The Divine Reason of Speech: Classical Theories of Language
From the very earliest days of classical history, language was recognised as perhaps the most singularly significant factor which defined human beings as distinct from the animal kingdom. The Greek rhetorician Isocrates (436-338 bc) argued:
In most of out abilities we differ not at all from the animals; we are in fact behind many in swiftness and strength and other resources. But because there is born in us the power to persuade each other and to show ourselves whatever we wish, we not only have escaped from living as brutes, but also by coming together have founded cities and set up laws and invented arts, and speech has helped us attain practically all of the things we have devised. For it is speech that has made laws about justice and injustice and honor and disgrace, without which provisions we should not be able to live together. By speech we refute the wicked and praise the good. By speech we educate the ignorant and inform the wise. We regard the ability to speak properly as the best sign of intelligence, and truthful, legal and just speech is the reflection of a good and trustworthy soul (Isocrates, Speech to Nicocles or the Cyprians, section 6).
What is worth noting from this, is the idea not only that speech (not writing) is seen as the key element of language, but that there is a clear sense that it is what humans can achieve with language which sets them apart – not simply that they posses it.
You might notice from the lists above that those key aspects which Isocrates identifies as central to the value and significance of language all seem to revolve around the human capacity to express reason. It is about the capacity for logical persuasion, and for educating. This sense of reason is encapsulated in the Greek word logos – which is here being translated as 'speech'. 'Logos' is also translated as 'reason' or ‘word’, and it is frequently used in Greek writings with a kind of semi-religious awe. This 'word' is in some respects divine – the divine logos. Heraclitus, writing around 500 bc, described how “all things come to pass in accordance with this Word” (Fragments). It is this sense of the divinity of reason and speech which the Biblical writer John was drawing on in his gospel, when he begins:
In the beginning, was the Word. (John 1:1)
The 'word' here has the same conflated sense of being both to do with language and reason and divinity, because John's target audience was primarily one which would have been familiar with Greek models of philosophy and theology.
This combination of speech and divine reason meant that for the Greeks language linguistic aptitude was something to be treated with awe. The poet Homer, with his extraordinary skill in words, was not only seen for centuries as a “repository of moral and historical truths” by the Greeks (Harris and Talbot, 1989. p. xii), but he also shaped the emergence of a classical civilization, turning its initial values and ideals into a doctrine of heroism that shaped countless succeeding generations (Kim, 2010).
This Greek vase shows a scene from Homer’s epic poem The Iliad
Those who were good with language were considered 'wise men', or 'Sophists', and the teaching of language was often focused on its function in oratory and debate (O’Grady, 2008).
This valuation of language continued into the period of Roman supremacy, as the Roman's largely lifted many of the philosophical roots of Greek civilisation and planted them firmly at the heart of Roman culture. It is possible, during this period, to see a distinct division of language into three components:
- Grammar: The components of language, and the ability to express it (this included those aspects of technical composition in poetry)
- Logic: The capacity to turn grammatical expressions into logical and reasoned arguments
- Rhetoric: The capacity to frame those arguments in speech designed to persuade
Surrounding these three components of language, theories tended to revolve around one of three central questions (these have been drawn from Harris and Talbot, 1989. p. xiii):
- Is language something we are born with, or is it simply a convention – a habit or a skill which we human societies have developed and evolved over time, like ship-building or masonry? It is, perhaps, easy to see that this is a question which has continued to fascinate linguistic theorists right up to the present day, and is encapsulated in the 'nature vs nurture' debate as well as the debate between B. F. Skinner's behaviouristic theories of language, and Chomsky's theories of 'Universal Grammar'.
