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.

Why 18th Century individuals considered African people racially inferior

To what extent did 18th-century individuals in Europe, England and America think of enslaved African people as racially different or inferior? Cite evidence from her chapter.

Individuals in 18th-century Europe, England and America thought of enslaved Africans as the Other. Even though many argued for the abolition of slavery, African people were still considered racially inferior to whites. As a result of this perceived inferiority, many prominent whites argued that white people should not mix with black people. For example, Jefferson stated that African people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Outram 70). Thus, he argued that freed slaves should be removed from society, “before any sexual relation with white people can occur” (Outram 71).

18th-century individuals in Europe, England and America tried to use science and classification to find justifications for their beliefs. For example, they examined Africans’ outside and inside appearance, i.e. skin color, skeletons and craniums, but did not find the justifications that they were searching for (Outram 69). The problem with their methodology was that they assumed that their conclusions about the inferiority of black people were correct and went around trying to find proof. What they needed to do instead was to examine the evidence first and then draw conclusions (this is the way real science rather than pseudo-science is conducted).  If they had only examined environment and culture of European versus African societies then they would reach the conclusion that the differences were mainly environmental rather than intrinsic (fortunately, they did this later).

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