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aeschylus's avatar

What is the name of this linguist/philosopher?

Asked by aeschylus (665points) February 9th, 2010

I read some time ago about an english linguist or encyclopedist of some kind who set out to give a number to everything in the world, so that everything would be uniquely identified. I think he was working in the 17th or 18th century. I’m hoping someone knows who this dude is. I’m not thinking of that passage from Gulliver’s Travels in which one of the projectors is trying to synthesize all of human knowledge by randomly arranging letters. This was a real guy. Please help.

It now occurs to me that I may have read this in one of the bibliographies of Chomsky’s three seminal papers on generative grammar, but I’m not sure.

Thanks in advance everyone!

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9 Answers

Trillian's avatar

It wasn’t Dewey, was it?

aeschylus's avatar

That’s funny, I posted this question on reddit and that was also the first response. John Dewey was an American utilitarian from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He developed the “dewey decimal system” for cataloging books. As I said in the question, I’m looking for some English guy from the 17th or 18th century who wanted to assign a unique number or set of numbers to each thing, not just books.

Thanks for answering, though. I hope more will chime in!

Trillian's avatar

Ok, just a wild guess. Not to be pedantic, but have you called and asked the reference desk at your local library?

janbb's avatar

Librarian here. I don’t know the name you are looking for, but if I have a snow day tomorrow and no-one else has come up with it, I’ll see what I can find. By the way, John Dewey is the educator but it was Melvil Dewey who came up with the eponymous classification system. Just to be pedantic.

janbb's avatar

Bingo! You can’t keep a good librarian down. Here’s what you are looking for, I believe.

aeschylus's avatar

@janbb Pedantry always appreciated. Thanks for the correction.

And btw, that was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you so much!

lilikoi's avatar

Wow, that was amazing @janbb – what an interesting article!

LostInParadise's avatar

@janbb Very interesting. I wonder if Linnaeas knew about Wilkins.

garydale's avatar

I believe you are talking about Cave Beck ( who created Universal Character, though there were attempts to make languages that categorized words by sounds. One of the best was a contemporary of Isaac Newton, John Wilkins ( Arika Okrent spends some time discussing Wilkins in her book on constructed languages. I found it completely interesting and posted about it here:

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