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John Bulwer (1606–1656) and the significance of gesture in 17th-century theories of language and cognition

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John Bulwer (1606–1656) published five books on the semiotics of the human body, with most attention given to gesture. His ideas on gesture have previously been studied from the standpoint of rhetorical theory, but hardly at all in relation to language and cognition. With regard to the cognitive aspects of gesture, Bulwer was a conscious disciple of Francis Bacon, who characterized gesture as a “transient hieroglyphic” in the same passage of De Augmentis Scientiarum (1605) in which he discussed the possibility of a “real character” — a sort of rationalized, non-figurative hieroglyphic intended to bypass natural language by directly symbolizing things and notions. Bulwer, however, completely ignored the real character and concentrated solely on gesture. This was in part because he retained older views on the inherent ontological harmony between man and the universe, but also because, for Bulwer the physician, the underlying neurophysiological basis of gesture confirmed it as the universal “language” of humanity. In this respect his ideas foreshadow recent scientific work on gesture, language and cognition, such as that of Lakoff, Bouvet, and Armstrong, Stokoe & Wilcox.

Keywords: Bacon; Bulwer; Francis (1561–1626); John (1606–1656); adamic language; cognition; gesture; neurophysiology; psychology of language; real character

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Solidarity Foundation, New York

Publication date: January 1, 2002


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