The Search for the Perfect Language / Edition 1

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The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly and unambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things and concepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, mystics, and others for at least two millennia. This is an investigation into the history of that idea and of its profound influence on European thought, culture and history.

The story Umberto Eco tells ranges widely, from the writings of Augustine, Dante, Descartes, and Rousseau, arcane treaties on cabbalism and magic, to the history of the study of language and its origins. To this subtle exposition of a history of extraordinary, complexity, the author links the associated history of the manner in which the sounds of language and concepts have been written and symbolized. Lucidly and wittily written, the book is a tour de force of scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European History.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is as much a history of the study of language and its origins as it is a tour de force pursuit using scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, thus providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European history." The Medieval Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Before the bewildering Babel of tongues described in Genesis, humanity had just one perfect language, originating in the Garden of Eden, or so theologians and philosophers believed from the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance. In this erudite study, which will be heavy going for most readers, famed Italian novelist and linguist Eco mines a wealth of esoteric lore as he investigates a neglected chapter in the history of ideas. He begins with Dante's proposal for a universal vernacular in place of Latin, and Catalan friar Raymond Lull's combinatorial system of letters and symbols designed to explore metaphysical connections. He goes on to examine the Kabbalistic search for hidden messages in sacred Hebrew texts, the Rosicrucian society's symbolic writing in 17th-century Germany and French Enlightenment thinkers' invention of philosophical languages organized around fundamental categories of knowledge. He also surveys the search for a primordial language assumed by Augustine to be Hebrew and by later mother tongue-seekers to be Aramaic or various other languages. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The myth of primordial language in which the word corresponds to being, or the dream of a universal language, has long fascinated thinkers. In this provocative history of ideas, noted Italian linguist and semiologist Eco The Island of the Day Before, LJ 7/95 traces the quest for a perfect language. For Eco, this quest informs the myth of Adam, Cabalism, Enlightenment theories of classification and the encyclopedias, the search for Indo-European universal grammars, as well as the development of International Auxiliary Languages. He also includes illuminating chapters on Dante, Raymond Lull, Francis Lodwick, and others. Eco's complex yet lucid account of the nature of language is the most stimulating since George Steiner's After Babel Oxford Univ. Pr., 1975. For academic libraries.-T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, Ga.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780631205104
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 4/16/1997
  • Series: Making of Europe Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,032,815
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria in 1932 and has been Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna since 1975 and the President of the International Center for Semiotic and Cognitive Studies at the Universityu of San Marino since 1988. His books include The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault's Pendulum (1988) and the more recent works include Semiotics and Philosophy of Lanaguage (1984) and The Limits of Interpretation (1990).


Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.

Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.

Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.

More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.

Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.

Good To Know

Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.

His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bologna, Italy
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 5, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Alessandria, Italy
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

Table of Contents

Series Editor's Preface.


1. From Adam to Confusio Linguarum. .

Genesis 2, 10, 11.

Before and After Europe.


A Semiotic Model for Natural Language.

2. The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism. .

The Reading of the Torah.

Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names.

The Mother Tongue.

3. The Perfect Language of Dante.

Latin and the Vernacular.

Language and Lingusitic Behavior.

The First Gift to Adam.

Dante and Universal Grammar.

The Illustrious Vernacular.

Dante and Abulafia.

4. The Ars Magna of Raymond Lull. .

The Elements of the Ars Combinatoria. .

The Alphabet and the Four Figures.

The Arbor Scientarium.

The Concordia Universalis of Nicholas of Cusa.

5. The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues. .

The Return to Hebrew.

Postel's Universalistic Utopia.

The Etymological Furor.

Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis.

The Pre-Hebraic Language.

The Nationalistic Hypotheses.

Philosophers against Monogeneticism.

A Dream that refused to Die.

New Prospects for the Monogenetic Hypothesis.

6. Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture.

Magic Names and Kabbalistic Hebrew.

Kabbalism and Lullism in the Steganographies.

Lullian Kabbalism.

Bruno: Ars Combinatoria and Infinite Worlds.

Infinite Songs and Locutions.

7. The Perfect Language of Images.

Horapollo's Hieroglyphica.

The Egyptian Alphabet.

Kircher's Egyptology.

Kircher's Chinese.

The Kircherian Ideology.

Later Critics.

The Egyptian vs. the Chinese Way.

Images for Aliens.

8. Magic Language.


Dee's Magic Language.

Perfection and Secrecy.

9. Polygraphies.

Kircher's Polygraphy.

Beck and Becher.

First Attempts at a Content Organizations.

10. A Priori Philosophical Languages. .



Descarted and Mersenne.

The English Debate on Character and Traits.

Primitives and Organization Content.

11. George Dalgarno.

12. John Wilkins. .

The Tables and the Grammar.

The Real Characters.

The Dictionary: Synonyms, Periphrases, Metaphors.

An Open Classification?.

The Limits of Classification.

The Hypertext of Wilkins.

13. Francis Lodwick. .

14. From Liebniz to the Encyclopédie.

Characteristica and Calculus.

The Problem of the Primitives.

The Encyclopedia and the Aphabet of Thought.

Blind Thought.

The I Ching and the Binary Calculus.


The 'Library' of Liebnitz and the Encyclopédie.

15. Philosophic Language from the Enlightenment to Today. .

Eighteenth-century Projects.

The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages.

Space Languages.

Artificial Intelligence.

Some Ghosts of the Perfect Language.

16. The Internatonal Auxiliary Languages.

The Mixed Systems.

The Babel of A Posteriori Languages.


An Optimized Grammar.

Theoretical Objections and Counter-objections.

The 'Political' Possibilitites of an IAL.

Limits and Effability of an IAL.



The Gift to Adam.




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