A Not So Benevolent Knowledge

9697853-red-classified-stamp-on-white-background-illustrationMost people I know love classifications. They need to feel that they can, like entomologists, pin the things they find into their corresponding boxes and under their proper names: the pictures of their holidays, their relatives or their personal affairs. Everything must belong to one single box. People love classifications because they come with the (false) promise of control and simplicity by reducing the sheer complexity and variety of the world to a manageable set of classes or categories clearly defined, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive; and whereby every object is assigned unequivocally to one and only one of the classes proposed. Classifications are the quintessence of order.

I couldn’t say why but I have always remembered the definitions of equivalence relation, equivalence class and partition as I studied them many years ago when I was a child. I have always liked maths and I usually remember a mathematical definition better than my own brother’s birthday but this case is particularly acute: I remember the book, the examples, the colourful Euler-Venn diagrams. I think it is because I have always hated classifications. I hate to be classified. Every time I am asked where I do belong, I get nervous.

From Aristotle to Carl von Linné, philosophers, scientists, engineers have endlessly sought the perfect classification scheme to exhaustively describe reality. Classifying people is perhaps an activity of which most people is even fonder. Governments and administrations promote and enforce classifications. Go ask for a loan and the very first thing you will have to do is to fill out a form where you must “classify” yourself. If you do not belong to some acceptable risk class, you won’t be attended. Societies create and accept classes as a normal way of life. If you talk three minutes to an Englishman, he will be able to put you under an ominous class tag: upper class, middle class, working class, middle upper class… Human resources departments are relentless promoters of professional classification schemes. Every employee must absolutely belong to some well-defined class: country, unit, department, function, level. They will use those schemes to steer your career path, and decide whether you must be promoted or not an when.

I feel that classification and classes are one of those beautiful (mathematical) ideas which eventually develop into a terrible nightmare as they materialize into practical applications. Every time a classification scheme is introduced, a huge constraint is imposed onto reality. Every time I have found an entrenched classification scheme in front of a new challenge, I have noticed the huge biases it creates. Classes become cages where variety and nuances wither. They imprison thought and imagination behind the bars of factual pragmatism. No classification stands the test of time. Old classifications remains, like those old ruins of gone empires, like the pompous testimony of human presumption.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever captured this feeling better than Jorge Luis Borges in this passage from his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, where he introduces a fictitious taxonomy of animals,  The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

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.

Translated from the Spanish “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins” by Lilia Graciela Vázquez:

Esas ambigüedades, redundancias y deficiencias recuerdan las que el doctor Franz Kuhn atribuye a cierta enciclopedia china que se titula Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos. En sus remotas paginas está escrito que los animales se dividen en (a) pertenecientes al Emperador, (b) embalsamados, (c) amaestrados , (d) lechones, (e) sirenas, (f) fabulosos, (g) perros sueltos, (h) incluidos en esta calcificación, (i) que se agitan como locos, (j) innumerables, (k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, (l) etcétera, (m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, (n) que de lejos parecen moscas.

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