Classification schemes are not true or false

They are helpful for some purpose, or unhelpful.

This came to mind in answering a comment by Lord Keynes in which he classified William Jennings Bryan as a progressive.

There is a fact of the matter about whether Bryan is dead or not. There is a fact of the matter about him acting as an attorney in the Scopes trial. There is a fact of the matter as to whether he was over six feet tall.

But there is no fact of the matter as to whether Bryan was a progressive or not: historians create these categories to make the abundance of history more manageable. (There is a fact of the matter about whether Bryan called himself a progressive or not, but self-designation is not binding on historians: just because Mao said he was a democrat doesn't mean historians have to agree with him!) Historians lump some things together because they think it is useful somehow, and keep others apart because they think that is useful. So, for instance, our lecturer on the progressives contrasted them with Bryan because:

Bryan: populist, democratic, pro-small farmer, pro-small business, wary of technocrats
Progressives: elitist, bureaucratic, pro-conglomeration (but not pro-unregulated-monopoly), technocratic

But, of course, Bryan and the populists would have agreed on some things, and for some purposes it might be best to categorize them together. Neither classification would be right or wrong, just useful for some purposes but not for others.

With all that said, I offer you Borges' wonderful classificatory scheme for animals:
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

2 comments:

  1. I laughed for thirty minutes at that classification scheme. How do people come up with stuff like that?

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  2. So does this mean that I could distinguish North Korea from the Soviet Union despite the fact most people call both countries "socialist"?

    For instance:
    Soviet Union: Worker-oriented, imperialist, bureaucratic
    North Korea: Nationalist, isolationist, monarchical, militaristic, xenophobic

    Or:
    Thomas Jefferson: Pro-agrarianism, states' rights, pro-France
    Alexander Hamilton: Pro-industrialism, pro-business, pro-stock market, strong federal government, pro-Britain

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