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by Jay Fienberg

Shapes of knowledge, word for poodles

posted: Jan 29, 2005 2:14:00 AM

This isn't the killer post on tags and folksonomies I've been working on. That one has been killed for now, because it points to so many other posts, that I can't make enough sense of it to finish it. (I really need to start an anti-blog for these things that I never post.)

But, I started to write this (related) comment on David Weinberger's blog post about his new Joho essay, Trees vs. Leaves, and it got too long. So, I'm posting it here instead and just tracking back to David.

A few questions / comments about "Trees vs Leaves":

Isn't a dictionary a shape that knowledge itself takes? Isn't a dictionary not a tree?

Let's say it was a dictionary of only nouns and it was unsorted. The "system" would be a big pile of nouns attached to descriptions which include "tags" that are other nouns (and therefore are pointers to other nodes in the dictionary), right?

So, I realize you could look at how these nouns point at each other, and map a tree of relationships (e.g., poodle: a kind of dog; dog: a kind of mammal; mammal: a kind of animal).

But, a dictionary primarily represents knowledge as terms cross-referenced in a (controlled) vocabulary. In other words, even if some of how these nouns point to each other could be a tree, it also isn't in every way constrained by a tree structure. So, for example, consider every noun a in this definition of a poodle:

Any of a of originally developed in as , having thick curly of varying , and classified by height into , , and varieties.

With a nice computer, one could browse every noun whose definition includes the tag , for example.

In my experience, there is a kind-of "tree school" that people tend to believe in. But, for the most part, for a long time, most folks (and even most of the folks who belong to the tree school) have relied upon not-tree structures for knowledge and classification. And, I think dictionaries and thesauri probably represent the most common fully elaborated shapes of these not-tree structures that are so relied on.

On top of that, I would say that the "shape of knowledge" can be said to be the library itself, with all of its dictionaries, thesauri and other works. Whatever bug Dewey had for a tree structure, I'm not so sure he was missing the forrest of the whole library for that tree.

My own experience is that good organization relies on the joining of multiple structures and / or multiple approaches to organization. Libraries may use the Dewey Decimal system, but they also use alphabetical indexes, authority files, and librarians' and patrons' "recommended books of the month"—both to help people find things and to help them know things.

And, among many nice things I would want to say about the concept of , I would say that it allows each person to join their own organization to many others'—and I'm certainly not surprised that this might have obvious advantages over an isolated in many, if not most, cases.

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Comment by: David Weinberger ·
posted: Jan 29, 2005 8:50:09 AM

Jay, I meant "shape of knowledge" differently than you're taking it. I should have been more clear.

I meant that the tree-like shape of K has been taken, since Aristotle, to be not simply a convenient way of organizing topics but to be the shape of the world itself. That's why there was pushback when the 18th C encyclopediasts proposed arranging topics alphabetically: it was a desecration of God's plan. Alphabetization and cross references are obviously intensely useful, but are arbitrary in a way that trees traditionally have been assumed not to be.

And I think you're 100% right about libraries. They manifest the shape of knowledge because that was Dewey's intention. Instead of having books arranged alphabetically by author or title on the shelves, the common pre-Dewey organization, now the library's floorplan instantiates the landscape of knowledge itself. Nicely metaphysical but also cool for browsing :) And, yes, of course there are multiple schemes at work in a library, as you so trenchantly point out.

Comment by: Kevin Marks ·
posted: Jan 29, 2005 10:20:43 PM

Thesauri are explicitly tree-like with categories and subcategories, but the words act as links between the categories, defying the categorisation while reinforcing it.
There are similar ideas at work in the Longman Activator, aimed at non-native english speakers, to help them find the apposite word or phrase:

Comment by: Jay Fienberg ·
posted: Jan 30, 2005 7:21:27 PM

(I really need a disclaimer when I write these things that says something like: Warning! I always misinterpret David's writings, and, if I were more careful, I'd probably not post this without further investigation and/or reflection. Please consider this post to be more like a set of questions than a set of answers.)

Thanks David and Kevin for your comments. I have something of a response to David that I'll post soon as a new blog post.

Kevin, I'm not sure if you and I were thinking of thesauri in different ways. I was not thinking of a purely traditional thesaurus as much as the more generic (info science) definition of a thesaurus, e.g., as it's defined by ANSI:

A thesaurus is a controlled vocabulary arranged in a known order and structured so that equivalence, homographic, hierarchical, and associative relationships among terms are displayed clearly and identified by standardized relationship indicators that are employed reciprocally.

In short, a thesaurus is generally a graph of typed relationships between terms.

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posted: Mar 19, 2006 12:29:17 PM

trackback from: the iCite net development blog
posted: Jan 29, 2005 4:32:58 PM
title: The Piles and the Files

Continuing on my last post, Shapes of knowledge, word for poodles, I wanted to note one other dimension of comparison between folksonomy and taxonomy.

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