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George Berkeleys language of vision and the

occult tradition of linguistic Platonism

Part I: Linguistic Platonism in the Renaissance
Michael M. Isermann
Department of English Language and Literature, Ruprecht-Karls-Universita t Heidelberg,
Kettengasse 12, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany
This case study on the linguistic ideas of George Berkeley is designed to exemplify the clandestine
intrusion of linguistic Platonism, i.e. occult conceptions of language, into linguistic theories of mod-
ern times. The assumption underlying the study is that occult linguistic thought has played an impor-
tant role in the formation of all modern theories of language which argue for a cognitive function
alongside, or instead of, a communicative function of language. Focusing on the historical emer-
gence of linguistic Platonism in Renaissance esoteric traditions, part I will lay the foundations for
a new interpretation of Berkeleys theory of language (part II), which will be presented in the follow-
ing issue. Here I will argue that occult concepts of language are indeed amenable to serious histor-
iographic study, widespread convictions to the contrary notwithstanding. I will suggest that the
apparent contradictions and other theoretical inconsistencies in occult concepts of language vanish
once we allow for the possibility that they can be allocated to two dierent kinds of language and to
two theories of language. It is this double theory of language that provides the theoretical backbone
of linguistic Platonism.
2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Neoplatonism; Sign; Representation; Renaissance; Berkeley; Theory of language
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Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
1. Introduction: Foucault and Yates on the occult Renaissance
According to received scholarly wisdom, the linguistic ideas of the Renaissance Neopla-
tonic tradition, represented by writers such as the notorious Henry Cornelius Agrippa of
Nettesheim (14861535), the Elizabethan magus John Dee (15271608), the Rosicrucian
physician Robert Fludd (15741637) and, at its margins, the mystic Jakob Boehme
(15751624), formed hardly more than a brief and dispensable interlude, an episode imma-
terial to the shaping of 17th and 18th century, or even modern, linguistic thought, by
which it was soon superseded.
The modern locus classicus for such customary marginal-
ization of a formerly powerful mode of linguistic thinking is Foucaults The Order of
Things (1970).
Starting from the assumption that the then common view of writing and
speaking subjects as sovereign authors of their cognitive and linguistic productions was
fundamentally wrong, Foucault embarked on what he called an archaeological project
that was destined to lay bare the (contingent, i.e., inherently meaningless) episte` mes or
discursive formations of the modern mind. These were seen by Foucault as uncon-
sciously constraining or governing and, at the same time, as making possible the cognitive
practices of authors writing in a particular period. One of the most salient results of the
archaeological enterprise was the alleged rupture that Foucault saw between each epis-
te`me and the following, a feature that is actually required for his construction to be coher-
ent. Distinguishing three episte` mes in the post-medieval era, he claimed that the deep
grammar of the Renaissance episte` me of resemblance or analogy was incompatible with
both that of the Classical age of representation and that of the Modern age of man
so much so that a historical mediation in terms of a communication, translation, or tran-
sition between one epistemological grammar and another, and hence the very possibility
of a history of ideas, was ruled out.
In a narrow sense, Renaissance Neoplatonism, often also referred to as Renaissance hermeticism, would exclude
Boehme but comprise authors such as Marsilio Ficino (14331499), Francesco Giorgi (14601540), Giordano
Bruno (15481600), Francesco Patrizi (15291597), the Cambridge Platonists Ralph Cudworth (16171688) and
Henry More (16141687), and Athanasius Kircher (16021680). In a broader sense, it includes authors who
combined Neoplatonic leanings and an aliation with the Cabbala, knowledge of which spread all over Europe
with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. In this wider sense, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463
1494), Johannes Reuchlin (14551522), Guillaume Postel (15101581) and, in the 17th century, Francis Mercurius
van Helmont (16141698), Christian Knorr van Rosenroth (16361689) and Jan Amos Comenius (15921670)
would likewise gure as Renaissance Neoplatonists. Boehmian theosophy has a dierent textual and historical
background, as have other Renaissance esoteric traditions such as alchemy, Paracelsianism and Rosicrucianism.
Diverse as all these traditions may be in some respects, they are suciently similar to be treated as constituting a
relatively homogeneous eld of thought. The latter is termed by Faivre (1994) Renaissance esotericism, while
Copenhaver (1990) suggests the term Occultism. For reasons that will become obvious in the course of the
discussion, I prefer to speak of Renaissance Neoplatonism. For the various strands of Renaissance esotericism/
occultism/Neoplatonism, see Yates (1964, 1972), Shumaker (1979), Merkel and Debus (1988), Faivre (1994, 1998,
Published in 1966, the French original Les mots et les choses went through six editions in its rst year and was
instrumental in establishing Foucaults reputation as, alternatively, an intellectual giant, charlatan, or one of the
greatest poets of the social sciences. Being largely obscure, inated with cryptic rhetoric, at times uninformed or
even plainly illogical, this otherwise inspiring book possessed some of the essential prerequisites for becoming and
remaining an international bestseller. Ironically, the same opacity of style that was soon attacked by Foucaults
critics was one of the hallmarks of Renaissance Neoplatonist writings, whose discursive practices Les mots et
les choses identied as peculiar to the Renaissance age of resemblance. For further anities between Foucault
and the topic of this paper, see Section 4.
370 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
However thought-provoking the anti-historical project of The Order of Things and its
follow-up volume, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), may have been, the ruptures
and episte` mes it oered were merely echoing traditional historical periodizations. The
severing of the Neoplatonic Renaissance from Enlightenment and Modernity mirrored
precisely the divisions that had been established in the historiographies of science, philos-
ophy, and ideas for more than a century, divisions, it should be remembered, that had
themselves evolved from an uncritical acceptance of modernitys own foundation myth.
Meanwhile, after a period in which the term enjoyed considerable currency in the human-
ities, Foucaults episte` mes, along with Kuhns (1962) related concepts of historical para-
digms and revolutions and, in their wake, the belief in historical discontinuities, have
given way to a more sober, balanced, and less ideological evaluation of the complex evo-
lution of early Modern and Modern thought.
