June 29th, 2020


More on reading Cuvier's La regne animal: In more than one place, I've encountered French words whose use there does not seem to be what the dictionary translations I've checked would suggest, let alone what the obvious English equivalents would be.

distribuer: This appears on the title page, as part of the subtitle: distribué d'après son organisation. But "distributed after" [or according to or following] "its organization" doesn't convey an obvious meaning. After encountering the word a few more times, I figured out that it meant "distributed [among the various taxa]" and could be translated in this context as "classified." The animal kingdom classified according to its organization seems like a pretty straightforward theme for a book on zoology.

méthode: The obvious translation is "method." But Cuvier refers to it as a specific branch of logic, whereas in ordinary English usage logic itself is a "method." And he contrasts méthode with syllogisme as another branch of logic, whereas I might be more inclined to say that the syllogism is a specific method. It seemed as if Cuvier meant something more specific, but I was perplexed as to what. I decided to use "methodology" and go on. Eventually, though, I noticed that he used méthode to refer, not only to a procedure for classifying animals, but also to a system of taxa that was the product of such a procedure; I realized that the English word "taxonomy" has exactly the same two meanings, as a process and as a result; and I went back and noticed that Cuvier said that the study of natural history gave practice in méthode exactly as the study of geometry gave practice in syllogisme—and classic natural history is focused precisely on taxonomy. So I went back through and reviewed the passages where I had put "methodology" and found that in all of them, substituting "taxonomy" made perfect sense.

(Incidentally, I've said for many years that the difference between Plato and Aristotle as philosophers was reflected partly in Plato's emphasis on geometry, and Aristotle's on biology as branches of science and as models for their theories of knowledge. Cuvier seems like a good Aristotelian in this book.)