Philosophia Botanica

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Title page to a 1783 edition of Linnaeus's Philosophia Botanica, first published in 1751 Philosophia Botanica 1783.jpg
Title page to a 1783 edition of Linnaeus's Philosophia Botanica, first published in 1751

Philosophia Botanica ("Botanical Philosophy", ed. 1, Stockholm & Amsterdam, 1751.) was published by the Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who greatly influenced the development of botanical taxonomy and systematics in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is "the first textbook of descriptive systematic botany and botanical Latin". [1] It also contains Linnaeus's first published description of his binomial nomenclature.


Philosophia Botanica represents a maturing of Linnaeus's thinking on botany and its theoretical foundations, being an elaboration of ideas first published in his Fundamenta Botanica (1736) and Critica Botanica (1737), and set out in a similar way as a series of stark and uncompromising principles (aphorismen). The book also establishes a basic botanical terminology.

The following principle §79 demonstrates the style of presentation and Linnaeus's method of introducing his ideas.

§ 79 The parts of the plant are the root (radix), the leafy shoot (herba) and the organs of reproduction (fructificatio), that the leafy shoot consists of the stem (truncus), the leaves (folia), accessory parts (fulcra, according to § 84 stipules, bracts, spines, prickles, tendrils, glands and hairs) and hibernating organs (hibernacula, according to § 85 bulbs and buds), and that the organs of reproduction comprise the calyx, corolla, stamens, pistil, pericarp and receptacle.

A detailed analysis of the work is given in Frans Stafleu's Linnaeus and the Linnaeans, pp. 25–78.

Binomial nomenclature

To understand the objectives of the Philosophia Botanica it is first necessary to appreciate the state of botanical nomenclature at the time of Linnaeus. In accordance with the provisions of the present-day International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants the starting point for the scientific names of plants effectively dates back to the list of species enumerated in Linnaeus's Species Plantarum, ed. 1, published 1 May 1753. [2] The Species Plantarum was, for European scientists, a comprehensive global Flora for its day. Linnaeus had learned plant names as short descriptive phrases (polynomials) known as nomina specifica. Each time a new species was described the diagnostic phrase-names had to be adjusted, and lists of names, especially those including synonyms (alternative names for the same plant) became extremely unwieldy. Linnaeus's solution was to associate with the generic name an additional single word, what he termed the nomen triviale (which he first introduced in the Philosophia Botanica), to designate a species. Linnaeus emphasized that this was simply a matter of convenience, it was not to replace the diagnostic nomen specificum. But over time the nomen triviale became the “real” name and the nomen specificum became the Latin “diagnosis” that must, according to the rules of the International Code of Nomenclature, accompany the description of all new plant species: it was that part of the plant description distinguishing that particular species from all others. [2] Linnaeus did not invent the binomial system but he was the person who provided the theoretical framework that lead to its universal acceptance. [3] The second word of the binomial, the nomen triviale as Linnaeus called it, is now known as the specific epithet and the two words, the generic name and specific epithet together make up the species name. [4] The binomial expresses both resemblance and difference at the same time – resemblance and relationship through the generic name: difference and distinctness through the specific epithet. [5]

Until 1753 polynomials served two functions, to provide: a) a simple designation (label) b) a means of distinguishing that entity from others (diagnosis). Linnaeus's major achievement was not binomial nomenclature itself, but the separation of the designatory and diagnostic functions of names, the advantage of this being noted in Philosophia Botanica principle §257. He did this by linking species names to descriptions and the concepts of other botanists as expressed in their literature – all set within a structural framework of carefully drafted rules. In this he was an exemplary proponent of the general encyclopaedic and systematizing effort of the 18th century. [6]

Historical context of Linnaean publications

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who established the binomial system of plant nomenclature. Carl von Linne.jpg
Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who established the binomial system of plant nomenclature.

