European conceptions of writing from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century

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Ever since Plato’s skepticism about writing there has been a long debate over writing as a social and linguistic phenomenon. The invention of writing, its influ­ence and importance for the civilizing process, the quest for a perfect notation and discussions of different writing systems were popular topics discussed by leading philosophers and grammarians. The fascination with exotic writing systems, espe­cially Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters, permeated philosophical and linguistic conceptions of writing in the 17th and the 18th centuries. These writing systems were opposed to alphabetical writing: The latter was conceived either as the highest human achievement or as a cumbersome system for the representation of sounds, lacking the advantages of so-called ‘real characters’. Discussions of writ­ing were thus intertwined with reflections on orthography as well as with views on the relationship between the oral and the literal transmission of ideas. This paper reviews different conceptions of writing from the Renaissance to the 18th century, highlighting theories about supposedly ideal writing systems and examining the role ascribed to alphabetical writing in human civilization.


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