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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2007 Sep;38(3):541-62. Epub 2007 Sep 7.

Collection and collation: theory and practice of Linnaean botany.

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ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter, Byrne House, Exeter, Devon, UK.


Historians and philosophers of science have interpreted the taxonomic theory of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) as an 'essentialist', 'Aristotelian', or even 'scholastic' one. This interpretation is flatly contradicted by what Linnaeus himself had to say about taxonomy in Systema naturae (1735), Fundamenta botanica (1736) and Genera plantarum (1737). This paper straightens out some of the more basic misinterpretations by showing that: (1) Linnaeus's species concept took account of reproductive relations among organisms and was therefore not metaphysical, but biological; (2) Linnaeus did not favour classification by logical division, but criticized it for necessarily failing to represent what he called 'natural' genera; (3) Linnaeus's definitions of 'natural' genera and species were not essentialist, but descriptive and polytypic; (4) Linnaeus's method in establishing 'natural' definitions was not deductive, but consisted in an inductive, bottom-up procedure of comparing concrete specimens. The conclusion will discuss the fragmentary and provisional nature of Linnaeus's 'natural method'. I will argue in particular that Linnaeus opted for inductive strategies not on abstract epistemological grounds, but in order to confer stability and continuity to the explorative practices of contemporary natural history.

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