- Is language regular? This debate was divided between the analogists – who believed that all human language was essentially regular – and the anomalists – who didn't. For the analogists, the study of language involved “the establishment of the various models … [by which the regular words of the language could be classified” (Lyons, 1968. p. 6). An example of this regularity might be to suggests that there is a systematic distinction which can be made between the singular and the plural, and language can demonstrate this by adding 's' to the end of the singular (i.e., 'book' = singular, 'books' = plural). This, analogists argued, is how language should be organised. Anomalists, but contrast, “pointed to the many instances of irregular words for the formation of which analogical reasoning is of no avail” (Lyons, 1968. p. 7). In other words, there are so many instances which break from the rules or regularity (i.e. 'child' = singular, 'child's' = possessive, 'children' = plural), that language could never be made to fit such a regular pattern of analysis.
- How many parts of speech are there? This question, perhaps the least sexy, has rarely excited much interest since Priscian wrote his grammar of Latin around 500 ad.
Plato: The Cratylus Dialogue
One of the major theoretical consideration of the functions of language belonging to this era is that which Plato recorded in his Cratylus Dialogue (427-348 bc). It is a fictional re-telling of a debate between Socrates and Hermogenes on the nature of names. What, the question is, constitutes a name? Is the name of a thing defined by universal acceptance of what the thing itself is, or is a name an arbitrary label which is pinned on an object, and which can be arbitrarily changed with no ill effect?
Here is Hermogenes summing up his own point of view:
For my part, Socrates, I have often talked with Cratylus and many others, and cannot come to the conclusion that there is any correctness of names other than convention and agreement. For it seems to me that whatever name you give to a thing is its right name; and if you give up that name and change it for another, the later name is no less correct than the earlier (Plato, Cratylus).
Socrates disagrees. For him, such a point of view argues for chaos and a lack of any real communication at all. All things, he argues,
have some fixed reality of their own, not in relation to us nor caused by us; they do not vary, swaying one way and another in accordance with our fancy
Underpinning this linguistic debate is a broader philosophical debate about the nature of truth, and as the debate evolves it becomes clear that language can “guarantee that truth must be valued over consentual agreement” and that it “reaches both beyond our opinions and beyond itself” (Harris and Talbot, 1989. p. 19).
This Greek fresco shows a ‘symposium’ of the kind in which Plato describes Socrates’ dialogues with Hermogenes
The Middle Ages: A Horse by any other name...
As the great powers of Greece and of Rome wained from around 410 ad (when Rome itself was destroyed by celtic and barbarian forces), the map of the world became increasingly polarised between East and West. The opposition of Islamic and Christian forces forced a cultural and linguistic split. Towards the end of its period of dominance, Rome had been largely Christianised and the classical language of Latin was heavily associated with a cultural / religious movement of central and western Europe. In the West, particularly in western Europe, non-Roman languages began to flourish as the imposition of Latin was not determined by threat of force or of economic dominance. However, the cultural link with the educated and culturally sophisticated Romans meant that Latin remained the primary language of learning and of education.
The middle ages saw a cultural and linguistic separation between the Christianised West, and the Islamic East – a separation most forcibly demonstrated by the Crusades.
The burgeoning Universities in Europe continued to offer learning in Latin, and continued to focus learning around the three central components which characterised Greek linguistic practices: grammar, rhetoric and logic.
The central theoretical debate of the period revolved around the argument between nominalists and realists. This debate was one which centred on the relationships between a word (for example, 'horse'), the specific physical object being described (for example, 'this particular horse right in front of us'), and the universal abstract conceptualisation of that word which determines its universal significance (for example, the idea of 'horseness' which enables us to identify a horse when we see it) (Kelly, 2002).
- Realists: In Plato's most famous text, The Republic (c. 380 bc), Plato outlines his vision of the relationship between Truth (with a capital 'T', meaning truth which is universal), and reality (meaning the particulars which we see around and about us).
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets … they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave (Plato, The Republic. 8:7).
Truth, in this picture which Plato is painting, is represented by the fire. This fire shines a light on real objects, but because human beings are trapped and chained in a cave of the World, all we see of them are the shadows cast by the fire flickering on the cave wall in front of us. We cannot turn our heads to see the reality (Truth) itself, and have to content ourselves with a mere shadow of that Truth.
