What is the origin of the phrase, "Carving nature by its joints"?
March 6, 2007 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone know the origin of the term, 'carving nature at its joints' when used to describe the process of dividing up a territory into its constituent parts? I believe it goes back to Ancient Greece, but I don't know much more than that...
posted by barbelith to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hi Tom. Cutting up any body is difficult, but it is a process made relatively easier if one incises at the joints, as a butcher typically would do. Thus a concept, area or object that is not in nature separated can be done to some degree for a satisfactory physical or conceptual result by approaching it at a naturally softer point.

It seems to be generally agreed that Plato said it first, Phaedrus 265d-266a .
posted by methylsalicylate at 5:50 AM on March 6, 2007

Are you talking about establishing political borders at natural barriers (Missouri/Illinois) as opposed to arbitrary locations (Colorado/Utah)?
posted by sourwookie at 6:29 AM on March 6, 2007

(Sourwookie: the phrase usually comes up when you're talking about scientific taxonomy.

If a scientist decides he's going to compare, say, fish and dolphins, we feel like that's a distinction that counts. If he decides he's going to compare fish that he caught on Mondays and fish that he caught on Wednesdays, we feel like that's a pretty pointless distinction. Our intuition is that there's a real difference between species, and no real difference between groups caught on different days of the week.

Under this metaphor, species boundaries are like joints — natural places to "cut" when you're dividing the world up into categories.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:03 AM on March 6, 2007

This online translation gives the relevant passage as,

The second principle is that of division into species according to the natural formation, where the joint is, not breaking any part as a bad carver might.

Obvs, useful for more than simply taxonomy. Although my reading has always been more ambiguous: that while a joint is the logical place to make a division, it's not always a good idea to introduce such things. Though reading on, we see that Plato was a big fan.
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:07 AM on March 6, 2007

methylsalicylate is right. It's Plato, it's usually translated in English as "carving nature at its joints" and it's about making a good, natural scheme of categories (a good taxonomy). Here's a nice description from this online introduction to major philosophical views about categories:
[Plato's] most famous metaphor for the reality of universals [a view explained in the linked essay] was to say that real universals "cut nature at its joints" (Phaedrus 265d-266a). He compares the task of definition to the job of being a butcher. The clumsy butcher just hacks things up in any old way, but the expert butcher deftly slices the animal at its natural joints, neatly separating naturally distinct segments of the animal. He gave an extremely influential example of this method of definition in Sophist 218d-221c.

This is the original inspiration for what is now called "taxonomy." The Greek word "taxis" refers to the arrangement of a group of soldiers. Biological taxonomy is the study of the arrangement of living organisms into the categories: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Plato's idea here is that the various species are real features of the world. Tobermory my cat really is a cat (Felis catus). By distinguishing cats from dogs we "carve nature at its joints" and are recognizing a real distinction which exists in nature. This is the realist view of species.
A different resource that might be useful to you is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on boundaries, if you're specifically thinking about geographic joints.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:31 PM on March 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

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