Spring 2002

Linnaeus: Pruning Names

The Enlightenment’s meta-gardener

Lytle Shaw

Whatever use the flowers of rhetoric may have in language for ornamenting speech, at least in the nomenclature of species they are monstrosities: for here we demand the bare and simple truth apart from any trope, metaphor or irony.

It is commonly believed that the name of a plant which is derived from that of a Botanist shows no connexion between the two. But anyone who has but slight knowledge of the history of letters will easily discover a link by which to connect the name with the plant, and indeed there will be such charm in the association that it will never fade from his memory.

In the first passage above from his 1737 treatise on naming plants, the Critica botanica, we encounter one of the Enlightenment’s central figures, the Swedish scientist and explorer, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), weeding rhetorical monstrosities from the would-be rational garden of scientific nomenclature. In the course of the book such weeding will also entail a radical downsizing in the number of names by which a plant is identified, a process that will culminate in the genus/species binomial structure of nomenclature (not fully articulated until the 1750s) for which Linnaeus is best remembered. In the second selection, however, we see Linnaeus making a special peace with the most disturbing and irrational of such monstrosities, as he seems to find human features on leaves, naturalizing the link not merely between things and names generally, but between the thing-ness of a plant and a botanist’s name.

These passages thus mark the two edges of Linnaeus’s project of revising scientific nomination: on the one hand, the desire for names to exhibit a linguistic purity—a state of non-rhetorical, manifest plainness that would resist figurative associations; on the other, as the scientist’s own name makes its way into the system, inscribing itself on the very plant itself, we are invited to read attributes of the man back into the plant. Though this link between botanist and specimen begins as arbitrary, in time it becomes motivated. We connect Milleria, an American plant with a closely shut calyx protecting two seeds, to the 18th-century English botanist Philip Miller, for instance, not merely because the plant is named after the botanist who discovered it, but because, after years of mental commerce between the protective quality of this plant’s calyx and our knowledge of Philip Miller’s careful preservation of specimens (especially seeds) on sea voyages back to England, the plant’s conspicuous protective architecture will seem to embody Philip Miller-ness.

How, then, do we reconcile such excellent rhetorical flowers with Linnaeus’s ban on metaphors? His desire to banish figurative language from botanical nomenclature situates the Critica botanica squarely within the main line of Enlightenment thought about scientific writing. Barbara Stafford notes that “the radical restriction of figurative language” has been central to scientific description at least since the founding of the British Royal Society in 1660.[2] As early as 1667, Bishop Thomas Sprat positions the Royal Society as counteracting the “trick of Metaphors” by “the only remedy possible for such verbal extravagance: … a constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, the shortness, when men deliver’d so many things, almost in an equal number of words.”[3] In the Critica botanica, this Enlightenment literalism is wedded to the removal of superfluous and confusing names from botanical nomenclature: the “understood” (rather than listed) class and order, generic names comprised of two “complete and distinct words,” Greek and Latin hybrids, and those lacking a root in Greek or Latin were among the banished categories (CB, 5, 18, and 37).

At the same time, the Critica botanica prominently features a litany of the risk, distance, and expense botanists have historically endured in order to make their field discoveries: We learn the names of botanists who commit themselves to “foaming sea, to Turks, and Barbarians, and to encounter a thousand dangers, merely in order to gather plants” (CB, 66); those who were “captured by pirates and put in irons,” went blind, “contracted asthma,” or simply died in the field. “Wherefore,” Linnaeus concludes, “I consider that nothing beyond your deserts befalls you, if your name and memory are rendered famous by what you have accomplished through industry and great exertion” (CB, 68). The Critica botanica, then, is also an eloquent argument for the name, now understood metaphorically, as a reward for such exertion. The pleasure of learning and remembering the flowery rhetorical “connections” between botanists’ names and the plants they discover operates in the Critica botanica both as a reward to the individual botanist, and as an advertisement for botany as a whole—a reminder that successful botanists could still have their names written into the visible texture of the world. The remarkable rhetorical tools by which such writing on nature was effected and controlled will provide a path though Linnaeus’s oeuvre: from his attempt to streamline nomination, to his work as an explorer for the Swedish crown, to the construction of his own name in the world of science. This itinerary will take us from the garden of botanical nomination, itself in flux, to the wilderness of field descriptions that must cut across scientific disciplines, and occur within time pressures.[4]

