Saturday, August 27, 2016

Borges' "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins"

"The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" is a short essay by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and is a critique of the English Philosopher Wilkins' proposal for a universal language and of the representational capacity of language in general.  Borges also examines a bizarre and whimsical Chinese taxonomy quoted by Foucault and also Geoff Dyer in his 2005 photography study The Ongoing Moment.

Borges begins by noting John Wilkins' absence from the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica and makes the case for Wilkins' significance, highlighting in particular the universal language scheme detailed in his An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). Wilkins' 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' actual work, but based his comments on the 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," likely fictitious, called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, said to divide animals into "(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those 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' 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment