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«1. Introduction This chapter discusses the classical and Renaissance genre legacy which influenced Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné, 1707–1778) in ...»

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Calendar and aphorism: A generic study of Carl

Linnaeus’s Fundamenta Botanica and Philosophia


Han-Liang Chang

1. Introduction

This chapter discusses the classical and Renaissance genre legacy which influenced Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné, 1707–1778) in his writing of Philosophia

Botanica (1751) and Fundamenta Botanica (1736). The two key words that

constitute the main title, “calendar” and “aphorism”, evoke the classical genre

tradition, while at the same time suggesting a double denotation of literary genre and biological genus; both can be traced back to classical antiquity, but converged in the writings of Linnaeus. It was Linnaeus who enlightened the Age of Reason by founding modern botany and systematics, and who codified botanical Latin as a tool for scientific inquiry. This paper traces the generic sources of Linnaeus’s writings and discusses the theoretical implications of aphorism as genre with reference to contemporary speculations on the linguistic sign in the wake of Ferdinand de Saussure. It is assumed that generic and formal devices, such as aphorism and calendar, are secondary textual constraints superimposed on the primary language code of botanical Latin, which has own its time-honoured stylistic conventions. Because of their rich generic links, the two texts by Linnaeus call for careful intratextual and intertextual readings, as the present author will demonstrate towards the end of the chapter.

2. The two faces of Linnaeus It is a critical commonplace that Linnaeus has two incongruous faces (Lindroth 1994; Chang 2007). Scholars have extended this self-contradiction to other aspects of his life and career, including the diversity of his research methods and writings. One could, for example, compare Linnaeus’s classification method used in Systema Naturae, which is encoded in scientific Latin and follows closely the Aristotelian-Porphyrian a-priori logic, and his travel writings, 268 Han-Liang Chang which are written in Swedish and characterized by narrative randomness and occasional bursts into lyricism. Even through English translation, one can still suspect a conspicuous stylistic inconsistency. What one is dealing with in this regard is not only the author’s linguistic code as the primary modelling system, consisting of the lexical, syntactic and semantic aspects, but also the many stylistic and generic devices, which are built on top of the base linguistic code to form his secondary modelling system. For such a conceptualization, we subscribe to the discovery and descriptive procedures proposed by the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics in the 1970s (Lotman 1977; Lotman et al. 1973).

3. Two generic conventions: aphorism and calendar A truly exceptional case is Linnaeus’s Philosophia Botanica (hereafter cited as PB), developed from the prototypal Fundamenta Botanica (hereafter cited as FB), inwhich the author makes exclusive use of the discursive device of aphorism to complete the preordained empty calendar. Whereas Linnaeus’s classication is deductive and systematic, his calendars, along with his many travelogues, are random and sketchy, discursive but inconclusive, characteristic of the essayistic and aphoristic writings of the Renaissance, in particular those by Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Now there are visibly two genres fused in the text of PB, namely, calendar and aphorism. Both genres, marginal as they may seem, can be traced back to classical antiquity and were revived, with various semantic and cultural investments, in the Renaissance. Their relationship cannot be one between form and content, because aphorism is a form in itself. What can be said is that without rich semantic investment, a calendar, for all its rigid 365 daily divisions, remains an empty form, and it takes the protean aphorism to materialize. We shall therefore take a quick glance of calendar as genre.

–  –  –

The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of calendar:1

(1) The system according to which the beginning and length of successive civil years, and the subdivision of the year into its parts, is fixed; as the Babylonian, Jewish, Roman, or Arabic calendar.

–  –  –

(2) A table showing the division of a given year into its months and days, and referring the days of each month to the days of the week; often also including important astronomical data, and indicating ecclesiastical or other festivals, and other events belonging to individual days. Sometimes containing only facts and dates belonging to a particular profession or pursuit, as Gardener’s Calendar, Racing Calendar, etc. Also a series of tables, giving these facts more fully; an almanac.