A selection of expanded aphorisms from Linnaeus’s 1736 Fundamenta botanica, the Critica botanica argues for methods of name construction that will set botany on firm soil (distinguishing the botanist from the florist), reward its pioneers, and make the job of its students easier. The book’s stress on efficient identification extends into economic territory in Linnaeus’s travel writing of the same period, writing which rapidly established Linnaeus’s name in Sweden.[5] This name was, in the 1730s and 1740s, associated as much with practical economy as with scientific theory: In search of untapped natural resources, Linnaeus had already explored Lapland (1732), Dalarna (1734), and would travel to Öland and Gotland in 1741, just before taking a teaching post at Uppsala. Later he would travel to West Gotland (1746) and Skåne (1749) (K, 115).

From the first pages of the Critica botanica, Linnaeus understands resistance to revisions of botanical nomenclature as a matter of interested botanists not wishing to erase their names and their property from the visible world. He also understands successful revision as a way to make one’s own name. Botanists like Tournefort, Ruppius, and Dillenius “would have rejected far more names, had not men advanced in years been too scrupulous about parting with names which had become familiar to them, and which they defended as they would their own hearths and homes. Yet a beginning must some time be made, even though one risks one’s reputation over the attempt” (CB, 2; italics mine).

Registering an awareness of the classificatory problems opened to botany by colonization and by increased access to both tropical and arctic climates, the Critica botanica anticipates Linnaeus’s pedagogical role in preparing his students, whom he referred to as his “apostles,” to observe, classify, and name plants in areas including Java, Sri Lanka, Japan, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the Arabian Peninsula, the Arctic Sea, coastal India, China, the North American seaboard, as well as Sierra Leone and Senegal. The global plant collecting of his apostles (Pehr Kalm, Daniel Solander, Pehr Löfling, Pehr Forsskål, Johann Petter Falck, Anders Sparrman, and others) is well documented. One could add, though, that this drama also played itself out at the level of the name, since their discoveries tended to be absorbed into Linnaeus’s career property. As Lisbet Koerner explains, Linnaeus wrote most of his students’ 186 dissertations , took credit for their discoveries, and claimed the honor of naming their new specimens (K, 124).

Given the global scope of his influence and its intertwining with colonialism, it’s no surprise that the Critica botanica should be positioned against the threat of “barbarism” both internal to the botany community (botanists who make bad use of names or use of “bad” names like Arabic or “Asiatic” ones) and, at least metaphorically, outside: Unlike “boors or Lapps,” botanists should be able to provide a name’s derivation from Classical languages (CB, 18). And yet, even in Linnaeus’s most enthusiastic moments, unnamed plants retain a stoic muteness. No surface feature, for instance, can definitively secure an appropriate name.

If only any reason, any explanation, any distinguishing mark inscribed on the plants could absolutely insist that a plant is what it is called and not something else,-oides and not-ella or-astrum,-astrum and not-astroides,-astroides not-astriformis, I would, so to speak, capitulate entirely; but, as there is absolutely no such reason, the consequence holds good, namely, that that must be senseless which is done without reason (CB, 34).

Highlighting the inescapable contingency that underlies name choice, Linnaeus seems to acknowledge what we would now call the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign–though such signs are not simple words, since they frequently operate at the scale of the phrase. Lisbet Koerner suggests that “by ‘names’ Linnaeus meant diagnostic phrases, not arbitrary references” (K, 45). Still, Linnaeus’s strategy for streamlining taxonomic identification was to reduce the variables and length of such phrases.

For Linnaeus, such economy was the opposite of the florist’s pursuit of naming infinite “varieties.” Linnaeus thus positions the florist’s project as a pseudo-science operating only at the margins of the botanist’s more scientific goal of designating species within genera.

The Botanist’s science rests on foundations which have been proved and can be proved by certain and infallible geometrical principles: the Florist’s science has not been proved, and I doubt whether it can be: for it entirely depends on long experience of the eye, especially as to color.

