Quite some time ago a co-worker, during a discussion related to how to classify something we were working on, mentioned a classification scheme that included suckling pigs and mermaids. Something this absurd would obviously stick in my head, and it took me until about ten years later to finally find the quote. It’s from an essay titled “John Wilkin’s Analytical Language” written in 1942 by Jorge Luis Borges and included in his Selected Non-Fictions.
[Borges describes a few other taxonomical schemes.] “These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”
I suppose that from this fantastic (in the literal sense of the word) description, one cannot have a fabulous mermaid (but, again getting quite literal, aren’t all mermaids found in fables?), nor is the emperor allowed to own an embalmed suckling pig. Note also the recursiveness of (h) and the usefulness of (l). Wouldn’t (k) and (n) as well as (g) and (m) be overlapping? But at least (c) and (g) are mutually exclusive, though I suppose that a trained dog could become a stray.
Usually when designing taxonomies, a scheme for classifying things, the goal is “a bucket for everything and everything in its own bucket”, i.e. everything belongs to one and only one category with no overlaps and no leftovers. But using as an example the children’s book from my “Bambi” post a week or so ago, it’s usually pretty difficult to create such a scheme; there’s always some object that doesn’t fit however well you plan things, or some other way to classify something besides the most obvious. There’s a pretty hard division, with no overlap, between a dog and a cat, but they’re both four legged mammals. One can’t always classify a human as either male or female because as it turns out there are sexes in between. A person isn’t white or brown or black; my children are mixed race, as is C’s daughter. There’s no such thing as a liberal or conservative either; most people are liberal on some subjects, libertarian on others, and conservative on others still. An automobile used to be classified as domestic or foreign, but now a foreign-based company can manufacture a car using domestic labour and a mix of domestic and foreign parts.
And then there’s the “There are two types of people in the world…”; how many versions of this have you heard?