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Organized knowledge no more

Mortimer Adler was the person behind the Great Books, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Propaedia, and other attempts to synthesize all knowledge. In 1986, he wrote A Guidebook to Learning about how to organize knowledge. After surveying a couple of thousand years of attempts to organize knowledge, he ends Section Three with these words:

If any light can be thrown on the problem of how to organize knowledge in the twentieth century—how to order and relate its parts of branches—it must come from philosophy; and it must do so in a manner that accords to some extent with the cultural pluralism and intellectual heterodoxy of the present age. (p. 104)

The easy slam is right, but too easy: We don’t need old white men to tell us how knowledge is organized. We can find whatever we need by searching and folksonomies. Yeah yeah, it’s true. But there still is value in having thoughtful people point out the inner relationships of knowledge. Some of the most important questions are exactly about this — is religion really a branch of psychology? is science really a branch of faith? is psychology a branch of chemistry? — and it’s important to have learned people in the discussion.

But why think of this as a question about how knowledge is organized? Adler thinks of the organization of knowledge as a map, but does that metaphor hold any more? Why think knowledge has to fit together? Why think it’s a thing or a landscape? Why think it has to have an overview?

Now that we we don’t have to organize the physical containers of knowledge, putting books on bookshelves, the term “organization” doesn’t really apply. Findability counts. So do arguments about how to understand our world — e.g., is thought really just neuroscience? But neither of these require the organization of knowledge.

And if times we do need a map of knowledge, either to help us understand our world or to help us find information, we should assume that it’s a map without a geography to which it refers. [Technorati tags: ]

16 Responses to “Organized knowledge no more”

  1. Hm. There is a long history of taxonomy, organization, and encyclopedia. The latter, for example, is a French invention, the Encyclop√ɬ©die of Denis Diderot (1750-1772). Meanwhile, a product of the Scottish enlightenment, the Encyclopedia Britannica begins in 1768, more than a hundred years before Adler’s birth in 1902.

    A Propaedia is an attempt to make some sense of this body of knowledge, to, as suggested above, to organize knowledge. The rude response, that “we don’t need old white men to tell us how knowledge is organized,” and the more polite response, that “we don’t have to organize the physical containers of knowledge,” miss the nature and objective of what is being attempted. We may grant that a map is not (always) the best metaphor, but to do away with all organization sounds naive at best and dangerous at worst.

    “Findability counts.” For what? What is the purpose of knowledge, of information, if it belongs nowhere, if it is not part of a coherent understanding of the world. If not a map, then what: a pyramid? a pile? a hierarchy? chaos?

    Understanding entails not merely finding but connecting, not merely knowing but applying in context; and of the mechanisms representing this, a map is as welll construed and robust as anything else. Or perhaps a collection of maps, each one charting the world as seen from a point of view.

    Adler was neither as groundbreaking as suggested above, nor as easily dismissed as suggested above. The simple remedy of tagging is neither as original nor as robust, either. RDF, for all its syntactical flaws, demonstrates a deeper understanding of how knowledge is to be organized, so that we can not merely find but relate.

    And ultimately, I believe that we will find our understandings based not merely in association one word to another, but rather, in a more detailed multivaried set of connections between words, objects, and representations, a tapestry that, more often than not, will be comprehensible by our three-dimensional minds best with the aid of a map.

  2. Stephen, Thanks. I’m aware that there’s a history to the idea that knowledge can be mapped. I’m just using Adler as a modern whipping boy. And, as my third paragraph says, I’m not whipping him hard. There is value to attempts to see how ideas fit together.

    But why think there is an overview of knowledge? Sure, it’s better (more useful and more accurate, imo) to say there are lots of overviews, lots of maps. But why stick with the idea that knowledge has many overviews?

  3. Does the conceptual framework around the tag “everything is miscellaneous” allow for the truth of the position that “nothing is miscellaneous, everything exists in relation to everything else?”

  4. Frank, you can re-mean my tag any way you want. But I believe that “everything is in relation to everything else” works out functionally to “everything is miscellaneous.”

    Of course, if you do use my tag, you owe me a nickel.

  5. Yes, All Knowledge can come from one souce of understanding. Consuming is the common thread which is required for something to exist in our world. Now as a Consumer, a Human does not have to know exactly how something works to understand why it works the way it does. A Kidney and Oil Filter both clean fliud; however, the only difference is what and exactly how they perform their own job.

  6. I’m no Adler expert, but my guess is that his framework for how to think about knowledge is contained within his framework for How To Think about God.

    I think, in general, if you presume a certain kind-of order, or a certain lack-of order as the basis for our world, you can see that dis/order as inherent in our collective knowledge and approaches to it.

    But, if you presume some kind-of coexistence (and, in many cases, paradox) of order and disorder, would you maybe see (perhaps within the rules of some kind-of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle):

    Everything is Miscellaneous *AND, at the same time,* Everything is Not Miscellaneous

    ???

  7. “Everything is mucilaginous.” Yes. I think I can stick with that.

  8. It’s true that in a p2p information network everythig has the same value of everithing else,
    but I think that you are sticking with the medium, forgeting the producer that is the human being.