Systema Naturæ was Linnaeus's early attempt to organise nature. [7] The first edition was published in 1735 and in it he outlines his ideas for the hierarchical classification of the natural world (the “system of nature”) by dividing it into the animal kingdom (Regnum animale), the plant kingdom (Regnum vegetabile) and the "mineral kingdom" (Regnum lapideum) each of which he further divided into classes, orders, genera and species, with [generic] characters, [specific] differences, synonyms, and places of occurrence. The tenth edition of this book in 1758 has been adopted as the starting point for zoological nomenclature. [8] The first edition of 1735 was just eleven pages long, but this expanded with further editions until the final thirteenth edition of 1767 had reached over 3000 pages. [9]

In the early eighteenth century colonial expansion and exploration created a demand for the description of thousands of new organisms. This highlighted difficulties in communication about plants, the replication of descriptions, and the importance of an agreed way of presenting, publishing and applying plant names. From about 1730 when Linnaeus was in his early twenties and still in Uppsala, Sweden, he planned a listing all the genera and species of plants known to western science in his day. [10] [11] Before this could be achieved he needed to establish the principles of classification and nomenclature on which these works were to be based.

We can never hope for a lasting peace and better times till Botanists come to an agreement among themselves about the fixed laws in accordance with which judgment can be pronounced on names. [12]

The Dutch period

From 1735 to 1738 Linnaeus worked in the Netherlands where he was personal physician to George Clifford (1685–1760) a wealthy Anglo-Dutch merchant–banker with the Dutch East India Company who had an impressive garden containing four large glasshouses that were filled with tropical and sub-tropical plants collected overseas. Linnaeus was enthralled by these collections and prepared a detailed systematic catalogue of the plants in the garden, which he published in 1738 as Hortus Cliffortianus ("in honour of Clifford's garden". It was during this exceptionally productive period of his life that he published the works that were to lay the foundations for biological nomenclature. These were Fundamenta Botanica ("Foundations of botany", 1736), [13] Bibliotheca Botanica ("Botanical bibliography", 1736), and Critica Botanica ("Critique of botany", 1737) [14] He soon put his theoretical ideas into practice in his Genera Plantarum ("Genera of plants", 1737), [15] Flora Lapponica ("Flora of Lapland", 1737), Classes Plantarum ("Plant classes", 1738), [16] and Hortus Cliffortianus (1738). The ideas he explored in these works were revised until, in 1751, his developed thinking was finally published as Philosophia Botanica [17] ("Science of botany"), released simultaneously in Stockholm and Amsterdam. [18]

Species plantarum

With the foundations of plant nomenclature and classification now in place Linnaeus then set about the monumental task of describing all the plants known in his day (about 5,900 species) and, with the publication of Species Plantarum [19] in 1753, his ambitions of the 1730s were finally accomplished. Species Plantarum was his most acclaimed work and a summary of all his botanical knowledge. Here was a global Flora that codified the usage of morphological terminology, presented a bibliography of all the pre-Linnaean botanical literature of scientific importance, and first applied binomials to the plant kingdom as a whole. It presented his new 'sexual system' of plant classification and became the starting point for scientific botanical nomenclature for 6000 of the 10,000 species he estimated made up the world's flora. [20] Here too, for the first time, the species, rather than the genus, becomes the fundamental taxonomic unit. Linnaeus defined species as " ... all structures in nature that do not owe their shape to the conditions of the growth place and other occasional features.” There was also the innovation of the now familiar nomen triviale (pl. nomina trivialia) of the binary name although Linnaeus still regarded the real names as the differentiae specificae or “phrase names” which were linked with the nomen triviale and embodied the diagnosis for the species – although he was eventually to regard the trivial name (specific epithet) as one of his great inventions. [21] Sketches of the book are known from 1733 and the final effort resulted in his temporary collapse. [22]

Fundamenta, Critica and Philosophia

The Fundamenta Botanica (“The Foundations of Botany”) of 1736 consisted of 365 aphorisms (principles) with principles 210–324 devoted to nomenclature. He followed this form of presentation in his other work on nomenclature. Linnaeus apparently regarded these as a “grammar and a syntax” for the study of botany. [23] Chapters VII to X comprised principles 210 to 324 to do with the nomenclature of genera, species and varieties and how to treat synonyms. The Critica Botanica was an extension of these nomenclatural chapters of the Fundamenta. Critica Botanica which was published a year later in July 1737, the principles of the Fundamenta are repeated essentially unchanged but with extensive additions in smaller print. [24] It was this work, with its dogmatic, often amusing and provocative statements, that was to spread his ideas and enthrall intellects of the stature of Goethe. [25] He was, however, dismissive of botanical work other than taxonomy and presented his principles as dogma rather than reasoned argument. [26]

