Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I just came across a fascinating article while reserching something else and thought I'd share it here. My apologies for those who think this stuff is booooring but I'm always interested in how differing perspectives alter world views and in how we tend to always assume that others see things the same way as we do.

The full article is here:

I'll copy just the introductional paragraph here:

Absolutely relative - controversy over death of Captain James Cook
National Review, Sept 15, 1997 by Keith Windschuttle

Mr. Windschuttle is the author of, most recently, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past, from which this article is adapted. Copyright 1997 by Keith Windschuttle. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

MICHEL Foucault opens his book The Order of Things with a paragraph that has become one of his most famous. Foucault describes a passage from "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" that, he claims, breaks up all the ordered surfaces of our thoughts. By "our" thoughts, he means Western thought in the modern era. The encyclopedia divides animals into the following categories: "a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies." Foucault writes that, thanks to "the wonderment of this taxonomy," we can apprehend not only "the exotic charm of another system of thought" but also "the limitation of our own." What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that "there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture . . . that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think." The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality.


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