An important step towards a re-assessment of the critical transition from Renaissance
concepts of knowledge to Modern science and epistemology was taken by Yates, who in
many of her works argued against the orthodox conception of a complete and absolute
break with tradition, espousing the view that the rise of Modern science derived its driving
force from various forms of Renaissance occultism.
Although the Yates thesis as it soon
came to be called was hardly ever accepted in its radical form,
Yatess writings have prob-
ably done more than those of any other historian to remove the ideological blinkers that had
for so long prevented a full and undogmatic look at the origins of some of our own scholarly
convictions. Were it not for her work, recent historiographies of science and philosophy
would certainly not have included, as they nowhave, authors and traditions whose position-
ing alongside Descartes or Locke would have amounted to a scandal only two decades ago.
No such development can be discerned, however, in the historiography of the language
sciences, a relatively recent oshoot of historiography and linguistics. There has been no
controversy, not even a discussion about whether or not to include the supposedly irratio-
nal conceptions of language that were advocated in Renaissance Neoplatonism. One can
hardly avoid the impression that the older historiographies gladly passed the thick and
scratched ideological glasses on to their infant sibling. In fact, the situation is even worse
than it was thirty years ago in the historiographies of philosophy and science: Neoplato-
nist authors have not even been eligible for being given short shrift. Apparently, the enemy
has not yet been identied as such. If I am lamenting the current state of aairs, this is not
See e.g. Yates (1964, 1972, 1979). Teaching at the Warburg Institute, Yates was strongly inuenced by the
Warburg tradition of interdisciplinary cultural history as represented in the work of Saxl, Panofsky, Walker, or
Gombrich. Despite the monumental work of Thorndike (19231958) and the meticulous research of Debus (e.g.
Debus, 1987, 2002), it is doubtlessly Yates who has contributed most to a revision of the way we view the
emergence of Modern scientic thought. However, from its rst formulation, the Yates thesis has been strongly
criticized, often in an unfair manner. The 1970s and 1980s in particular saw a heated debate over the Yates thesis,
repercussions of which can still be felt in present historiography. See e.g. Westman (1977), Vickers (1979, 1982,
1984, 1991), Copenhaver (1990), and Cohen (1994); for a more recent contribution, see Gatti (2002).
But see the work of Allison Coudert, a former student of Yatess, e.g. Coudert (1978, 1995, 1999).
See e.g. the extremely ambitious and reliable new edition of the Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie,
which will eventually comprise more than 30 volumes. The marvellous eight volumes on the 17th century (Die
Philosophie des 17. Jahrhundert, 19882001) include chapters on the occult tradition (vol. 1,1), Lullism (vols. 1,1
and 4,1), Tommaso Campanella (vol. 1,2), Robert Fludd (vol. 3,1), Jakob Boehme (vol. 4,1) and the reception of
Boehme in England (vol. 3,1), Thomas Browne (vol. 3,2), German Baroque mysticism (vol. 4,1), and even on the
hermetic-Neoplatonic philosophy of nature (vol. 4,1). Even the recent Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century
Philosophy has a chapter on The occultist tradition and its critics (Copenhaver, 1998).
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 371
so much because the historiography of linguistics is committing a gross error that might
easily have been avoided. The present situation is so deplorable because there is so much
to be gained, and nothing to be lost, from an investigation into occult concepts of lan-
guage. Indeed, the core questions of the Yates controversy, applied to the eld of linguistic
ideas, present themselves in such a compact, clear-cut, and tractable way that it would be
more than myopic not to deal with them.
While linguistic historians have been implicit Foucauldians in the sense sketched above, I
will take sides with Yates: the working hypothesis underlying the present study is a linguistic
version of the Yates thesis in its strongest possible variant.
Included in it are the claims that,
rstly, there is a theory underlying linguistic thought in the occult Renaissance, and sec-
ondly, it is precisely this theory of language or, as I prefer to say, metaphysics of language
that has been at the root of the evolution of theories of language through early Modern,
Modern, and postmodern times. Since the Renaissance Neoplatonist metaphysics of lan-
guage relies on a dual concept (and theory) of language (cf. Section 2), I will, wherever I feel
the need to be precise, refer to it as the two-languages metaphysics. On all other occasions,
I will for the sake of readability use the less cumbersome term linguistic Platonism.
In a recent paper on Wilkins I argued, against the prevailing historiographic doctrine,
that the universal language project of his famous Essay Towards a Real Character and a
Philosophical Language (1668) can only satisfactorily be explained as an intentionally Mod-
ern construction unintentionally erected on the Premodern foundation of linguistic Plato-
nism. The study aimed to provide sucient evidence for the clandestine intrusion of
occult thinking on language into early Modern linguistic discourse.
Tracing the presence
of linguistic Platonism into the 18th century and, briey, beyond, the present study on
Berkeley pursues two related goals. The rst is to suggest that instead of seeing Berkeley
as advocating a representational theory of language, it would make more sense to place
him in the tradition of linguistic Platonism.
At the same time, this would provide evidence
In fact, the linguistic dimension of the Yates controversy has already been invoked by one of Yatess most
relentless opponents. In one of many armed encounters (e.g. Vickers, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1991), the author sought
to strike the nal blow on the tenacious Yates thesis by making use of what he believed to be an unfailing weapon:
Saussures notion of the sign with its principle of arbitrariness (Vickers, 1984). This proved to be a sharp
instrument: it split early Modern history easily into two neat halves, separating the good from the evil, the
rational from the occult, and the modern from the pseudo-modern. A good many authors escaped with their lives.
The bloodbath has gone down in history as one of the most triumphant victories over the Yates thesis. See
Maclean (1998).
As a rst approximation to a presentational concept of language as part of a two-languages metaphysics, I
quote from the Rosicrucian manifestos, rst publicly proclaimed in 1614 and 1615 and translated into English by
Thomas Vaughan in 1652: These Characters and Letters, as God hath here and there incorporated them in the
holy Scripture the Bible, so hath he imprinted them most apparently into the Wonderful Creation of Heaven and
Earth, yea in all Beasts. [. . .] From the which Characters or Letters we have borrowed our Magick writing, and
have found out, and made a new Language for our selves, in which withall is expressed and declared the Nature of
all Things: so that it is no wonder that we are not so eloquent in other Languages, the which we know that they
are altogether disagreeing to the Language of our forefathers, Adam and Enoch, and were through the
Babylonical Confusion wholly hidden (The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity of the R. C. (Vaughan, 1652, p.