This rather jolly cartoon illustrates Plato’s cave. The reality we perceive is the shadows on the cave wall, but there is a ‘universal’ truth we cannot see – the objects themselves on the shelf behind us. ‘Truth’ is the light which casts the shadow.
For the realists, the relationship between universal concept (Truth – or the idea of 'horseness') and reality (what we see in front of us, or 'this particular horse) are intrinsically connected, albeit separated. The shadow of a horse, cast by the flickering fire, still has the shape and resemblance of the horse itself. In the same way, the specific image of a horse has a resemblance to the universal idea of 'horseness'.
For the realists, language reflected this same relationship. Language was the conduit by which the flickering, specific image of a horse was transmitted from the universal concept. The abstract idea of a horse is independent, and contains within it all the characteristic notions of horseness by which we are able to define the specific reality of the horse standing in front of us. The horse we see in front of us is dependent on the abstract idea of horseness.
Let me put it another way. For the realists there is a world of thought (the abstract and the universal) and a world of reality (the physical and the specific). The world of reality is a reflection of the world of thought. The specific is a shadow of the universal. The horse is a reflection of the idea horseness. The physical is dependent on the abstract.
The Universal reality is solid and ‘True’
The shadow resembles the ‘Truth’, but is only a reflection of it
- Nominalism: If the realists build a view of the world in which the physical realities around us are a shadow, or representation, of a universal truth, the nominalists reverse this image. For the nominalists, there is no such thing as a universal Truth which exists independently of physical reality. The word 'horse' is not used in order to demonstrate how the four-footed mammal in front of us reflects universal ideas of horseness. Instead, the word 'horse' is a label which we attach to an independent reality in order to categorise it. The universal, or abstract idea of horseness is something which emerges from our identification of common factors in a physical and independent reality – and thus the idea of 'horseness' is dependent on the physical reality of the four-footed mammal standing in front of us.
The ‘universal’ is an incomplete pattern of similarities by which we might group similar-looking objects into a single category
Physical reality is something we are able to categorise because it shares a basic pattern with other objects labelled ‘horse’
Thomas of Erfurt: Grammatica Speculativa
Thomas of Erfurt is a character for whom history has little to say. We know that he was a teacher in the early 1300s, of probable German origin, and that much of his work may have been completed while he was in Paris. What history can say with more certainty is that Thomas of Erfurt has become of the most significant figures in the modistae movement of the 14th century: a movement of 'speculative grammarians' who were influenced by Aristotle, and concerned more with the philosophical and theoretical implications of grammar than with its practical applications in language use.
In all science, understanding and knowledge derive from a recognition of its principles … we therefore, wishing to know the science of grammar, insist that it is necessary to know its principles which are the modes of signifying. But before we enquire into their particular features, we must first set forth some of their general features without which it is not possible to obtain the fullest understanding of them (Thomas of Erfurt, cited in Harris and Talbot, 1989. p. 75).
For Thomas of Erfurt and the other modistae, language is a reflection of the human mind. The human mind, in turn, interprets the concrete realities it sees around it. Therefore, language is a reflection of how we perceive reality – or, as Harris and Talbot put it, “our words are sounds standing symbolically for our mental impressions, which in turn are 'images' of a perceived reality in the external world” (1989, p. 76).
Underpinning Thomas of Erfurt's ideas, is the powerful idea that language – and grammar in particular - is not something which added on to human consciousness in order to allow it to describe things. Instead, grammar is the mechanism by which reality is perceived. This psychologically complex notion assumes that “both grammar and logic are reflections of the way the universe is constructed, but the former is psychologically prior to the latter” (Harris and Talbot, 1989. p. 85).
