Taxonomic Impulse

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the “taxonomic impulse” as discussed by Outram on page 68 and elsewhere?

Michel Foucault introduced the term “taxonomic impulse” to describe the scientific impulse to classify and categorize the objects in the natural world (Outram 68). This desire allowed scientists to distinguish between human beings around the world, but instead of allowing them to learn about the differences in a positive way, this impulse led to the conclusion that certain races are inferior to others. This consideration, as a result, led to less rather than more open mindedness about those races and cultures. Once something is classified as inferior, it demands

very little interest. Thus, it was reasonable (if you agree with the originally flawed premises of this argument) to then argue that blacks were inferior, as many Enlightenment thinkers unfortunately did.

To me, taxonomic impulse seems to be only the beginning stage of understanding or categorizing the world. At some point, we need to move past categories and superficial elements like external characteristics and go deeper in our understanding. Research in sociology, education, and psychology have elevated our understanding of the world around us and how similar we all can be given certain conditions. But this work is yet to be done in relationship to other creatures on earth.  For example, we are still only mainly talking about animals in terms of group dynamics and what their species tends to or tends to not do. Thus, we only understand them on a basic categorical (species-only) level. However, there are now beginning to be some psychological and social studies on animals as well. Pet owners already know that no two animals in their household are alike in personality, much in the same way that children vary in personality and temperament. But now science is discovering this as well. Thus, it is natural to infer that no two tigers or sea lions or elephants are exactly alike. These animals, like people, are influenced not only by their natures, but also by the kind of family group that they were raised in and the kinds of environmental factors that influence them. For example, many dogs who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering with PTSD, just like other (human) veterans.

What we need now are more of these studies and more of this kind of holistic thinking when it comes to animals. That way, we can move away from classifying and understanding other creatures on a classification or categorization level (that is driven by taxonomic impulsiveness, which can and so far does result in us thinking that animals are inferior to humans and that certain animals are inferior to other animals) and toward a more wholesome study of animals (one that considers their psychologies and sociologies). But as with slavery and the Enlightenment, this will also mean that we will have to reevaluate our farming/food consumption practices.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

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