Friday, September 26, 2014

Chapter 21 - Leibniz's Dreams: Part 4 - The Dream of a Universal Language

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

The dreams of Leibniz, known as a ‘rationalist’, in some ways extended and refined those of the ‘empiricist’ Bacon. But for Leibniz, a mathematician, an intrinsic part of his dream included a proposal for a “universal language” or “universal characteristic” growing out of mathematics. Alfred, as a lover of mathematics and a good mathematical ‘journeyman’, seemed very much in tune with Leibniz here. 

As early as Pythagoras and Plato, people had wondered at the ‘miracles’ of mathematics and seen it as a model for other areas of thought. By the 17th century significant parts of natural philosophy, i.e., the science of mechanics and astronomy, were beginning to yield to mathematical treatment with astonishing success. It surely seemed, as Galileo commented, as if the Almighty had written the book of nature in the language of mathematics. Leibniz was convinced “there is nothing which is not subsumable under number”(14), if we only knew how to do it. Number had exactness, and exactness—the inevitablility of correct conclusions—appeared as the holy grail. Why? Because when rightly understood it led to agreement—universal agreement.

Even the simple operations of arithmetic might in a certain sense be made more exact through mechanization. In pursuit of this, Leibniz had designed and built the first four-function calculator. In other areas of mathematics, Leibniz also found more exact operations could at least be facilitated by an apt notation, such as the symbolism he designed for calculus—still used today.

Could anything like this be done for traditional logic and the even more inexact areas of knowledge and everyday language? Leibniz seemed to think so. As he put it in his 1677 essay “Preface To A General Science”, his “universal characteristic” entailed developing a new language for the perfection of reason. This language would allow people to express themselves with the exactness of arithmetic and geometry. With it, arguments and errors would dissolve as conversation would come to resemble calculation. Possibility or pipe dream? Leibniz thought he could do it. But ultimately he didn’t succeed in his long-term project of mathematizing everyday discourse. However, the vision did inspire a large portion of his work. His founding of the discipline of symbolic/mathematical logic, even though he was not able to carry it very far, is considered by many to be the closest he got towards the goal of a universal characteristic.

More than 100 years later, the English mathematician George Boole formulated the first system of mathematical logic, in his 1854 book,
Investigation of the Laws of Thought. (Boole expressed delight when he learned he had in fact followed in Leibniz’s footsteps.) According to Keyser, Boole’s work initiated a revolution in mathematics and logic, by showing their deep relationship. Russell and Whitehead and others had built and were building upon it.

Korzybski had had many discussions with Keyser about these developments and was immersing himself in this work. He felt and knew its importance. But the work—with its high level of abstractness—seemed remote and forbidding, not anything like a universal language applicable to everyday life. For example, with the elaborate and exotic apparatus of their algebraic symbology, Russell and Whitehead had taken 379 pages just getting to the point of showing how 1+1=2. Alfred felt there was something in what they had done, and in the other books he was studying, relevant for living life. He wanted to draw it down to earth—make it practical for the man, woman, and child in the street.
From Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, Vol. 1, First Edition, p. 379 

This was the project he was developing in the summer of 1921, as Manhood of Humanity was getting publicized. He wanted, if he could, to topple the idols impeding people’s ability to time-bind. He had accomplished the first step. People now had the formulation of time-binding by which they could clearly and consciously view themselves as time-binders. Mathematical logic and the exact physico-mathematical sciences seemed to hold the key for the next step—to liberate the time-binding mechanism.

In his new book Alfred hoped he could bring to life an updated version of the dreams of Leibniz, Bacon, and others. Building from the notion of time-binding and from the revolutionary new mathematics and science of the the early 20th century, Korzybski was groping to construct a methodological foundation for a science of humanity. He would continue his career of troubleshooting now on a much more general scale.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
14. Leibniz 1979 (1951), “Towards A Universal Characteristic [1677]”, p.17. 

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