The Analytical Language of John Wilkins  

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"The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, mormonism; and number 294, brahmanism, buddhism, shintoism and taoism. It doesn't reject heterogene subdivisions as, for example, 179: "Cruelty towards animals. Animals protection. Duel and suicide seen through moral values. Various vices and disadvantages. Advantages and various qualities."--"The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (1942) by Jorge Luis Borges

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"The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (1942, Spanish: El idioma analitico de John Wilkins) is a short essay by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges originally published in 1942 in La Nación and collected in Otras Inquisiciones (1937–1952). It is a critique of the English natural philosopher and writer John Wilkins's proposal for a universal constructed language as devised in An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. It is also a critique of the representational capacity of language in general. In it, Borges imagines a bizarre and whimsical Chinese taxonomy (found in the fictional encyclopedia Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge) later quoted by Michel Foucault, David Byrne, and others.



Borges begins by noting John Wilkins's absence from the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica and makes the case for Wilkins's significance, highlighting in particular the universal language scheme detailed in his An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). Wilkins's system decomposes the entire universe of "things and notions" into successively smaller divisions and subdivisions, assigning at each step of this decomposition a syllable, consonant, or vowel. Wilkins intended for these conceptual building blocks to be recombined to represent anything on earth or in heaven. The basic example Borges gives is "de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element of fire, a flame."

Examining this and other second-hand examples from Wilkins's scheme - he did not have access to Wilkins's actual work, but based his comments on others' comments on it - Borges believes he finds "ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies", concluding "it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures." He fancifully likens Wilkins's classification scheme to a "certain Chinese encyclopedia," fictitious, attributed to Franz Kuhn, called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, said to divide animals into "(a) - those that belong to the Emperor, (b) - embalmed ones, (c) - fthose that are trained, (d) - suckling pigs, (e) - mermaids, (f) - fabulous ones, (g) - stray dogs, (h) - those that are included in the present classification, (i) - those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) - innumerable ones, (k) - those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) - others, (m) - those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) - those that look like flies from a long way off." Borges's point is the arbitrary nature of such taxonomies, regardless of whether they form a language or just a way of understanding and ordering the world. He challenges the idea of the universe as something we can understand at all -- "we do not know what thing the universe is" -- much less describe using language.

While considering Wilkins's effort naïve, Borges ultimately praises the ambition of a universal language and admits that Wilkins's word for salmon, zana, could (for someone well-versed in Wilkins's language) hold more meaning than the corresponding words in conventional languages, which are arbitrary and carry no intrinsic meaning. He says that, "Theoretically, it is not impossible to think of a language where the name of each thing says all the details of its destiny, past and future."

Commentary and uses by others

Michel Foucault attributes the inspiration for his The Order of Things to Borges' "Celestial Emporium" passage and "the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought ... breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things..." Foucault is disturbed less by the Emporium's arbitrariness than by the idea that such a classification might be intelligible to someone or some culture, then discusses the ways cultures make sense of the world by drawing relationships between things, expressed through language. What Borges did, according to Foucault, was to highlight the importance of the "site" of order by taking it away, asking in what context the Celestial Emporium might make sense.

The Emporium has often been used as a shorthand for the subversion of traditional, rational notions of order. The artist and musician David Byrne has created an art work, "The Evolution of Category", that shows a hierarchical tree based on this mythical taxonomy.


Borges writes:

"[Wilkins] was interested in several different topics: theology, cryptography, music, the building of transparent beehives, the orbit of an invisible planet, the possibility of a trip to the moon, the possibility and principles of an universal language. To this latter problem he dedicated the book 'An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language' (600 pages in large quarto, 1668). There are no copies of this book in our National Library, I have consulted, to write the present article, 'The Life and Times of John Wilkins' (1910), by P. A. Wright Henderson; the 'Wörterbuch der Philosophie' (1935), by Fritz Mauthner; 'Delphos' (1935), by E. Sylvia Pankhurst; 'Dangerous Thoughts' (1939), by Lancelot Hogben."[1]

The above works all appear to exist.

"These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled 'Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge'. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies."

The encyclopedia 'Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge' is a fabrication but Franz Kuhn is real.

""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)."

The exact words of Hume are:

"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."[2]

Borges also cites from G. F. Watts (1904) by Chesterton

"He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest... Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of this own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire"

See also

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