All the species recognized by Botanists came forth from the Almighty Creator’s hand, and the number of these is now and always will be exactly the same, while every day new and different florists’ species arise from the true species so-called by Botanists, and when they have arisen they finally revert to the original forms (CB, 196–197).

Evoking the familiar opposition between color as a temporary, superficial inflection of surfaces and form as a rational and eternal basis of objects, Linnaeus identifies botany, predictably, with geometry’s elevated epistemological status. Elsewhere, he draws a sharp contrast between species, which have “god” as a creator, and horticultural “monstrosities” (CB, 151), whose creators are but gardeners. Though Linnaeus waffled slightly on the idea of a fixed and timeless number of species throughout his career, we find him here asserting it as a basis of contrast with the implicitly subjective, groundless pursuit of floral varieties.

Linnaeus also sets classes of would-be botanical names beyond the proper scope of botany as a science. He claims, for instance, that names based on saints, physicians, and public figures are “outside the province of Botany” (CB, 55). Explaining why such names are inappropriate and unscientific, Linnaeus evokes both a historical and an economic perspective: “It would be the part of a man of feeble or crazed intellect to offer a sovereign in exchange for a penny: it would be frivolous to give some plant for some trifling reason a name written in everlasting characters” (CB, 54). Still, Linnaeus is worried that botanists might yield to the temptation to sell names: “Who would not be anxious to buy from some Botanist this distinction for his name?” (Ibid.) Once name-giving has been rationalized, however, eternal advertising within the linguistic texture of the visible world will not be for sale. Or so one would expect. But the truth, as I’ve suggested, is more complicated: In the (common) event that a botanist can find no systematic, rational basis for a name, one may be derived from poetry, mythology, kings, plant discoverers, or botany’s patrons. In such instances, eternity will have to cope with metaphoric disturbances in the world’s vegetal surface that emerge from literature, royalty, and the costs of accurate botanical knowledge.

Hence the tangle around the origins of names in Linnaeus’s theory: His goal of pruning names into a neutral, instrumental usefulness would be directly compromised by personal names. But as the logical and systematic designation of species acquires an unprecedented status within botany, the reward for success (having a plant named after oneself) reintroduces the very irrationalism that motivated changes in the discipline in the first place. It is perhaps in part to deflect this very problem that Linnaeus offers us examples of how plant names based on botanists gradually work their way back into the fabric of the plants themselves:

Dillenia of all plants has the showiest flower and fruit, even as Dillenius made a brilliant show among Botanists.

Gronovia is a climbing plant which grasps all other plants, being called after a man who has had few rivals as a “collector” of plants.

Milleria is an American plant, whose calyx is closely shut, and completely encloses one or two seeds, being called after a man who spent much labour over acquiring rare American seeds, preserving them carefully and imparting them to others (CB, 63–64).

In actual practice in Uppsala, receiving samples from his students around the globe, Linnaeus acted as the Enlightenment’s chief meta-gardener, deciding if species should be named after their discoverers. Memorial names went primarily to botanists lost in the field: The common nettle was named Forssoclia, for instance, after Pehr Forsskål, who died in Yemen in 1763 (K, 146). How such memorials and, more generally, traumatic experience could find a place within a rational system of designating the external world was a problem Linnaeus struggled with in his own field writing. In his Öland and Gotland Journey of 1741, for instance, just before enumerating the kinds of seaweed encountered in a town called Kalmar on the Swedish mainland, he notes:

We saw the slaves or prisoners who are sentenced to work here at the prison for major crimes, toiling like horses ... Their distress made our hair stand on end; there is no escape for them; they are doomed to prison for the rest of their lives.

Two forts, Grimskär and Käringläret, were built 1/4 mile out in the sea on two little islands. The first one was in the channel where the ships pass in front of the castle. There was said to be fresh water there. The other one was closer to the embankment. 

