Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Engendering the Language of the New Science: The Subject of John Wilkins's Language Project

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Engendering the Language of the New Science: The Subject of John Wilkins's Language Project

Article excerpt

During the mid-seventeenth century and Restoration, the study of natural philosophy was inextricably linked to questions of language. In fact, the "Scientific Revolution" can be characterized as a collection of interpenetrating and competing discourses rather than as a new set of practices or beliefs that replaced an older one. As James Bono claims, "scientific language, rather than simply monolithic and stable, is itself complex, self-contesting, and a source alternately of temporary discursive stability and of a tensely unstable, complexly negotiated exchange." (1) Seventeenth-century natural philosophers themselves were well aware of the importance of language to the epistemological challenges they faced, and they often played out political, theological, and philosophical disputes in the arena of language. The centrality of linguistic concerns to seventeenth-century natural philosophers is evident from many of the texts authored by Royal Society writers, including Sprat, Glanvill, and Wilkins. (2) One manifestation of such concerns is the efforts early Royal Society members expended to create universal language schemes. These artificial language schemes were intended to offer a solution to the "linguistic crisis" of the seventeenth century by facilitating commerce and knowledge transmission with universal, standardized linguistic symbols.

The most extensive of these language schemes, benefiting from contributions by many Royal Society members, was John Wilkins's Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). (3) Wilkins's language scheme, nearly 500 pages long in its entirety, took up much of his later life and involved considerable help from other Royal Society members. (4) Though the premise and the execution of the project--to create an empirically based language using symbols that show a rational relationship between the sign and what it signifies--seem absurd to us today, Wilkins's seriousness of intent cannot be doubted. (5) The language project allows us to gain insight into ideological and linguistic assumptions that underlie early modern natural philosophy.

Wilkins's Essay proposes both a universal character (or set of iconic symbols), i.e., a language that can be universally understood, and a philosophical language, or a language whose symbols reflect the essence of what they represent. The Essay consists of a Prolegomenon, explaining his purpose and views on language, then the universal philosophy, comprising lists of tables showing relations between categories of words describing both natural and man-made objects. (6) After classifying all the things and ideas he considered worthy of representation in his new language, he then presents the philosophical grammar, and finally the real character, or symbols, he proposes instead of a phonetic alphabet. (7) The universal philosophy, the most substantial part of the Essay, is a series of tables that catalogue words and concepts according to their relations to each other. The tables were meant to be empirical; that is, they were intended to show actual relationships that could be observed in the natural world, and in some ways, these tables are the precursors to modern biological taxonomies. (8) The tables were crucial to his purpose because the relationship among all objects and abstract notions had to be established before Wilkins could create a language capable of representing those relationships.

Wilkins's philosophical language, through the introductory material and the tables, constructs an idealized speaking subject who is wholly rational and able to engage the natural world to create knowledge without the distractions posed by language. That speaking subject, though seemingly neutral and ungendered, even disembodied, is in fact constructed as masculine. I suggest that Wilkins uses four separate, though closely related, mechanisms through which he constructs this masculine speaking subject. First, the prefatory material and the philosophical language construct language itself as fallen, feminized, and a source of temptation. …

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