Ramon Llull: From the Ars Magna to Artificial Intelligence

12 10 2012

Ramon Llull: From the Ars Magna to Artificial Intelligence

Book edited by

Alexander Fidora
Carles Sierra


The lay philosopher and theologian Ramon Llull (1232–1316), born
in Mallorca, is undoubtedly a prominent figure within European
thought. However, the exact position he occupies within the cultural
horizons of his period, on the one hand, and the intellectual
legacy he bequeaths to the present day, on the other, are issues
often immersed in controversy. This situation derives, in part,
from the protean multiplicity of his writings, manifested by an
impressive variety of forms, styles and subject matter, Llull having
composed some 280 works in both Catalan and Latin (as well
as reputedly in Arabic).
Running throughout his immense oeuvre, nevertheless, is a
leitmotif that enables one to arrive at an overall, if not unitary,
view, that leitmotif being the Ars lulliana or Lullian Art: a
philosophico-theological system that makes use of common basic
concepts from the three monotheistic religions of its day, subjecting
them to discussion with a view to convincing Muslims (and
Jews) via rational argument of the truth of the Christian mysteries
of faith. By revising his Art and extending it to all fields of
human knowledge, Ramon Llull succeeded in creating a universal
science, based on the algebraic notation of its basic concepts
and their combination by means of mechanical figures. As a matter
of fact, Llull not only presented his system to the masters of the
University of Paris as well as to the Pope, but he undertook several
missionary trips to North Africa in order to put his Ars into
practice disputing with Muslims in the market place in Bejaia and
other cities.
From a more abstract point of view, Llull’s combinatorial Art
can be described as a process of elementary analysis and of reconstruction.
On the one hand, it resolves the historical religions into
their most primitive elements; on the other, it represents these
elements by letters (from B to K), in order to recombine these
letters and the elements of the different religions that they designate
until, through these combinations, a vision of the world is
reached that is as consistent as possible: this will correspond to
truth. Undoubtedly, this process which Llull applied to all kinds
of question —not just religious controversies— is a key ingredient
of modern thought. One only has to think of Gottfried Wilhelm

Leibniz’s characteristica universalis: thus, in his Dissertatio de arte
combinatoria, in 1666, the young Leibniz, clearly inspired by Llull,
had already outlined the project of a reconstruction of the whole
of reality based on a definite number of basic notions. Leibniz
criticizes the basic notions of the Lullian “alphabet” as too limited
and proposes another alternative and broader alphabet. In
contradistinction to Llull, Leibniz does not represent these basic
notions with letters but rather uses numbers. Thus, the basic notion
of “space” is represented by the number 2, the basic notion of
“between” by the number 3, and the basic notion of “the whole”
by the number 10. Consequently, according to Leibniz, a complex
concept such as, for instance, “interval” can be formulated as
2.3.10, that is, “space between the whole”. Leibniz was convinced
that in this way all questions could be reduced to mathematical
problems and that, in order to solve any problem, we only have
to set about calculating. This is the meaning of Leibniz’s famous

It is through Leibniz that Llull’s influence also became decisive
for more recent developments such as formal logic, as developed
by Gottlob Frege in the late 19th century. According to
Frege, Leibniz’s characteristica, in its later evolution, limited itself
to different fields, such as arithmetic, geometry, chemistry
and so on, but did not become universal as Leibniz, in fact, had
wished. This is why Frege, in his famous Begriffsschrift from 1879,
intended to create an elementary language that would unify the
different formal languages which, after Leibniz, had been established
in the different natural sciences. This language developed
into the formal logic that until now has dominated the philosophical
discourse and which was an important step in the journey
towards the creation of computing languages. What characterizes
this kind of logic is its formal notation, using variables and
symbols to represent the different logical propositions and operations.
Based on this notation, Frege developed the so-called logical
calculus. Although the language reached by this formal logic
differs from that of the Art, Llull can be considered as the forerunner
of this project, insofar as in his thought one can already find
the idea of an elementary language that follows logical rules and
uses variables while operating with the principle of substitution
of these variables.

The book

See also an article by Fernando Cuartero




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