26 September 2007

The Order of Things

the naming of namesThe Naming of Names is an amazing book, particularly for Americans. Imagine a journalist analyzing the intellectual milieu of late Classical and Hellenistic Greece -- and then tracing a (relatively) coherent story of a minor science from its birth then to its (supposed) apotheosis in the eighteenth century.

Sadly, it's difficult to imagine an American journalist even reading that last sentence. So I will spare you, dear "general reader" from the details that Pavord lays out with such felicity.

But there are flaws in this miraculously readable prehistory of systematics. Some are minor, like the apparent semantic instability between "Islamic" and "Arab" (a problem one might write off in a book that did not insist on the already anachronistic word "Amerindian").

The serious problem is Pavord's teleology, which presents this history as a series of books written over two millenia in an inevitable, if painful, progression from one single point (Theophrastus) to another (not, perversely, Linnaeus, but the Englishman John Ray). Teleology is fine as a narrative device, but it is too simplistic to have any explanatory power, particularly when the end (telos) is a moving target: at first it's just anyone interested in plants for their own sake, but it shifts to someone capable of positing a system. Eventually even the system is not enough if it seems absurd ex post facto, i.e., if it's not sufficiently Linnean.

Thus Clusius and Lobelius are given short shrift, and (with more justice, but little interest) the middle ages are written off almost entirely. This also explains why a disconcerting first person intrudes into Pavord's heretofore elegant narrative in the middle of the Renaissance: the principle of selection suddenly becomes men who are already "my heroes".

Despite this flaw, the book illuminates an important part of our intellectual heritage that had grown very dim in the last century. Botanists should probably be required to read it (unless there's something better, in which case please tell me immediately). More to the point, it will tell you quite a lot of interesting things about plants, with glorious illustrations. And you should now be able to find it remaindered.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous The County Clerk said...

I got through this book earlier this year and was left... well.. impressed but unfulfilled (if that makes any sense). Rather, it is a tremedous work and I'm thrilled to have read it but... I was irrattionally "upset" with the author at the end... for some unknown reason.

Not THAT upset, I bought her Tulip book.

Your review hits it exactly. Thank you.

I am very happy to have read this and recognize that Ms. Pavord is not to blame for my own Linnaean affections and perspectives.

9/27/2007 2:17 PM  
Blogger mmw said...

She definitely peters out somewhere around the late renaissance. But she has all this (excellent) 18th-c. English material, so she just keeps going. The tulip book is similarly telescoped I think.

9/28/2007 12:49 AM  

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