48); reprinted in Yates (1972, 318f)).
Isermann (2002).
In Foucaults analysis, both Wilkins and Berkeley gure as key representatives of the classical age of
representation. See Foucault (1970, Chap. 3). Historians of diverse disciplines place Berkeley within the
representational tradition. On Berkeleys supposedly representational theory of language, see e.g. Gelber (1952),
Armstrong (1969), Creery (1973), Land (1991, 93f, 96), Kearney (1991, p. 77), Woozley (1991).
372 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
for the background thesis that the Renaissance metaphysics of language may have been a
formative force in the evolution of modern linguistic theories. The second goal, no less
related to the overall theory, is to put what I have so far treated as the prototypical model
of linguistic Platonism to a serious test. If the two-languages metaphysics is to prove a prof-
itable historiographic concept with at least some factual relevance, it should turn out to be
as exible and adaptable a construction as the representational model that governed linguis-
tic theory formation from Aristotle through the Middle Ages into the Renaissance.
I will begin with a brief overview of the concept of the two-languages metaphysics, plac-
ing an emphasis on the presentational theory of language as its central component. Instead of
drawing on diverse Renaissance theories of language, I will, at least provisionally, assume
the models descriptive and explanatory adequacy and restrict myself to giving a concise pre-
sentation of the principal idea behind the model along with some of its more important cor-
ollaries (Section 2; Fig. 7). With the theoretical background thus outlined, I will then
attempt a new reading of George Berkeleys philosophy in terms of linguistic Platonism
(part II, Section 3). The conclusion (part II, Section 4) will be devoted to a discussion of
the ndings in the more general historical and historiographical framework sketched above.
2. Linguistic Platonism: the metaphysics of the two languages
The most striking and most general feature of linguistic Platonism, if perhaps the least
prominent, is that it is based not only on two concepts of language, but on two theories of
language. One of them is what I call a presentational theory of language, and the other that
venerable representational theory that I believe was replaced by linguistic Platonism. As
the terms suggest, the two theories are mutually incompatible. Yet neither can exist with-
out the other. This is noteworthy for at least three reasons. Firstly, it is practically without
precedent in the history of linguistic ideas.
Secondly, if linguistic Platonism allows the
coexistence of two competing theories of language, then the theoretical foundation which
supports and includes the two rival theories of language cannot itself be a theory of lan-
guage. This does not mean, however, that there is no other theory which could reconcile
the two contrary approaches to language. The metaphysics of the two languages is just
such an alternative theory, one that manages to incorporate the two theories of language
in a coherent whole.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the actual co-occurrence of the two opposing theories of
language is such that only one of them is in focus while the other acts from behind the
While dening the basic theoretical grid of theories of language over almost two millennia, the
representational model proved extremely exible and survived adjustments, alterations, renements and
amplications of diverse kinds. Why it eventually broke down is a matter of some controversy. I nd it dicult to
believe that it was broken up from within, so to speak, without there being a new mould into which to cast novel
theories of language.
A qualication of the above statement would seem to be in order here: Schmitter suggested to me (personal
communication) that what I call linguistic Platonism is a fairly accurate theoretical description of the situation at
the threshold to (Western) linguistic thought proper. Cf. Schmitters (2000) paper on Early Greek linguistic
thought, covering the time up to and including Plato, and also the brief commentary in Isermann (2002, p. 14). In
a sense, then, Renaissance Neoplatonism is a return to the Pre-Socratic, logos-based era of linguistic thinking,
which had not yet fully emancipated itself from its mythopoetic origins.
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 373
scenes. As will become more evident as the discussion proceeds (cf. Sections 3.3 and 3.4), it
is an integral part of the internal logic of linguistic Platonism that the validity, relevance
and scope of the representational theory of language is constantly suppressed in favour
of the rival theory, the presentational theory of language (cf. Fig. 7). In this respect and
in a few others too, a historian attempting to grasp and get hold of the theoretical ground-
ing of linguistic thinking in Renaissance Neoplatonism is in precisely the same position as a
historian trying to get a theoretical foothold in the undergrowth of postmodern stances on
the relationship of language, the subject, and the world: neither would hit on, let alone seri-
ously consider, the idea that the vehement attacks on representation and, even more so, on
theories of representation in the two traditions of thought might themselves form an indis-
pensable part of their theoretical underpinning (cf. Section 4) so much so that the failure
to include the negative stance towards representation in systematic or historical recon-
structions of these theoretical traditions would lead to serious distortions.
Considering that the representational theory of language is not an overly prominent ele-
ment in linguistic Platonism, and that it is at the same time a well-known phenomenon in the
history of linguistic ideas, I will be very brief in describing it, both here and in the discussion
of its role in George Berkeleys linguistic philosophy (cf. Section 3.1). The prototype of a
representational theory of language may be represented schematically as in Fig. 1.
The vertical arrangement of the elements that enter into the chain of signication is
meant to mirror a kind of hierarchy both of being and of sign-being. There is a clear
and radical distinction between sign and signied to the eect that each signied level
has logical and ontological priority over all other levels by which it is mediately or imme-
diately signied. The further away one moves from the world of things, which gives mean-
ing and direction to the process of signication, the stronger the semiotic burden placed on
the sign. So while the world is what is ultimately signied without being itself a sign with
respect to something else, writing as a kind of third-order sign gures as the ultimate sign,
both semiotically charged and ontologically discharged. Due to the strict separation of
sign and signied, any token of a theory of language based on such a representational
model is bound to restrict the function of language or writing to the (mediate or immedi-
ate) communication of ideas. Assuming the vantage point of contemporary non-represen-
tational theories of language, one might alternatively say that for a linguistic theory to
assign to language some cognitive role for the formation of thought apparently requires
the representational straitjacket to be either removed or at least gradually unfastened.
By and large, historians of linguistics have taken the latter path in describing the evolution
of 20th-century linguistic theories (cf. part II, Section 4).
