In quest of the universal language
Romance and the history of an idea
The new English translation of Paolo Rossi’s now classic study, Logic and the Art of Memory, presents a useful opportunity to examine contemporary efforts to understand what its subtitle calls “the quest for a universal language.” At the same time, an old seventeenth-century philosophical romance, Thomas Urquhart’s Jewel, affords a good test case for evaluating the success of those contemporary critical efforts — including Rossi’s own. First among contemporary scholars, Rossi made it possible to study seriously the seventeenth-century universal language movement by recovering the history of an idea — the pursuit of the so-called clavis universalis, the universal key to knowledge, from the ancient arts of memory to the Enlightenment’s philosophical language projects. While Rossi’s study has clearly withstood the test of time, since it still has much to teach us about the history of an idea — what Urquhart would call “pure eloquence” — his study has less utility in clarifying the status of that idea in history. Understanding Urquhart’s Jewel requires, I argue, two different forms of history whose interplay is always complicated: the history of ideas and the history of those politically charged engagements with ideas by authors whose situation at a specific time and a specific place brings meanings to their work that transcend epistemological concerns alone.
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