Of lists, categories and taxonomies: Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

I have always had an obsession with lists and categories. Basically all ‘systems’ and ‘databases’ are really no more than just lists and categories taken to higher orders.
Extend this further, and in a way, Life, the Universe and Everything since the big bang, are also no more than a gigantic exercise in list-making and categorizing on a cosmic scale while remaining ever so precise in quantum sub-atomic detail.

[Which probably explains my later subsequent reaction against and disdain for Categories of any kind, preferring instead to lump and dump One and All together in a general storehouse of Alaya consciousness. See right side.]

And one of the funniest, yet also eminently insightful writings on how the innate urge to describe and categorize the world is central to Man, and also how such an undertaking shall always be doomed to failure:
Borges and his infamous taxonomy of the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, from his essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”.

I have noticed that the 14th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica does not include the article on John Wilkins. This omission can be considered justified if we remember how trivial this article was (20 lines of purely biographical data: Wilkins was born in 1614, Wilkins died in 1672, Wilkins was chaplain of Charles Louis, Elector Palatine; Wilkins was principal of one of Oxford’s colleges, Wilkins was the first secretary of the Royal Society of London, etc.); it is an error if we consider the speculative works of Wilkins. He was interested in several different topics: theology, cryptography, music, the building of transparent beehives, the orbit of an invisible planet, the possibility of a trip to the moon, the possibility and principles of an universal language. To this latter problem he dedicated the book ‘An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language’ (600 pages in large quarto, 1668).


He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species.


These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (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.


(1) Theoretically, the number of numbering systems is unlimited. The most complete (used by the divinities and the angels) has an infinite number of symbols, one for each individual number; the simplest needs only two. Zero is written as 0, one 1, two 10, three 11, four 100, five 101, six 110, seven 111, eight 1000… This is an invention by Leibniz, who was stimulated (it seems) by the enigmatic hexagrammes of I Ching.

–Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”

Borges never fails to crack me up…


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