The Renaissance: A New Babel
It may seem a little strange that we are leaping all the way from Thomas of Erfurt in 1310 to the John Lock in 1689 with scarcely a toilet-break between – and certainly this rather dramatic leap is more to do with the limitations of a 15-credit module than they are with a shortage of interesting linguistic theory or debate within the intervening 400 year period. We will, therefore, regretfully be bypassing the linguistic monuments of Caxton, Erasmus, Scaliger, Ramus, Scaliger, Arnauld and Lancelot, Francis Bacon, Cave Beck, Francis Lodwick, Thomas Sprat and John Wilkins. We will even, with great regret indeed, need to wave by the significant impact of Johann Gutenberg, whose invention of the printing press quite possibly has had a greater impact upon the evolution of linguistic theory (and, indeed, upon the evolution of modern civilization) than anyone else under consideration.
The Gutenburg press from around 1440 revolutionised language and learning
Suffice it to say for the moment, that the Renaissance saw significant developments in terms of the solidification of national borders, and the concretion of national identities through both linguistic specialisations and through international expansion. Let me briefly explain what I mean with a couple of examples.
Prior to the Renaissance period, to be 'English' meant very little. England as a nation was by no means considered a European superpower. Indeed, by many European nations England was still seen to be something of a barbaric nation of uneducated and unsophisticated inhabitants. Aside from brief periods of military dominance and success (particularly the victories of Henry V in France), the middle ages for England were characterised by in-fighting, civil war, and frequent military losses.
The Pope, and the institution of the Catholic church, held enormous political authority throughout Europe, and the English King was seen as very much subject to the authority of Rome. But all changed when Henry VIII came to the English throne. Henry broke off England's alliance with Rome, and established England as an independent religion, and an independent nation. By the time of Queen Elizabeth, Henry's daughter, the Pope have managed to mobilise Prince Philip of Spain to mount an attack on England designed to bring the upstart nation back to heel.
The plan failed. The Spanish Armanda floundered against the English ships in the Channel, and broke against the rocks in the unpredictable waters of the Scottish coast as they attempted to escape. England as a proud, independent nation, finally emerged – and as the military might of Spain was broken, so other nations in Europe (France and the Netherlands) found space to dig out a little independence.
In this period it was only natural that the English language became especially prized by the English. It was their language. It spoke of their national identity. And in the Renaissance this was finally something to be proud of. As the French were proud of their language. And the Dutch proud of theirs.
This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower, completed in 1590, commemorates the victory against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It is a bold expression of the glory of England as a culturally and politically independent nation. The seas which England had now claimed dominance over, would provide them with a highway to further economic success through trade and conquest.
At the same time, England saw a great flourishing in trade. The introspective economic dominance of the landed gentry was being gradually replaced by the entrepreneurship of tradesmen, who invested in ships which set sail from Portsmouth to discover new lands to colonise – new products to trade. In the 16th century, Euro-centric linguists discovered the existence of Amerindian and Chinese languages, which (being outside of the proto-indo-european traditions) meant the need to radically overhaul ideas and universality and regularity in language.
The Seventeenth Century: Universal Languages and the Emergence of Science
The world was no longer populated by people who were generally the same. It was becoming increasingly clear that people were more different than had ever been considered before. Francis Bacon illustrated this by using Plato's image of the cave again – except that in this New World there was no longer one cave for all human beings. Now there were many caves, and many reflections:
The idols of the cave are illusions of the individual man. For (apart from the aberrations of human nature in general) each man has a kind of individual cave or cavern which fragments and distorts the light of nature … The evident consequence is that the human spirit (in its different dispositions in different man) is a variable thing, quite irregular, almost haphazard (Bacon, 1620. p. 41)
John Wilkins, in 1641, echoed these sentiments by emphasising that language is an expression of individual identity, and individual perceptions. Communication through language is as infinitely varied as human beings are infinitely varied:
Every rationall creature, being of an imperfect, and dependant happinesse, is therefore naturally endowed with an ability to communicate its owne thoughts and intentions; That so by mutuall services, it might the better promote it selfe, in the prosecution of its owne wel-being (Wilkins, 1641. p. 1).
Wilkins was a philosopher, a clergyman, and a founder member of the Royal Society.