The corners of the houses in town were fitted with boards to make them withstand weather and the wind’s force.[6]

While Linnaeus does register a rare moral shiver at this feature of the observable world, such a notation sits squarely within his paratactic list form: regional seaweed species, slave economies, forts and their access to fresh water, domestic building materials. Obviously Enlightenment writers were not the first to encounter the basic problem of articulating the relations among different levels of natural reality. But in the case of Linnaeus’s field explorations, we have the Enlightenment taxonomist encountering a threatening vista of infinite possible identifications: bound by time at each stop, focusing in this coastal marsh on zoology, mineralogy, and military architecture would mean leaving out geology, agriculture, and ichthyology.[7] Moreover, each discourse also has what we could call a vertical dimension, so that arresting the interpretive lens at any particular scale will be, in part, an arbitrary choice. Linnaeus suggests this when, for instance, in a description of an Öland beach, he moves from a mixed group of seagulls, lapwings, and oyster-catchers on the horizon, to a pair of oyster-catchers, then to one of the birds’ bills, nostrils, and eyelids, to the habits and frequencies of its mites, and to the structures of these mites’ bodies, down to their hair (OG, 69). In his botanical work, Linnaeus had been able to deal with this problem by selecting variables (features common to a genus, particularly the “method of fruiting” [CB, 6]) as the basis for identification: “The system is arbitrary in its basis, since it deliberately ignores all differences and all identities not related to the selected structure,” writes Michel Foucault, who continues:

In this way, a grid can be laid out over the entire vegetable or animal kingdom. Each group can be given a name. With the result that any species, without having to be described, can be designated with the greatest accuracy by means of the names of the different groups in which it is included ... The plant ... will express at the same time that which accurately designates it and the relation linking it to plants that resemble it and belong to the same genus (and thus to the same family and the same order).[8]

How could one even approximate this system when faced with the task of designating not a botanical specimen, but the entirety of visible objects within a geographic region? Clearly Linnaeus wasn’t foolish enough to think one could. And yet, beyond the economic goals of his explorative journeys around Sweden, his published accounts were to be seen as exemplary models of field designation in much the way the Critica botanica was exemplary on the smaller, more contained scale of name-giving within one scientific discipline. In an essay called “Of Curiosity,” Linneaus seeks to trim back the tangled nominal practices of travel writing: “We find in the journals of travelers, many things mentioned, partly curious, partly useful, concerning animals, plants, and stones; but those observations can be of no use to us, till we are able to refer each to its genus; that we may make them a part of the system, and know that this curiosity or use belongs to this or that object when it happens to come in our way.”[9] Works such as the Öland and Gotland Journey would establish a designatory matrix based on genus that would both allow exact future identification of a broad variety of field specimens and serve as methodological exemplars for those hoping to write similar works.

The question of how Linnaeus sought to ground his own field identification can be further illuminated by comparing his theory of designation with that of his primary rival, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, the French natural historian and director of the Jardin du Roi in Paris (now the Jardin des Plantes) from 1739 until his death in 1788. As Londa Schiebinger notes, Buffon considered Linnaeus’s system of nomenclature “merely a language, easy to learn and recite but contributing nothing to the knowledge of nature.”[10] Resisting taxonomic abstraction, Buffon conceived of a world of singularities. He claims that our general ideas

... are relative to a continuous scale of objects of which we can clearly perceive only the middle rungs and whose extremities increasingly flee from and escape our considerations ... The more we increase the number of divisions in the production of nature, the closer we shall approach the true, since nothing really exists in nature except individuals, and since genera, orders, and classes exist only in our imagination. (Quoted in Foucault, 146–147)

Though in Foucault’s reading both the Linnaean system and Buffon’s method are negative and differential in relation, say, to 16th-century plant identification, Buffon’s is less so, since in it “resemblances—in their massive and clearly evident form—are posited to start with” (F, 146). Linnaeus himself characterizes the kind of positive description one finds in Buffon as “a geometrical outline which takes account of the Number, Shape, Position and Proportion of all the parts of the plant, and so it includes all the external distinguishing characters found in the plant” (CB, 116–117) and opposes it with what he calls a “Differentia,” which uses criteria, or what Foucault calls “selected structure,” to locate what differentiates species within genera. At least in terms of designating, the Linnaean system is ultimately more economical—and this accounts in part for its survival. Linnaeus himself claims that “generic names are current throughout the botanical world, just as coins are by agreement of the commonwealth” (CB, 7).