Let me now turn to the more dominant part of linguistic Platonism, the presentational
theory of language. Throughout the simplied discussion, I will exemplify some of the
writing (written words)

language (spoken words)

thought (concepts, ideas)

world (things)
Fig. 1. A simple representational model of language.
For x !y read x signies/is a sign of/represents y.
374 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
more central corollaries of the presentational view on language by referring to one of the
numerological tables in Book II of Agrippas De occulta philosophia, the rst complete ver-
sion of which was published in 1533 (see Fig. 2). A couple of additional illustrations have
been included in the appendix to help the reader gain a more concrete impression of both
the principle and the corollaries of a presentational concept of language.
Through the Renaissance into the early Enlightenment, the presentational theory of
language informs two complementary and equally traditional concepts: that of a lingua
adamica and that of a language of nature. While the rst evokes theological speculations
regarding both the origin and the goal of an original and eschatological union of words,
things, and knowledge, the second is indicative of a deep condence in a timeless presence
of Gods word in the world. Despite the shift of emphasis, the underlying conceptions of
how language, thought and things are related are fundamentally the same. Due to an
essentially linguistic act of divine creation, language and writing (and thought) are no
longer seen as being logically, ontologically, or chronologically secondary to things. On
the contrary, not only language and the world, but also thought and writing, are all on
the same level (Fig. 3).
The four distinct ontological levels have shrunk to one. As a result, whatever property
was, in the representational model, peculiar to any one level in the chain of signication
can now be predicated of all other levels: there is life in words and letters, things are writ-
ten or contain words, sounds are dumb, letters speak or have concepts, the world has a
soul, and so forth. The basic semiotic principle behind such conation of formerly distinct
ontological levels is the essential identity of sign and signied, a principle for which I can
hardly imagine a better illustration than van Helmonts (1667) reconstructions of the true
and original form of Hebrew characters.
In fact, the idea of a close anity between sign
and signied had always been a constant feature of Neoplatonic theories. However, not
until the emergence of Renaissance Neoplatonism did the anity merge into an essential
In Renaissance occultism, as well as in most other versions of Neoplatonism,
the convergence of sign and signied is typically guaranteed by the cosmogenic process
of emanation: in a movement of progressive creation, the divine word (including its pro-
creative powers) passes itself on to what it rst creates and from there to whatever else it
emanates into, leaving behind imprints of correspondence that were often understood as
signatures or hieroglyphs of things.
When in the late 15th and early 16th century
the cabbala was incorporated into the body of Renaissance Neoplatonist sources, this pro-
vided an opportunity for the established idea of a verbal process of emanation which had
For x My read x and y mutually signify each other.
See Fig. 10 in the appendix. Van Helmont denies any real distinction between sign (here: writing) and signied
(here: sounds), arming their essential identity as written, animate sound-things or dynamic, articulatory
Cf. e.g. Gombrich (1948, pp. 170177), Love (1972, p. 161), Vickers (1984, 125f), and Eco (1991, Chaps. 12.4
Cf. Meier-Oeser (1997, 341). On the doctrine of signatures, see Peuckert (1967, pp. 7892) and Klein (1992,
pp. 121144). Owing to the concept of emanation, the crucial dierence between Neoplatonist or Christian
Neoplatonist doctrines of cosmogony and, say, Christian theories in the Aristotelian tradition of the Middle Ages
is that in the rst God is conceived as world-immanent, while in the latter tradition he is viewed as a transcendent
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 375
long been associated with prelapsarian Hebrew to be elaborated upon and eshed out.
Characteristically, Gods pronouncing of the things to be created was understood to have
been by means of his own names, which, according to cabbalist lore, added up to 72.
Fig. 2. Section from Agrippas scale of the number four (Agrippa 1553[1967]: cx[123]).
writing language thought world
Fig. 3. A simple presentational model of language.
376 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
In Agrippas numerological tables (1533[1967] II: ciiicxxxv[115147]), the Hebrew
names of God inhabit the archetypal world, containing, as it were, the types of the
divine font, arranged in words or signatures by the divine typesetter, ready for press.
It is through them that God emanates into the world. In the Scale of the Four
(Fig. 2), the most secret and powerful of all divine names, the Tetragrammaton, ema-
nates into the worlds of quaternities. The essential identity of all items in the same col-
umn, material or immaterial, is guaranteed by the original position of the archetypal
letter of the Tetragrammaton, which is imprinted on them as part of their signature.
In typical Renaissance fashion, the Agrippean cosmos is divided hierarchically into, rst,
the intellectual world inhabited by purely intellectual beings, second, the celestial world
of pure mathematical entities, and third, the elemental world of material things. This
conventional tripartite universe is characteristically supplemented by the lesser world,
i.e. man. This arrangement is intended to mirror the emanation process and the degree
of ontological dignity decreasing from top to bottom, so that the vertical sequence of
quaternities within each world is again ranked.
Fig. 4 tries to capture the cosmological
(objectification of subject)
Fig. 4. Plurality of worlds and signication relations in Agrippas correspondence tables: multiple signication,
mutual signication and innite semiosis.
In my account I disregard everything that is peculiar to Agrippa and concentrate on what is typical of the
whole tradition. The same applies to the descriptive vocabulary, which for illustrations sake harnesses the typical
Neoplatonic terms and concepts, regardless of whether or not they are employed by Agrippa. Among other
things, this means that I do not claim to give an interpretation of Agrippas scale within an Agrippean
framework. Thus Agrippas concern with magic, for example, which implies that each inferior world is inuenced
by each superior world, is not taken into account. Similarly, both the description of the plurality of worlds (cf.
Fig. 4) and the section from Agrippas Scale of the number Four (cf. Fig. 2) neglect the infernal world, a
supplementary world which owes its existence to Agrippas emphasis on magic and his focus on the cabbala. Cf.
Nowotnys commentary in Agrippa ab Nettesheym (1967, p. 428). Little is known about the origin of Agrippas
numerological tables, which were rst included in the 1533 edition. For a late version of such correspondence
tables, cf. Kirchers musicological adaptation in Musurgia universalis (1650 II, p. 393) in the appendix (Fig. 9).
