Courtney Weiss Smith: Toward a Language of Things
When early Royal Society member John Wilkins sat down to create a language that would precisely mirror the reality of things, he found himself privileging poetic aspects of language. Scholars often read Wilkins's Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) as expressing a scientific worldview that condemns figurative language and aims for transparent representation. This, however, is an inadequate caricature of Wilkins's book and seventeenth-century natural philosophy more generally. Faced with the difficult - if not impossible - task of capturing nature's complexity in language, Wilkins chooses to embrace language as a necessary (and necessarily flawed) form of mediation. He thus structures his language around very non-transparent principles of rhyme, and he invents a special mark that should be added to words to indicate metaphoricity. He even suggests that heightened attention to the material properties of language helps us avoid naiveté in the search for philosophical and scientific truth. Wilkins thereby offers a provocative take on an issue that we are still grappling with today: what are the relationships between and among language, human minds, and nature? This talk will explore Wilkins's understanding of language and materiality alongside recent new materialist experiments in engaging language as a material practice and in using language in the service of understanding the material world.