Classification is a condition of knowledge, not knowledge itself, and knowledge in turn dissolves classification.

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, [1947]2002, p. 182

One way of understanding this would be to see classes (or categories) as necessary tools for the development of knowledge, while acknowledging the necessity to master those tools. One can use a tool without knowing how it works, but then it would be legitimate to wonder who’s using what. In order to consciously and rigorously use a class, one must fully understand how the class work. Where does it start and when does it stop? What criteria are used to include and exclude elements from that class? To know how a class works is to inquire about its limits. And at its limit, a class is often (always?) susceptible to collapse (or at least to experience a transformation).

Here’s the French version of the same quote:

La classification est une condition de la connaissance, elle n’est pas la connaissance même, et la connaissance détruit à son tour toute classification (La dialectique de la raison, translated by Éliane Kofholz, Gallimard, Paris, [1947]1974 p. 233)

The English translator used the verb “to dissolve” while the French translator used the verb “to destroy” (détruire). And in my commentary I wrote “to collapse”. Lately, I noticed two other instance where collapsing is positively correlated to knowledge:

  • In an article about quantum computing published in The New Yorker (“Dream Machine”, May 2, 2011) Rivka Galchen writes (on page 40):
  • When one turns to a quantum computer for an “answer,” that answer, from having been held in that strange entangled way, among many particles, needs then to surface in just one, ordinary, unentangled place. That transition from entanglement to non-entanglement is sometimes termed “collapse”. Once the system has collapsed, the information it holds is no longer a dream or a secret or a strange cat at one alive and dead; the answer is then just an ordinary thing we can read off a screen

  • In the official trailer for Terrence Mallick’s film Tree of Life a voice off screen says: “Someday we’ll fall down and weep and we’ll understand it all. All things.” In the French dubbed trailer it goes like this: “Un jour tout s’effondrera, et nous comprendrons tout, toutes choses…”.

Of course, this far from being a new theme: the concept of Apocalypse encapsulate both the idea of “unveiling” (or revelation) and the idea of an ultimate end (end of an era, end of the age, end of time, end of the world).

As a pun, one could say that classification has always something to do with eschatology.

• • •

Further reading:

A page from the Codex Seraphinianus
Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini, Milan: Rizzoli, 2013, p. 108.

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