Compared with the OED, the less authoritative Merriam-Webster Dictionary

ironically gives definitions more relevant to our purpose:

(1) A system for fixing the beginning, length, and divisions of the civil year and arranging days and longer divisions of time (as weeks and months) in a definite order;

(2) An orderly list: as a list or schedule of planned events or activities giving dates and details. (Emphases mine.) Only in this sense of non-prescribed acting (i.e., “fixing” and “giving”) by individuals can calendar be a kind of writing – literary or otherwise; and only in this sense of textualization can it exemplify the act of genre praxis, of beinhalten, or “filling content into form”, at any historical moment.

As suggested by the OED, there are specialized calendars traceable to classical antiquity but popularized in the Renaissance, e.g., the shepherd’s calendar;

the farmer’s or gardener’s calendar; the floral [not the florist’s] calendar. Under the influence of classical pastoralism, a number of British poets have produced works of the same title, The Shepherd’s Calendar, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, namely, Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), James Hogg (1770–1835), and John Clare (1793–1864). The farmer’s/gardener’s calendar has perhaps an older history, attributed to Hesiod’s (fl. 8th century BCE) Works and Days. Aristotle’s disciple Theophrastos (372–287 BCE), a philosopherbotanist like Linnaeus, contributed to the genre with his De causis plantarum and De historia plantarum. He was followed by the Roman Vergil (70–19 BCE) in the latter’s didactic poetry Georgics. Finally, we come to the calendar of flora. Linnaeus’s English translator, Benjamin Stillingfleet, identifies the genre in Theophrastos’ De historia plantarum, to which he adds that by Alexander example than aphorism can serve more powerfully as a metacommentary to examine the distinction. The current online edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica bases its entry on aphorism on the 11th edition, which in turn bases its entry on the OED.

See n. 3 below.

270 Han-Liang Chang M. Berger (Linnaeus), dated 1755, and his own of the same year. (Linnaeus [1775]1977; Heller 1983: 215–216.)2 It is Stillingfleet who renders justice to calendar by granting the sterile form a prestigious genre status. In an essay entitled The Calendar of Flora, Swedish

and English, published together with his translations of Linnaeus’s miscellaneous tracts in 1755, Stillingfleet defines what he means by the calendar of flora:

“…and that time [the right time] may not be according to certain calendar days, but according to a hitherto unobserved calendar, which varies several weeks in different years” (Linnaeus [1791] 1977: 235). He observes that the calendar existed a long time ago, in Hesiod’s time, “but when artificial calendars came into vogue the natural calendar seems to have been totally neglected, for I find no traces of it after his [Hesiod’s] time” (Linnaeus 1977: 235). Therefore, he calls

for a revival of the genre, and illustrates it with his own calendar as follows:

I have retained the division of months according to budding, leafing, flowering, &c … But I am convinced that this method marks more precisely when we may expect the flowering of any plant, or the any bird, &c. than the bare mention of the day of a common calendar month, and at the same time marks it more universally. (Linnaeus 1977: 244–245) There is no coincidence that Linnaeus’s A Tour in Lapland makes use of both

kinds of mechanical and natural calendars, the one prescribed, the other composed through observation:

May 12, 1732, old style I set out alone from the city of Upsal on Friday May 12, 1732, at eleven o’clock … At this season Nature wore her most cheerful and delightful aspect, and Flora celebrated her nuptials with Phoebus. (Linnaeus [1811] 1971: 2) Stillingfleet’s description shows an important pragmatic function of the calendar of flora. Much as in keeping journals, based on lived experience and quotidian observations, the writer does not aim for self-communication, as is the case when keeping a private diary; rather, he means to communicate what he has observed and recorded to fellow naturalists, often across national borders, for comparative research. A question can be posed in this connection: Are LinApparently Stillingfleet takes the author of the dissertation to be Alexander M.

Berger, a student of Linnaeus’s, but with historical hindsight, contemporary scholars generally agree to attribute these dissertations supervised by Linnaeus to him rather than to the students who submitted and signed them because of the special supervision system used in Sweden at the time. See Knut Hagberg’s (1939) and Stearn’s (1957) comments, quoted in Heller (1983: 216, n. 13).

