The Book of the Magical Language
June 12, 2011 § 4 Comments
Here is a fairly representative excerpt from the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz:
“Every laugher is a man: that is, laugher and laugher-man are equivalent. But a laugher is an entity, by hypothesis; therefore a laugher-man is an entity; that is, some man is a laugher. Here, in the proposition “A man – laugher is an entity”, “entity” must be taken in the same way as in the proposition, “a laugher is an entity.” If “entity” is taken to refer to possibility, that is as meaning that there is a laugher in the region of ideas, then “Some man is a laugher” must not be understood as other than “a man-laugher is an entity,” namely, as possible, that is in the region of ideas. But if “A laugher is an entity” is taken to refer to what really exists, “a man-laugher is an entity” can also be taken to refer to this, and it will be true that some man actually laughs…”
Are you laughing yet?
The real joke, other than the one on me for reading 17th century metaphysics in the first place, is that what Leibniz was attempting, in the lines above, was to remove ambiguity from language, by defining all concepts (in this case, ‘a laughing man’) clearly.
At the root of every human dispute, Leibniz said, there are different interpretations of a single concept, of which only one is correct. Just as mathematics was vastly simplified by everyone adopting a consistent notation and a few elementary rules for manipulation of symbols, Leibniz sought to define a universal language of philosophy, by pruning down Latin to a subset of nouns, pronouns and adjectives in the nominative case, and attempting to lay down a restrictive set of rules of grammar. Once all the rules were in place, Leibniz felt, judging the truth of statements would be a piece of cake – all you had to do was to write down the offending sentences in the lingua philosophica, simplify each concept contained in it, until, within a finite set of steps, you will arrive at either a tautology or a contradiction. You would also be able, using this process, to discover new truths by examining statements known to be true.
Leibniz thought, rather naively, that all analytic statements were true, and all true statements were analytic. We know differently, of course – not only is it impossible to determine the truth in contingent propositions (propositions about the real world) in an a priori manner, but there are analytic propositions as well that can never be proved true. Leibniz was unquestionably a great mathematician, but an inferior metaphysician to George Berkeley, and a far worse philosopher than my hero, David Hume.
This study of Leibniz’s philosophy and life, by the philosopher Benson Mates, taught me that studying Leibniz is largely of historical and academic value. It merely enables the reader to pinpoint Leibniz’s exact place in the unbroken chain that is the history of a particular strain of Western philosophical thought, from Anaxagoras, Socrates and Diodorus of Megara all the way to Alfred Tarski, Noam Chomsky and Willard Quine. That strain, with Leibniz, intersects another, darker, more ancient, strand of ideas propagated by shamans, witch-doctors, tantriks and Kabbalists, who have persistently believed in the power of the spoken or written word to govern, influence or even merely to be magically connected in some way with the material object that it signifies.
Sadly, not much else by way of fresh insight into the nature of reality could be gleaned from his thoughts. Indeed, if not for Mates’ lucid, conversational style of writing, I may not have understood much at all, such is the austere rigor of language that Leibniz employs in his paradoxical quest for clarity.
“You’re reading another crackpot, aren’t you?” sneered my 12-year old son, who has not yet recovered from my exposition of Berkeley a few months ago. Well, I said defensively, at least there is merit in contemplating a secret, magical language in which, as Leibniz puts it, “people will be unable to speak or write about anything except what they understand”, a language in which it is impossible to lie. It may not be possible to create such a language, but conceptually…”Sorry, but you know it’s been done before, don’t you?” interrupted the cruel youth, “You should read the Eragon series.”
The Eragon series! Ouch. Perhaps he will grow up one day to see things differently. Or perhaps he will always think of the people I read as complete nutters.
Or, to be absolutely – ridiculously – precise, as Leibniz would have put it (he actually did, in fact), “Of what will happen, it is inconceivable that if it will happen, that it won’t happen.”