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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 154-172

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Nature as a Marketplace:
The Political Economy of Linnaean Botany

Staffan Müller-Wille

1. Oeconomia, Natural Science, and the Economy

Carl Linnaeus is well known to disciplinary historians as the "father of systematics," and yet it is only recently, in Lisbet Koerner's Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (1999), that he was considered in the context of his own time and place.1 Koerner argues convincingly for a relation between his economic ideas and his science. Linnaeus saw science as the prime tool in pursuing an economic ideal of national autarky through import substitution, and correspondingly he carried out ambitious research projects aimed at substitution of imports, especially of plants and plant substances, and based on shifting assumptions about the feasibility of cultivating exotic plants in his own home country or substituting them with domestic plants of analogous virtues.

Beyond guiding research projects, Linnaeus's economic contentions also found expression in his engagement for educational and administrative reform. Thus he urged at several occasions that "oeconomia"—which he understood not as a science of human economic action and behavior, but as a science of natural products and their "use" for humans—should be included as a compulsory part of university teaching [End Page 154] and that respective chairs of oeconomia should be created at Swedish universities (see Rausing, this volume). Another project of reform in which Linnaeus was involved was the foundation of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science at Stockholm in 1739, which by public lectures and demonstrations, as well as the edition of a scientific journal and a popular almanac, both in the vernacular, aimed to "serve the growth and development of useful sciences, economy, trade, and manufactures" (Liedman 1989; Eriksson 1989). In short, Linnaeus viewed oeconomia—the "new science" as he liked to call it—not only as a source of information for state elites, but also as a pedagogic instrument that could provide a broad, disciplined basis of local assistants—parsons, physicians, and engineers—to an administrative state machinery furthering national prosperity by systematic resource allocation and exploitation (cf. Liedman 1989, 28–31; Tribe 1988, 19–34).

With this conception of science as an instrument for rational development, one should expect a close conformity between Linnaean oeconomia and natural science. And indeed, in Linnaeus's eyes, oeconomia was about hardly anything more than natural history plus information on the uses made of its diverse objects in technology. Conversely, Linnaean natural history was thoroughly designed to serve its function as a practical and simple tool to explore natural resources. Thus binomial nomenclature, the main innovation for which Linnaeus is remembered today, was developed within the context of one of his "patriotic" projects: as a tool for shorthand designation to be used by a group of students who followed cows, pigs, and sheep to observe which plants they fed upon (Stearn 1959). In a sense Linnaeus's version of oeconomia reduced economics to technology and science to a technicality serving technological goals (Koerner 1999, 101–4).

Despite these conformities, however, some economic propositions surfacing in Linnaeus's botanical publications are not readily reconciled with the economic persuasions he expressed in his "patriotic" writings. Most conspicuously, as Koerner noted herself, Linnaeus's conception of an "economy of nature"—on which, after all, human economics depended in his view—was based on "notions of equilibria" as "checks and balances and feedback loops," while he "modeled . . . the economy of the nation on mechanistic notions of force" (102). The theoretical framework of Linnaeus's natural science, expressed in economic metaphors of balance and exchange, thus seems to have conflicted with the economic contentions on which he built his oeconomia. [End Page 155]

The key to developing an understanding of these conflicts lies in Linnaeus's classification of sciences, which did not result in a dichotomy of natural science versus oeconomia, as one might expect, but in a tripartition. In a programmatic contribution to the first volume of the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy...


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