David Chapman offers a critique of rationality at his meaningness.com site.  Interesting reading. To define the word “ontology”, he offers up a rather striking list, a categorization of animals,  from Jorge Luis Borges, from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The list is at first absurd, and humorous:

  1. those that belong to the Emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those included in the present classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

Chapman goes on to note: “This is a bad ontology, for any imaginable purpose, but it is not false.

I’m not so sure. It has a purpose, and the purpose is to portray the inner workings of the mind.  Which Borges does so well. There is a marvelous consistency to the list.

It documents the workings of the inner mind of a country peasant – the earnest thinker, the one you might encounter at the end of a long pleasant summer’s day, after all work has been done, and one has rested a bit. The question is a reasonable one to pop into thought, as there were animals seen throughout the day: chickens in the yard, wild beasts at the fringes of field and forest. The mind wanders: What is an animal?

Of course, all the King’s beasts are the King’s, and there will be unbearable trouble if the warden catches you hunting them. So of course, 1. The warden doesn’t know about the stuffed muskrat in the shed, but that was already found dead, so can’t be blamed for that. So, of course, 2. the embalmed ones. Oh gosh, there are so many animals! How could one list them all? There are dogs, they’re good at hunting. Let’s say, 3. those that are trained. (….)

Summer’s feast is coming up. Just a few weeks away. Much work left to be done, to prepare for it. There will be a roast. Pigs. 4. suckling pigs. Roast suckling pigs. Mmmm. There will be many guests. You must come! Much work left to be done.

I can’t think of anything else. That’s pretty much it. What else could there be? (……) 5. Mermaids. Do you think dragons count as animals? There are so many, gryphons and things. Surely they’re animals. 6. Fabulous ones.

Argh! There’s that damned dog again. Go dammit. How am I gonna deal with it? Thief. 7. stray dogs. Stray dogs are animals. Everything included in the present categorization is an animal, so 8. Of course. That stray dog reminds me of the fox I saw yesterday. I must have surprised it, it was hunched over something, trembling. But strangely salivating, teeth bare. Maybe rabid. 9. those that tremble as if they were mad. I guess anything is an animal, there are so many. 10. innumerable ones. I once saw a book, and it had pictures in it, very fine. If I could show it to you. Pages and pages, you would just open it, and there would be a picture of an animal. A drawing. A painting. That’s not what its called. An engraving? I don’t remember what they called it. Here: 11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush. There were so many. 12. others.

Wife steps to the door. Says I’ll have to mend the vase before summer feast. Cat broke it. 13. those that have just broken a flower vase. Evening is upon us, time to go inside. Standing up, straightening one’s legs. One last glance towards the distant edge of the woods, a hint of movement. A shimmering, maybe a breeze in the aspens. 14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

This is my pastoral classification of animals. It’s very natural. It’s complete. It lists them all. We’ve thought about everything in the entire universe. Mermaids! My man! Think it! All of them! It’s a good listing. Proper work for an evening.

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