Taxonomy and its Pleasures

In: Research in Phenomenology
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  • 1 Stony Brook University


Taxonomy is our response to the proliferating variety of the natural world on the one hand, and the principle of unrelieved universality on the other. From Aristotle, through Porphyry to Linneaus, Kant and others, thinkers have struggled to develop taxonomies that could order what we know and also what we do not yet know, and this essay is a reflection on the existential desire that propels this effort. Porphyry’s tree of logic is an exhaustive account of the things we can say about the sort of beings we are; Linneaus’s system of nature reaches completion in the classification of humans; Kant discovers a way to have natural and logical forms coincide in the thought of natural purpose and purposiveness. The stakes are high. When we order the world, we order ourselves: when we enter the taxonomy, it enters us and confronts us with our judgments of kind, race and kin.


Taxonomy is our response to the proliferating variety of the natural world on the one hand, and the principle of unrelieved universality on the other. From Aristotle, through Porphyry to Linneaus, Kant and others, thinkers have struggled to develop taxonomies that could order what we know and also what we do not yet know, and this essay is a reflection on the existential desire that propels this effort. Porphyry’s tree of logic is an exhaustive account of the things we can say about the sort of beings we are; Linneaus’s system of nature reaches completion in the classification of humans; Kant discovers a way to have natural and logical forms coincide in the thought of natural purpose and purposiveness. The stakes are high. When we order the world, we order ourselves: when we enter the taxonomy, it enters us and confronts us with our judgments of kind, race and kin.

1 Introduction

Everything in the world, all together, is too much for us. The onrush of sensation is overwhelming; the manifold of sensibility is a jumble; nature appears in a dazzling array of forms; new sorts of life burst upon us. We share the earth with seven billion others but we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to meet seven billion individuals. We long for order, or orders, or at least a capacity for ordering. Foucault describes the experience of an aphasiac trying to arrange one small collection of skeins of wool:

[T]he sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical, superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning all over again, becoming more and more disturbed and teetering finally on the brink of anxiety.1

It is an anxiety that haunts us in the form of a fear of not being able to establish an order, and of not being able to give up trying. We fear we can’t endure the mess, and so we cling to our categories even when there are more exceptions than cases that follow the rule, when the system of classification produces more violence than it deflects, more racism than solidarity, more zones of speechlessness than adequate description, more silence and death than speech and life.

Encountering far fewer than seven billion individuals—individual spiders, leaves, stars, microbes, people, objects, others, ways of doing something, anything—we develop taxonomies. This is empirically demonstrable and also epistemologically necessary, but what interests me here, in this search for ontological structures, is that it emerges as a response to an existential anxiety. How can we discern anything about Being in general, or Being as such, when our only access is in beings, and when those beings show themselves to us in very many different ways and, moreover, keep appearing in new ways all the time? How can we discern anything about our mode of Being when we keep appearing to ourselves and to and with one another in new and different ways, constantly?2 How does anything become distinct against—as Foucault puts it—the confused, undefined, faceless and indifferent background of differences?3

A mode of ordering pulls us back from the brink of two anxieties, one brought on by the vertiginous display of difference, the other rising in the face of unrelieved universality.4 On the one hand is Hernan Cortés, who in 1520 reported to Charles V that he could not describe everything he saw in the New World because he did not know the words by which they all were known,5 or Foucault’s aphasiac fretting over colored threads; on the other is Pascal made fearful by the vastnesses of space, or any of us aghast at the Genesis figure of the “tohu-bohu,” the “deserted and empty universe crushed under the spirit of God.”6 We need categories, species, taxa, orders, groups and genera as a way to give us access to beings, and we need a system that sets them in relation to one another so that we can make sense of what is before us and also what we have yet to see, whatever that might be. We need Aristotle’s Categories; we need Porphyry to help inherit and bequeath the dynamic figure of the γένος through medieval philosophy; we need Linneaus to create his modern taxonomy of absolute genera from them.

We also need Kant and Darwin, Mendel and modern cladistics, the Human Genome Project and the Tree of Life Project, W.E.B. Du Bois and Lucius Outlaw and, above all this, reflection on the purpose of taxonomy in the context of the entire burgeoning conversation about the meaning of race and kin. What follows is offered as an opening onto that reflection. Porphyry purveyed a logic that offered itself as the demonstration of its own principle, as logics do. What I hope to show here is the underlying existential principle for his categories. When Linneaus later brought the Aristotelian/Porphyrian schema to bear on the natural world, his study was propelled by the desire for a complete system that would quickly systematize us. When we ordered the world, we ordered ourselves: when we entered the taxonomy, it entered us.

2 The Tree of Porphyry, or, the Pleasure of Order

Κατηγορίαι are predications. Insofar as Aristotle’s Categories is about an action or process, it is about predication, and it aims to determine what can be said of what. This is why it is classed among his works of logic. While it begins with the naming of things, it immediately leaves behind those equivocal names that name just one case alone (1a), since what propels the work is predication that is applied to many cases and the many predicates that are applied to any one case. That is to say, what is predicated of the individual can be predicated of other individuals, and no single predicate exhausts what can be said of an individual. Things are categorized with others, and with various others. Plato is a man, and so are Socrates and Alcibiades; all are classed together under the species “man”: Plato is also an animal, as is this cat and that horse, not to mention Alcibiades, and all are classed under the γένος “animal.”