For Wilkins, this infinite variety was a problem. If each human being saw the world in different ways, and expressed things in different ways, how on earth were we ever going to be able to understand each other, or communicate anything?
Linguistic specialisation for Wilkins, was a curse. Learning was impossible when no objective truth could be communicated – and it was therefore a responsibility of science and learning to find a form of language which was not individual. A 'Universal Language':
After the fall of Adam, there were two general curses inflicted on Mankinde: The one upon their labours; the other upon their language … But now, if there were such an universall character, to expresse things and notions, as might be legible to all people and countries, so that men of severall Nations might with the same ease, both write and read it; this invention would be a farre greater advantage in this particular, and mightily conduce to the spreading and promoting of all Arts and Sciences (Wilkins, 1641. pp. 105-6).
Francis Lodwick rose to this challenge in his 1647 A Common Writing: Whereby two, although not understanding one the others Language, yet by the helpe thereof, may communicate their minds one to another. Lodwick's solution was clearly was not sufficient for Sir Thomas Urquhart, since in 1653 he can be seen still complaining that there “ought to be a proportion betweixt the sign and thing signified; therefore should all things, whether real or rationall, have their proper words assigned unto them” (Urquhart, 1653. p. ).
In 1654, Seth Ward proposed a system of language which used mathematical symbols instead of words while in 1657 Cave Beck boldly published The Universal Character: A system of language which he claimed could be learned in two hours by people of any nationality whatsoever.
In 1660 a group of scientists and academics including John Wilkins, Christopher Wren (of St. Paul's Cathedral fame) and Robert Boyle founded a new Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. In so doing, they discovered a stumbling-block in the centuries new-found distrust in the capacity of an infinity varied language to communicate a single objective truth. In his 1667 History of the Royal-Society of London Thomas Sprat highlighted the deplorably inexact state of the English language. How could science “redeem the minds of Men, from obscurity, uncertainty, and bondage” when the language used to communicate it was both obscure and uncertain (Sprat, 1667. p. )?
John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
There are few figures in mdoern history who have had quite such an impact as John Locke. His Two Treatises of Govenment, published in 1692, was ruthlessly plagiarised by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, and is know frequently more famous as the American Declaration of Independence. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding so radically influenced contemporary thought that half a century after its publication people would find themselves paraphrasing sections of it as though it ideas were common sense.
Language was of supreme importance in Locke's work – indeed, he did not believe it was possible to begin to consider human understanding without trying first to understand human language:
I find, that there is so close a connection between Ideas and Words ... that it is impossible to speak clearly and distinctly of our Knowledge, which all consists in Propositions, without considering, first, the Nature, Use, and Signification of Language (Locke, 1789).
Locke challenged the established notions of 'innatism': the idea that language, as well as the character of individuals, is written into them at birth. According to innatist theory, ideas derive from some Universal truth which is inputted into the human mind abstractly. For Locke though, ideas derived from experience. Human minds are, according to Locke, a tabula rasa: "a clean slate, on which the story of experience is subsequently inscribed" (Harris and Talbot, p. 110).
Harris and Talbot provide a useful example: If we think of the word 'gold', then we are able to conceptualise what the word is signifying because we are able to relate it to other sensory concepts: 'yellow', 'heaviness', 'cold', 'solidity'. These sensory concepts are ones which we can only understand through experience – we have seen yellow, we have weighed heaviness, we have felt cold and solidity. The word 'gold' is, clearly, something which has a root in reality – gold exists. The idea of 'justice', however, is less tangible – but is still rooted in experience. This 'mixed mode' concept combines sensory experience (the feeling of injustice, or of things not being fair) and reflective experience (experiencing how our mind processes and reflects upon the sensory input).
Unlike previous model of linguistic theory, Locke's does not create a division between a physical reality and an abstract or 'universal' reality. Although he acknowledges abstract concepts, these abstracts are rooted in the reality of experience. There is no 'Truth' outside of the cave of experience. Experience is Truth.