How this currency relates to other types of economy returns us to his trip to Öland and Gotland. Rather than begin with a description or a vignette, Linnaeus introduces his narrative with criteria on which his mission is based:

In the Riksdag of 1741 the Estates were pleased to decree that I should make a journey to several districts within the Kingdom. ... Instructions consisting of the following items were issued by the office of Manufactory Administration...

(A) To search for plants and grasses that are suitable for making dyes, and to instruct the farmers in the proper use.
(B) To investigate the occurrence of clay or earth that might be used for pottery, tobacco pipes, filling, etc.
(C) To investigate which plants, hitherto imported for pharmaceutical purposes, could be found within the Kingdom.
(D) To inform myself of things pertaining to the Historia Naturalis Patriae, such as trees and plants, animals, birds, reptiles, etc.
(E) To keep a careful and accurate diary and submit it to the authorities on my return. (OG, 19)

Though this inclusion might even have been required (and at one level simply registers who is paying for the trip and assures them of what they are getting), Linnaeus’s attempt to frame perception on the trip according to predetermined, especially economic, variables might be read back into his botanical theory.[11] The trip will occur against the grid of these objectives so that its narrative structure will echo his criteria-based taxonomy: dyeing, clay, drugs, national natural history, and writing accurately about dyeing, clay, drugs, and national natural history.

Criteria will be especially necessary against a rich coastline or bay’s interdisciplinary sprawl of potential specimens—including, perhaps, an unnamed moss species lurking in a bog, or a previously unrecognized strain of diorite in an upturned hillock undergoing mass wasting. And as a preparation for the possibility of fighting over who owns names, Linnaeus has, in the Critica botanica, already briefed his botanists against poaching names from other disciplines: “Generic names of plants which are also used in the nomenclature of Zoology and Mineralogy, if they were adopted by Botanists at a later date, must be restored to their original signification” (CB, 41). Ditto, names from “Anatomists, Pathologists, Medical Practitioners or Craftsmen” (CB, 45).

On the trip, objects drag their rationales with them: “Snakes are not sufficiently well described, either in Sweden or abroad; therefore we intend to describe those we found in order to enrich the Historia naturalis patriae” (OG, 26). Other objects and practices get situated between rationales: “I intend to describe even the most simple and common agricultural and household devices, not so much for my countrymen as for the foreigners. Such information may be of general use, however, in the Economia privata” (Ibid.). Elsewhere, in trying to account for the disappearance of heather in an Öland churchyard, Linnaeus more directly confronts the limits of his genre, the genus travel account: “If conjectures are allowed in a travel account, I would guess that the heather had disappeared after the land was enclosed within the big wall, and herbs and flowers were left to grow undisturbed by the cattle....” (OG. 71).

Conjecture itself may not be authorized within the genre. Conjecture about topics other than A–E therefore seems especially groundless. However, such moments do emerge: Linnaeus is asked, for instance, to pronounce the sex of a child with ambiguous genitalia by a woman who “complained bitterly that her neighbor had reproached her for giving the child a man’s name although it was a girl” (OG, 75). Here the reproductive elements—the criterion of his botanical designations—are mixed, and we never learn Linnaeus’s final decision, since the text continues directly into “plants used for dyeing in the district.” When not solving social problems, Linnaeus strays from dyeing, clay, drugs, and national natural history primarily to suggest overlooked dietary possibilities (especially edible barks and berries), arguably a subset of D. While the practical and economic implications of finding ways to identify new food sources are obvious for a population plagued by frequent hunger, such an outlook finds its extreme form in some of Linnaeus’s observations about hunting. After noting sandstone’s absorptive properties and its local use for millstones on the Gotland coast, he turns his attention to farming seals and hares:

The inhabitants place their nets in parallel rows outside the opening one behind the other, then they drive the seals from the curved sandbank, so that they are caught in the nets. The people always call the seal’s fore feet its hands. The seal has a very sensitive nose, and a very light blow there kills it.

