The Wunderkammer, Categories, and Learning by Distraction

The Wunderkammer, Categories, and Learning by Distraction
  • 2022-23

The sixteenth century saw a vogue for collecting strange objects. The practice was developed in the halls and palaces of Europe. 

Usually kept in a smart wooden case, with several shelves, the collection was called a Wunderkammer – a Cabinet of Wonders, or Cabinet of Curiosities in most English translations. 

There was no system of classification in these open boxes such as you might find in a museum. The collections juxtaposed natural and artificial objects with deliberate randomness, putting together, for instance, fossils and compasses, lapis lazuli and musical instruments, eggs and maps. 

The only organising principle was that the contents should evoke a certain wonder.

Classifications are, of course, hugely useful, allowing humans to assemble things and ideas, so simplifying and giving order to our understanding of the world and the way things fit together.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to classify all living things. Some of his groups are still used today, such as vertebrates and invertebrates.

Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages adapted Aristotle’s work to classify the workings of the soul, while Dante combined both Classical and Christian categories to develop the rigorous structure of his Divina Commedia

The modern classification system is said to have begun in 1758 with Systema Naturae, in which Carl Linnaeus developed a system for classifying and naming plants and animals. 


Classifications or categories define us – racially and religiously, and in terms of generation, gender, and class. 

Computer algorithms are programmed to categorise us commercially, pushing products towards us that our purchasing history suggests we may be interested in.  

The word for this system of classification is taxonomy. In the modern and increasingly complex world, we could not survive without it. Alphabetical and numerical systems are essential for any State or organisation to function. 

And yet, these systems can often be rather arbitrary, and even prejudicial in terms of the artificial hierarchies they produce. 

In a 1942 essay, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges presented a classification of animals that he claimed to have found in a (fictitious) Chinese encyclopaedia, named the “Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge”. Animals were classified into 14 fanciful categories:

1. those that belong to the Emperor

2. embalmed ones

3. those that are trained

4. suckling pigs

5. mermaids

6. fabulous ones

7. stray dogs

8. those included in the present classification

9. those that tremble as if they were mad

10. innumerable ones

11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush

12. others

13. those that have just broken a flower vase

14. those that from a long way off look like flies

Borges used this list to suggest that any attempt to categorize can be “arbitrary and full of conjectures”. According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Borges’s essay "shattered all the familiar landmarks of my thought".

In schools and universities, subjects have long been separated into a structured curriculum. Science is separated into Biology, Chemistry and Physics, with many subdivisions, such as human biology and general biology, theoretical and practical physics etc. 

These disciplines have remained the same in schools and colleges for many decades. From time to time, there are calls to revise them, to make the sciences more interdisciplinary, for instance, to elide the boundaries between the humanities, mixing history with economics, economics with geography, philosophy with literature.

Some of the most interesting scholarly and cultural work now explores the fertile territory that lies at the borders between these traditional taxonomies.

In fact, one of the things I have noticed in the last few years, with the development of technology, is how learning has become much more free and associative.

The internet facilitates this. In the same way that I once looked up a word in the dictionary and got distracted by the other words around it, I now look up something on the Internet and am sent in all kinds of directions. This can be both frustrating and fun.

This new way of learning by rapid association – digitally surfing, and discovering things by accident and serendipity – has revolutionised the way we search for things, mirroring the way the brain forms synaptic connections, and exploiting the way our minds naturally work. 

To revise Wittgenstein’s famous dictum about language setting the limits of our world, we might now say that the limits of our search engines are the limits of our world.

But for all the concerns – its addictive nature, its use of algorithms to direct our tastes, its ability to disseminate fake news, and its habit of distancing us from the real world – digital technology also represents a model for intellectual freedom and mental exploration.

The truth is, human beings like to be distracted. Smart phones are instruments of distraction. They operate successfully because they stimulate our curiosity, channelling our attraction for novelty and surprise.

The future of education may involve finding safe ways of harnessing technology so that we turn the model of distraction into the formal way we learn. This could represent a new opportunity to motivate students, challenge old hierarchies, and create innovative networks of knowledge.

Many people worry about a 1984-like tyranny, but freedom is more the computer's style. Technology tends to overwhelm rather than support ideology, expanding the number of links and range of networks beyond the ability of those who want to control them.

While we need to ensure that we remain critically aware of any efforts to manipulate us, our minds have the potential to accommodate a twenty-first century version of the Wunderkammer, with objects, facts and ideas all jostling for attention within our headspace. 

What would I put in my Cabinet of Curiosities

A picture of my sons; the chansons of Charles Trenet; a box set of The Adventures of Antoine Doinel; a table tennis bat; a bar of Lindt chocolate; an Alessi kettle, and on a loop tape the recording of James Salter reading Lydia Davis’s story, ‘Break it Up’…

Add them together, and these little things may provide the dots that, when connected in a particular pattern and viewed from a certain angle, make a life.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

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