Encountering any particular person standing before us in the marketplace, there are many things I might want to say about him but, for Aristotle, there are a finite number of sorts of things that can be said. I can pose very many questions as I try to categorize this person, but they will all be versions of ten basic questions that yield ten sorts of knowledge. Aristotle lists them:

What (or Substance), how large (that is, quantity), what sort of thing (that is, quality), related to what (or relation), where (that is, place), when (that is, Time), in what attitude (posture, position), how circumstanced (state or condition), how active, what doing (or Action), how passive, what suffering (affection). (1b25–28)7

Is this a matter of words or objects? When Aristotle asserts what can be said, is he also asserting what is? The answer is not clear and we need not try to settle the matter here. Porphyry, a student of Plotinus, was the author of the Introduction or Isagoge that served throughout the Middle Ages as an introduction to the Categories, and also as the introductory handbook for logic.8 He simply sidesteps the question, declining to discuss such deep matters, which, he points out, would need a larger investigation. Simplicius reports that Porphyry did in fact investigate the intermediate role between words and things, but in the Introduction he takes his task to be simply “showing you how the old masters … treated, from a logical point of view, genera and species and the items before us” (1, 15).9 From his logical point of view, γένος is part of an order, certainly, but one that is driven by difference, that shows how an item can be ordered under different genera and, finally, that reaches its fullest expression in us. At the root of Porphyry’s tree there is a man.

In his Introduction, Porphyry entertains some of the senses of γένος that have been alive since Homer, bringing them to the fore only to then let them recede. There are three ways to be a γένος (genus), he explains. 1) A genus is an assembly of people who are somehow related to some one item and thence to one another, for example, the Heraclids, who make up the plurality of people taking their name from their affinity with Hercules. 2) It is the order of one’s birth, meaning that the items within the genus are gathered there by virtue of the one who generated them (father) or the place of their birth (fatherland). Thus, Orestes has his genus by virtue of his relation to Tantalus, while Odysseus is from Ithaca “by genus.” 3) Genus is a way of answering the question “What is it?” when the items asked about are of different species, for example, the genus animal (1, 18–3, 20). This last is his topic here, and he delineates the term rather than defining it, finally completing its outline by distinguishing it from what it is not, that is, from predicates that refer to just one thing, from those that refer to items that belong to just one species, and from accidents and differences that cannot answer the question “What?”(3, 15–20).

In a central passage, Porphyry sets out the relations that will eventually be displayed by later interpreters as the Tree of Porphyry. It begins with substance and ends with a particular human:

What I mean should become clear in the case of a single type of predication. Substance is itself a genus. Under it is body, and under body animate body, under which is animal; under animal is rational animal, under which is man; under man are Socrates and Plato and particular men. Of these items, substance is the most general and is only a genus, while man is the most special and is only a species. Body is a species of substance and genus of animate body. Animate body is a species of body and a genus of animal. Again, animal is a species of animate body and a genus of rational animal. Rational animal is a species of animal and a genus of man. Man is a species of rational animal, but not a genus of particular men—only a species.10

Importantly, the genus is not a stable or absolute category, as it would become for Linnaeus. Rather, between the most general category—the summum genus—and the most specific—the infima species—all the categories are genus from one point of view and species from another. Animal is a genus insofar as it is divided into species, but it is a species insofar as it belongs, along with the class of plants, to the genus of living things.

It is also important that the categories are related by difference.11 As Ockham explains, category refers to any set of predicates ordered into a genus, distinguished from others by some difference or other, a differentium. For example, the category of substance is differentiated into corporeal and incorporeal. In this case, the differentium divides the members of the genus into species and, at the same time, constitutes the various species as themselves genera. Thus corporeal is in turn differentiated into living and dead; the living into animal and plant; animal into rational and non-rational; rational animals into this one and that one; and rational animals are finally individualized and this one is named—Plato. At each step, a differentium—e.g., living—is brought to bear on a genus—e.g., corporeal substance—specifying it as living body. This in turn becomes a genus, ready to be specified by a new differentia—animation—into plant and animal, and so on.12

Porphyry himself made no use of a tree. The earliest diagrams for these relations date from manuscript copies, from the ninth to twelfth centuries, of Boethius’s translation, and they consist simply of shapes related by lines. In the 13th century, Peter of Spain for the first time explicitly called the diagram a tree and thereafter the lines became trunks and branches, and elliptical labels turned into leaf shapes. By the fourteenth century, they were laden with what appears to be heavy fruit.13 By the time of Ramon Llull’s “Arbor naturalis, arbor logicalis,” it has become a mature, espaliered fruit tree presenting relations as both logical and natural at once.14