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 377
grid of Renaissance correspondence tables in the tradition of Agrippas Scale of the
Four (Fig. 2).
In interpreting Agrippas scale, it is essential to note that sign-signied relationships
hold only on the vertical, not on the horizontal level. The order of items on the horizontal
level is, however, no less critical than the vertical order of the chain of signication. Prop-
erly speaking, signs in such a linguistic framework do not signify in virtue of any inherent
signifying potential. In fact, there is no such thing as an individual sign in the language of
nature. Instead, it is the systematic and meaningful position of each item in a world or sub-
world (here: the subworlds of quaternities) that enables it to signify other items occupying
the same position in their subworld. In a sense, then, signifying potential is conferred on
each sign and signied by the sign system (here: a world or subworld). A single, isolated or
worldless thing cannot, in principle, acquire signifying function. This is because, unlike in
an Aristotelian building block-ontology, discrete and self-contained things are incompat-
ible with a Neoplatonist framework. It would seem justied to say that a Neoplatonist
model favours a holistic view of complex congurations in that it assigns logical priority
to the emanational wholes, at the expense of the individual items of which they are made
up. In Agrippas tables, the systematic coherence of the elements within each (horizontal)
world or subworld derives from the systematic lexico-grammatological coherence of the
divine characters that constitute the various names of God. The particular context of cab-
balist onomastics aside, the holistic outlook of Neoplatonist thought is, of course, a nat-
ural consequence of the fact that all individual things cohere, and partake of their origin,
in the ineable one. Without this unifying and all-encompassing source of all being, the
idea of a correspondence of worlds would make no sense. To the extent, then, that the
principle of emanation and the doctrine of the correspondence of worlds is more than a
decorative element of Renaissance Neoplatonism, the systematicity of signs and things
is built into it.
The semiotic consequences of this one-level onto-semiology put the model in stark con-
trast to the Aristotelian, representational tradition. If sign and signied are essentially
identical in virtue of their carrying the same original imprint, then it follows that the sig-
nication relation works in two directions. The relationship between any two items in any
of the four vertical sequences is such that they mutually signify each other (cf. Fig. 4). By
the same token, the signied can be said to be part of, or inside, the sign. At least in a semi-
otic sense, the signied cannot be said to be external to the sign. Thus, for example, the
sound of the letter Aleph cannot be said to be external to the letter in van Helmonts
reconstruction (see Fig. 8 in the appendix), any more than the letter can be said to be exter-
nal to the articulated sound. Moreover, with mutual signication extending over the whole
chain, each item is a multiple sign of all other items (cf. Fig. 4). Owing to the principle of
sign-signied identity, however, multiple signication will never result in polysemy or
imprecise signication. Instead, signication is unique. Mutual and multiple signication,
in turn, give rise to innite semiosis (cf. Fig. 4): Whatever and in whichever direction a sign
signies, the signied will always be a sign; and so the process of signication continues,
with no possibility of termination in an ultimate signied. Technically speaking, the signi-
cation process would not come to a halt until the individual involved in it opted out.
As to the more strictly linguistic consequences, it is clear that such a language of nature
cannot be used by a member of a speech community in order to refer to, or predicate, any-
thing. Whatever the language can refer to is already built into it. The language of nature is
an autonomous, self-sucient and auto-referential system of sign-things that cannot be said
378 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
to signify by convention. Nor do the words and letters of the divine language seem to be
able to signify arbitrarily.
That the language cannot be used does not, however, mean
that it is useless. Its function is to present to any attentive hearer-reader whatever is pres-
ent in it: Nature presents, and instructs us in, its own meaning. This, again, means that lin-
guistics and science meet in one: to understand nature is to be capable of reading the
letters, or deciphering the hieroglyphs, of nature. The identity of language and nature also
implies that the language of nature cannot be learned or taught in the conventional senses
of these words, i.e. by self- or other-initiated practice. Instead, access to the language has
to be prepared by secret rites of initiation, granted by some supernatural power or by the
language itself, achieved by intuition or guaranteed by some pre-established harmony
between an individual and the world.
Beside the semiotic and linguistic consequences ensuing from a presentational theory of
language, there are also some whose relevance to a theory of language is not immediately
apparent. One of the more important of these has to do with what I call the de-subjecti-
cation or the objectication of the subject.
Let me briey explain what I mean by these
terms. In the foregoing discussion, I have deliberately described the corollaries of a presen-
tational view of language from the perspective of the impartial observer or, which is the
same, from outside the language of nature. However, this perspective creates a distorted
picture of the theory. For if the language of nature indeed encompasses the whole of cre-
ation, then its scope must also include the subject that experiences, or argues for, the con-
gruence of language and nature. Rather than being in the position of the lord of the sign,
as the one who establishes, controls and understands the signication relation from the
outside, the subject is itself, with a Foucauldian pun, subjected to the all-encompassing
grip of the language of nature. It is as much sign and signied and bearer of a hidden sig-
nature as anything else in the universe. Accordingly, the procedure of reading or under-
standing the language of nature cannot be construed in terms of an activity carried out
by an agent. Instead, it requires that the subject be stripped of all his regalia such as
the dominion over thought, things and language, thereby assimilating itself to the things
and signs of the language of nature. It is this self-sacricing transition of the subject into
the realm of objects in an eort to partake of the knowledge deposited in the language of
nature that is at the bottom of Renaissance Neoplatonic conceptions of the relationship
between man and nature.
The best-known elaboration of this gure of thought, and
no doubt historically the most signicant, has been known under the name of microcosm.
Here, in the image of man as the lesser world, several central ideas of the occult tradition
have been joined and frozen in a multi-faceted picture of immense historical power: the
But see Sections 3.5. and 4.
Cf. the brief discussion in Isermann (1999, p. 108) of what I then called the exteriorization of the subject.
