On categories of knowledge

Any attempt to categorise knowledge inevitably reinforces our cultural and epistemological biases. And nowhere is this demonstrated better than the absurd taxonomy of animals created by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Ismoon / CC BY-SA

Okay, first off, I am well aware that by putting “epistemological” in the opening of this post I’ve probably already lost half the potential audience. But it is becoming a tradition for me to get into the nature of knowledge every hundred posts or so: simultaneity on the occasion of my 300th post; on the impossibility of final proof for my 200th post. This post is the 500th on this site. Time to talk about categories.

Taxonomies, categorisation systems, and other ways to organise the full breadth of human knowledge are plentiful and useful. I use categories for every post on this site. If you want to explore the last 499 posts I’ve written then scroll to the bottom of any page and choose a category that interests you (religion and belief has some doozies, for example). But at the same time the categories I have chosen are problematic.

Take the geographical categories for example. I have one for each continent, plus one for the poles and oceans, but I’ve split Eurasia into Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. And that still makes Asia impossibly large – it covers such disparate countries as Russia, India, China, and Indonesia. The history categories are divided into prehistory, ancient history (up to 500 CE), the Middle Ages (500 to 1500 CE), early modern history (1500 CE to 1800 CE), and modern history (1800 CE until today). But that periodisation (antiquity, Middle Ages, modern world) is a Western categorisation that carries with it certain assumptions about the nature of history and the coherency of historical periods… such divisions don’t make as much sense if you look through the lens of Chinese history, for example, or if you question the act of blocking history into discrete chunks in the first place.

Why do I have a category for education but not for philosophy? Technology but not architecture? History but not biography? I wish I had a good answer, but truthfully it was just how the categories emerged when I first began writing. I acknowledge that my categories are relatively arbitrary. They carry cultural baggage, and I cannot drop that cultural baggage without dropping the categories entirely.

Today it is pretty widely acknowledged that an absolute and universal system of categorisation is impossible, but it wasn’t always so. In the Enlightenment serious attempts were made to categorise the world absolutely. The English philosopher John Wilkins tried to create an artificial language mapping onto such categories. His goal was noble – he wanted the whole world to be able to converse philosophically without ambiguity or misunderstanding. It never succeeded, and in a 1942 essay on Wilkins the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges neatly demonstrated why.

How could we categorise animals? There’s biological nomenclature, of course, but that’s not the only possible system (and certainly not the only useful system). If I’m lost in the wilderness I would rather know edible vs. inedible, or dangerous vs. harmless. A conservationist may want to know native vs. invasive. An epidemiologist would want to know which animals can carry diseases to humans. All are valid systems. Borges’ categorisation system is… less so. Here it is:

  • those belonging to the Emperor
  • embalmed ones
  • trained ones
  • suckling pigs
  • mermaids
  • fabled ones
  • stray dogs
  • those 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 vase
  • those that from afar look like flies

I love this list because it’s just brimming full of puckish humour. I mean,
why do suckling pigs get their own category? Why are pictures of animals suddenly included? “those included in this classification”?!? “et cetera”?!?!? Damn you Borges, that’s wicked. It’s also a great example of truth through absurdity: it exposes the arbitrary nature of all categories, because each of these categories would make sense as part of some categorisation system – but take them all together and the result is anarchy.

The list inspired the philosopher Michel Foucault to write a book about (among other things) the cultural baggage of systems of knowledge. I am not even going to try to explain Foucault here, but that book – The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences – is an important landmark in understanding the cultural nature of knowledge and is worth checking out.

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