Monday Series: Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s III

A Society’s Interest

A fascination with language in the seventeenth century was spearheaded by philosophers participating in various linguistic projects, some of which questioned the origin of language, delved into the art of cryptography, debated methods of language teaching, and sought to construct a language that would serve as a universal means of communication.[1] The attempt to design a universal character, or a universal writing system, largely arose from an awareness of the problem of communicating with non-European languages. It was believed that a universal character would foster proper communication with foreigners by being based on concepts, as opposed to sounds. Thus, a universal character would directly represent ideas or concepts that were widely held by men across different languages, for by intending to be an “active aid to the progress of real studies,” it would thus have different spoken forms according to the natural language of the user while still maintaining the same universal concept.[2] Philosophers such as John Wilkins, Descartes, and Leibniz, additionally argued that universal language would be beneficial for reflecting philosophical principles; the construction of a rational and philosophical language based on a universal character would be an impetus for bridging the relation of ideas and its expressions. In doing so, such a philosophical language would rid itself of irregularities, idiosyncracies and ambiguities.[3] It would also provide a solid approach in finding means to communicate with the silent deaf and dumb.

In a recent publication, Joseph Subbiondo remarks how a new paradigm of education that counteracted the traditional method of teaching based on the scholastic disputation emerged out of seventeenth century empiricism.[4] The society of learned men—the Oxford Circle, the Gresham College, the “Invisible College”—that eventually became the Royal Society took a strong interest in developing a universal language based on philosophical principles. Basing their direction from multiple sources, including Bacon’s ideas, Bonet’s treatise, as well as Descartes’ emphasis on a language based on the relationship between ideas, the philosophers focused on an awareness that language was arbitrary and could lead to erroneous confusion when communicating with a different vernacular. To correct the shortcomings of a natural language, they argued that an artificial language could provide a more precise link between language and the natural world. Analogies for a universal language were made to Chinese sinographs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic numerals, and algebraic formulas. Seth Ward (1617-1689) for instance, stated that his acquaintance with algebraic symbolism led him to resolve that “Symboles might be formed for every thing and notion…so that an Universall Character might easily be made wherin all Nations might communicate together, just as they do in number and species.”[5] The strong analogy drawn from algebraic symbols is unsurprising when we consider that many of the philosophers interested in language and working on proposals for a universal language were also brilliant mathematicians: Descartes, Ward, Wilkins, Wallis, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and John Pell (1611-1695).

The seemingly popular interest in language projects led the Royal Society to commission several projects to develop a philosophical language that would be clear, precise, and unequivocal. Wilkins, for instance, was commissioned in 1662, finishing the project in 1668 with the publication of his Essay Towards a Real Character, and Philosophical Language. Later works, including Holder’s Elements of Speech and George Dalgarno’s Didascalocophus also began to integrate universal language concepts with science, education and philosophical language. Many of these projects sought to develop a philosophical system in which the elements of each word would provide an understanding for the parts of its referent; additionally, the actual composition of the words would denote the semantic features of the word, thus allowing for a more accurate representation of things in nature and the process of knowledge. As James Knowlson points out, in this way, “language would not only be a means of acquiring knowledge; it would itself be knowledge, since each ‘word’ would provide an accurate description of the thing signified.”[6]

All that was needed to attain a universal character and apply the language into practice was to extend the symbolic way of writing peculiar to mathematics so that all concepts were expressed in a uniform manner. Implicit in the notion of a universal character was the idea that by reversing the order of speaking and writing, there could be a way to bypass spoken words, “the obstacles to universal understanding.”[7] The construction of a universal language also created an illusion that a writing system, as opposed to a spoken language, could overcome all language barriers. Descartes had recognized the importance of such a distinction, stating in a 1629 letter to Mersenne that if such a universal language was to be sought, it would be better to build the new language upon some existing language. While he stressed in the letter the practical inconvenience of such a system—the awkwardness of learning grammar, the disagreeable sound combinations—Descartes pointed out that such a construction, or even its application, will only be found when a “true philosophy” had been found.[8] To Descartes, if there existed no “true philosophy,” likewise, there could not exist a philosophical language based on universal characters.

Acknowledging Descartes’ philosophical claim, various universal language schemes also combined with Bonet and Bulwer’s emphasis on gestures as a form of communication also attracted the attention of philosophers seeking to devise a progressive model of learning that contributed to their understanding on the progress of ideas and knowledge. In their search for an understanding of the contours of humanity, philosophers began to engage directly with deaf people.[9] Bulwer especially remarked that deaf-mutes could be taught how to speak by the eye, since the mouth and tongue were natural and convenient instruments of speech.[10] If the deaf could be taught to read and write, and consequently understand language, then they could, through their vision, translate that language through gestures, from which speech would naturally follow. Speech, according to Bulwer, was a voluntary action, and hearing the perception of motion, which meant that by making speech visible, deaf-mutes could thus be taught to “hear” and thus speak.

However, while the recognition that deaf-mutes could be taught to speak opened up philosophical discourses on the nature of understanding and language, it did not necessarily translate to mean that philosophers were able to explain the nature of the linguistic faculty. Noga Arikha argues that there is no clear indication as to what a theory of language would underlie: “What the theory would be of was unclear, since it needed not just to prove that, but to explain how a deaf person could be taught how to speak.”[11] This is an important point, for it would appear that in light of the Royal Society’s focus on language schemes and its emphasis on experimentation instruction for deaf-mutes were mainly controlled experiments to test the validity of a universal language scheme. Wallis in particular, emphasized the value of a well-conducted experiment, writing to Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677), the secretary of the Royal Society, that “Experiment will be the best judge.”[12] He was also adamant that his pupils receive a proper understanding of not only what they read and wrote, but on how the movement of the mouth and vocal chords would lead to sound and thus comprehension.


[1] Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985), p.5.

[2] Knowlson, Universal Language Schemes, p.42.

[3] Large, The Artificial Language Movement, p.14.

[4] Joseph L. Subbiondo, “Educational Reform in Seventeenth-Century England and John Wilkins’ Philosophical Language,” Language and Communication vol.21(2001): 273-284.

[5] Seth Ward and John Wilkins, Vindicaie acdemiarum: Containing Some Briefe Animadversions upon Mr. Webster’s Book, Stiled, The Examination of Academies (Oxford, 1654), quoted in Knowlson, Universal Language Schemes, p.22.

[6] Knowlson, Universal Language Schemes, p.8.

[7] Jaap Maat, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz (Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), p.21.

[8] Maat, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century, p.28.

[9] Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), p.66.

[10] Mullett, ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe to Speake, the Deaf to Heare,'” p.132.

[11] Noga Arikha, “Deafness, Ideas, and the Language of Thought in the Late 1600s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy vol.13.2 (2005), p.248.

[12] Quoted in J.F. Scott, “The Reverent John Wallis, F.R.S. (1616-1703). Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London vol.15 (July 1960), p.62.


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