What’s in a name? William Jones, ‘philological empiricism’ and botanical knowledge making in 18th-century India – Minakshi Menon (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

January 31, 2022 @ 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm
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.

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