Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Borges's Encyclopedia and Classification in Presidential Studies

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Borges's Encyclopedia and Classification in Presidential Studies

Article excerpt

In her 1990 address before the Presidency Research Group, Betty Glad argued that the alleged low status of presidential studies was based in large part upon a model of science used in theoretical physics. Instead, she contended, if research in botany and some other sciences were employed as a model, other approaches, particularly classification, would be prominent. Presidential studies would be less preoccupied with a misplaced scientific status hierarchy and more capable of generating explanations and offering predictions. (1) Indeed, not only are there now several classificatory models that have attracted the attention of presidential scholars but the field itself is preoccupied with classificatory schema. What if, however, a major focus upon classification as a research activity leads not to a rigorous and robust body of knowledge in presidential studies as Glad predicts but rather to a version of the emperor's encyclopedia described by Jorge Luis Borges in which phenomena are cataloged in a completely ersatz fashion?

This essay examines the utility of classification as a goal of presidential studies by assessing dichotomies offered by Fred Greenstein, Richard Neustadt, and Jeffrey Tulis and typologies presented by Stephen Skowronek and James David Barber. The distinction in the philosophy of science between natural and conventional classification is reviewed and standards for the general evaluation of classification are proposed. The essay concludes that there is a pronounced tendency for these classifications to drift toward the status of those in Borges's encyclopedia that can only be effectively resisted by continual theoretical reassertion of the executive himself as a disruptive force.

Presidential Encyclopedias

Glad is certainly appreciative of the problems of classification. In presidential studies, as in other areas of social science, phenomena are particularly complex and as such are subject to a variety of explanations. She notes that the researcher's "main resources are whatever concepts he or she can borrow from other areas, plus prior experience, common sense, and the ability to think carefully" (i990, 20). Glad recognizes that the "synthetic reasoning" of classifiers might be regarded as "wrong, mystical or metaphysical" by those who seek general laws (8).

Borges too notes the problems of classification. He introduced his famous encyclopedia in the course of discussing the classifications of John Wilkins, a Victorian linguist. Borges clearly admired Wilkins's "curiosity and ambition." What troubled him were the "ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies" in his classification (1999, 230). The effort reminded him of a "certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge." He proceeded to list one entry "in its distant pages." Animals were divided into

a. Those that belong to the Emperor

b. Embalmed ones

c. Those that are trained

d. Suckling pigs

e. Mermaids

f. Fabulous ones

g. Stray dogs

h. Those that are included in this classification

i. Those that tremble as if they were mad

j. Innumerable ones

k. Those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush

l. Others

m. Those that have just broken a flower vase

n. Those that resemble flies from a distance

Borges is clearly more skeptical of the classification project in general than Glad, although it is less clear that his citation of the example from the emperor's encyclopedia is meant to suggest that all such efforts are utopian. (2) Nevertheless, Glad's optimism and Borges's skepticism provide a valuable matrix for discussion. For example, if one attempted to stay close to Borges's encyclopedia, one could present a classification for a "Presidential Encyclopedia" (II) that went like this. Presidents are divided into

a. Those who are Democrats (or Republicans)

b. …

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