System-Building in the Eighteenth Century

  • Vernon Pratt
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 110)


  1. 1.

    Introduction. - How is the system-building of 18th-century thinkers like Linnaeus to be understood in a way that does justice to the central importance they attached to it?

  2. 2.

    Was system-building a “preparatory” exercise? - The suggestion that this was to be expected as a response to the discovery of an enormous number of new types of animals and plants is not quite satisfactory.

    It has been suggested further that system-building is to be seen as preparatory in character, as proposed for natural history generally by Bacon.

  3. 3.

    System-building and the Scholastic background. - But system-building cannot be fitted into the Baconian tradition at all easily. It seems in fact to have just as much in common with the Scholastic approach Bacon was trying to reform.

  4. 4.

    The distinctive objective: articulating the order of nature. - System-building was however neither Scholastic nor Baconian.

    Its distinctive objective was to articulate the order of nature. Its interest was first in the structure of the system to which individual plants and animals belonged and only second in plants and animals.

  5. 5.

    Articulating the order of nature and the divorce of language from the world. - Foucault argues interestingly that it was the divorce of language from the world (marking the end of the medieval period) which made possible the articulation of this order, though it has to be conceded that an order, of much less complexity, was articulated in the medieval scheme.

  6. 6.

    Articulating the order of nature and the project of modern biology. - The order that the “classical” age sought was an order of visual form. This is not the order we think important today, but what makes modern biology different from system-building as an enterprise is that articulating the order of nature is not the modern concern.

  7. 7.

    Moral. - In general, it is a mistake to see the interest shown in animals and plants in the past as necessarily belonging to the same project as engages us today.



Natural History Eighteenth Century Distinctive Objective Medieval Period Modern Biology 
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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1985

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  • Vernon Pratt

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