Eco:The Limits of Classification, 2

by Esteban

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 8

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 8, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Let us try to understand a little better what is happening here. Suppose we wanted to use the real character to understand the difference between a dog and a wolf. We discover only that the dog, Zitα, is the first member of the first specific pair of the fifth difference of the genus Beasts, and that the wolf Zitαs, is the opposing member of this pair (s being the character for specific opposition).

But in this way the character says what is the position of a dog in a universal classification of beasts (which, like Fish and Bird are animate sensitive sanguineous substances), without providing information either on the physical characteristics of dogs or on the difference between a dog and a wolf.

To learn more about dogs and wolves we must read further in the tables. Here we can learn (1) that clawed viviparous animals have toes at the end of their feet; (2) that rapacious viviparous animals have generally “six short pointed incisors, or cutting teeth, and two long fangs to hold their prey;” (3) that the head of dog-kind beasts is oblong, while the head of cat-kind animals is roundish; (4) that the larger of the dog-kind fall into two further groups–“either that which is noted for tameness and docility; or for wildness and enmity to sheep.”

With this, we finally know the difference between a dog and a wolf.

Thus genera, differences and species only serve to “taxonomize” entities rather than to define the properties by which we recognize them. To make these properties evident it is necessary to attach a running commentary to the classification.

Within Aristotelian classification, defining man as a rational animal was perfectly adequate. But this is not adequate for Wilkins, for he lived in an age that wished to discover the physical and biological nature of things.

He thus needed to know what were the morphological and behavioral characteristics of dogs as well. Yet his tables only allowed him to express this information in the form of additional properties and circumstances, and this additional information had to be expressed in natural language because the characteristic language lacked the formulae to render it evident.

This consecrates the failure of Wilkins‘ project, considering that, according to his project, “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

One might wish at least to call Wilkins a pioneer of modern, scientific taxonomy (like the taxonomy shown in figure 10.3). Yet, as Slaughter has noted, he has lumped together the pre-scientific taxonomies and folk taxonomy.

To classify, as we usually do, onions and garlic as foodstuffs and lilies as flowers is an instance of folk taxonomy: from a botanical point of view, onions, garlic and lilies are all members of the Liliaceae family.

See how Wilkins, when he classifies dogs, starts out using morphological criteria, then goes on mixing functional and even geographical criteria.

What, then, is that character Zitα that tells us so little about dogs, forcing us to learn more by inspecting the tables? One might compare it with a pointer which permits access to information stored in the computer’s memory–and which is not provided by the form of the character itself.

The speakers who wished to use the characteristic language as their natural idiom should have already memorized all that information in order to understand the character. But that is exactly the same type of competence requested of speakers who, instead of Zitα, say cane, dog, per or Hund.

For this reason, the encyclopedic information that underlies the list of primitives negates the compositional principle of Wilkins‘ language. Wilkins‘ primitives are not primitives at all. His species do not emerge from the composition of genera and differences alone; they are also names used as pegs to hang up encyclopedic descriptions.

Moreover, not even genera and differences are primitive, since they can be defined only through encyclopedic definitions. They neither are innate notions, nor can be immediately grasped by intuition: if one could still say so of the ideas of “God” or “world,” one would hardly do so for, let us say, “naval and ecclesiastical relations.”

Genera and differences are not primitive notions because–if they were–they should be definable by nature, while the tables are conceived just in order to define them by means of a natural language, Wilkins‘ English.

If Wilkins‘ classification were logical consistent, it should be possible to assume that it is analytically true that the genus of Beasts entails Animate Substance, which in its turn entails Creatures Considered Distributively.

Even this, in fact, is not always the case. The opposition vegetative / sensitive, for example, in the table of genera serves to distinguish Stone and Tree (and has an uncertain status); but the same opposition reappears (not once but twice) in the table of the World (see figure 12.6, where repeated terms are in bold).

Thus, on the basis of figure 12.1, one should admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an animate creature, while according to figure 12.6, one should (rather contradictorily) admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an element of both the spiritual and the corporeal world.

It is obvious that these various entities (be they genera, species or whatever) are considered under a different point of view every time they appear in the tables. Yet, in this case, we are no longer confronting a classification whose purpose is to construct a tree of organized terms in which every entity is unequivocally defined by the place it holds within the classification; we are, instead, confronting a great encyclopedia in which it is only expected that the same topics will be treated from more than one point of view in different articles.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257.

Consulting the table for Economic Relations, we find, among its species, the pair Defending versus Deserting. If we turn to the table for Military Relations we still find Defense; though this time it is opposed to Offense.

It is true that when defense is considered as an economic relation and the opposite of desertion, it is written Coco, while considered as a type of military action, the opposite of offense, it is written Sibα.

Thus two different characters denote two different notions. Yet are they really different notions rather than one notion considered from two viewpoints? As a matter of fact, the ideas of economic defence and military defence seem to have something in common.

In both cases we are facing an act of war, which is seen the first time as a patriotic duty and the second time as a response to the enemy. The fact that the two notions are conceptually related, however, implies that within the structure of pseudo-dichotomies there also exist transversal connections, linking the nodal points in different sections of the tree.

Yet is such connections exist, then the tree is no more a hierarchical tree; it is rather a network of interrelated ideas.

In his work De signes, written in 1800, Joseph-Marie Degérando accused Wilkins of continually confusing classification with division:

“Division differs from classification in that the latter bases itself upon the intimate properties of the objects it wishes to distribute, while the former follows a rule to a certain end to which these objects are destined.

Classification apportions ideas into genera, species, and families; division allocates them into regions of greater or lesser extent. Classification is the method of botanists; division is the method by which geography is taught.

If one wishes for an even clearer example, when an Army is drawn up in battle formation, each brigade under its general, each battalion under its commander, each company under its captain, this is an image of division; when, however, the state of this army is presented on a role, which principally consists of en enumeration of the officers of each rank, then of the subalterns, and finally of the soldiers, this is an image of classification (IV, 399-400).”

Degérando is doubtlessly thinking here of Leibniz’s notion of the ideal library and of the structure of the Encyclopédie of which we will later speak), that is, of a criterion for subdividing matter according to the importance that it has for us.

Yet a practical classification follows criteria different from those which should rule a system of primitives based on metaphysical assumptions.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 254-8.