Jorge Luis Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins"

Jorge Luis Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins"

Comments by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.

"The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" by Jorge Luis Borges:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/31/2012]

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins"

[This is an expansion of a previous column. The new material is primarily that which deals with Umberto Eco's essay "The Language of the Austral Land", published in his collection SERENDIPITIES.]

Much has been written about the classification scheme that Borges, in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", purports to have found in a Chinese encyclopedia: "a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies."

For many readers, John Wilkins probably seems as fictional as this purported Chinese taxonomy. But he was real, and I found a discussion of his analytical language in Umberto Eco's essay "The Language of the Austral Land", published in his collection SERENDIPITIES.]

According to Eco, Wilkins had "a system of 'Transcendental Particles' intended to amplify or alter the character to which they are applied. The list contemplates eight classes amounting to a total of forty-eight particles, but the criterion that assembles them is not at all systematic." The categories seem to encompass the grammatical, the rhetorical, the causal, the inclusive, and the functional. So "like+blood=crimson", but "place+metal=mine" and "voice+lion=roar". Wilkins apparently supplies a long list of these, but warns they are only examples, implying that there really are not systematic rules.

Wilkins also had a series of categories and subcategories which (theoretically) would partition (in a mathematical sense) the universe. Wikipedia gives the following explanation/example:

"Concepts are divided into forty main Genera, each of which gives the first, two-letter syllable of the word; a Genus is divided into Differences, each of which adds another letter; and Differences are divided into Species, which add a fourth letter. For instance, Zi identifies the Genus of 'beasts' (mammals); Zit gives the Difference of 'rapacious beasts of the dog kind'; Zita gives the Species of dogs."

Other people have attempted similar analytical languages; none appear to have caught on.

So while Borges's Chinese taxonomy does seem an odd set of categories, it is no odder than that of Wilkins. Of course, neither are "real"--but consider Japanese number classifiers.

In "The Story of Human Language", John H. McWhorter discusses number classifiers, which is where I discovered them. He used Cantonese as an example of a "number classifier language", but I was able to find more information on Japanese, so I will use that.

Japanese has a special classifier (a.k.a. counter word, a.k.a. number word) for counting flat things, a entirely different one for people, another for birds or rabbits, one for small animals other than birds or rabbits, one for small round things, one for generations (distinct from the counter for people in general), and so on.

For example, on a blog someone gave the example: "Thus in Japanese ni-hon no nasu means 'two-roundthing of eggplant', while ni-ko no nasu means 'two-longthing of eggplant', referring to two different varieties of eggplant--one round and the other long, natch. The number ni and the noun nasu are the same in both cases; only the classifiers hon (also used when counting apples) and ko (also used when counting pencils) vary."

(English has some counter words, e.g., "three head of cattle", "two pair of pants") but Japanese has a lot, and they are always required. There is a very long list at

So, really, is Borges's classification scheme any less sensible than the Japanese classifier scheme that divides animals into:

or has categories such as:

When James Franklin is talking about classification systems, in WHAT SCIENCE KNOWS AND HOW IT KNOWS IT, he mentions that "the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges imagined the 'Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,' a Chinese encyclopedia that classified animals according to the scheme: ..."

Franklin then claims, "Michel Foucault and some of his followers made fools of themselves by appearing to believe the encyclopedia was real, leading to justified complaints about the degeneracy of the postmodernist academy." (This would have been in 1970, a quarter of a century before Alan Sokal's 1996 hoax article in SOCIAL TEXT, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformational Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

Now, according to Keith Windschuttle, Foucault writes that, "thanks to 'the wonderment of this taxonomy,' we can apprehend not only 'the exotic charm of another system of thought' but also 'the limitation of our own.' What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that 'there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture ... that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.' The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality." Windschuttle goes on to relate that in one seminar, someone cited Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. As Windschuttle puts it, "Didn't I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?"

Clearly the person at the seminar believed the Emporium to be real. However, what is quoted from Foucault above, and what else I can find of what Foucault himself actually wrote doesn't quite support the notion that Foucault was taken in. For example, Foucault says (of THE ORDER OF THINGS: AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES), "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I first read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought.... In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehended in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. ... What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible. The animals '(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush'-where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language?"

Two points: Foucault refers to the Emporium as a "fable", and he says that some of the items on the list could only be juxtaposed in "the non-place of language," that is, the fictional world of literature.

In other words, as far as I can tell, there is not much evidence that Foucault actually thought the Emporium to be real, and without further evidence, Franklin's claim does not hold up.

Franklin gives his own critique of the Emporium from a scientific standpoint: it has too much "self-reference, wildly different sizes of categories, a combination of objective and human-focused principles, [and] a mixture of the existent and the nonexistent." I'm not sure all of these are valid complaints: the Linnaean system of classification has wildly different sizes of categories, and (arguably) a mixture of the existent and the nonexistent, at least to the extent that it encompasses extinct plants and animals.

And if one goes back to the Japanese number classifications, the categories there vary greatly in size and also do not have uniform determinants. (By the latter I mean, for example, a system of classifying animals based on number of legs, or on body mass.) That does not make the Japanese system any less real, and indeed, Borges could have put it in his essay with little change on the effect.

In his essay, Borges also claims that the Bibliographic Institute of Brussels has "divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, mormonism; and number 294, brahmanism, buddhism, shintoism and taoism. It doesn't reject heterogene subdivisions as, for example, 179: 'Cruelty towards animals. Animals protection. Duel and suicide seen through moral values. Various vices and disadvantages. Advantages and various qualities.'" [sic on capitalization]

The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels seems to be about as real as the Chinese taxonomy.


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