Borges and the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge
This story began a few years ago when I was enthusiastically reading Umberto Eco's enlightening book "The Search for the Perfect Language." At the end of chapter 9, there are some reflections on the randomness of our classifications of the world. The author mentions Jorge Luis Borges and his essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins." In the essay, Borges gave a strange classification of animals in the "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge," a fabled Chinese encyclopedia.
On its ancient pages, it is written that animals are divided into:
a
belonging to the Emperor
b
embalmed
c
trained
d
suckling pigs or piglets
e
sirens
f
fabulous
g
stray dogs
h
included in this classification
i
agitated like crazy
j
innumerable
k
drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair
l
et cetera
m
having just broken the vase
n
that from afar seem like flies
Having paid tribute to the wit of the apparent meaninglessness of the classification, I forgot about it for a while.


Recently I was investigating the reasonable application of the principles of this classification to control theory. And I have come to realize that an extremely effective classification is based on the binary principle. This is when one certain category is divided strictly into two, which in turn can only be divided into two lower-level categories, and so on. To test my hypothesis, I decided to apply it to the obviously meaningless classification of animals from the mentioned "Celestial Emporium." Initially, just in case, I checked the Internet to see if there were any ideas about this. No, there was nothing new. Quite often the animals of the "Celestial Emporium" are mentioned as an aesthetic example of the meaninglessness of our categorization of life. In this regard, I would especially like to mention Foucault's reflections in the preface to the book "The Order of Things."


The result of applying the binary classification to the animals of the "Celestial Emporium" was amazing, something I did not expect at all. But first things first.

So, initially, I looked at the entire list of 14 consecutive categories and immediately found two quite obviously related ones:
Of course, it's peculiar but quite logical, isn't it? Let's cross them off the list and move on. As we remember, this is an "ancient Chinese" classification, in which the entire civilized world for the Chinese should belong to the Emperor, except for fabulous (or fairy tale) characters. Hence the next logical level of division:
Of course, it's peculiar but quite logical, isn't it? Let's cross them off the list and move on. As we remember, this is an "ancient Chinese" classification, in which the entire civilized world for the Chinese should belong to the Emperor, except for fabulous (or fairy tale) characters. Hence the next logical level of division:
We also cross out these two detected categories from the list and continue our search. The next level of division has a "logic" specific to Western thinking. The animals in the Emperor's country are of course innumerable, except for stray dogs. Why dogs? Why not? Especially given that they have thoroughly annoyed an unknown Chinese encyclopedist, as we shall soon see. So far it turns out like this:
We also cross out these two detected categories from the list and continue our search. The next level of division has a "logic" specific to Western thinking. The animals in the Emperor's country are of course innumerable, except for stray dogs. Why dogs? Why not? Especially given that they have thoroughly annoyed an unknown Chinese encyclopedist, as we shall soon see. So far it turns out like this:
First, let's deal with innumerable animals. Let's not forget, it's the encyclopedia of the Chinese "Celestial Emporium." Therefore, the Emperor can own them as trained and suckers, which, due to their infancy, have not yet been trained. And again, there is a special, but quite clear logic:
First, let's deal with innumerable animals. Let's not forget, it's the encyclopedia of the Chinese "Celestial Emporium." Therefore, the Emperor can own them as trained and suckers, which, due to their infancy, have not yet been trained. And again, there is a special, but quite clear logic:
Now let's move on to the dogs. Here it becomes even more interesting because there are dogs agitated like crazy and embalmed, which are no longer agitated.
Now let's move on to the dogs. Here it becomes even more interesting because there are dogs agitated like crazy and embalmed, which are no longer agitated.
The division is clear, but the reader may exclaim, what nonsense, some dogs are sleeping! Of course, there are also barking and drinking and then, I'm sorry, pissing dogs. But who said that the categories should be comprehensive, where each new level, according to some principle, should embrace the entire remainder of the upper level? We do not know for certain what this variable remainder is. This is the reason for the failure of all claims to a comprehensive classification, as Borges alludes to in his essay. But let's move on. We discover the reason for such attention to dogs paid by an unknown encyclopedist. It's a shame because they have just broken a vase. And the others, agitated like crazy, from afar seem like flies. Indeed, they are circling like mad, like annoying flies. Very poetic. Bravo!
The division is clear, but the reader may exclaim, what nonsense, some dogs are sleeping! Of course, there are also barking and drinking and then, I'm sorry, pissing dogs. But who said that the categories should be comprehensive, where each new level, according to some principle, should embrace the entire remainder of the upper level? We do not know for certain what this variable remainder is. This is the reason for the failure of all claims to a comprehensive classification, as Borges alludes to in his essay. But let's move on. We discover the reason for such attention to dogs paid by an unknown encyclopedist. It's a shame because they have just broken a vase. And the others, agitated like crazy, from afar seem like flies. Indeed, they are circling like mad, like annoying flies. Very poetic. Bravo!
We have only two categories left: Sirens and drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair. These are fabulous animals because, as far as I know, the Sirens are the creatures that are found only in Greek mythology. For an imaginary Chinese, they should be in a fairy tale. But what is the connection with those drawn with a very fine brush? Is there no such connection?! There is, but it is special. And this is another "type" of classification. Sirens are the creatures that sing, which in the musical sense means sounding. And 'drawn' refers to painting. These are two types of ancient art. Here's what we get as a result:
We have only two categories left: Sirens and drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair. These are fabulous animals because, as far as I know, the Sirens are the creatures that are found only in Greek mythology. For an imaginary Chinese, they should be in a fairy tale. But what is the connection with those drawn with a very fine brush? Is there no such connection?! There is, but it is special. And this is another "type" of classification. Sirens are the creatures that sing, which in the musical sense means sounding. And 'drawn' refers to painting. These are two types of ancient art. Here's what we get as a result:
You can run through the meaning, reading from top to bottom on any branches. It all turned out beautifully, didn't it?
You can run through the meaning, reading from top to bottom on any branches. It all turned out beautifully, didn't it?

One last question remains. Literary critics tend to think that Jorge Luis Borges independently came up with this classification, and did not take it from Dr. Franz Kuhn, a Sinologist that he mentioned. Yes, most likely it is so. But the transcript presented here is too beautiful to be accidental. Let's carefully read "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" again. Let us pay special attention to the only meaningful comment number 7 on counting systems, Leibniz, and his invention of the binary system under the charm of "Yijing."


This work was originally written on July 14, 2011.