Let me put it another way. The image of Plato's cave assumes there are two forms of reality – the physical reality which we percieve, and a 'deeper' reality which underlies it, and which connects all our percieved realities together into a Universal reality (or 'Truth'). For Locke, there is no distinction between physical reality and deeper reality. 'Truth' is not something passed through the filter of experience. Instead, 'Truth' is shaped by that experience itself.
The Eighteenth Century: Doubt and Debate
Into the eighteenth century, and Locke's theories of language and human understanding are beginning to have a serious impact. Of course, the moment you create a philosophy which denies innatist principles (in other words, one which argues that people individually forge their own intellectual as well as social identities) then you lay the ground for the emergence of a form of ‘Enlightenment’ empiricism.
Science, not God, became the new source of knowledge of the world, and this less to a kind of euphoric confidence in the capacity of mankind to explain all visible phenomenon through science – and a belief as well that science and innovation could make the world a better place. The eighteenth century was a century which Addison described as “enlightened by Learning and Philosophy” (Addison, 1712).
Locke’s ideas about language and human understand were a significant part of this ‘enlightenment’. Indeed, according to the rhetorician Thomas Sheridan nothing about the human mind was really understood at all before Locke:
Is it not amazing to reflect, that from the creation of the world, there was not a part of the human mind clearly delineated, till within the last sixty years? when Mr. Locke arose, to give us a just view, of one part of our internal frame, ‘the understanding,’ upon principles of philosophy founded on reason and experience (Sheridan, 1762, p. v).
his [Locke’s] discovery was, that as we cannot think upon any abstract subject, without the use of abstract terms; as in general we substitute the terms themselves, in thinking, as well as speaking, in the room of the complex ideas for which they stand; it is impossible we can think with precision, till we first examine whether we have precise ideas annexed to such terms: and it is equally impossible to communicate our thoughts to others with exactness, unless we are first agreed in the exact meaning of our words (Sheridan, 1762. p.vi).
In other words, what Locke had demonstrated (beyond doubt, according to Sheridan) was that the seemingly impossible chaos of the arbitrary sign was a reality which we simply choose to ignore. We might think, when we use language, that we are saying what we mean – and that because we use language that other people can understand what we mean. However, Locke had argued that this is not the case.
In Locke’s enlightenment world there is not a single and Universal truth that we see reflections of. Each truth, is found in the individual percpetions of each individual – and unless another individual shares that same truth the two will never be able to understand each other.
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· Joseph Addison in The Spectator (No. 419, Tuesday, July 1, 1712)
· Bacon, F, (2000) The New Organon, ed. by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne, Cambridge: Cambridge
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· Isocrates, Speech to Nicocles or the Cyprians. Trans. Norlin, G. (1980). Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University [internet], Available from: <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0144%3Aspeech%3D3%3Asection%3D6> [Accessed: 03 February, 2011]
· Kelly, L. G. (2002). The MIrror of Grammar: Theology, Philosophy and the Modistae. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
· Kim, L. Y. (2010), Homer between history and fiction in Imperial Greek literature. Cambridge: Cambridge
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· Sheridan, T. (1762) A Course of Lectures on ELOCUTION: Together With Two DISSERTATIONS on LANGUAGE; and some other TRACTS relative to those SUBJECTS. London, W. Strahan for A. Millar, R. and J. Dodsley, T. Davis, C. Henderson, J. Wilkie, and E. Dilly
· Sprat, T. (1667). The History of the Royal-Society of London, For the Inproving of Natural Knowledge. London, Printed by T.R. for J. Martyn and the Bell without Temple-bar, and J. Allestry at the Rose and Crown in Duck-lane, Printers to the Royal Society
· Urquhart, T (1653). Logopandecteision; or, an Introduction to the Universal Language. London, Giles Calvert and Richard Tomlins
 This polarisation was more cultural than religious, as both Christian and Islamic religion flourished in different forms on either side of the divide – for example, Catholic forms of Christianity in the West and Orthodox forms in the East.