Last time, we mentioned biological taxonomy. This leads us inevitably to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swedish zoologist and botanist. We regard him as the “father of modern taxonomy.”
Contrary to popular belief, Linnaeus did not invent the binomial nomenclature system, with organism types designated by genus and species. That honor belongs to the Bauhin brothers, Gaspar (1560-1624) and Johann (1541-1613). The two Swiss brothers formalized the then-existing method of (often vague and wordy) polynomial nomenclature, introducing a stricter, more logical system with one word for the genus and one for the species.
However, the Bauhin brothers did not consistently use binomial nomenclature in their work. Linnaeus did. Moreover, Linnaeus used a more scientific and consistent approach, with numerous rules or principles to ensure taxonomic orderliness. This approach included guidance for such things as indicating synonyms, maintaining clarity and succinctness of terminology, and avoiding “anonymous” (or, as we occasionally see in taxonomies, “other”). As T. A.Sprague summarizes:
“Linnaeus was, first and foremost, a systematist, whose aim was to bring order out of chaos in the classification of living organisms. . . . Descriptions of the individual genera were supplied in the successive editions of his “Genera Plantarum”, and diagnoses [differentiating descriptions; cf. definitions and scope notes] of the species with their principal synonyms in his “Species Plantarum”. In order that these descriptions and diagnoses might be clearly intelligible, he provided a system of terminology applicable to the various morphological categories recognized by him. Finally, for convenience of reference, he selected a name, old or new, for each of the genera upheld by him, and in 1753, a true binary name … for each of his species, designed to replace the often cumbrous diagnostic phrases under which they had previously passed.”
As a naturalist, Linnaeus was well equipped to place individual species in the various categories, or genera, that he either devised or adopted from previous naturalists’ works. (Many of these groupings are still recognized by botanists and zoologists.) Going broader than that, he systematized the kingdoms of nature in his Systema Naturae. (Yes, it’s the animal, vegetable, mineral scheme.) The full title translates as “System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characters, differences, synonyms, places”. True taxonomic hierarchy, with characteristics of a thesaurus.
The 18th century also saw changes in the philosophy of knowledge. One highly influential writer was the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Kant’s major work was the Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. In that work, Kant discusses the nature of a priori and a posteriori judgments and concepts, challenging earlier philosophical writings on the subject. Roughly speaking, a priori knowledge is knowledge that is known independently of experience; that is, it is non-empirical, or arrived at beforehand, usually by reason. In contrast, a posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is known by experience; that is, it is empirical, or arrived at after experience and observation.
Here is a diagram of Kant’s system of thought, as explained in the Critique of Pure Reason:
Just as Linnaeus presented the world with a taxonomy of nature, Kant presented the world with a taxonomy of knowledge.
Next time, we’ll move on to the 19th century.
Marjorie M.K. Hlava, President, Access Innovations
Note: The above posting is one of a series based on a presentation, The Theory of Knowledge, given at the Data Harmony Users Group meeting in February of 2011. The presentation covered the theory of knowledge as it relates to search and taxonomies.