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In many Russian language articles and sources (for example, wikiquote) I come across the quote attributed to René Descartes, which can be translated “People would get rid of half of their problems if they could agree on the meaning of words”, or “Determine the precise meaning of words, you will save mankind from half of the delusions”. But all the sources are just mentioning this phrase, none states where or when he said or wrote it. I wasn’t able to find any Russian or English language sources proving that René Descartes actually said or wrote such phrase, and unfortunately I don’t know French.

I would be very grateful if someone could help prove or disprove this quote’s attribution.

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    after a cursory look at the french wikiquote I can't see anything that would translate like that (though my french is horrible) however even the english wikiquote doesn't have anything similar – ratchet freak Mar 5 '14 at 8:47
  • What kind of proof would you expect, assuming he never said that? – Aeronth Mar 5 '14 at 18:41
  • Well, it would be still interesting to know where this comes from I guess. It’s funny how many Russian speaking people use that quote left and right and are sure it’s Descartes who said it. So probably it’s more question concerning Russian sources then (who was the first who attributed that to Descartes). Of course, ideally full text search in Descartes’ works/letters would be great, but I don’t think it’s possible :) – stansult Mar 5 '14 at 19:16
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    Not Descartes, of course, and not precisely about the meaning of words either, but Joseph Justus Scaliger said "Utinam essem bonus grammaticus. Non aliunde discordiae in religione pendent quam ab ignoratione grammaticae." It's long been a favourite quote of mine. – Michael Wolf Mar 11 '14 at 22:28
  • Thanks, that’s both interesting, and kinda close in some respect… – stansult Mar 12 '14 at 2:37
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I believe it is an approximation. Read the quote below which comes from René Descartes in his 1629-11-20 letter to Mersenne:

Au reste, je trouve qu’on pourrait ajouter à ceci une invention, tant pour composer les mots primitifs de cette langue, que pour leurs caractères ; en sorte qu’elle pourrait être enseignée en fort peu de temps, et ce par le moyen de l’ordre, c’est-à-dire, établissant un ordre entre toutes les pensées qui peuvent entrer en l’esprit humain, de même qu’il y en a un naturellement établi entre les nombres ; et comme on peut apprendre en un jour à nommer tous les nombres jusques à l’infini, et à les écrire en une langue inconnue, qui sont toutefois une infinité de mots différents, qu’on pût faire de même de tous les autres mots nécessaires pour exprimer toutes les autres choses qui tombent en l’esprit des hommes. Si cela était trouvé, je ne doute point que cette langue n’eût bientôt cours parmi le monde ; car il y a force gens qui emploieraient volontiers cinq ou six jours de temps pour se pouvoir faire entendre par tous les hommes. Mais je ne crois pas que votre auteur ait pensé à cela, tant parce qu’il n’y a rien en toutes ses propositions qui le témoigne, que parce que l’invention de cette langue dépend de la vraie philosophie1 ; car il est impossible autrement de dénombrer toutes les pensées des hommes, et de les mettre par ordre, ni seulement de les distinguer en sorte qu’elles soient claires et simples, qui est à mon avis le plus grand secret qu’on puisse avoir pour acquérir la bonne science. Et si quelqu’un avait bien expliqué quelles sont les idées simples qui sont en l’imagination des hommes, desquelles se compose tout ce qu’ils pensent, et que cela fût reçu par tout le monde, j’oserais espérer ensuite une langue universelle fort aisée à apprendre, à prononcer et à écrire, et ce qui est le principal, qui aiderait au jugement, lui représentant si distinctement toutes choses, qu’il lui serait presque impossible de se tromper ; au lieu que tout au rebours, les mots que nous avons n’ont quasi que des significations confuses, auxquelles l’esprit des hommes s’étant accoutumé de longue main, cela est cause qu’il n’entend presque rien parfaitement. Or je tiens que cette langue est possible, et qu’on peut trouver la science de qui elle dépend, par le moyen de laquelle les paysans pourraient mieux juger de la vérité des choses, que ne font maintenant les philosophes. Mais n’espérez pas de la voir jamais en usage ; cela présuppose de grands changements en l’ordre des choses, et il faudrait que tout le monde ne fût qu’un paradis terrestre, ce qui n’est bon à proposer que dans le pays des romans.