We saw a neat way of killing hares; the hare is lifted by its back feet and is struck with the hand over its neck, which kills it immediately. (OG, 163)

However. Linnaeus fails to name the economical seal and hare death blows. What names or at least memorializes death on this trip, instead, are (mundanely consistent) runic stones: “Gudfast and Helgunn and Nenne, mother and sons, had this stone raised in memory of their father, Sven” (OG, 74); “Sigvard had this stone raised in memory of his father” (OG, 192). We might conjecture that for Linnaeus, this type of monumentality—however appealing to a nationalistic sense of the Viking past—would seem suspect precisely because of its dependence on an arcane and uneconomical language. (Linnaeus’s transcriptions, we learn, are frequently inaccurate.) Unscientific and irrational, the rune might be imagined as an opposite to his goals of clear-cutting convoluted botanical nomenclature and of cultivating a criteria-based language of difference pruned of distracting names long ago foisted onto the visible world.

But this replanting of botany is itself tangled by the messy need to distribute botanical booty—names—to successful field explorers. Combined with the results of his other regional explorations, the criteria-based Öland and Gotland journey would give rise to a string of economic proposals that would play themselves out in an agonizing series of failures.[12] However, the promise of these trips was crucial in securing Linnaeus’s name in Sweden when he returned to the mainland in 1741, took up his post at the University of Uppsala, and titled his inaugural lecture “Benefit of Travelling, &c.” In 1762 Linnaeus was ennobled to Carl von Linné after selling the Swedish government on a method of producing pearls (which, though functional, was never put into practice). If Linné can also be accused of carving his rune in the landscape, the rhetorical burden of the Critica botanica is, nonetheless, to plead first the legitimacy (even necessity) of such property in botany and then the natural connections that inhere between botanical specimens and the heroes after whom they are named—connections that, not actually employing characters and scarring surfaces, mentally grow back into the vegetal world in ways foreclosed to the stark and manmade rune.

Due to the extensive reference material utilized for this text, references will be detailed in the endnotes related to their first appearance. Thereafter, they will be cited parenthetically with an abbreviation for the initial reference. See individual endnotes for more details.

  1. The two epigraphs are from The Critica Botanica of Linnaeus (London: Royal Society, 1938), trans. Arthur Hort, pages 177 and 62 respectively. Hereafter cited parenthetically as CB.
  2. See Barbara Stafford, Voyage into Substance: Art, Science, Nature, and the Illustrated Travel Account, 1760–1840 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984), p. 35. Hereafter cited parenthetically as S.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “The insufficiency of the decorative garden in the face of the realities of a constantly expanding sensible universe was to become a leitmotif of the travel book” (S, 5).
  5. For an excellent account of Linnaeus’s ideas, see Lisbet Koerner’s Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). Hereafter cited parenthetically as K.
  6. Linnaeus’s Öland and Gotland Journey 1741 , trans. Marie Åsberg and William T. Stearn (Academic Press: London, 1973), p. 40. Hereafter cited parenthetically as OG.
  7. Barbara Stafford mentions Bernardin de Saint Pierre, in his Voyage à L’Ille de France (1773), as an early and eloquent commentator on the fundamental problem of travel writers needing an impossibly encyclopedic knowledge (S, 45).
  8. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon , 1973), pp. 140–141. Hereafter cited parenthetically as F.
  9. Linnaeus, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Natural History and Physick, trans. Benjamin Stillingfleet (New York: Arno Press, 1977), pp. 199–200.
  10. Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p. 28.
  11. Lisbet Koerner demonstrates how Linnaeus’s explorations were bound with what is called a cameralist economic theory: “Whereas classical economists advocated one single, ungoverned, yet self-regulating global modernity, and whereas Romantic anti-modernists hoped for an infinitude of custom-governed, local, traditional communities, cameralists strove for rationally governed autarchies” (p. 1). While the cameralists where known for their attempt to “integrate regions in a state,” Linnaeus’s version seeks “to isolate the individual state commercially” (pp. 3–4).
  12. Koerner’s book provides meticulous documentation of these failures.

Lytle Shaw’s most recent poetry book is The Lobe (Roof, 2002). He co-edits Shark, a journal of poetics and art writing, and curates the Line Reading Series at the Drawing Center.

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