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29 DECEMBER 2003

Natural History: classifying through method or system

"It is immediately apparent in what way the method and the system are opposed. There can be only one method; but one can invent and apply a considerable number of systems: Adanson alone set out sixty–five (Adanson, Familles des plantes). The system is arbitrary throughout its development, but once the system of variables – the character – has been defined at the outset, it is no longer possible to modify it. to add or subtract even one element. The method is imposed from without, by the total resemblances that relate things together; it immediately transcribes perception into discourse; it remains, in its point of departure, very close to description; but it is always possible to apply to the general character it has defined empirically such modifications as may be imposed: a feature one had thought essential to a whole group of plants or animals may very well prove to be no more than a particularity of a few of them, if one discovers others that, without possessing that feature, belong quite obviously to the same family; the method must always be ready to rectify itself. As Adanson says, the system is like 'the trial and error method in mathematics': it is the result of a decision, but it must be absolutely coherent; the method, on the other hand, is a given arrangement of objects or facts grouped together according to certain given conventions or resemblances, which one expresses by a general notion applicable to all those objects, without, however, regarding that fundamental notion or principle as absolute or invariable, or as so general that it cannot suffer any exception . . . The method differs from the system only in the idea that the author attaches to his principles, regarding them as variables in the method and as absolutes in the system (Ibid., t. I, pr?face). Moreover, the system can recognise only relations of coordination between animal or vegetable structures. Since the character is selected. not on account of its functional importance but on account of its combinative efficacity. there is no proof that in the internal hierarchy of any individual plant such and such a form of pistil or arrangement of stamens necessarily entails such and such a structure: if the germ of the Adoxa is placed between the calyx and the corolla, or if, in the arum, the stamens are arranged between the pistils, these are nothing more or less than 'singular structures' (Linnaeus, hilosophie botanique, section 105); their slight importance is a product of their rarity alone, whereas the equal division of calyx and corolla– derives its value only from its frequency (Ibid., section 94). The method, on the other hand, because it proceeds from identities and differences of the most general kind to those that are less so. is capable of bringing out vertical relations of subordination. It enables us, in fact, to see which characters are important enough never to be negated within a given family. In relation to the system, the reversal is very important: the most essential characters make it possible to distinguish the largest and most visibly distinct families, whereas, for Tournefort or Linnaeus, the essential character defined the genus; and it was sufficient for the naturalists' 'agreement' to select a factitious character that would distinguish between classes or orders. In the method, general organisation and its internal dependencies are more important than the lateral application of a constant apparatus of variables. Despite these differences, both system and method rest upon the same epistemological base. It can be defined briefly by saying that, in Classical terms, a knowledge of empirical individuals can be acquired only from the continuous, ordered, and universal tabulation of all possible differences. In the sixteenth century, the identity of plants or animals was assured by the positive mark (sometimes hidden, often visible) which they all bore: what distinguished the various species of birds, for instance, was not the differences that existed between them but the fact that this one hunted its food at night, that another lived on the water, that yet another fed on living flesh (Cf. P Belon, Histoire de la nature des oiseaux). Every being bore a mark, and the species was measured by the extent of a common emblem. So that each species identified itself by itself, expressed its individuality independently of all the others: it would have been perfectly possible for all those others not to exist, since the criteria of definition would not thereby have been modified for those that remained visible. But, from the seventeenth century, there can no longer be any signs except in the analysis of representations according to identities and differences. That is, all designation must be accomplished by means of a certain relation to all other possible designations. To know what properly appertains to one individual is to have before one the classification – or the possibility of classifying – all others. Identity and what marks it are denned by the differences that remain. An animal or a plant is not what is indicated – or betrayed – by the stigma that is to be found imprinted upon it; it is what the others are not; it exists in itself only in so far as it is bounded by what is distinguishable from it. Method and system are simply two ways of denying identities by means of the general grid of differences. Later on, beginning with Cuvier, the identity of species was to be determined in the same way by a set of differences, but the differences were in this case to emerge from the background of the great organic unities possessing their own internal systems of dependencies (skeleton, respiration, circulation); the invertebrates were to be defined, not only by their lack of vertebrae, but also by a certain mode of respiration, by the existence of a type of circulation, and by a whole organic cohesiveness outlining a positive unity. The internal laws of the organism were to replace differential characters as the object of the natural sciences. Classification, as a fundamental and constituent problem of natural history, took up its position historically, and in a necessary fashion, between a theory of the mark and a theory of the organism."
(Foucault, 2003, pp.156–158)

Foucault, M. (2003). The Order Of Things. London, Routledge.

