University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > What's in a name? William Jones, 'philological empiricism' and botanical knowledge making in 18th-century India

What's in a name? William Jones, 'philological empiricism' and botanical knowledge making in 18th-century India

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  • UserMinakshi Menon (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)
  • ClockMonday 31 January 2022, 13:00-14:00
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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Olin Moctezuma.

‘What is Indian Spikenard?’, asked the 18th-century orientalist Sir William Jones in a famous paper, published in Asiatick Researches, Volume II (1790). The question serves here as a point of entry into Jones’s method for creating culturally specific plant descriptions to help locate Indian plants in their Indian milieu.

This paper discusses Jones’s philological method for identifying the jaṭāmāṁsī of the Sanskrit verse lexicon, the Amarakośa, and materia medica texts, a flowering plant with important medicinal properties, as the ‘Spikenard of the Ancients’. Philology, for Jones, was of a piece with language study and ethnology, and undergirded by observational practices based on trained seeing, marking a continuity between his philological and botanical knowledge making. The paper follows Jones through his textual and ‘ethnographic’ explorations, as he creates both a Linnaean plant-object – Valeriana jatamansi Jones – and a mode of plant description that encoded the ‘native’ experience associated with a much-desired therapeutic commodity. The result was a botanical identification that forced the jaṭāmāṁsī to travel across epistemologies and manifest itself as an object of colonial natural history. In the words of the medic and botanist William Roxburgh, whose research on the spikenard is also discussed here, Jones’s method achieved what ‘mere botany’ with its focus on the technical arrangement of plants, could not do.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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