Why the "Celestial Emporium"?


In his 1942 short story “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”[1], Borges critiques the attempt made by a seventeenth century philosopher and writer to create a “general language that would organize and contain all human thought”[2]. This philosopher, John Wilkins, proposed a “universal language” in which “each word defines itself.” With this significant ambition before him, Wilkins “…divided the universe into forty categories…and to each class he assigned a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel.” [3]

Borges posits that Wilkins’s attempt to create a universal language was doomed from the beginning because of the “ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies”—in short, the absurdity—inherent in endeavoring to subdivide reality in this way.[4] Borges epitomises this absurdity through the humorous example of “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.” This taxonomy—presented as fact, but dreamed up by Borges himself—divides earth’s entire animal kingdom into fourteen classifications, listed here:

(a) Those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.[5]

Borges sums up Wilkins’s—and the unknown Chinese encyclopedist’s—system in this way:


Obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is.[6]

French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of his seminal 1966 work The Order of Things that its inspiration came from reading Borges’ description of the Celestial Emporium. Foucault writes:


This book first arose…out of the laughter that shattered…all the familiar landmarks of my thought…breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things...[7]


The point of interest for Foucault was not the Celestial Emporium’s arbitrariness—the seemingly chaotic and random nature of its categories—but the idea that the classification it proposes might actually make sense to an individual or a culture. For Foucault, Borges had raised the question: “In what context might the Celestial Emporium make sense?” thereby creating the framework from which he could launch his discussion in The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. In it he examines the origins of the human sciences to show how every period in history has underlying ways of seeing the world, ways of determining what is and isn’t truth, as well as what is and isn’t acceptable discourse.


Michel Foucault’s book is just one example of how Borges’ humour and insight, expressed through the Celestial Emporium, could be said to have changed the course of history by the commentary that it generated. This commentary has taken numerous and divergent forms. Singer/songwriter David Byrne of Talking Heads took inspiration from Borges’ Emporium to create Arboretum, a series of hand drawn taxonomies that explore “irrational logic”, which he defines as “The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises.”[8] Australian philosopher Keith Windschuttle cites the tendency of some postmodernist social theorists to use the Emporium as evidence of the different conceptual schemes held by other cultures, while dismissing the fact that Borges’ example is fictitious. To Windschuttle, this tendency “deserves to be seen…as evidence of the degeneration of standards of argument in the Western academy.” [9]


In spite of the varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideas and commentary spinning off from Borges’ Celestial Emporium, there is no doubt that he created it in a spirit of drollery. Borges wished for his readers to laugh at our tendency as humans to think that we can accurately represent “all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire” through language, so eloquently described by G.K. Chesterton as “an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals”.[10] It is Borges’ spirit of imagination and humor that we, as a creative team, wish to honor and capture by crafting our version of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.


[1] Borges, J. L. “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, p.p. 101-105, Viewed 17/9/23, https://sites.evergreen.edu/politicalshakespeares/wp-content/uploads/sites/226/2015/12/Borges-The-Analytical-Language-of-JW.pdf

[2] Ibid, p. 102

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 103

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, p. 104

[7] Foucault, M. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge Classics, United Kingdom, 1994, p. XV

[8] Byrne, D. “Arboretum”, in David Byrne, viewed on 17/9/23, http://davidbyrne.com/explore/tree-drawings-arboretum/about

[9] Windschuttle, K. “Absolutely Relative” in Nationalreview.com, webarchive.org, 15/9/97, viewed on 17/9/23, https://web.archive.org/web/20050308191710/http://www.nationalreview.com/15sept97/windschuttle091597.html

[10] Borges, J. L. “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, p. 105.

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