But what, in all this differentiation, is the γένος for? It is a crucial part of a mechanism for answering the question “What?” W.D. Ross argues that the point of Aristotle’s Categories and its concept of γένος is to discern what any given item is at bottom.15 However, it also shows along the way the number and variety of ways in which any given thing can be categorized. Category, as well as referring to any set of predicates that is gathered into a γένος, refers specifically to Aristotle’s ten highest genera: substance, quantity, and so on. The person standing in front of me shares the whereness of being in the marketplace with everything there; she shares the posture of standing with all standing things; she shares the condition of wearing clothes with every clothed thing, and so on.16 For Ross, the broadest category is the essential one; Plato is, at bottom, a substance. Yet why ten genera? Why these ten? Ockham argued that there were grounds for only two categories; Scotus maintained that there were indeed ten, but there was no proof that there could not be more; Suarez was also committed to there being ten, nine of them accidental and substance alone essential. Kant, however, averred that Aristotle did not have any grounds for his division at all.17

Kant is right, in a certain respect. When we understand them as metaphysical categories we are unable to find metaphysical grounds for them, and likewise, as categories for use in logic they are not grounded by logic. Picking up the thread from Scotus, Eco makes the same point:

A genus is no more than a cluster of differentiae. Genera and species are linguistic ghosts that cover the real nature of the tree and the universe it represents: a world of pure differentiae…. The classical Porphyrian tree … is no longer a hierarchical and ordered structure. It does not provide any guarantee of being finite.18

The tree “blows up in a dust of differentiae,” and all those Porphyrian trees, down to Llull’s rigorously pruned pear, turn out to have been ways of insisting on order where there was none. Eco’s interpretation delivers us back to the brink of the aphasiac’s anxiety.

Yet the number of categories is not merely arbitrary, and their coherence is not merely hermetic. There is something haunting about them, but it is hauntingly familiar.19 Remember that, while the Categories is an attempt to gather under its headings everything that can be asked and answered about any item, the only item to which all ten apply will be a human individual.20 The example laid out in Porphyry’s Tree is the example. The categories cannot be grounded to the satisfaction of metaphysics, but they can be traced to our mode of being as ordering beings, as homo taxonimus, as it were, and in that context they make a rigorous, if inevitably incomplete, existential sense.21 Just as the being that structures Heidegger’s existential analytic is each time mine, the being who fulfills the Aristotelian system of predication is the sort of being we are. From the point of view of existence and existential anxiety in the face of fear and emptiness, ten is all right—plenty, enough, not too many, decimal—and these ten are likely, offering a reassuring suggestion—though no promise—of completeness, remaining enigmatic and brilliant enough to guide our knowing while respecting our anxiety, neither dismissing nor succumbing to it, but letting it be such that we can bear it.

3 Linnaeus, or, the Sane Systematizer

Otherwise, we might go mad. As a student in 1720s Uppsala, Carl Linnaeus learned the history of taxonomy in its still largely Aristotelian form, though now overgrown with new and, to his mind, maddening systems that proliferated complexity and instability at every turn.22 In one sense, he sees that the fault lies with nature. Robert Morison and John Ray before him had both attempted to find a system for botany, but they made the mistake of looking for it in nature; without the Ariadne’s thread of system, they got lost in its meanders. In another sense, Linneaus sees the problem as being with the passions we bring to our encounters with nature. The lovers of flowers, for instance, have vast experience and elaborate ways of discussing their subject but, Linneaus warns, “no sane botanist would enter their ranks.”23 In yet another sense it as a problem of language—“no sane person” would indulge the temptation to introduce barbarous or primitive names into the orderly naming of plants.24 What madness might ensue if the not just specimens of plant life but also specimens of language started coming back from America?

Linnaeus first produced his own Systema Naturae in 1735 and, from the beginning, it was a practical and economic endeavor. The section on minerals promised to make it “easy to learn mineralogy in a few hours”;25 the use of cochineal in the dyeing industry and bees in the food industry justify the general study of insects; the proliferation of principles in contemporary taxonomy had to be stopped since it was getting in the way of scientific progress.26 Yet there is something holy about the task too. Surely, he speculates, we are put on the earth’s globe to observe what is in front of us and praise its Maker.27 He writes:

As there are no new species (1); as like always gives birth to like (2); as one in each species was at the beginning of the progeny (3), it is necessary to attribute this progenitorial unity to some Omnipotent and Omniscient Being, namely God, whose work is called Creation. This is confirmed by the mechanism, the laws, principles, constitutions and sensations in every living individual.28

A century before Darwin, a biologist could assert that nature was complete, and could be confident that procreation, “the secret working plan of the Creator,” would continue to produce more of the same. We already knew a lot about it, and had names for many things, but the desire Linnaeus was working to satisfy would never be satisfied by the accumulation of information; compilers enumerate classes in a catalogue, but true systematic authors use a system that of itself indicates what is omitted (pb 113).29 Linnaeus wanted a system that would let us know what we didn’t know.

