By any standard, Leibniz’s effort to create a “universal calculus” should be considered one of the most ambitious intellectual agendas ever conceived. Building on his previous successes in developing the infinitesimal calculus, Leibniz aimed to extend the notion of a symbolic calculus to all domains of human thought, from law, to medicine, to biology, to theology. The ultimate vision was a pictorial language which could be learned by anyone in a matter of weeks and which would transparently represent the factual content of all human knowledge. This would be the starting point for developing a logical means for manipulating the associated symbolic representation, thus giving rise to the ability to model nature and society, to derive new logic truths, and to eliminate logical contradictions from the foundations of Christian thought.
Astonishingly, many elements of this agenda are quite familiar when examined from the perspective of modern computer science. The starting point for this agenda would be an encyclopedia of structured knowledge, not unlike our own contemporary efforts related to the Semantic Web, Web 2.0, or LinkedData. Rather than consisting of prose descriptions, this encyclopedia would consist of taxonomies of basic concepts extending across all subjects.
Leibniz then wanted to create a symbolic representation of each of the fundamental concepts in this repository of structured information. It is the choice of the symbolic representation that is particularly striking. Unlike the usual mathematical symbols that comprise the differential calculus, Leibniz’s effort would rely on mnemonic images which were useful for memorizing facts.
Whereas modern thinkers usually imagine memorization to be a task accomplished through pure repetition, 16th and 17th-century Europe saw fundamental innovation in the theory and practice of memory. During this period, practitioners of the memory arts relied on a diverse array of visualization techniques that allowed them to recall massive amounts of information with extraordinary precision. These memory techniques were part of a broader intellectual culture which viewed memorization as a foundational methodology for structuring knowledge.
The basic elements of this methodology were mnemonic techniques. Not the simple catch phrases that we typically associate with mnemonics, but rather, elaborate visualized scenes or images that represented what was to be remembered. It is these same memory techniques that are used in modern memory competitions and which allow competitors to perform such superhuman feats as memorizing the order of a deck of cards in under 25 seconds, or thousands of random numbers in an hour. The basic principle behind these techniques is the same, namely, that a striking and inventive visual image can dramatically aid the memory.
Leibniz and many of his contemporaries had a much more ambitious vision for mnemonics than our modern day competitive memorizers. They believed that the process of memorization went hand in hand with structuring knowledge, and furthermore, that there were better and worse mnemonics and that the different types of pictorial representations could have different philosophical and scientific implications.
For instance, if the purpose was merely to memorize, one might create the most lewd and absurd possible images in order to remember some list of facts. Indeed, this was recommended by enterprising memory theorists of the day trying to make money by selling pamphlets on how to improve one’s memory. Joshua Foer’s memoir Moonwalking with Einstein is an engaging and insightful first-person account of the “competitive memory circuit,” where techniques such as this one are the bread and butter of how elite competitors are able to perform feats of memory that boggle the mind.
But whereas in the modern world, mnemonic techniques have been relegated to learning vocabulary words and the competitive memory circuit, elite intellectuals several centuries ago had a much more ambitious vision the ultimate implications of this methodology. In particular, Leibniz hoped that through a rigorous process of notation engineering one might be able to preserve the memory-aiding properties of mnemonics while eliminating the inevitable conceptual interference that arises in creating absurdly comical, lewd, or provocative mnemonics. By drawing inspiration from the Chinese alphabet and Egyptian hieroglyphics, he hoped to create a language that could be learned by anyone in a short period of time and which would transparently – through the pictorial dimension – represent the factual content of a curated encyclopedia. Furthermore, by building upon his successes in developing the infinitesimal calculus, Leibniz hoped that a logical structure would emerge which would allow novel insights to be derived by manipulating the associated symbolic calculus.
Leibniz’s motivations extended far beyond the realm of the natural sciences. Using mnemonics as the core alphabet to engineer a symbolic system with complete notational transparency would mean that all people would be able to learn this language, regardless of their level of education or cultural background. It would be a truly universal language, one that would unite the world, end religious conflict, and bring about widespread peace and prosperity. It was a beautiful and humane vision, although it goes without saying that it did not materialize.