Natural History – Taxonomy and Exposition of The Complete Order of Nature

Posted: June 6, 2017 in Uncategorized


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As we move into Locke’s world we step out of the Age of Reason and into the Enlightenment. Locke – sometimes seen with baroque wig, and sometime without – serves as a transitional figure. His prose is baroque, and yet he argues for clarity of observation and precision of diction. A great contention of the Age of Enlightenment was that we had become confused in our thoughts due to the emergence of inconsistencies and inaccuracies in our language. Later thinkers, following Locke’s lead, will develop the first standard dictionaries, prescriptive grammars, and encyclopedias. In particular, I am thinking of Samuel Johnson, Denis Diderot, and Bishop Lowthe – of whom we’ll read at least one. In any case, the Enlightenment project in science shifts from providing a mechanical explanation of all events toward developing a complete map and definition of all phenomena, all sensory experience. This mapping – which begins with discovering and collecting – is accompanied by the task of assigning a proper name to everything object and sensation. One of participants in this movement who remains familiar to an average today, if only indirectly, is Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who developed the system of binomial nomenclature still used to identify organism. For the Enlightenment, it was no longer enough simply to find weird and marvelous stuff. Everything, including so-called ‘freaks of nature,’ had to be named, order and catalogued into ‘systems,’ which could be presented in large illustrated volumes called Natural Histories. Here, history does not refer to the occurrence of events over the passage of time, but rather the complete series of a particular order of phenomena, such as the system of plants, or the order of insects.

See, below, Charles Bonnet’s ‘chain of being,’ which displays the complete continuum of animals types, from highest to lowest.

  1. branden frieden says:

    I think you may have mentioned it in class, but I see how this age of building these collections could lead to the creation of museum. I never really thought about their origins and I’m interested as to how they developed from private collections just for friends and colleagues, to public businesses.

    • I will try to assign specific materials about the birth of the museum, which occurred early in the 19th century – if time will permit. I fear we are quickly running out of semester. For now, I will simply say that these collections often belonged to aristocratic individuals and families whose good were expropriated in the great revolutions. Also, the creation of modern states required an ideological apparatus sufficiently compelling to shape what is known as nationalist consciousness. The museum was an important part of that apparatus.

  2. Sophia Skedros says:

    I commend the first entomologists of our time. I’ve had a little bit of experience in collecting insects. It is a tricky business wrangling insects while still preserving their delicate features. As I compare my process of discovery with famous entomologists and taxonomists like Carl Linnaeus, it seems so miniscule. I classify insects into certain orders by referring to books. These men created the entire process used in these books. I can’t imagine the excitement of discovering a new order of insects or plants.

  3. A. Anderson says:

    It’s understandable that the people of this time would think that they were the pinnacle of all living things, and that some living things are “more perfect” or “more evolved” than others… What bugs me is that people still believe these things today. If the “lesser creatures” are really inferior, then why are they still here, and why do they outnumber us?

    • It’s hard not to think in terms of hierarchies, even to this day. Which is one reason Rousseau may remain relevant. His ideas on radically egalitarianism may have much to each us still, not only with respect to politics but also nature.

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