The compilers’ habit of naming species after saints might be pious, but Linnaeus suggests that the more pious attitude is the scientific one that would eventually match human knowledge with the completeness of God’s work. There were systems already available—Crespalino’s, Ray’s, Tournefort’s, and too many others—but none was systematic enough. For instance, among those trying to give a comprehensive account of plants alone, he lists: alphabetists, root-choppers, students of the shape of leaves, dealers in unguents, chronologists, those who favored the criterion of indigenous location, and empirics, who were interested in medicine.30 Rejecting all these, he turns to the orthodox systematists, those who arrange the genera (of plants) according to some part of the fruit-body. In his taxonomy of taxonomers, this is where he places himself, specifically among the “sexualists,” since he has “worked out a sexual system according to the number, relative size, and position of the stamens, together with the pistils.”31 This really is a system, on his own terms, since it allows us to point out things that are present, and “then those that are absent make themselves obvious.”32 He writes:

The absence of things not yet discovered has acted as a cause of the deficiencies of the natural method; but the acquisition of knowledge of more things will make it perfect; for nature does not make leaps.33

Not even in India, or the New World. For all its teeming growth and global expanse, nature is a whole for Linnaeus, and the task of the classifier is to make it intelligible by naming everything in sight and establishing criteria for naming what has yet to be seen. Naming had to be taken from the hands of the root-choppers and dealers in unguents, from the compilers and the failed systematizers who got lost in the meanders of botany, and from the folk who called their local plants by the names their parents taught them. This scientific system could give a Cortés words for things seen in America but unheard of in Europe, words coined in an artificial European language.34 Indeed, observation had to be carefully controlled too, since “very few people are lightly to be trusted, as far as observations go.”35 While he insists that the student of his system needs no prior knowledge of plants—in fact, the ideal student will be “unlearned”36 —Linnaeus himself embarks on his work equipped with his knowledge of Swedish flora, already ordered according to one and another of the unstable systems he will displace. His system has five divisions—class, order, genus, species and variety—and any plant will be completely named once it is allotted to a generic and a specific name.37

Genus and species are now fixed categories. For Porphyry and the tradition of medieval logic he derived from Aristotle, differentiation was a movement repeated from branch to branch of the Porphyrian tree; now differentiation happens once into genus and from there, a second time, into species. Since all species have existed since Creation, species could be differentiated, once and for all, by virtue of the one essential feature that sets it apart from all others in the genus, and the mechanism of procreation could be relied upon to sustain the specific difference over time. Difference differentiates and defines. Eco argued that, on Porphyry’s model, differentiation could never become reliable (dictionary) definition.38 For Linnaeus, only reliable definition will do. The name for a species must distinguish the plant from all those of the same genus;39 it ought to be derived from the parts of the plant that do not vary. He adds:

An essential specific name shows a feature of difference that is particular, or peculiar only to its own species…. When we have identified stable genera, and species by means of essential differences, we have attained the highest point in botany. If botanists were to arrive eventually at the position in which they could identify all species by essential names, there would be no possibility of further progress.40

Moreover, this system of names is not merely linguistic. Each specific name “contains the differentia that is contained within the plant itself.”41 Linnaeus can embark on a project of naming all genera and species because he already thinks of nature as a continuous whole made up of discrete, contiguous parts.

Systema Naturae appeared in its first edition in 1735.42 It reached its canonical form in the tenth edition in 1751 and, between these two dates, the category of Paradoxa—in Greek, “the unexpected”—disappeared.43 In the first edition, this section was populated by a collection of mythical creatures, hoaxes and beings described only in untrustworthy reports: the hydra, satyr, barnacle goose, pelican, Scythian lamb, frog-fish, dragon, phoenix, unicorn, and death watch beetle. In the second edition (1740) four more were added: manticore, antilope, lamia and siren. Why incorporate such contradictory and unexpected creatures in the new taxonomy? Gunnar Broberg understands it as, in part, an effort to tackle superstition, extending the range of scientific explanation to the mythical animals of an earlier time, with the hydra turning out to be “fraud and artifice,” the phoenix “in reality the date palm,” the unicorn “a figment of painters,” and so on. Linnaeus saw himself as tidying up nature after the barbarisms and darkness of the Middle Ages.44 Yet Broberg suggests that it is also, in part, an indication of a deeper, more ambiguous tendency to want his system’s categories to function efficiently and discretely while also preserving the continuity of nature. Perhaps Linnaeus, like Aristotle, is endowed with what Lovejoy describes in The Great Chain of Being as the two mental habits:

There are not many differences in mental habit other than that between the habit of thinking in discrete, well-defined class concepts and that of thinking in terms of continuity, of infinitely delicate shadings-off of everything into something else, of the overlapping of essences so that the whole notion of species comes to seem an artifice of thought and not truly applicable to the fluency, the, so to say, universal overlappingness of the real world.45

Both habits serve the fantasy of completeness, though only the former needs the category of Paradoxa to keep the dream intact. If the taxa were allowed to overlap, the frog-fish or the plant-sheep would pose no systematic problem. When differentiation is harnessed to the production of definition, and when definition defines our expectations (δόξα), then the unexpected (παρά-δόξα) must also be defined and must have a category of their own.

