An introduction to empirical humanities: the “perfect” language

Are you interested in reading more about empirical humanities? Here is a great place to start:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Wiley-Blackwell (1995), 396 pages

Since ancient times and right down into the present, mankind has been searching for

  1. the original language of humans
  2. the holy language that God and Adam used
  3. language that reveals the mystical essence of the universe and things
  4. a language that eliminates the problems of ambiguity and ill logic so common to natural language, that reveals in its very form the scientific essence of things, and
  5. a simpler language that all people can learn and communicate with, and so achieve Utopian peace and harmony.

Image result

I’ve known¬†most of the story since the Enlightenment, but prior to that the story was wholly new. There’s a whole world of European civilization that I (and I suspect most Americans) have never known, primarily due to the fact that most of us don’t read Latin and Italian.

Eco tells this story with his usual erudition and intimate knowledge of European cultural history. The most negative thing I can say about the book is that, while most of the time foreign language citations are translated, sometimes they are not — and at crucial places for understanding. I assume this is an oversight, since Eco is so comfortable in so many languages. He probably has difficulty remembering the limitations of us mere intellectual mortals!

An essential question for empirical humanities is, what is the nature of language and human communication? How does language use accomplish human purposes? What is the “best” language? Can language properly “encode” reality? A basic assumption of this search is that human intention — author purpose — can be encoded, transmitted, and decoded. But it begs the modern (and post-modern) question of the priority of the receiver of communication over the priority of the originator. Who gets to say what the communication “means”? Is it author purpose or reader purpose?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.