Calendar and aphorism naeus’s Fundamenta Botanica and Philosophia Botanica floral calendars? If not, what are they? On the surface, the two works retain one feature of the mechanical calendar, i.e., its numeral and numerical symbolism of 365, and the author inserts into the given 365 textual spaces his learned and speculative aphorisms, though they are not entirely based on observations of nature, as he insists at the end of PB that they should be: In scientia Naturali / Principia veritatis / Observationibus confirmari debent (In natural science / the elements of truth / ought to be confirmed by observation) (Linnaeus 2003: 307). At least here, between the two poles of human faculties for nature studies, it is reason rather than experience that prevails.

5. Aphorism as genre

What about the other genre, aphorism? Perhaps there is no coincidence that the OED (online 2nd ed. 1989), in its entry aphorism, gives a few sample sentences, one of which is by the English essayist Bacon and the last of which refers to


1605 BACON Adv. Learn. I. v, Knowledge, while … in aphorisms and observations … is in growth.

1879 DE QUATREFAGES Hum. Spec. 50 The aphorism … which was formulated by Linnæus in regard to plants.

The second citation belongs to the English translation of Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau’s (1810–1892) L’Espèce humaine (1877). It may not be able to do justice to Linnaeus because his PB and FB had already been published for more than a century. But there is apparently a genre tradition linking Bacon to Linnaeus, criss-crossing many other writers on natural history and natural philosophy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including, as we shall see, Joachim Jung (1587– 1657), Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738), and Christian Gottlieb Ludwig (1709–1773). This genre convention is a secondary modelling system (or subcode) superimposed on the primary modelling system of New Latin or such vernaculars as English, Dutch and Swedish.

Did, as De Quatrefages said, Linnaeus “formulate” aphorisms in regard to plants? Who are his predecessors? The term was first used in the Aphorisms (400 BCE) of Hippocrates (c.460–368 BCE), which is a series of propositions

3. Ephraim Chambers’ (c.1680–1740) Cyclopædia enters the term in volume 1, dated 1728, but it does not cite Linnaeus for obvious chronological reasons.

272 Han-Liang Chang

concerning the semeiology of disease and the art of curing. The opening aphorism is a most famous quote:

Life is short, the Art long, opportunity fleeting; experiment treacherous, judgment difficult. The physician must be ready, not only to do his duty himself, but also to secure the co-operation of the patient, of the attendants and of externals.

(Hippocrates [1931] 1992, 4: 99) Another collection of medical aphorisms is Hermann Boerhaave’s Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morbis, published in Leiden in 1709. Within a few years, it was translated into English as Boerhaave’s Aphorisms, Concerning the Knowledge and Cure of Diseases and published in London in 1715 (Boerhaave [1715] 1986). Several anecdotes can be evoked to establish the two writers’ rapports de fait. In June 1735, at the University of Harderwijk, Linnaeus took his degree examination, which included “an exposition of two of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms” (Blunt 2001: 94). Shortly afterwards, on 5 July 1735, Linnaeus met Boerhaave, nicknamed “Hippocrates Redivivus” (Blunt 2001: 96), from whom Linnaeus learned much “that was to be valuable to him in later life” (Blunt 2001: 97). The English biographer Blunt continues his narration: That winter, Linnaeus stayed with Johannes Burman who “assisted with two books on which he was working at the time – his Fundamenta Botanica and Bibliotheca Botanica” (Blunt 2001: 100).

One can surmise Linnaeus’s indebtedness from his extensive use of Boerhaave in annotating his PB. In the opening, he quotes from Boerhaave to annotate his Aphorism 3:

Boerh. Hist. 3. Planta est corpus organicum, alteri cuidam corpori Cohaerens per aliquam partem sui, per quam Nutrimenti & Incrementi & Vitae materiam capit & trahit.

(Boerhaave, Historia 3. ‘A plant is an organic body, adhering to some other body by some part of itself, through which it draws the matter for nourishment, growth and life.’) (Linnaeus 2003: 9) The same Aphorism 3 is glossed by two other writers’ aphorisms. The late William T. Stearn (1966: 30), President of the Linnean Society of London, who supervised many translation and research projects on Linnaeus, comments on an earlier work, Joachim Jung’s Isagoge Phytoscopica (1678), as such: “His work is thus very formal in character, consisting of aphorisms …”. It is to a

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