The complete system of nature must include humankind, and, while the frog-fish might be a vague curiosity, the woman-fish is the object of obsessive erotic fascination.46 She eventually loses her place in the System, either quietly absorbed into the species white dolphin Delphinus Leucas, or consigned to a footnote at the end of the classification of marine mammals.47 The category of Paradoxa vanishes definitively with the sixth edition of Systema Naturae in 1748, but confusion persists and intensifies around the question of our place in the system. Immediately after introducing the genus name Homo, Linneaus adds the subtitle “Nosce te ipsum” “Know thyself.” He does this before designating the species sapiens. Thus, we who are exhorted to self-knowledge may be humans (H. sapiens) but could also include cave people (H. troglodytes), certain long-limbed people (H. lar), or tailed people (H. caudatus). Yet even if we, the addressees, are H. sapiens, we may be of the Wild variety, or else American, European, Asiatic, or African. We may, finally, be Monstrosus. The certainty that characterized the system slips now, when most is at stake, and Linnaeus struggles to make sense of the reports he hears of wolf-children and pale cave dwellers, indolent Patagonians and flat-headed Canadians. He is unsure whether to note them as particulars or develop for each one a new category on one side or the other—or now on one side, now on the other—of the dividing line between the genera Homo and Simia, between the human and the animal.

On one level, the uncertainty is just an empirical matter. Surely if Linneaus had himself met the alleged troglodyte girl who was put on display in London in 1758,48 or if he had travelled beyond Europe, he could himself have gathered the evidence he needed to settle the matter. Yet he reminds us often that to be led by nature is insane, so how do we know which phenomena merely need to be examined more closely and which need to be moved to another category or granted a category of their own? Those long-limbed people first classed as Homo Lar were, on closer observation, re-classed as gibbons (Simia lar), and Homo troglodytes was decided to be the chimpanzee (Simia troglodytes). If observation could lead to those adjustments of the system, what would it take to make a sane systematizer rethink the distinction between European, Americans, Asiatic, African and Monstrous humans? What would it take to reconsider the need and warrant for such a distinction?

4 Kant, or, the Judgment of Reason

As we know, centuries on, it would take a great deal, more than we have yet been able to muster. The disappearance of the category of Paradoxa suggests a particular hubris. The system that now emerges is committed not just to working towards ordering the maddening variety of nature, but towards complete order. Taxonomy, the law of the orders, that is, the νόµος of the τάξεις, requires that there be a place for everything; natural science succumbs to the model not just of physics but of metaphysics. In the Critique of Judgment Kant writes that accomplishing “a system of pure philosophy, under the general title of metaphysics … quite completely is both possible and of the utmost importance for our use of reason in all contexts” (KUk 168). Yet there is a gulf between pure philosophy and a pure understanding of nature. Ernst Cassirer asks:

What justifies us in seeing nature as a whole that assumes the form of a logical system and is capable of being treated as such? Whence comes this harmony between natural forms and logical forms, and upon what is it based?49

Kant agrees that the understanding, by which we grasp nature, is prone to its own hubris. Since it has access to the a priori conditions for the possibility of everything it can cognize, it runs beyond itself and claims to have thereby given a full account of everything possible. While he dismisses this as the arrogance of the understanding, its workings are nonetheless redeemed precisely by a principle of completeness provided by reason and not by nature. The understanding will never attain complete knowledge, but cognition, when it contemplates nature, will be guided in the right way by using the principle of completeness as a regulative idea.50 This is essential, and in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant observes that, even if the taxonomers do not describe it in such terms, it is clearly how reason is at work in their classifications.51 Regulative ideas bring unity into particular cognitions as far as possible. Thus, when we approach nature with the idea of completeness, we find ourselves studying the parts or elements of nature—e.g., water, earth, air—as if they also existed or could exist in complete or pure form.52 Kant writes:

The logical principle of genera therefore presupposes a transcendental one if it is to be applied to nature…. According to that principle, sameness of kind is necessarily presupposed in the manifold of a possible experience (even though we cannot determine its degree a priori) because without it no empirical concepts and hence no experience would be possible (krv A654/B682).53

What makes it possible to know nature at all is also what exposes us to the danger of misconstruing experience; we risk forgetting the as if. Faced with the need to presuppose the purity of the ideas of reason, we transform it—mistakenly, disastrously—into a necessary purity of natural kinds. Kant returns to the problem repeatedly, emphasizing that this thought of complete purity has its origin in reason alone, and that principles in general have their source in reason and are not objective (A646/B674).54 Thus he imagines observing a conflict between two insightful people regarding the particular character of peoples. (Like Porphyry’s “Plato,” it is an example that is more than an example). One interlocutor assumes that certain characteristics are based on hereditary distinctions between families and races, while the other assumes that differences are based on external contingencies. (Significantly, neither doubts the coherence of the category “people.”) Kant continues:

There is nothing here but the twofold interest of reason, where each party takes to heart oneinterest or the other, or affects to do so, hence either the maxim of the manifoldness of nature or that of the unity of nature; these maxims can of course be united, but as long as they are held to be objective insights, they occasion not only conflict but also hindrances that delay the discovery of the truth, until a means is found of uniting the disputed interests and satisfying reason about them.55

