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Fray Luis de Ledn and the Universality of Hebrew: An Aspect of 16th and 17th Century Language Theory* KARL A. KOTTMAN I. THIS ARTICLErelates five views of language as they arose out of a common questioning of the efficacy of using Hebrew as the language of Biblical exegesis. These are the thought of Fray Luis de Letn, O.S.A.; Jos6 de Acosta, S.J.; and Tom,Is Malvenda, O.P.--all Spaniards and prominent Counter-Reformation Catholics----and two early modem thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and Blaise Pascal. The common interest in Hebrew of the latter two authors is related conceptually, and perhaps historically, to the issues concerning the former three. The fact that discussion centers on Hebrew in these five important cases, and many others of the time, serves as one sign of the flux of ideas about language in general in the early modem setting. This exchange of ideas can be connected with Catholic religious questions of the late sixteenth century. This discussion focuses on disagreement, important in the Counter-Reformation Church and afterwards, about the nature of the Hebrew language. One central question was about the role of the written as well as spoken aspects of language. This, it would appear, stemmed not only from peculiarities of Hebrew, but probably from interest in such languages, newly understood at the time, as Nahuafl and Chinese. Many attempts were made to trace significant aspects of human civilization to a single or to multiple historical sources.1 Comparison of languages played a part in this. Apart from the similarities or differences of expression themselves, there was the further problem of the significance of their relationships, or lack of them. What was at stake was a vision of unity for human thought as a whole. In part, this was a genetic question in that it pondered the historical origins of human culture. But also, a more fundamental issue arose concerning the unity of man's cognitive powers. Apart from the genetic problem, there was the question of how, in view of great linguistic diversity, thought could be everywhere the same. This is what interests the five authors as treated here. The significance of this point is also suggested by the case of a great theorist of the * My thanks to my friends Mrs. Y. T. Lai and Dr. Leon Apt for their helpful conversations and suggestions. i This subject is discussedin several important works. Margaret Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964). Richard H. Popkin, "The Marrano Theology of Isaac de La Peyrtre," Studi lnternazionali di Filosofia, V (1973), 97-126. [297] 298 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Counter-Reformation, Luls de Le6n, O.S.A.2 The relation of thought and language was discussed in his very famous De los nombres de Cristo) Luis de Le6n was the most controversial exegete of the Catholic world at the time of his death in 1591. He is remembered in Spain for his successful defense of his orthodoxy in a celebrated heresy trial (1572-1577). The key part of his view is that the unity of human cognition can be shown in Hebrew alone. Other students of culture, like Jos6 de Acosta, S.J. (c. 1539-1600), disregarded an important beating between cognition and language. While forms of expression are varied, for him cognition is not.4 Another, more interested in Church history, Tom,is Malvenda, O.P. (d. 1628), saw a connection between thought and expression. Assuming the unity of thought in the Church, he assumed the adequacy of the Latin language to express it.~ Thomas Hobbes, somewhat later, maintained that the universality of language is only nominal. A name may refer to many things, but thoughts refer to nothing but the singular . "For true and false are attributes of speech, not of things.''6 A similar point about language, though not about thought, was made by Blaise Pascal. "The same meaning changes with the words which express it. Meanings receive their dignity from the words instead of giving it to them. ''v Hebrew figures in my discussion for two reasons. First is the fact that these authors were consciously writing with Biblical history in view...


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