John Wilkins


Portrait of WilkinsJohn Wilkins was a mathematician and natural philosopher and a key player in the Universal Language movement in England in the mid 17th century. Wilkins’s interests were broad and included theology, cryptography and music, as well as the principles and usefulness of a a universal language.

In the 17th century, at the time that Wilkins was working on his universal language principles, calls for a universal language had increased. This was due to the emergence vernacular literature in England and an increasing dissatisfaction with the ambiguities and difficulties in learning Latin. During that time, many worked toward recovering the language that Adam spoke, and to rid the world of the confusions resulting from the tower at Babel. Wilkins’s efforts were not based on these religious concerns but on his desire to develop a classification system capturing universals of knowledge. He hoped that such a system would enable the reader, or listener, not just to recognize the meaning of a character in his system, but also to understand how the meaning fit into a general scheme of things.

Wilkins created a vocabulary based on generic terms that covered major categories of existence. For example, he divided stones into common (silica, gravel, schist), modics (marble, amber, coral), precious (pearl, opal), transparent (amethyst, sapphire) and insolubles (chalk, arsenic) and metals into categories of imperfect (cinnabar, mercury), artificial (bronze, brass), recremental (filings, rust) and natural (gold, tin, copper).

Writings of John Wilkins, arranged chronologically

Wilkins, John (1638). The discovery of a new world, or, A discourse tending to prove, that ('tis probable) there may be another habitable world in the moon.

Wilkins, John (1640). Discourse concerning a new planet; tending to prove, that ('tis probable) our earth is one of the planets.

Wilkins, John (1641). Mercury, or, The secret and swift messenger: shewing how a man may with privacy and speed communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance.

Wilkins, John (1648). Mathematical magick, or, the wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry.

Wilkins, John (1649). A discourse concerning the beauty of providence

Wilkins, John (1651). A discourse concerning the gift of prayer: shewing what it is, wherein it consists and how far it is attainable by industry.

Wilkins, John (1651) Showing the influence of Senecan Stoicism.

Wilkins, John (1668). An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language.

Wilkins, John (1675). Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, was prepared for publication. Tillotson.

Writings about John Wilkins, arranged alphabetically

Henry, John (2006) Wilkins, John (1614–1672), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn. [, accessed Sept 21, 2006]

Henderson, P. A. (1910) The Life and Times of John Wilkins.

Knowlson, J. (1975) Universal language schemes in England and France, 1600–1800 (1975) ·

Salmon, V. (1979). The study of language in 17th-century England.

Shapiro, B. J. (1969). John Wilkins, 1614–1672: an intellectual biography

Slaughter, M. M. (1982) Universal languages and scientific taxonomy in the seventeenth century.

Subbiondo, ed., J. L. (1992) John Wilkins and 17th-century British linguistics. ·

Websites on John Wilkins work Retrieved May 15, 2010.