    If we talk about knowledge we should ask first how it is produced. That brings us to perceptions and thinking, not necessarily in this order. Then we must say that all human being are capable of a process of understanding, in a way or another, the world around them.
    At this point you say that we should be fine with that and just take care of our own knowledge, buying and selling info with others and we could live a good life without bothering about unifying everything into a system.
    fair enough.

    but my point is, if everybody generates a knowledge system, shouldn’t that be a common ground ? a unifying process ?
    I mean the tendency of generating a system inside our own life (the ego, the caracter, or even just simply the skin)isn’t that worth to be preserved in this new mind set ? it is a part of our being, and even if is always applyied in a different context and with different life styles, is THE source for knowledge and should be included when we talk about knowledge.

    I agree that bringing this linear thinking to the extreeme we end up with ‘eurocentics’, ‘westerncentrics’ or ‘radical theologists’ and so forth, if one forget to apply each time the relative context, as often happens.
    But I am afraid that leaving this point all out from the conversation, will bring to a world full of strangers, that will never even try to have a common project.
    Is a bit like the difference between morality and ethics. One can be a moral person but have no sense of community.

    I agree though that what you are pointing out is the natural consequence of the medium we are using now. And that knowledge will be reshaped in this sense quite completely.
    But shouldn’t we try to expand its borders, shouldn’t we leave the source open for discussion?

  9. Gianluca, I’m trying to say that we all together are constantly trying to unify our knowledge systems, and that this is worthwhile and inevitable and never-ending. The process by which we try to unify our knowledge systems is conversation in its many forms.

    Jay, my comments about Adler come mainly from his A Guidebook to Learning where he talks about the importance of building a knowledge structure that simultaneously acknowledges the heterogeneity of the world. I’m taking issue with the idea that knowledge should have an overview. Knowledge isn’t actually a territory, so why should it have a map? That’s not to say that there is no order to knowledge or that we shouldn’t even look for order. And I do agree that everything is and is not miscellaneous: Treating digital info as miscellaneous lets us sort and organize it (non-miscellanize it, so to speak) as we want for any particular task.

  10. Maybe I should’ve used the word “structure” instead of order.

    Again, I’m not an Adler expert, but I think his worldview, that knowledge is a territory that could and should be mapped, corresponds with his take on how one could and should know God.

    Maybe even: the mapping of knowledge could and should be done, specifically because the map “proves” a Creator who created the structure.

    I like to look at how organizational cultures set contexts for assumptions about information / knowledge structures.

    And, I think the organizational culture in which Adler functioned was generally committed to a hierarchical structure that was assumed to go all the way back to a divine creator.

    We function on the web in a different organizational culture than Adler’s.

  11. I’m probably missing what is being talked about, but David, isn’t post-modernism at least partly a recognition that people will fashion their knowledge into maps and trees, regardless?
    In the US, half of us cannot fathom the contours of the planet that the other half seem to be living on, yet the other half seems to find any twist or turn of events readily explicable in their own terms, and seem to be equally amazed that we would see things any differently.
    Pat Robertson has been widely cast as borderline insane or simply senile, not only here but by many conservatives, nevertheless his pronouncements on Chavez have been convincingly explained by journalist and theologian Chris Hedges as entirely in line with a movement called dominionism. Apparently it calls for the creation of a Christian America, seemingly one that aims to redeem the world, with purifying violence if necessary — or perhaps they think that purifying violence is the best option. Dominionists have evidently organized knowledge in a way that they find entirely satisfactory.
    So where does the countervailing tendency of some significant part of humankind to opt for a map of the world that becomes generally accepted, for at least a while, fit in?

  12. I often wonder if we organize our personal knowledge around subjects and issues to which we may be paying attention at a given point in time, and eventually the patterns of attention to which we become habituated. It’s probably too obvious, and a tautology, because we pay attention to learn.

    What I am struggling to say is that we organize it for instant retrieval, or it organizes it for us for instant retrieval based on habitual contexts and issues, which probably has impact on retrieval and use of knowledge when not paying the usual kind of attention

    And as importantly, when we start to think in links … pointing others to links or being pointed to links, through which to augment, expand or refine a piece of knowledge … will the ways we organize our personal knowledge become more and more like searchable small pieces loosely joined ?

    As digital natives flood into the adult world, and the digital immigrants who learned to think with “maps” consisting of a Table of Contents and highly structured Bodies of Knowledge begin to retire or vacate decision-making positions …

    Perhaps the maps will be somewhat or somehow topographical (valley, peaks, rivers that flow), setting out the context for attention based on groupings of incoming RSS feeds and tag-clouds that reflect what people one trusts or has necessary expertise are saying … surrounded on the sides by links to the basic infrastructure of the type of knowledge(s) being used.

  13. This discussion reminded me of a paper by Richard Rorty:
    http://www.naturalism.org/OffSite_Stored_Pages/WQ-RORTY.htm

    Here he is talking about the relationship between sciences and the humanities, and argues against the idea that there has to be a ‘unity of all knowledge’. The context is a review of a book by W. O. Wilson ” Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.”

    In this review, Rorty says

    ‘What strikes me as a reasonable and necessary division of cultural labor strikes Wilson as fragmentation. He tells us that “the greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and the humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are therefore not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.”

    But contemporary knowledge does not seem to me fragmented, any more than does the home repair industry. The academic disciplines are not, and are not supposed to be, “reflections of the real world.” They are supposed to provide ways of doing things in the real world, of reweaving the great seamless causal web so that various human purposes might be accomplished. Reality is one, but descriptions of it are many. They ought to be many, for human beings have, and ought to have, many different
    purposes.’

    If I understand you correctly David, I think you are saying much the same thing as Rorty in this paper.

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