It is not clear that the interests can indeed be unified, and their unity may itself be a regulative idea. The value of Kant’s scheme lies in the prospect of having logical and natural forms coincide in the thought of natural purpose and purposiveness. If Kant can be described as the logician of the Linnaean system, it is because, in a line of thinking that stretches from early essays and lectures through his writings on race and culminates in the Critique of Judgment, he displaced a scholastic logic founded on a set of categories, whose number was fixed according to no principle, in favor of a principle of formal purposiveness.56 This was the solution to the problem that lay hidden at the heart of Linnaeus’s work.57 As Jennifer Mensch argues, a key to achieving this is Kant’s advancing it initially as an idea, meant for academic instruction, aimed at pragmatic knowledge, even though it was essentially a philosophical speculation in the hitherto forbidden territory of biological origins.58 Compelled by Buffon’s rule, whereby interfertility is the basis for a natural division of nature into species, Kant acknowledged this as a “natural system for the understanding” but regarded it as falling short, as Linnaeus’s principles did, of a dynamic principle of natural history.59 Buffon’s efforts remained too reliant on empirical grounds, with the result that, at a crucial point in the development of his theory, he became entangled in the search for fertile mules in an effort to explain one of the paradoxa produced by his rule.60 As Linneaus would have put it, he became lost in one of the meanders of nature. At this point, Kant posits a germ [Keim] that would unify nature and reason. Mensch writes:

The ends of nature and humanity could be connected, even identified … once the grounds for their unity could be located outside the push and pull of empirical experience. Nature had provided mankind with a germ of reason and with dispositions intended for the gradual perfection of the species as a whole.61

In Kant’s early writings, God was the only figure that could provide a logical basis for the unity of nature;62 in 1775 it was a germ of reason; in the Critique of Pure Reason it was the idea of completeness occupying the place of a regulative idea; in the Critique of Practical Reason it was the regulative idea of the perfectly good will and our human aptitude for purposes, though the generation of those purposes remains a task for us as free beings.63 In the Critique of Judgment, it takes the form of purposiveness as a principle of reflective judgment. We must suppose that nature organizes itself, and that its original organization “uses mechanism either to produce other organized forms or to develop the thing’s own organized form into new shapes.”64 Reason imposes certain constraints. It would be absurd, Kant writes in a remarkable passage, to suppose that crude, unorganized matter would generate an organism, but reasonable to suppose that an organism generates its like, a supposition supported by our empirical experience. Experience in turn imposes other constraints; reason, in adventurous mode, might allow us to suppose that an organism could produce something unlike itself, for example, that an aquatic animal could produce a marsh animal and, after several generations, a land animal but “experience does not show an example of this.”65 Not yet.

For now, the presumption of purposiveness is borne out most thoroughly in humankind but also in different ways and to different degrees in all genera of animals and plants, down to polyps, mosses, lichens and even crystals. The genera are narrowly separated—they approach one another gradually, as Kant puts it—and we must be free to think of them as a family of creatures if the “thoroughly coherent kinship among them is to have a basis.”66 Reason does not dictate. Rather, we must make judgments about how to approach the world. Cassirer writes that for Kant: “We find that nature ‘favors’ the effort of our faculty of judgment to discover a systematic order among her separate forms, and, so to speak, meets it half way.”67 As it happens, Kant’s efforts to insist on the role of the subjective, heuristic, regulative use of reason’s principles will be almost entirely lost on his philosophical and scientific contemporaries.68 More powerful and more appealing than the responsibilities of negotiating in the middle is the reassuring assertion that, with natural purpose, we grasp at last the structure of a self-generating γένος, the group whose principle is embedded in its origin. The affinity between the individuals who belong to the γένος is accounted for by their shared origin, so that Kant can present the work of the naturalist—“the archaeologist of nature”—not as discerning the boundaries between genera but as discovering empirical evidence of the organic origin of each γένος, which reason has already allowed us to suppose.69

5 Conclusion

Linneaus found a place for homo sapiens in the order of nature, but what does it take to occupy that place, specifically, to find one’s place in a τάξον determined by heredity? In his 1775 essay on race, Kant wrote: “It is clear that the cognition of things as they are now always leaves us desirous of the cognition of that which they once were and of the series of changes they underwent to arrive at each place in their present state.” (2:434).70 If the truth of a τάξον were to be uncovered in the natural purpose embedded in the mother organism, belonging would involve finding that same or a derived purpose embedded in me. We could think of the taxon as showing itself in us, in the very sharing of the inherited purpose with the ancestors, and with and among our kin. It would structure our experience of the γένος as endogenous. Yet it can do so only insofar as we ignore the subjective, heuristic and historical use of reason, that is, insofar as we mistake the taxa for natural rather than historical categories, for objects of knowledge rather than judgment. The τάξον is not the phenomenon. Rather, the right object of our attention is taxonomy, the activity of giving the law to what appears in the world on presumption of order that can be made complete and knowledge that can be perfected.


Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), xx.


Foucault explicitly rejects the phenomenological approach because of its concentration on the subject and its postulation of a transcendental subjectivity. Yet those criticisms are less pertinent insofar as phenomenology develops the thought of intersubjectivity and being-with, and insofar as it is understood hermeneutically. See The Order of Things, xv.


Foucault, The Order of Things, xxvi.


Note the parallel between the structure described here and the principle Arendt identifies when she writes: “There is something here [in the camps] that should never be involved in politics as we used to understand it, namely all or nothing—all, and that is an undetermined infinity of forms of human living-together, or nothing, for the victory of the concentration-camp system would mean the same inexorable doom for human beings as the use of the hydrogen bomb would mean the doom of the human race” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973], 443).