These works established ground rules in a field which, at this time, had only “gentlemen's agreements”. Conventions such as: no two genera should have the same name; no universally agreed mechanisms. Genera Plantarum ran to five editions, the first in 1737 containing short descriptions of the 935 plant genera known at that time. Observing his own principle to keep generic names as short, euphonious, distinctive and memorable as possible he rejected many names that had gone before, including those of his fellow botanists which was not popular. In their place he used names that commemorated patrons, friends and fellow botanists as well as many names taken from Greek and Roman mythology. [27]

Historical assessment

Linnaeus's system of classification follows the principles of Aristotelian logic by which arranging subjects into classes is classification; distinguishing divisions of classes is logical division. The group to be divided is the genus; the parts into which it is divided are the species. The terms genus and species acquired their specialized biological usage from Linnaeus's predecessors, in particular Ray and Tournefort. [28] There was also the question of whether plants should a) be put together or separated because they conform to a definition (essentialism) or b) put together with plants having similar characteristics generally, regardless of the definition (empiricism). Linnaeus was inclined to take the first approach using the Method of Logical Division [nb 1] based on definition, what he called in Philosophia Botanica §152 the dispositio theoretica – but in practice he employed both methods. [29]

Botanical historian Alan Morton, though praising Linnaeus's contribution to classification and nomenclature, is less complimentary about the theoretical ideas expressed in the publications discussed above:

Linnaeus was the master of the botany of his time, and his influence on the development of botanical science powerful and lasting … his work demonstrated the success of his improved methods of description, diagnosis and nomenclature, and made detailed systematic observation the guide and criterion in taxonomy. ... In his theoretical ideas, on the contrary, Linnaeus was a man of the past who never escaped from the restricting circle of idealist-essentialist thought in which his early high school training had confined him. This was the background to the contradictory statements in the Philosophia, to his narrow view of botany, his blindness to the advances in plant physiology and anatomy, [and] his unquestioning acceptance of special creation. [30]

Linnaean historian, chronicler, and analyst Frans Stafleu points out that Linnaeus's training and background was scholastic. He excelled in logic ..."which was almost certainly the Aristotelian and Thomistic logic generally taught in secondary schools all over Europe".: [31]

Linnaeus's methods were based on philosophical principles and logical a priori assumptions which gradually lost their relevance to the natural sciences during the eighteenth century. Even so, the direct results of his work were salutary: descriptions were standardised, ranks fixed, names given according to precise rules and a classification proposed which permitted rapid and efficient storage and retrieval of taxonomic information. No wonder that much of what Linnaeus proposed stood the test of time. The designation of species by binary names which have the character of code designations is only one element out of many which show the profound practicality underlying Linnaeus's activities and publications. [32]

Linnaeus's philosophical approach to classification is also noted by botanist David Frodin who observed that applying the methodus naturalis to books and people as well as plants, animals and minerals, was a mark of Linnaeus's ‘scholastic’ view of the world:

Most subsequent [to Linnaeus's Bibliotheca Botanica] classifications of botanical literature, including geographical entities, would be more or less empirically based highlighting a recurrent conflict between essentialism, empiricism, nominalism and other doctrines in the theory and practice of any kind of classification. [33]

Finally, Linnaean scholar William T. Stearn has summarised Linnaeus's contribution to biology as follows:

By the introduction of his binomial system of nomenclature Linnaeus gave plants and animals an essentially Latin nomenclature like vernacular nomenclature in style but linked to published, and hence relatively stable and verifiable, scientific concepts and thus suitable for international use. This was his most important contribution to biology. [34]

Bibliographic details

Full bibliographic details for Philosophia Botanica including exact dates of publication, pagination, editions, facsimiles, brief outline of contents, location of copies, secondary sources, translations, reprints, manuscripts, travelogues, and commentaries are given in Stafleu and Cowan's Taxonomic Literature. [35]


  1. Another example of Aristotelian logic is the Law of Excluded Middle (everything is either A or not A) used as the basis for dichotomous keys used in plant identification.

Related Research Articles

Carl Linnaeus Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist

Carl Linnaeus, also known after his ennoblement as Carl von Linné, was a Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician who formalised binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms. He is known as the "father of modern taxonomy". Many of his writings were in Latin, and his name is rendered in Latin as Carolus Linnæus.

