A World of Signs: Baroque Pansemioticism, the Polyhistor and the Early Modern Wunderkammer

Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (4):633-650 (2001)
Jan Westerhoff
Oxford University
This paper is an attempt to argue that there existed a very prominent view of signs and signification in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe which can help us to understand several puzzling aspects of baroque culture. This view, called here "pansemioticism," constituted a fundamental part of the baroque conception of the world. After sketching the content and importance of pansemioticism, I will show how it can help us to understand the (from a modern perspective) rather puzzling concept of the polymath, or polyhistor, which constituted the ideal of the baroque scientist. In this context I will also discuss a seventeenth century phenomenon essentially connected with polyhistorism, namely that of the early modem polyhistorical collections, the Wunderkamnmern. Since such a study needs a clearly determined focal point, we will concentrate on the last three quarters of the seventeenth century and will mainly discuss works by German authors of the time.
Keywords Early Modern theories of language  Semiotics  Cabinets of Curiosity
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DOI 10.1353/jhi.2001.0041
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