Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge (Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos) is a fictitious taxonomy of animals invented by the writer Jorge Luis Borges in his 1942 essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (El idioma analítico de John Wilkins).
Wilkins, a 17th-century philosopher, had proposed a universal language based on a classification system that would encode a description of the thing a word describes into the word itself—for example, Zi identifies the genus beasts; Zit denotes the "difference" rapacious beasts of the dog kind; and finally Zitα specifies dog.
In response to this proposal and in order to illustrate the arbitrariness and cultural specificity of any attempt to categorize the world, Borges describes this example of an alternate taxonomy, supposedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopædia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.
The list divides all animals into one of 14 categories:
- Those that belong to the emperor
- Embalmed ones
- Those that are trained
- Sucking pigs
- Mermaids (or Sirens)
- Fabulous ones
- Stray dogs
- Those that are included in this classification
- Those that tremble as if they were mad
- Innumerable ones
- Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
- Et cetera
- Those that have just broken the flower vase
- Those that, at a distance, resemble flies
Borges claims that the list was discovered in its Chinese source by the translator Franz Kuhn.
Influences of the list
This list, whose "discovery" Borges attributes to Franz Kuhn, has stirred considerable philosophical and literary commentary.
- This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions between the Same and the Other.
Foucault then quotes Borges' passage.
Louis Sass has suggested, in response to Borges' list, that such "Chinese" thinking shows signs of typical schizophrenic thought processes. By contrast, the linguist George Lakoff has pointed out that Borges' list is similar to many categorizations of objects found in nonwestern cultures.
Scholars have questioned whether the attribution of the list to Franz Kuhn is genuine. While Kuhn did indeed translate Chinese literature, Borges' works often feature many pseudo-learned references resulting in a mix of facts and fiction. To date, no evidence for the existence of such a list has been found.
Borges himself questions the veracity of the quote in his essay, referring to "the unknown (or false) Chinese encyclopaedia writer".
- An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, the 1668 work of philosopher John Wilkins that was the subject of Borges' essay
- Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges' bestiary, a catalog of fantastic animals
- Book by category, the closest real genre of Chinese literature to Borges' fantasy