Linnaean taxonomy Rank based classification system for organisms

Linnaean taxonomy can mean either of two related concepts:

  1. the particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus, as set forth in his Systema Naturae (1735) and subsequent works. In the taxonomy of Linnaeus there are three kingdoms, divided into classes, and they, in turn, into orders, genera, and species, with an additional rank lower than species.
  2. a term for rank-based classification of organisms, in general. That is, taxonomy in the traditional sense of the word: rank-based scientific classification. This term is especially used as opposed to cladistic systematics, which groups organisms into clades. It is attributed to Linnaeus, although he neither invented the concept of ranked classification nor gave it its present form. In fact, it does not have an exact present form, as "Linnaean taxonomy" as such does not really exist: it is a collective (abstracting) term for what actually are several separate fields, which use similar approaches.
Binomial nomenclature System of identifying species of organisms using a two-part name

In taxonomy, binomial nomenclature, also called binominal nomenclature or binary nomenclature, is a formal system of naming species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, although they can be based on words from other languages. Such a name is called a binomial name, a binomen, binominal name or a scientific name; more informally it is also called a Latin name.

Family is one of the eight major hierarchical taxonomic ranks in Linnaean taxonomy; it is classified between order and genus. A family may be divided into subfamilies, which are intermediate ranks between the ranks of family and genus. The official family names are Latin in origin; however, popular names are often used: for example, walnut trees and hickory trees belong to the family Juglandaceae, but that family is commonly referred to as being the "walnut family".

<i>Systema Naturae</i> Major work by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus

Systema Naturae is one of the major works of the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and introduced the Linnaean taxonomy. Although the system, now known as binomial nomenclature, was partially developed by the Bauhin brothers, Gaspard and Johann, 200 years earlier, Linnaeus was first to use it consistently throughout his book. The first edition was published in 1735. The full title of the 10th edition (1758), which was the most important one, was Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis or translated: "System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characters, differences, synonyms, places".

<i>Species Plantarum</i> Book by Carl Linnæus

Species Plantarum is a book by Carl Linnaeus, originally published in 1753, which lists every species of plant known at the time, classified into genera. It is the first work to consistently apply binomial names and was the starting point for the naming of plants.

Botanical nomenclature is the formal, scientific naming of plants. It is related to, but distinct from taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is concerned with grouping and classifying plants; botanical nomenclature then provides names for the results of this process. The starting point for modern botanical nomenclature is Linnaeus' Species Plantarum of 1753. Botanical nomenclature is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), which replaces the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). Fossil plants are also covered by the code of nomenclature.

In botany, the phrase ordo naturalis, 'natural order', was once used for what today is a family. Its origins lie with Carl Linnaeus who used the phrase when he referred to natural groups of plants in his lesser-known work, particularly Philosophia Botanica. In his more famous works the Systema Naturae and the Species Plantarum, plants were arranged according to his artificial "Sexual system", and Linnaeus used the word ordo for an artificial unit. In those works, only genera and species were "real" taxa.

William T. Stearn British botanist (1911–2001)

William Thomas Stearn was a British botanist. Born in Cambridge in 1911, he was largely self-educated, and developed an early interest in books and natural history. His initial work experience was at a Cambridge bookshop, but he also had a position as an assistant in the university botany department. At the age of 29 he married Eldwyth Ruth Alford, who later became his collaborator. He died in London in 2001.

Johannes Browallius

Johannes Browallius, also called John Browall, was a Finnish and Swedish Lutheran theologian, physicist, botanist and at one time friend of Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.

Cultivated plant taxonomy

Cultivated plant taxonomy is the study of the theory and practice of the science that identifies, describes, classifies, and names cultigens—those plants whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity. Cultivated plant taxonomists do, however, work with all kinds of plants in cultivation.

<i>Genera Plantarum</i>

Genera Plantarum is a publication of Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). The first edition was issued in Leiden, 1737. The fifth edition served as a complementary volume to Species Plantarum (1753). Article 13 of the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants states that "Generic names that appear in Linnaeus' Species Plantarum ed. 1 (1753) and ed. 2 (1762–63) are associated with the first subsequent description given under those names in Linnaeus' Genera Plantarum ed. 5 (1754) and ed. 6 (1764)." This defines the starting point for nomenclature of most groups of plants.

Carl Linnaeus bibliography List of publications by Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus

The bibliography of Carl Linnaeus includes academic works about botany, zoology, nomenclature and taxonomy written by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). Linnaeus laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature and is known as the father of modern taxonomy. His most famous works is Systema Naturae which is considered as the starting point for zoological nomenclature together with Species Plantarum which is internationally accepted as the beginning of modern botanical nomenclature.