See Andrea Giunta, “Strategies of Modernity in Latin America,” in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.) Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (Cambridge: mit Press, 1996), 53. Cited in Juan Carlos Guerrero Hernández “Mutilated Bodies and Memories of Violence: Displacements and Contestations of Representations of Violence, in Contemporary Video Art and Photography in Colombia, 1993–1998” (PhD Dissertation, Stony Brook University, 2015), 83.


Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 85.


Aristotle, Categories.


Porphyry, trans. J. Barnes, Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ix.


Ian Hacking cites Simplicius (fl. 530) “who wrote an exemplary account of different ways of reading the Categories, [and] reports that Porphyry studied their intermediate role between words and things.” See Hacking, I. “Trees of Logic, Trees of Porphyry,” in J.L. Heilbron (ed.), Advancements of Learning: Essays in Honour of Paolo Rossi. (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2007), 230.


Porphyry, Introduction, 21–32.


Eco briefly explores the possibility of using probrium rather than differentia to produce a definition of a genus, concluding: “The nature of probrium remains mysterious, both in Aristotle and in Porphyry, since it looks like something midway between an essential and an analytic property and an encyclopedic and a synthetic one.” Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 60.


Eco argues that this procedure of differentiation cannot produce a definition. “As a matter of fact, all the instances of a Porphyrian tree, following a common standard, aim at showing how man can be defined and are therefore incomplete” Ibid., 61. For Eco, this is a difficulty, but the proliferation of difference and the frustration of the work of definition is to be welcomed for existential purposes.


Verboon, Annemieke, “The Medieval Tree of Porphyry: An Organic Structure of Logic,” in Andrea Worm and Pippa Salonius (eds.) The Tree. Symbol, Allegory and Mnemonic Device in Medieval Art and Thought (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014), 102.


Note that this is the same era when arbores juris or Trees of Consanguinity began to appear. See Verboon, The Medieval Tree, 107–108.


Ross, W.D., Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1971), 23.


Porphyry observes that the same differentia are often observed in many species, “as four-footed in many animals which differ in species” (18.20). Aristotle also notes this in The Categories 1b 15ff. Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 62.


Kant understands his table of categories to be aiming at the same thing as Aristotle’s categories, “though very distant … in execution” krv, (A80/B106). See krv A81/B107 for his critical assessment of the flaws of Aristotle’s system of categories, all traceable to the fact that he had no principle.


Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 66.


Eco, having argued vigorously for the untenability of the Porphyrian mode of differentiation, acknowledges the possibility of the type of argument I make here. Porphyry’s model failed, according to Eco, because it tried to understand semantic representation in the format of a dictionary rather than an encyclopaedia. However, for all that, dictionary-like representations can be used as suitable tools for certain tasks (84). “Thus, if the encyclopedia is an unordered set of markers (and of frames, scripts, text-oriented instructions), the dictionary-like arrangements we continuously provide are transitory and pragmatically useful hierarchical reassessments of it” (85).


Ross, W.D., Aristotle, 2.


See Hacking for a reflection on the “incomplete sense” discernable in Ramón Llull’s “Arbor naturalis, arbor logicalis.” Hacking writes: “The strange mixture of vivid concrete example and evocative abstract structure makes Lull dangerously tantalizing and conceptually difficult. Frances Yates confessed that when she first encountered Llull she thought the whole symbolic system was mad. Slowly it came to make an incomplete sense. The best explanation, at least of Llull’s ‘Natural and Logical Tree,’ is in [Mark] Johnston’s aptly titled The Spiritual Logic of Ramón Llull.” Hacking, “Trees of Logic, Trees of Porphyry,” 247. See Johnston, The Spiritual Logic of Ramón Llull (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).


Hacking traces a line of inheritance of the Porphyrian practice of generating categories by division—if not the image of the Porphyrian tree—through Peter Ramus (1515–1572), “a radical reformer of scholastic logic … it leads not as far as Linnaeus but to the man who made possible Linnaeus’s classification of plants by sexual parts, namely Andrea Cesalpino (1519–1603).” Hacking, “Trees of Logic, Trees of Porphyry,” 252.


Linné, Carl von, trans. Stephen Freer, Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica (Oxford: oup, 2005), 259.


Ibid., 172.


Hamburgische Berichte, 75 (20th September, 1735): 618–619. Quoted by Engel-Ledeboer in the introduction to Linné, Systema Naturae,1735: Facsimile of the First Edition with an Introduction and a First English Translation of the “Observationes.” Ed. H. Engel, trans. M.S.J. Engel-Ledeboer (Leiden: De Graaf, 1964) 8. For an extensive treatment of the economic interest that propelled Linneaus’s work, see Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).


Linné, Systema Naturae, 1735, 19.


See Observations, ibid., 18.


Ibid., 19.


Kant will later make the same complaint about Linnaeus: “We do not have as yet a system of nature. In the existing so-called system of this type, the objects are merely put beside each other and ordered in sequence one after another…. True philosophy, however, has to follow the diversity and the manifoldness of matter through all time.” Quoted by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, in E.C. Eze Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001), 103.


Linné, Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica, 219.


Ibid., 31.


Ibid., 23.


Ibid., 49.