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TAGS

classificationcohesiveness • Cuvier • hierarchyLinnaeusMichel FoucaultOrder Of Things (Foucault) • Tournefort
28 DECEMBER 2003

Natural History Collections: Herbarium Of Living Structures

Foucault, The Order Of Things (p. 147)
By limiting and filtering the visible, structure enables it to be tran scribed into language. It permits the visibility of the animal or plant to pass over in its entirety into the discourse that receives it. And ultimately, perhaps, it may manage to reconstitute itself in visible form by means of words, as with the botanical calligrams dreamed of by Linnaeus(Ibid., section 328–9). His wish was that the order of the description, its division into paragraphs, and even its typographical modules, should reproduce the form of the plant itself. That the printed text, in its variables of form, arrangement, and quantity, should have a vegetable structure. 'It is beautiful to follow nature: to pass from the Root to the Stems, to the Petioles, to the Leaves, to the Peduncles, to the Flowers.' The description would have to be divided into the same number of paragraphs as there are parts in the plant, everything concerning its principal parts being printed in large type, and the analysis of the 'parts of parts' being conveyed in small type. One would then add what one knew of the plant from other sources in the same way as an artist completes his sketch by introducing the interplay of light and shade: 'the Adumbration would exactly contain the whole history of the plant, such as its names, its structure, its external assemblage, its nature, its use.' The plant is thus engraved in the material of the language into which it has been transposed, and recomposes its pure form before the reader's very eyes. The book becomes the herbarium of living structures.

In Classical terms, the order of nature precedes all other order.

TAGS

adumbrate • calligram • herbarium • LinnaeusMichel FoucaultnatureOrder Of Things (Foucault) • pure • transpose
28 DECEMBER 2003

Natural History: System, Method

"Establishing character is at the same time easy and difficult. Easy, because natural history does not have to establish a system of names based upon representations that are difficult to analyse, but only to derive it from a language that has already been unfolded in the process of description. The process of naming will be based, not upon what one sees, but upon elements that have already been introduced into discourse by structure. It is a matter of constructing a secondary language based upon that primary, but certain and universal, language. Rut a major difficulty appears immediately. In order to establish the identities and differences existing between all natural entities, it would b»e necessary to take into account every feature that might have been listed in a given description. Such an endless task would push the advent of natural history back into an inaccessible never–never land. unless there existed techniques that would avoid this difficulty and limit the labour of making so many comparisons. It is possible, a priori, to state that these techniques are of two types. Either that of making total comparisons, but only within empirically constituted groups in which the number of resemblances is manifestly so high that the enumeration of the differences will not take long to complete; and in this way, step by step, the establishment of all identities and distinctions can be guaranteed. Or that of selecting a finite and relatively limited group of characteristics, whose variations and constants may be studied in any individual entity that presents itself. This last procedure was termed the System, the first the Method. They are usually contrasted, in the same way as Linnaeus is contrasted with Button, Adanson, or Antoine–Laurent de Jussieu or as a rigid and simple conception of nature is contrasted with the detailed and immediate perception of its relations, or as the idea of a motionless nature is contrasted with that of a teeming continuity of beings all communicating with one another, mingling with one another, and perhaps being transformed into one another. . . . And yet the essential does not lie in this conflict between the great intuitions of nature. It lies rather in the network of necessity which at this point rendered the choice between two ways of constituting natural history as a language both possible and indispensable. The rest is merely a logical and inevitable consequence.From the elements that the System juxtaposes in great detail by means of description, it selects a particular few. These define the privileged and, in fact, exclusive structure in relation to which identities or differences as a whole are to be examined. Any difference not related to one of these elements will be considered irrelevant. If, like Linnaeus, one selects as the characteristic elements 'all the different parts related to fructification' (Linnaeus, Philosophie botanique, section 192), then a difference of leaf or stem or root or petiole must be systematically ignored. Similarly, any identity not occurring in one of these selected elements will have no value in the definition of the character. On the other hand, when these elements are similar in two individuals they receive a common denomination. The structure selected to be the locus of pertinent identities and differences is what is termed the character. According to Linnaeus, the character should be composed of 'the most careful description of the fructification of the first species. All the other species of the genus are compared with the first, all discordant notes being eliminated; finally, after this process, the character emerges' (Ibid., section 193)."

(Michel Foucault, The Order Of Things pp. 151–153)

TAGS

Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu • Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon • Linnaeus • locus • method • Michel Adanson • Michel Foucaultnamingnatural historyOrder Of Things (Foucault)system
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