Therefore, says Boehme in De signatura rerum, the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein
man may not only learn to know himself, but therein also he may learn to know the essence of all essences
(1969[1651], Chap. 1). The occult tradition knew two ways to achieve, or rather to experience, this de-
subjectication. The older method, chosen by German speculative mysticism as represented by Meister Eckart
(12601327/8) or Sebastian Franck (14991543), was that of mystical contemplation or the immersion of the
subject in the thinking process. Most authors in the magia naturalis tradition followed the opposite route. Thus,
authors such as Agrippa, Fludd and Paracelsus relied on a kind of ekstasis, i.e. the subjects standing outside of
itself. In Renaissance Neoplatonism, both ways have to be understood as a means whereby the subject abandons
dominion over, and tunes in with, the chain of signication. On the subjects union with the object in the esoteric
tradition, see, e.g., Pagel (1979, 57f).
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 379
idea that man is the sum of the (antecedently) created world, the belief that man is not the
subject of knowing, the concept of correspondences, and the insistence on mans assimila-
tion to the world of objects as a precondition for real knowledge.
If a presentational theory of language does not allow for a subject, then, by the same
token, there is no room in it for objects (of knowledge) either. Viewed from within the lan-
guage of nature, the distinction of subject and object is completely removed. Whatever is,
partakes of language, thought, and the world in the same way, though perhaps in diering
degrees as one moves up or down the chain of being and sign-being.
Adding to this critical state of aairs, the concept of the object is undermined from still
another angle. This time, however, it is not the concept itself of an object that is under
threat so much as the unity and the integrity of the things that seem to represent the
objects of knowledge. Let us have another look at the chain of signication as exemplied
by Agrippas Scale of the Four (Fig. 2): at rst sight, the items connected through the
chain of multiple and mutual signication present themselves as distinct and discrete
objects of knowledge. From what I have argued above, however, it is clear that to know
one of them is to know all. And to know all is to experience the whole chain of signica-
tion as having a unity that is absent from any of its parts. In this sense, knowledge of what
something is or means is preserved outside the thing to be known. It presupposes the
knowledge of other things that carry the same imprint. Thus, for example, in order for
van Helmont to acquire real knowledge about the form and interrelation of the original
Hebrew characters, he has to investigate the forms and movements of the sounds signied
by them (cf. Fig. 8 in the appendix). Now it is imperative to see that the overall unity of the
seemingly distinct things united in a chain of signication is not the unity of a kind of
things. For the items that enter into a sign-signied relationship clearly lack the integrity,
autonomy and discreteness that is characteristic of substances in the Aristotelian tradition.
Instead, we should say that the diverse substances, being truly of one substaunce and
the same eect (Top, 1603, D3 r), distribute, or are dispersed,
over the whole chain
of signication, thus yielding a kind of multiple substance.
There are many other facets of a presentational theory of language that would merit
mention in a study devoted either to Agrippa or to linguistic Platonism in general. Thus,
for example, one might point to the close vicinity of Renaissance magic as exemplied by
Agrippa and the principle of a presentational theory of language. Once it is agreed that
sign and signied are essentially the same, it is only a small step to the notion that by
manipulating the sign one might also manipulate the signied. However, instead of pursu-
ing the presentational paradigm in greater detail, I would like to conclude this section by
tying the closer inspection of the presentational theory of language back to the more gen-
eral theory of linguistic Platonism of which it partakes. Why is it that a presentational the-
ory of language cannot live on its own? Why does there need to be another theory of
The answer to these questions is intimately bound up with the following dilemma: If the
set of axioms and corollaries presented above is what language looks like from a presen-
tational point of view, the problem naturally arises as to how it should be possible for
I am taking up here another of Foucaults favourite terms. Note that the dispersion of the subject (e.g.
Foucault, 1972, p. 55) is a natural corollary of occult theories of language in that it follows quite naturally from
the thingness, or objectication, of the subject, itself a consequence of the equation of sign and signied, or
language and the world.
380 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
anyone to talk or write about it. Theoretically, the concept of a language of nature, taken
in itself, requires those who believe in it to remain silent and keep the ineable to them-
selves. In that sense, a presentational concept of language is inherently esoteric. A repre-
sentational model of language, on the other hand, is inherently exoteric: the sole reason for
there to be language is the communication of ideas. Nevertheless, Renaissance authors,
over and above writing about the Adamic language, the doctrine of signatures or the hiero-
glyphs of nature, went as far as to expound its virtues and structure as well as to instruct
the readers in, or at least encourage them to learn, the divine idiom. Those who did so were
well aware that what they did was in patent contradiction to the principles of the true lan-
guage of nature. The inconsistency being inescapable, they had to accept, if only reluc-
tantly and provisionally, the existence and validity of a communicative, representational
language that could be used by speakers and writers to refer to objects, including the lan-
guage of nature. With the exception of Boehme and a few others, Renaissance authors
conceived of the idiom they used for communication as a dierent kind of language,
one that was barren, dumb and decient relative to the true language of nature. It is this
paradoxical situation, then, which provides a theory-internal reason for why Renaissance
Neoplatonist accounts of language have to draw on two languages and on two theories of
language. Combining Figs. 1 and 4, we can schematize the double-theory structure of lin-
guistic Platonism provisionally as given in Fig. 5.
The argument from consistency aside, there is also independent historical conrma-
tion for the assumption that in order to provide the background for Renaissance spec-
ulations on a language of nature, a presentational theory of language needs to be
complemented by a second theory of language. Among the features that distinguish
Renaissance Neoplatonism from its ancient and medieval predecessors, there are two
whose joint occurrence must have been instrumental in bringing about linguistic Plato-
nism. One is the aforementioned radical interpretation of the Neoplatonic sign-signied
anity as essential identity, a gradual process that appears to have been completed with
Agrippa at the latest.
The other is the reanimation of the Platonic metaphysics of the
two worlds.
The latter point needs some clarication. While far from being universally
accepted by historians of philosophy, the metaphysics of the two worlds, one intelligible
and the other sensible, is doubtless the most widely accepted interpretation of Platonic
metaphysics. Even less controversial, however, is the view that one of the characteristic
eorts of ancient and medieval Neoplatonism (Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, John Sco-
tus Eriugena, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and others), if not of Neoplatonism in
general, has been to overcome the strict separation of the worlds of ideas and sense
world thought language writing

Fig. 5. Linguistic Platonism: a two-theories-of-language theory.
See Vickers (1984, 125f). Cf. the references in note 15.
Cf. MacDonald Ross (1998, p. 214).
