‘A Corporall Philosophy’: Language and ‘Body-Making’ in the Work of John Bulwer (1606–1656)

  • Justin E. H. Smith
Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 25)


Francis Bacon, in his 1605 work The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, analyzes “Notes of Cogitations” into “twoo sortes... [t]he one when the Note hath some Similitude, or Congruitie with the Notion; [t]he other... hauing force onely by Contract or Acception.” The latter are either “Hierogliphickes” or “Gestures,” and the latter of these “are as Transitorie Hierogliphickes, and are to Hierogliphickes, as Words spoken are to Wordes written, in that they abide not.” In some fashion or other, it is the first kind of hieroglyphics that will dominate in the seventeenth-century efforts to develop an ideal, artificial writing system, one that would not be based on mere convention, but would instead serve transparently for producing emblems of the things one wishes to denote. The second variety Bacon identifies, gesture, will in contrast gain little attention. Yet little attention is not none at all. Over the course of the 1640s, the obscure Baconian natural philosopher John Bulwer would develop his predecessor’s notion of transitory hieroglyphics into an elaborate system, one that would serve as the starting point for the later sciences of, among other things, sign language and sociolinguistics. Bulwer’s theory of gesture reveals an important rift in seventeenth-century debates about the universal character, between those who believe that this can be nothing other than an artificial language, and those who believe that it is precisely artifice that obscures meanings, and that any universally comprehensible system of communication will be perfectly natural as opposed to artificial. In exploring this rift, we are also able to gain access to a curious, if not terribly influential, theory constituting a point of contact between early modern philosophy of language on the one hand and the early modern metaphysics of body on the other.


Artificial Language Page Number Universal Character Early Modern Period Ideal Language 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin E. H. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada

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