Thursday, December 04, 2014

Borges's Taxonomy

My speculation on taxonomy has driven me back to an old chestnut. It's easily found online but I figured that I would repeat it here (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Borges gives us a kaleidoscope of authority. His taxonomy comes from an essay about John Wilkins -- founder of the Royal Society -- and his efforts at creating a universal language. Borges then cites a passage from the mysterious and ancient Chinese encyclopedia called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, giving us a culturally relevant and appropriate taxonomy of animals:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The list is very informative in that it we see all of the challenges of developing a taxonomy. It represents functional driven analysis run amok, co-mingled with classification by ownership ("belong to the emperor") and short term objectives ("just broken the flower vase"). Some are perhaps driven by economic necessity ("suckling pigs") while others must be part of some sort of speculative project that belongs in the pages of a China Mieville novel ("tremble as if they were mad").

My particular favorites are "et cetera" -- primarily because it appears in the middle of the list -- and the self referential "those that are included in this classification", thereby undermining the orthogonality of the whole taxonomy.

Wonderful stuff.


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