Reconsidering Written Language

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Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, ISSN: 1334-4684, Vol: 13, Issue: 3, Page: 397-404

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Gopal P. Sarma
Croatian Interdisciplinary Society
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A number of elite thinkers in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries pursued an agenda which historian Paolo Rossi calls the “quest for a universal language,” a quest which was deeply interwoven with the emergence of the scientific method. From a modern perspective, one of the many surprising aspects of these efforts is that they relied on a diverse array of memorization techniques as foundational elements. In the case of Leibniz’s universal calculus, the ultimate vision was to create a pictorial language that could be learned by anyone in a matter of weeks and which would contain within it a symbolic representation of all domains of contemporary thought, ranging from the natural sciences, to theology, to law. In this brief article, I explore why this agenda might have been appealing to thinkers of this era by examining ancient and modern memory feats. As a thought experiment, I suggest that a society built entirely upon memorization might be less limited than we might otherwise imagine, and furthermore, that cultural norms discouraging the use of written language might have had implications for the development of scientific methodology. Viewed in this light, the efforts of Leibniz and others seem significantly less surprising. I close with some general observations about cross-cultural origins of scientific thought.

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