Ibid., 175. Linneaus was too late to help Cortés in his particular predicament, but his system was later vigorously applied to the botanical discoveries of the New Worlds. In some instances there is a linguistic gulf: most Australian aboriginal languages were destroyed in the course of colonization and today most Australians commonly refer to plants by their Linnean names. In other instances, native names survived in the nomenclature devised by Europeans. Juan Guerrero writes of the work of Jose Celestino Mutis who led the Spanish Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada (1782–1816): “Concerning the naming of some species of animals, that Mutis had no other option than to follow the names given by natives. That is the case of the large species of bird known as Chauna Chavaria; ‘chavaria’ was the name the natives had for it.” Guerrero Hernández, Juan Carlos, “Mutilated Bodies and Memories of Violence,” 84.


Linné, Systema Naturae, 1735, 19.


Linné, Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica, 224.


Ibid., 219.


Eco writes: “A genus is no more than a cluster of differentiae. Genera and species are linguistic ghosts that cover the real nature of the tree and the universe it represents: a world of pure differentiae…. The classical Porphyrian tree … is no longer a hierarchical and ordered structure. It does not provide any guarantee of being finite.” Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 66.


Linné, Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica, 219.


Ibid., 245. Freer’s translation announces but does not explain the decision to translate Linneaus’ Latin differentiae as definitions rather than differences. I have reversed the decision here, to preserve the ambiguity.


Ibid., 220.


Linné, Systema Naturae, 1735.


The Paradoxa were dropped from the sixth edition, in 1748.


See Gunnar Broberg, “Homo Sapiens: Linnaeus’s Classification of Man,” in Linnaeus:The Man and His Work, ed. Tore Frangsmyr (Canton: Science History Publications, 1994), 177.


Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 57.


Broberg writes: “The temptation to anthropomorphize these animals that were different from other marine creatures may be briefly illustrated by a note in Iter Lapponicum referring to the intercourse of seals: the female lies ‘wide open’ and the male ‘at home’ embraces her.” Broberg, “ ‘Homo Sapiens: Linneaus’s Classification of Man,’ ” 179. Citing Iter Lapponicum (1913), 211.


The footnote appears in the 10th edition, but the English translation, published by Turton in 1800, has the entry for the white dolphin as the last text of the Mammalia section.


See Broberg, “ ‘Homo Sapiens: Linneaus’s Classification of Man,’ ” 185. The girl was almost certainly Amelia Lewsam or Newsham, a black albino who was brought from Jamaica in 1754 and would have been 9 or 10 years old when Linneaus heard of her.


Ernst Cassirer, trans. William H. Woglom and Charles W. Hendel, The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 124.


See KUk 168. Although this remark comes in the Critique of Judgment it is from the Preface, at a moment when Kant is describing what was achieved by the Critique of Pure Reason, that is, the identification of cognition as the proper domain of the understanding.


krv A646/B674. Thus Kant makes the observation quoted above from Lovejoy in different terms when he describes reason preparing the field for the understanding by supplying the principles of sameness of kinds (homogeneity), variety (specification) and the affinity of all concepts (continuity) (krv A657–658).


Another reading of this passage in the first Critique would show Kant breaking down Nature into elements that are pure (at least in principle) in a way analogous to the chemical process of fractionation by which a compound is separated into its constituent elements. This might be done for the sake of purity, but also for the sake of knowing the make-up of the compound and freeing its components for new combinations. See Müller-Wille and Rheinberger, Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500–1870 (Cambridge: mit Press, 2007), 126. There, the analogy is cannily used to offer a new account of the eugenically inflected discussions of heredity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


krv A654/B682.


Ibid., A646/B674.


krv A668–669/B695–696.


Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge; Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel, 124–29.


Ibid., 127.


Jennifer Mensch, Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 99.


Ibid., 100.


A line of fertile mules would allow Buffon to show apparently disparate species to be in fact varieties of older, degenerated lines (Ibid., 101.). See also Mensch’s elegant account of this moment in the development of Kant’s thought: “Kant’s argument from experience to its grounds thus led past both chance and mechanism when accounting for divergence, tracing itself back to an idea of natural providence as alone capable of grounding the unity and difference of humankind” (Ibid., 107).


Ibid., 106.


Mensch, Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of Critical Philosophy, 102.


Ibid., 107.


KUk, 418. For a cultural historical account of how development and reproduction feature in the development of Kant’s thought of natural purpose, see Müller-Wille and Rheinberger, Heredity Produced 35.


KUk, 420, note.


KUk, 419.


Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge; Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel, 126.


Mensch, Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of Critical Philosophy, 151.


Robert Bernasconi has written extensively and critically on the subject of Kant and race. See Bernasconi, Robert, “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism” in Philosophers on Race:Critical Essays, Julie K. Ward and Tommy L. Lott, eds. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 145–65. See also Peter McLaughlin, “Kant on Heredity” in Müller-Wille and Rheinberger, Heredity Produced, 277–92. See also Lagier, Les races humaines selon Kant (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2004).


“The discovery worth announcing in 1775 … was thus an increasing sense on Kant’s part of the positive explanatory role that could be played by teleology in the search for a rationally unified order, for something that was at work in the nature of the human being as much as it was in “Nature herself.” Mensch, Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of Critical Philosophy, 106.

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