Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

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 encyclopædia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

The list divides all animals into 14 categories:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

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

Influences of the list

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


  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, 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. Borges, Jorge Luis (April 8, 2006), El idioma analítico de John Wilkins (in Spanish and English), Crockford
  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. Retrieved 2013-01-25.
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