the book of the world

The sign, the text and the title formed a devise so powerful that its counterpart, in the end, seemed to be the world itself. At first the physical world and the heavens, for the cuneiform cultures, were defined by the boundaries marked out by the gods – there was a world for the humans and a world for the gods, which the latter ruing the former. But both worlds came into focus as the counterparts of the text. From a very early point in the history of writing, written signs were compared to the world’s objects: the stars in the sky to the words on a writing surface, for instance.

So when we speak of the book of the world, we are speaking of the text’s relation to an object that is defined in relation to some magical first text. In Genesis 1:14, the relation between the world and the text is, as it were, sealed in the very act of creation: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” What is created to be a sign is already on the way to being the book of the world. There is a long scholarly tradition in Germany, going from Curtius to Hans Blumenberg,  which has excavated the metaphor of this book, showing how it arose in the various worlds of the Mediterranean.  The metaphor has not only a great and irresistible charm for the scribes  – who copy and scribble - but possesses the baroque virtue that it inscribes itself within itself – for the book of the world holds the book in which the metaphor does its transformative work, which in turn holds the world, or at least the point of view that we, the scribes, have dubbed the world.  

The signs are there, as well, in the early modern era, where there is a question of the type of sign: is the book of the world composed of an alphabet (Francis Bacon’s favorite metaphor), or of hieroglyphs (John Dee’s preference) or of mathematical symbols (Galileo’s choice)? Galileo makes perhaps the most interesting use of the book of the world metaphor, incorporating it into the weave of natural philosophy just as the signs were incorporated into the creation story in Genesis, but with a certain twist: “I truly believe the book of philosophy to be that which stands perpetually open before our eyes, though since it is written in characters different from those of our alphabit it cannot be read by everyone; and the characters of such a book are triangles, squares, circles, spheres, cones, pyramids and other mathematical figures, most apt for such reading.”

Most apt indeed – so much so that the problem of why mathematics gives us such a model of the universe took a long time to present itself in the physics community. Eugen Wigner in 1960 finally gave definitive form to the problem of why mathematics is “most apt for such reading” in the physics community. Perhaps a lesser noted problem is the role that this metaphor played in making possible the presentation of the logic of substitution, which is unthinkable in a world that wasn’t considered “readable”.