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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

A philosophical language

John Wilkins. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. London: printed for Sam. Gellibrand, and for John Martin, 1668 [Rare Books Collection FOL. P101.W6]John Wilkins. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. London: printed for Sam. Gellibrand, and for John Martin, 1668 [Rare Books Collection FOL. P101.W6]John Wilkins (1614-1672) was appointed the first Secretary of the Royal Society at its inception and played an active role until his appointment as Bishop of Chester in 1668.

He collaborated with two other Fellows of the Society in the production of this work, the botanist John Ray, and, to a lesser extent, the civil servant and diarist Samuel Pepys. Wilkins’ fellow virtuoso, Robert Hooke, was fascinated for a long time by the idea that Chinese might become a universal language. Although Wilkins wrote a number of works of scientific speculation, it is for this book that he is most remembered.

Wilkins’ work concluded the efforts of seventeenth century scholars to invent a universal language, a quest caused by the decline of Latin as a pan-European language and by the struggle to render scientific discovery in the vernacular. These projected languages would sweep away the ambiguities and historical accretions of words in existing languages, and would establish a more definite relationship between words and things.

For Wilkins, this was part of a project to create a taxonomy of natural objects. Although his aim of a universal scientific language was never realised, his work had an indirect result in the classification system of the eighteenth century biologist Linnaeus.

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