<i>Critica Botanica</i>

Critica Botanica was written by Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist and naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). The book was published in Germany when Linnaeus was twenty-nine with a discursus by the botanist Johannes Browallius (1707–1755), bishop of Åbo. The first edition was published in July 1737 under the full title Critica botanica in qua nomina plantarum generica, specifica & variantia examini subjiciuntur, selectoria confirmantur, indigna rejiciuntur; simulque doctrina circa denominationem plantarum traditur. Seu Fundamentorum botanicorum pars IV Accedit Johannis Browallii De necessitate historiae naturalis discursus.

<i>Fundamenta Botanica</i>

Fundamenta Botanica was one of the major works of the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and issued both as a separate work and part of the Bibliotheca Botanica.

<i>Flora Lapponica</i>

Flora Lapponica is an account of the plants of Lapland written by botanist, zoologist and naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788) following his expedition to Lapland.

<i>Classes Plantarum</i>

Classes Plantarum is a book that was written by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist and naturalist.

<i>Bibliotheca Botanica</i>

Bibliotheca Botanica is a botany book by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). The book was written and published in Amsterdam when Linnaeus was twenty-eight and dedicated to the botanist Johannes Burman (1707–1779). The first edition appeared in 1735 with the full title Bibliotheca Botanica recensens libros plus mille de plantis huc usque editos secundum systema auctorum naturale in classes, ordines, genera et species; it was an elaborate classification system for his catalogue of books.

Coronariae Historical term for group of flowering plants, including lilies

Coronariae is a term used historically to refer to a group of flowering plants, generally including the lilies (Liliaceae), and later replaced by the order Liliales. First used in the 17th century by John Ray, it referred to flowers used to insert in garlands. Coronariae soon came to be associated with Liliaceae in the Linnaean system. The term was abandoned at the end of the 19th century, being replaced with Liliiflorae and then Liliales.


    • Stearn, William T. (1992) [1966]. Botanical Latin: history, grammar, syntax, terminology and vocabulary (4th ed.). Portland, Or.: Timber Press. p. 35. ISBN   9780881923216 . Retrieved 19 February 2015.
  1. 1 2 Sprague, p. 41
  2. Svenson, Henry K. 1953. Linnaeus and the Species Problem. Taxon 2(3): 55–58.
  3. Lawrence, George H.M. 1951. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants. New York: Macmillan. p. 194.
  4. Stearn 1959, p. 6.
  5. Stearn 1959, pp. 7,8, 13.
  6. Linnaeus, Carl. 1735. Systema naturae. Leiden: Theodor Haak.
  7. Linnaeus, Carolus (1758). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae :secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis (in Latin) (10th ed.). Holmiae (Laurentii Salvii). Retrieved 2008-09-22.
  8. Linnaeus, Carl. 1758. Systema naturae. Ed. 10. 2 vols. Stockholm: L. Salvius.
  9. Jonsell, p. 17.
  10. Uggla, Arvid H. 1953. The Preparation of the Species Plantarum. Taxon 2(3): 60-62. p.60.
  11. Hort, p. xxiii. (Preface)
  12. Linnaeus, Carl. 1736. Fundamenta botanica. Amsterdam: Solomon Schouten.
  13. Linnaeus, Carl. 1737. Critica botanica. Leiden: Conrad Wishoff.
  14. Linnaeus, Carl. 1737. Genera plantarum. Leiden: Conrad Wishoff.
  15. Linnaeus, Carl. 1738. Classes plantarum. Leiden: Conrad Wishoff.
  16. Linnaeus 1751.
  17. Morton, p.260.
  18. Linnaeus, Carl. 1753. Species plantarum. 2 vols. Stockholm: L. Salvius.
  19. Stearn 1959, p. 8.
  20. Jonsell, p. 14.
  21. Jørgensen, pp. 81–89.
  22. Ekedahl, p. 49.
  23. Morton p. 262.
  24. Morton, p. 282.
  25. Morton, p. 262.
  26. Stearn 1971, p. 246.
  27. Stearn 1959, p. 16.
  28. Stearn 1959, p. 19
  29. Morton, p. 276.
  30. Stafleu. p. 25.
  31. Stafleu, p. 337.
  32. Frodin, p. 27.
  33. Stearn 1959, p.10.
  34. Stafleu & Cowan, pp. 90–91.


Works by Linnaeus