I love taxonomies !

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification.  It is an important tool to expand knowledge.

Strengths of Taxonomies

  • Help wrestle with data, with the world
  • Help to see patterns that before escaped your eye
  • Is a tool of science to build models and deepen understanding

Weaknesses of Taxonomies

  • Views only a small part of the things being classified (reductionistic)
  • Imply deeper understanding than actually present
  • Ignore or overlook deeper complex relationships


  • Hold loosely:  The trick with taxonomies is to hold them loosely, to realize their short comings, and to rejoice when evidence comes forth showing that a better taxonomy exists.
  • Use several taxonomies to view something
  • Test your taxonomies !
  • Don’t let taxonomies be your only way of viewing reality

Interestingly, the word was coined by Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) who laid the foundations for how we name living organisms in science using the binomial nomenclature.  The taxonomies of organisms has changed drastically over the centuries.  We have progressed from Linnaean Taxonomy to Evolutionary Taxonomy and now to Cladistic Taxonomy.

One of my other favorite taxonomies is that of  language families and their taxonomies have changed over the last 100 years.  But early taxonomies, no matter how inaccurate were good starting points — initial hypotheses.  Below is a fun illustration (here is the large version):


Linguistic Romp:  Latin vs. Greek

  • tax = taxare [L] “evaluate, estimate, assess, handle”
  • taxi =  short for “taximeter”= “charging (assess) meter” [L]
  • taxidermy = “taxis”[Gk] = “arrangement” + dermis [Greek] = “skin”
  • taxonomy = “taxis”[Gk] = “order, arrangement” + “Nomos ” = “law” or “science”
  • ataxia = “a” [Gk] “not” + “taxis”=ordered. “Not-ordered” . Inability to walk correctly
  • syntax = “syn”[Gk] together + “taxis”= arrange


See other “Word!” posts, here.


Filed under Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion, Science

7 responses to “Taxonomy

  1. I love taxonomies, too. My ever-expanding taxonomy of worldviews could certainly use your input, should you care to contribute. Choosing HOW to break things down after my current three-part division is a bit tricky.

  2. Boz

    I sneakily used a fake email address when commenting. 😐

    Similar to geoih, I am strictly a troll.

  3. @ Luke

    I wrote a post today discussing some thoughts on the taxonomy.

    Taxonomies are great in conversations so that two interlocutors can quickly come to see what they share or differ on.

    I am building such a “Taxonomy of Theology” here. A similar one for non-theological stances would be helpful and I keep daydreaming about it. One challenge is, that I must think through my positions to some degree also! 🙂

    An example of a post title would be “Declare Thyself” where the reader could then use the taxonomy to share their major stances before the dialogue. Just thinking.

    But I shall keep plugging away. It would help if you stopped writing such interesting articles, so I could spend my time writing instead of reading.

  4. @ Boz
    So, feel free to write me an e-mail anytime if you have unrelated comments. Again, I encourage you to transcend your troll-hoodness and add posts to your name.

  5. CRL

    Taxonomies are fun. People make them instinctively. But any attempts to classify things into nice, neat groups usually leaves out all the intermediate positions, and gives us the tricky task of drawing the line between groups. For instance, quest to separate plants and animals into species is often problematic because species do not exist, outside other human brain, so while we all know the difference between a lion and a tiger, we have no group for the ‘laggers’ or for the last common ancestor which lions and tigers share. In the same way, with your Taxonomy of Theology, while we can always differentiate between theists and atheists, (once the definition of god is agreed upon) we need to make sure agnostics do not go the way of the laggers.

  6. @ CRL
    Indeed, these are some of the caveats of taxonomies. Well put. Each tool of mind comes with a huge list of caveats. Life comes with caveats.

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