English translation (author unknown, via autodidactproject.org):

I believe, however, that it would be possible to devise a further system to enable one to make up the primitive words and their symbols in such a language so that it could be learnt very quickly. Order is what is needed: all the thoughts which can come into the human mind must be arranged in an order like the natural order of the numbers. In a single day one can learn to name every one of the infinite series of numbers, and thus to write infinitely many different words in an unknown language. The same could be done for all the other words necessary to express all the other things which fall within the purview of the human mind. If this secret were discovered I am sure that the language would soon spread throughout the world. Many people would willingly spend five or six days in learning how to make themselves understood by the whole human race.

But I do not think that your author has thought of this. There is nothing in all his propositions to suggest it, and in any case the discovery of such a language depends upon the true philosophy. For without that philosophy it is impossible to number and order all the thoughts of men or even to separate them out into clear and simple thoughts, which in my opinion is the great secret for acquiring true scientific knowledge. If someone were to explain correctly what are the simple ideas in the human imagination out of which all human thoughts are compounded, and if his explanation were generally received, I would dare to hope for a universal language very easy to learn, to speak, and to write. The greatest advantage of such a language would be the assistance it would give to men's judgement, representing matters so clearly that it would be almost impossible to go wrong. As it is, almost all our words have confused meanings, and men's minds are so accustomed to them that there is hardly anything which they can perfectly understand.

I think it is possible to invent such a language and to discover the science on which it depends: it would make peasants better judges of the truth about the world than philosophers are now. But do not hope ever to see such a language in use. For that, the order of nature would have to change so that the world turned into a terrestrial paradise; and that is too much to suggest outside of fairyland.

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    If that is indeed the origin, the citation has been considerably deformed. Descartes's claim is that a universal language is possible and would eliminate errors (“almost impossible to go wrong”), not problems. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Apr 2 '14 at 1:13
  • @Gilles : I would also suppose that the original quote, if true, woud rather have the word/meaning "misunderstandings". which are -- or lead to -- many problems, of course. – ジョージ Apr 2 '18 at 22:38
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I haven't found anything similar in all French quotation websites; but it will be hard to prove that he truly never said this.

However, considering that I translated your own English translation, it is quite possible that he meant to say this, but phrased it completely differently, which would make the search difficult. Perhaps our friends at Philosophy.SE could help you find out if it is the case.

That being said, this quotation is fairly similar to a Confucian doctrine:

The Rectification of Names (Chinese: 正名; pinyin: Zhèngmíng; Wade–Giles: Cheng-ming) is the Confucian doctrine that to know and use the proper designations of things in the web of relationships that creates meaning, a community, and then behaving accordingly so as to ensure social harmony is The Good. Since social harmony is of utmost importance, without the proper rectification of names, society would essentially crumble and "undertakings [would] not [be] completed."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rectification_of_names

Don't Russians like ancient Chinese philosophy?

  • Some Russians do, but generally it is not as popular as the French and German ones from the recent centuries. – texnic Oct 29 '14 at 10:37
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My apologies for not directly answering your question, but I'd say this sounds as Descartes to me -- although "delusions" and "problems" would probably rather sound as "misunderstanding".

First, by a quick search we can find these two fragments in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind:

... in the majority of matters on which the learned dispute, the question is almost always one of names.

... almost all controversy would be removed from among Philosophers, if they were always to agree as to the meaning of words.

Next, to my memory there were at least one other work of Descartes where he explicitly stresses the importance of agreement on common definitions before starting a discussion -- but at the moment it evades me where exactly he might have said that. But I suppose that it would be likely to find the origin of the quote in question somewhere near in the same text.

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