“Fragments of a Natural Method”: How Linnaeus Explored Plant Odours, Tastes, and Virtues on Paper
Staffan Müller-Wille and Isabelle Charmantier, University of Exeter
Discussant: Emma Spary, University of Cambridge
Ever since Michel Foucault’s Les Mots et les Choses (1966), eighteenth-century natural history has been portrayed as obsessed with the visible structure of living beings. The taxonomic works of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), which restricted themselves to classifying plants according to the number, shape, proportion, and position of their reproductive organs, seem to be a powerful case in point for this view. This argument overlooks, however, that Linnaeus himself believed that his most important work was a book entitled Clavis Medicinae Duplex (“The Twofold Key to Medicine”; 1764) which does not fit the rules of the “classical episteme” at all. It deals with occult qualities such as medical temperaments, diseases, odours, smells, and the effects of medical remedies, and it establishes order not by classifying, but by introducing fundamental polarities that generate continuous, qualitative spectra. The underlying logic is not dichotomous and hierarchical, as in Linnaeus’ taxonomic works, but dialectical and analogical. I will explore this logic through the written traces that Linnaeus left in numerous annotations of his own copies of Clavis Medicinae Duplex and other relevant works throughout his career. These annotations show a curious predilection for exploring two-dimensional paper space by the arrangement of single words and reveal a “wild thinking” (Lévi-Strauss) whose fluidity and richness subverts the apparent rigidness and poverty of Linnaeus’s taxonomic output.