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Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

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Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge (Spanish: Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos) is a fictitious taxonomy of animals described by the writer Jorge Luis Borges in his 1942 essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (El idioma analítico de John Wilkins).[1][2]


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 encyclopaedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The list divides all animals into 14 categories.

Borges's Spanish English translation
pertenecientes al Emperador those belonging to the Emperor
embalsamados embalmed ones
amaestrados trained ones
lechones suckling pigs
sirenas mermaids (or sirens)
fabulosos fabled ones
perros sueltos stray dogs
incluidos en esta clasificación those included in this classification
que se agitan como locos those that tremble as if they were mad
innumerables innumerable ones
dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
etcétera et cetera
que acaban de romper el jarrón those that have just broken the vase
que de lejos parecen moscas those that from afar look like flies

Borges claims that the list was discovered in its Chinese source by the translator Franz Kuhn.[3][4][5]

In his essay, Borges compares this classification with one allegedly used at the time by the Institute of Bibliography in Brussels, which he considers similarly chaotic. Borges says the Institute divides the universe in 1000 sections, of which number 262 is about the Pope, ironically classified apart from section 264, that on the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, section 294 encompasses all four of Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism. He also finds excessive heterogeneity in section 179, which includes animal cruelty, suicide, mourning, and an assorted group of vices and virtues.

Borges concludes: "there is no description of the universe that isn't arbitrary and conjectural for a simple reason: we don't know what the universe is". Nevertheless, he finds Wilkins' language to be clever (ingenioso) in its design, as arbitrary as it may be. He points out that in a language with a divine scheme of the universe, beyond human capabilities, the name of an object would include the details of its entire past and future.

Influences of the list[edit]

This list has stirred considerable philosophical and literary commentary.

Michel Foucault begins his preface to The Order of Things,[6]

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.[7] By contrast, the linguist George Lakoff has pointed out that while Borges' list is not possibly a human categorization, many categorizations of objects found in nonwestern cultures have a similar feeling to Westerners.[8]

Keith Windschuttle, an Australian historian, cited alleged acceptance of the authenticity of the list by many academics as a sign of the degeneration of the Western academy[9] and a terminal lack of humor.


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 learned pseudo-references resulting in a mix of facts and fiction. To date, no evidence for the existence of such a list has been found.[10]

Borges himself questions the veracity of the quote in his essay, referring to "the unknown (or false) Chinese encyclopaedia writer".[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Borges, Jorge Luis (1999), "John Wilkins' Analytical Language", in Weinberger, Eliot (ed.), Selected nonfictions, Eliot Weinberger, transl., Penguin Books, p. 231, ISBN 0-14-029011-7. The essay was originally published as "El idioma analítico de John Wilkins", La Nación (in Spanish), Argentina, 8 February 1942{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link), and republished in Otras inquisiciones
  2. ^ Mantovani, Giuseppe (2000), Exploring borders: understanding culture and psychology, Routledge, ISBN 041523400X, retrieved 26 April 2011
  3. ^ A slightly different English translation is at: Luis Borges, Jorge (April 8, 2006), The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Lilia Graciela Vázquez, transl.
  4. ^ a b Borges, Jorge Luis (April 8, 2006), El idioma analítico de John Wilkins (in Spanish and English), Crockford, archived from the original on March 20, 2014, retrieved April 9, 2006
  5. ^ "Borges", Darwin-L (mailing list archive), RJ Ohara, 1996
  6. ^ Foucault, Michel (1994) [1966]. The Order of Things : An Archaeology of Human Sciences. Vintage. p. XVI. ISBN 0-679-75335-4.
  7. ^ Sass, Louis (1994) [1992], Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-54137-5
  8. ^ Lakoff, George (1987), Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-46804-6
  9. ^ Windschuttle, Keith (September 15, 1997), "Academic Questions", Absolutely Relative, National Review, archived from the original on March 8, 2005
  10. ^ "LINGUIST List 7.1446: Borgesian joke". Linguistlist.org. 15 October 1996. Retrieved 2013-01-25.