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 381
as exemplied by the canonical understanding of Platonic metaphysics, in favour of a
unied worldview, hence the central importance and interdependence in all forms of
Neoplatonism of the concepts of a supreme and transcendental one, the graded cos-
mos, and the principle of emanation. It seems fair to say, then, that the conceptual
scheme of Neoplatonism makes it rather resistant, though not impervious, to an incor-
poration of the two-worlds theory. On the other hand, the Platonic antagonism between
the realm of ideas and that of matter survived into Neoplatonist metaphysics as, respec-
tively, the rst and last emanation, the polarity between the sensible and the intelligible
being only backgrounded by the intermediate emanations that link the two principles in
ordered succession. As a consequence, emanationist theories lent themselves not only to
idealist (Plotinus, Iamblichus), but also to predominantly materialist (Giordano Bruno)
and dualist interpretations (Dee, Fludd, van Helmont and other Renaissance Neoplaton-
ists). Why the latter began to ourish in Renaissance Neoplatonism is to some extent a
matter of speculation. It is, however, not implausible to assume that the suppressed
metaphysics of the two worlds was brought to the fore during the Renaissance by
explicitly dualistic doctrines such as gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and other elements of
hermeticism, all of which merged into the eclectic tradition known as Renaissance
Seeing that the Platonic metaphysics of the two worlds is intimately bound up with the
companion doctrine of the two modes of knowledge (intellectual intuition and sense expe-
rience), it does not come as a surprise that Renaissance authors regularly contrast two
approaches to the knowledge of things, or two concepts of science. The ignorant are said
to pursue the shadow-sciences, yielding merely pseudo-knowledge, while the real sci-
ences of the cognoscenti deal with the concealed nature of things.
Now whatever the complex historical reasons for the presence of the two features of
Renaissance Neoplatonism that I have been foregrounding, it is immediately obvious
that their concurrence has far-reaching consequences: If the two-worlds metaphysics
meets with the concept of sign-signied identity, it will inevitably give rise to a corre-
sponding two-languages metaphysics; not in the sense that as a result there are several
metaphysics, but in the sense that the Platonic metaphysics is now susceptible to an
interpretation in linguistic terms. The two worlds can now be addressed as two lan-
guages, one sensible, immanent, changing and imperfect, the other transcendent, perfect,
objective and accessible to reason only, in short: a Real Language (Comenius,
1938[1668], p. 187). By the same token, the dual theory of things implicit in the Pla-
tonic two-world-metaphysics is bound to return as an implicit double theory of lan-
guage. This, then, is the systematic explanation for the emergence of the metaphysics
of the two languages.
It is perhaps not amiss to note at this point that the somewhat problematic relationship
discussed above between the ontology of the two worlds and the graded multiplicity of
A typical description of the double system of sciences is provided by Dee in the dedication to the Monas
hieroglyphica (1564): [T]his is not the place to compare the several honest sciences with their false rivals, vague as
shadows, those odious, tiresome [subjects], useless to human society [. . .]. Let everybody thus get his due: Let us
ascribe trumpery, error, and all [manner] of impiety to those vulgar sciolists, who not only pursue eagerly the
shadows of great arts, but also falsify and counterfeit them in a most wicked way [. . .]. The ignorant, rash, and
presumptuous apes grasp mere shadows, naked and inane, while the wise philosophers enjoy the solid doctrine
and very pleasing eects of the [real] bodies (1964[1564], 143f.). Cf. Fig. 12 (Appendix).
382 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
worlds in Neoplatonist cosmologies reappears on the level of languages. On the one hand,
the history of languages was characteristically construed in the Renaissance as a history of
gradual decay. In a manner reminiscent of the concept of emanation, languages were
understood to have ultimately originated from Hebrew, the Adamic language if not
the language of creation, the perfection and dignity of a particular idiom decreasing with
the number of intermediate parent tongues. The implication seems to have been that, in
full accordance with the Neoplatonist concept of emanation, even the most imperfect
(and most recent) vernaculars contained traces of their original purity and naturalness,
arbitrary human additions and interferences notwithstanding. And although the natural
starting point for historical linguistic reconstructions of the original language was Hebrew,
it being assumed to have come down in a tradition unbroken by an intermediate parent
language, the emanationist framework permitted, in principle, to seek the original lan-
guage of nature in any of the more distant idioms; hence the vernacular mysticism of
Boehme. And yet such universal belief in the great chain of languages, in the universal
harmony of a graded cosmos of idioms, which spawned so many historical and compar-
ative linguistic projects in the Renaissance, did not prevent the same authors from embrac-
ing the metaphysics of the two languages, i.e. the theory that there is a radical distinction
between the perfect, original language of nature and all other, more or less imperfect
media of communication.
If the reasoning has been sound, we should expect two more pairs of theories, or vari-
ants of the two-worlds metaphysics, to emerge from the aforementioned concurrence.
Since the sign-signied identity aects all levels in the chain of signication (cf. Fig. 1),
not just the relationship between language and the world, it will also yield an implicit dual
psychology (each with its proper kind of ideas/concepts as its object) and an implicit dual
grammatology (with two kinds of letters/writing). And in accordance with the Platonic
logic of the two worlds and the two modes of knowledge, it can be supposed that one
in each pair of disciplines will deal with real, true, universal but concealed objects, the
other with their imperfect and particular sensible manifestations. Thus real grammatology,
for example, would deal with the 22 Hebrew letters, not those external ones which are
vulgarly painted out with Ink or Art, which are but shadows, but the ery formal and
bright spiritual letters which were ingraven [. . .] by the ery word of the eternal Speaker
in the beginning.
In its totality, then, the complex theoretical basis of Renaissance Neo-
platonism takes the shape of a fourfold metaphysics (Fig. 6).
