Date: 23 Apr 2010

Das Alphabet der Natur und das Alphabet der Kultur im 18. Jahrhundert


In the middle of the eighteenth century, Carl von Linné, Johann Christoph Gatterer, and Christian Wilhelm Büttner attempted to realize the old idea of deciphering the alphabet of the world, which Francis Bacon had raised as a general postulate of science. This article describes these attempts and their interrelations. Linné used the model of the alphabet to classify plants according to the characters of this fruiting body. Gatterer, one of the leading German historians during the Enlightenment, adopted the botanical method of classification by genus and species to classify the history of scripts. He used the forms of the alphabetic characters to measure the age of manuscripts and to map the process of history as a genealogy of culture. Gatterer collaborated closely with Büttner, the first Göttingen professor of natural history. Büttner constructed a general alphabet of languages which connected the phonetics of language with the historically known alphabets. Early on, diplomatics and ethnography combined the natural order of natural history and the cultural order of the alphabet with the attempt to register development and to document development by the evolution of forms. Based on the shared model of the alphabet and on the common necessity to classify their empirical material, natural history and the description of culture were related attempts in the middle of the eighteenth century to comprehend the alphabetically organized nature and a naturally ordered culture.