So what’s Linnaeus got to do with it?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s botanical works could not be more different from the global cataloguing enterprise of Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778): Linnaeus focused on naming and ordering all of nature, while Goethe examined the unfolding and development of the plant from the seed leaves into an ever more complex entity, while at the same time exploring its relationship to the environment. Yet it is all too easy today to dismiss Linnaeus as a Fachidiot, whose compulsive organizing of nature’s elements constituted the ‘classical’ episteme diagnosed by Foucault: ‘When it ascribed to each thing represented the name that was fitted to it, and laid out the grid of a well-made language across the whole field of representation, then it was science—nomenclature and taxonomy’.* As I argue here, this taxonomic moment provided, via a dialectical process of knowledge production, crucial epistemological underpinnings for work in a very different vein.
Linnaeus’s Global Plant Index
In Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants, Linnaeus reveals a major impetus of his vast taxonomic project: his peers ‘became so overwhelmed with the multitude of species, as almost to despair of finding the way in or out of their gardens; both the [East and West] Indies daily furnishing them with so many novelties, that no memory was strong enough to retain them’.* On the one hand, this ‘furnishing’ of Europeans with thousands of new plant species constituted an unprecedented event in the history of knowledge: between the mid-sixteenth century and 1623, the number of plant kinds known to Europeans increased ten-fold, from roughly 500 or 600 to 6,000. The trend continued apace; hence keeping track of this cornucopia through the introduction of binomial names and the artificial sexual system was a major epistemological task to which Linnaeus set himself with vigor. He was, of course, not alone, with upwards of sixty different classification systems on offer by the mid-eighteenth century.
On the other hand, by compiling a global plant catalog in the most user-friendly way to date, Linnaeus enabled Europe to achieve even greater dominance of the biological riches of ‘biodiversity hotspots’, significantly endangered from this point onward. From an environmental perspective, the implications of so much of the planet’s biological wealth coming under European epistemological and physical control cannot be overestimated: vast monocultures serviced European thirsts and tastes. Plants became a greater commodity than ever before, exposing fragile ecosystems to intrusions and disruption.
Thus effectively harnessed to European projects of commercialization, plant products such as tea, hemp and rubber fueled the industrial revolution, European colonial expansion and globalization. At the same time, European culture, medicine, cuisine and were incomparably enriched by exotic plants, whether as materia medica, condiments or brain fuel in the form of coffee and tea. Collecting exotic species to display in gardens evolved into an elite fetish that Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) condemned for its dismissive attitude toward indigenous plant life; hence, Rousseau ‘takes examples from the immediate vicinity, speaking only of indigenous plants, and not presuming to consider exotic ones, even ones known and cultivated domestically’.*
Linnaeus had thus created the conditions for further knowledge creation, laying down an indispensable epistemological foundation for plant exploration, exploitation and theorizing—a foundation that, despite its flaws, proved essential for building the natural—if incomplete—plant classification that he himself endorsed in Philosophia Botanica (1751).
Rousseau, Goethe, Habitus and Natural System
Rousseau took up botany in the principality of Neuchâtel while evading a French arrest warrant for the heterodox religious views expressed in Emile (1762). A late comer to botany, Rousseau appreciated Linnaeus’s binomials ‘as convenient and necessary for Botanists as … Algebra is to Geometers’ and ‘the only ones admitted in all of Europe … by means of which one is certain to be able to arrive at mutual understanding with botanists of all nations’.* Yet, paradoxically, Rousseau refuted Linnaeus’s view that ‘[t]he (true) BOTANISTS…should know how to name all vegetables with intelligible names’.* For Rousseau, knowing plant names does not necessarily make one a knower of plants: ‘I have always believed one could be a very great botanist without knowing a single plant by its name’.*
Names are one thing; classification, as Rousseau clearly understood, is another. Thus, from the outset of his botanical venture, Rousseau collected works by a wide range of botanical authors who advocated differing classification concepts. One of these authorities stands out above all others: the English divine, John Ray (1627 – 1705), who, by virtue of his classification system based on the seed leaves (cotyledons), ‘approached the fundamental method more than anyone else’.* Around the same time, Rousseau was composing his Confessions, in which he wrote of sensing the ‘emptiness’ of Linnaeus’s ‘system’, which is to say, Linnaeus’s privileging of the reproductive organs over other plant features in his artificial sexual system of classification. This sentiment is reflected in Rousseau’s most well-known botanical text, Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique,a short, informal botany course composed for a friend and her children. In this posthumously published work, Rousseau embraced a different way of presenting botany, invoking habitus, i.e. the plant’s form, as the epistemological basis for botany. He thus recalls Aristotle’s formal cause or form-giving principle. Form shows which plants belong to a family: for example, a banyan, with its external root system, displays a radically different habitus or form from that of an oak tree. Relying on the concept of habitus, Rousseau presented in his letters six plant families that are the same six (with the addition of grasses) that formed the basis of the natural method of classification then being pioneered by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu (1748 – 1836).
Rousseau applied the concept of form not only in botany, but also in the arts: he debated the noted composer and theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764), on the merits of harmony versus melody, with Rousseau espousing melody, not harmony—a mere secondary characteristic—as expressing the essence of a musical composition. In the same way, an engraving—that is to say, an outline—expresses the essence of an image, irrespective of secondary characteristics such as colors. Perhaps it is to this guiding notion of habitus or form that Goethe refers, when observing that for Rousseau ‘such great diversity of forms in the boundless world of plants would be unthinkable without a fundamental principle, be it ever so concealed, to restore uniformity’.* The nexus form-family proved especially inspirational for the German poet, who writes that Rousseau’s ‘method of narrowing down the plant world lends itself to the classification of plants according to families […] and since I too had at that time been led to observations of this kind, his presentation made an even greater impression upon me’ (emphasis added).*
Goethe extends Rousseau’s insight into Ray’s importance, commencing with the cotyledons and identifying the ‘laws of transformation by which [Nature] brings forth one part through another, achieving the most diversified forms through modification of a single organ’.* The ‘inner law’ of form (Gestalt) and is complemented by the external one of environmental modification (Bildung)*, such that forms are never fixed and forever, but constantly prone to change in response to environmental influences: ‘what has just been formed is immediately transformed’ through environmental influences; in morphology form is not fixed.* Plants require genera and species [i.e. form] in order to grow with full strength and abundance’. Yet they may ‘yield to Nature and allow themselves to be swept into variations, without however giving up the form…’.* Environmental factors may even bring form to the point of virtual dissolution.
Linnaeus was the first to compile a truly global plant catalog, with its constituents named, inserted into the artificial sexual system, and assigned a habitat, although the latter was not always accurate. Linnaeus’s artificial classification and his continuously updated plant catalog, Species Plantarum (first published in 1753), provided the organizational structure for human epistemological imperium over the plant kingdom. While acknowledging the merits of Linnaean global taxonomy, Rousseau rejected the imperial plant acclimatization projects that Linnaeus facilitated, recognizing their origin in human vanity and avarice. Rousseau pointed out that transplants were altered and diminished ‘in exile and denatured in the gardens of the curious’.* With Goethe, Rousseau saw this fashionable practice in a broader perspective as an expression of human hubris: any plant not useful for human purposes, whether decorative, medicinal, culinary and so forth—was deemed to have no value at all. Hence, as Goethe noted, so-called ‘weeds’ have no value for humans due to their apparent lack of utility. That such prejudices persist, despite the findings of modern sciences such as ecology, constitutes another argument for the relevance of Rousseau and Goethe’s botanical thought for the present.