of ideas, but ideas are the natural
signs of things. The semantic relation is accordingly
validated by the natural sign's mediation between
name and thing. This is the premiss for numerous
projects of an artificial language, the best known being
the Ars signorum of George Dalgarno (1661) and the
Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical
of John Wilkins. Analyzing the mind's con-
tents, drawing up tables of categories of all simple and
complex ideas, then assigning a symbol to each of these,
one could, it was thought, obtain a language which,
eliminating the mediation of words, would be free of
the ambiguity and uncertainty of human languages.

Contemporary epistemological inquiries, however,
were working in the direction of a criticism of the
Aristotelian view of the relation between name and
thing, and in general of a criticism of the idea of
language as the mirroring, the phonetic translation, of
a scheme of natural signs. The semantic investigations
of Hobbes (Human Nature [1650], Chs. 5, 13; Levia-
[1651], Chs. 4-7; Logic [1655]) concern rather
the theory of truth than the nature and function of
language. Nevertheless, at least two aspects of Hobbes's
doctrine contributed to the subversion of the Aris-
totelian conception of the semantic relation. In the first
place, the idea of reasoning as “computation,” in which
signs are the essential things: in this perspective it is
no longer thought that conditions speech, but on the
contrary it is the use of signs that conditions thought.
In the second place, the idea that universality pertains
not to things or to ideas but only to names: with the
consequence that the universalizing function is a func-
tion not of thought but of language.

The development of this second theme is one of the
fundamental motives of Lockean semiotic (Essay on
Human Understanding
[1690], III). The meaning of
words is the ideas they stand for. But the collections
of ideas are the product of an abstractive function
which is itself arbitrary. It is arbitrary because it forms
collections of simple ideas which have no real pattern;
this is the case with the names of mixed modes. Or
else it is arbitrary because the collection of simple
ideas, though it have a real pattern, yet never expresses
this pattern but only the nominal essence, that is to
say a pattern, determined by the choice of the speakers,
which never reaches to the real essence of the thing
and does not even exhaust its properties. The semantic
relation, therefore, is never stable and exhaustive: the
choice made in the linguistic act never rests on the
real essence of the thing; and the determination and
the range of significance vary from time to time, ac-
cording to the needs of communication, and the state
of knowledge, and current linguistic usage. Through
this dynamic conception of meaning, Lockean semiotic
constitutes the crisis of Aristotelian conventionalism,
anchored in the theory of the idea as natural sign of
the thing; and becomes the first radical affirmation of
the arbitrariness of linguistic sign.


General studies of English linguistics of the seventeenth
century are: D. C. Allen, “Some Theories of the Growth
and Origin of Language in Milton's Age,” Philosophical
28, 2 (1949), 5-16, and L. Formigari, Linguistica
ed empirismo nel Seicento inglese
(Bari, 1970). Important
references are also contained in L. Rosiello, Linguistica
(Bologna, 1967).

On the linguistic doctrines of Francis Bacon see: O.
Funke, Sprachphilosophische Probleme bei Francis Bacon
(1929), in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Anglistik und zur


Sprachphilosophie (Bern, 1965); R. Wallace, Francis Bacon
on Communication and Rhetoric
(Chapel Hill, 1943);
W. S. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England: 1500-1700
(Princeton, 1956; 2nd ed. New York, 1961), pp. 365-76; P.
Rossi, Francesco Bacone, Dalla magia alla scienza (Bari,
1957), Chs. IV-VI; E. De Mas, “La filosofia linguistica e
poetica di Francesco Bacone,” Filosofia, 14 (1963), 495-542.
On the influence of Bacon the studies of R. F. Jones, re-
printed in The Seventeenth Century (Stanford and London,
1951), are essential.

On proposals for an artificial language: O. Funke, Zum
Weltsprachenproblem in England im 17. Jahrhundert

(Heidelberg, 1929); J. Cohen, “On the Project of a Universal
Character,” Mind, 63 (1954), 49-63; B. DeMott, “Comenius
and the Real Character in England,” P.M.L.A., 70, 5 (1955);
idem, “Science versus Mnemonics,” Isis, 48 (1957), 3-12;
P. Rossi, Clavis universalis (Milan and Naples, 1960); V.
Salmon, “Language-Planning in Seventeenth-Century
England: Its Context and Aims,” in In Memory of J. R.
eds. C. E. Bazell, J. Catford, M. A. K. Halliday (Lon-
don, 1966), 370-97.

On Hobbes: R. M. Martin, “On the Semantics of Hobbes,”
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 14 (1953-54),
205-11; M. Robbe, “Zu Problemen der Sprachphilosophie
bei Thomas Hobbes,” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie,
8, 4 (1960), 433-650; D. Krook, “Thomas Hobbes' Doctrine
of Meaning and Truth,” Philosophy, 31 (1956), 3-22; H.
Törnebohm, “A Study in Hobbes' Theory of Denotation and
Truth,” Theoria, 26 (1960), 53-70; A. G. Gargani, “Idea,
mondo, e linguaggio in T. Hobbes e J. Locke,” Annali della
Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa,
2nd series, 35 (1966),

On Locke: R. I. Aaron, John Locke (1937; reprint Oxford,
1965), Ch. VI; idem, The Theory of Universals (1952; 2nd
ed. Oxford, 1967), Ch. II; J. W. Yolton, “Locke and the
Seventeenth-Century Logic of Ideas,” Journal of the History
of Ideas,
16 (1955), 431-52; D. A. Givner, “Scientific Pre-
conceptions in Locke's Philosophy of Language,” Journal
of the History of Ideas,
23 (1962), 340-54; R. I. Armstrong,
“John Locke's 'Doctrine of Signs': A New Metaphysics,”
Journal of the History of Ideas, 26 (1965), 369-82; C. A.
Viano, John Locke, Dal razionalismo all'illuminismo (Turin,
1960), 469-76.


[See also Baconianism; Language; Macrocosm and Micro-
cosm; Metaphor; Myth; Nature; Structuralism.]