Considering that neither dual grammatology nor dual psychology gure as premises in
the present line of argument, a few remarks about how they make themselves felt in the
occult Renaissance will suce here. Dual grammatology is an implicit premise of Neopla-
tonic treatises on writing such as, for example, those by Dee (1564), Top (1603), van Hel-
mont (1667) and, arguably, Wilkins (1668). To varying degrees, all of these authors
denounce conventional, sound-representing, i.e. meaningless writing systems as corrupt,
while simultaneously exploiting them as a means to introduce, commend, or recover
(i.e., communicate) the true, meaningful and original alphabet or writing of nature,
This holds even in the case where the distinction between the language of nature and the arbitrary languages
of communication runs through one and the same historical idiom, as in Boehmes discussion of German, van
Helmonts and Tops understanding of Hebrew (cf. Figs. 8 and 11) and, arguably, in Wilkinss universal
character, if used for the communication of ideas (Fig. 13) or the representation of sounds (Fig. 14).
Fludd, Mosaicall Philosophy (1659, p. 161) (see also Fig. 8).
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 383
having nothing which does not bear a meaning whether in its matter or in its form
(Comenius, 1938[1668], p. 186). It is in this sense that these treatises rely on two theories
of writing.
Dual psychology, on the other hand, does not lend itself so easily to illustra-
tion. It is, however, a common element in Renaissance Neoplatonic epistemologies. More
often than not, occult doctrines include a level of innate, virtual, and largely inaccessible
ideas which is assumed to be eclipsed by another level of actual, conscious, corrupt ideas.
Seen from the perspective of the double psychology, de-subjectication would then be the
process through which a subject disposes of its actual ideas in order to reach the deep
structure of subject-less, innate ideas.
I have touched upon the topic of the multiplication of the two-worlds ontology in
Renaissance Neoplatonism chiey in the interest of comprehensiveness. In what follows,
I will concentrate on linguistic Platonism, using the expression as a cover term for both
the grammatological and the verbal version of the two-worlds metaphysics, and disregard-
ing the mental variant altogether. To conclude this section, I would like to present the
results of the foregoing discussion in a synopsis that lists the axioms and corollaries of
both the presentational and the representational theory of language as they form part
of linguistic Platonism (Fig. 7).
The prediction, of course, is that instead of living erratically side by side, in linguistic
Platonism the two theories of languages will relate to each other in precisely the same
way as do the worlds of sense and ideas in a Platonic metaphysics of the two worlds.
Cf. the illustrations of Dees search for the arche-writing (presented in conventional Latin; Fig. 12), Tops
attempt to reconstruct the divine hand through its extant remains, the conventional alphabets (Fig. 11), van
Helmonts restoration of prelapsarian Hebrew (Fig. 8), Wilkinss real and philosophical language (Fig. 13), and
his phonetic character, designed to deal with (the sounds of) proper names (Fig. 14). Cf. also the concept of a
magic writing in the Rosicrucian manifestos (note 7).
Cf. Isermann (2002) for the argument that Wilkinss Essay (1668) relies on an implicit double psychology. For
a more explicit account, see, e.g., Comenius (1938[1668], pp. 186189).
writing WRITING
language LANGUAGE
thought THOUGHT
world WORLD
two-worlds theory/
dual science

Fig. 6. The complex metaphysical structure of Renaissance Neoplatonism.

384 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
But I will not argue here that this was indeed the case in occult theories of language.
Instead, the Platonic relationship between the two theories of language will be given
due attention in the discussion of George Berkeleys metaphysics of language (cf. part
II, Sections 3.3 and 3.4), to which I proceed in part II.
I have received assistance from a number of colleagues and friends. Jan Wittmann
urged me to rewrite the introduction. George McDonald Ross kindly ignored my lack
of understanding when he responded to a host of questions concerning Neoplatonism in
the Renaissance. I thank Dieter Schulz for his close reading of, and thoughtful comments
on, the rst version, and for nights of discussions on Berkeley, wild apples, and other
theory of language
theory of language
semiotic principle: identity of sign and signified alterity of sign and signified
semiotic and no priority of sign or signified priority of signified over sign
linguistic corollaries: cognitive communicative
mutual signification unidirectional signification
multiple signification simple signification
infinite semiosis finite semiosis
systematicity non-systematicity
bilateral sign unilateral sign
natural arbitrary
immutable changing in time
inbuilt reference reference to external things
cannot be used can be used
other corollaries: dissolution of subject-object dis-
clear separation of subject/object
heteronomy of substances autonomy of substances
convergence of linguistics/
divergence of linguistics/science
Fig. 7. A synopsis of linguistic Platonism.
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 385
matters. Kay Hodgson did a wonderful job when she polished and nished more than the
stylistic surface. If I have said something plainly and clearly, it is her merit. Finally, and
with sadness, I express deep thanks to Peter Schmitter, who is no longer with us, for his
encouragement and sustained friendship. I dedicate this paper to his memory.
Appendix. See Figs. 814.
Fig. 8. Visible sounds and speaking characters: van Helmonts (1667) empirical restoration of the original form
of Hebrew characters.
386 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
Fig. 9. Kirchers sympathetic harmony of the world from Musurgia universalis (1650), a late example of a
Renaissance correspondence table.
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 387
Fig. 10. Agrippa (1533 I, Chap. lxxiv: De proportione, correspondentia, reductione literarum ad signa coelestia
et planetas secundum varias linguas): a correspondence table of alphabetical letters, celestial and mundane, with
dignity of essence and magical ecacy decreasing from left to right.
388 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
Fig. 11. For we account of Letters as Strangers, whose faces we only know; and not as friendes, whose hart, and
true meaning we understand: Table from Tops attempt at a reunication of letters in the grammatological
treatise The Oliue Leafe (1603).
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 389
Fig. 12. My gift [. . .] is woven together by a manner of writing in which up to the present day [. . .] no work has
ever been composed: Dees grammatological study Monas hieroglyphica (1564) traces the nature of all letter-
things back to just one all-encompassing character: the original, cosmic hieroglyph.
390 M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395
Fig. 13. Double grammatology in Wilkinss Essay Towards a Real Character (1668); note that the (transliterated)
corrupt alphabets/writing systems are bracketed by the real characters of the rst and the last language, with
English being given pride of place.
M.M. Isermann / Language & Communication 27 (2007) 369395 391
Fig. 14. Dumb (phonographic) and speaking (phono-expressive) letters in Wilkinss (1668) version of a real
character of sounds, designed to express (Biblical and other) proper names.
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