Taxonomic Stimulus

David Chalmers and David Bourget are working on a taxonomy of philosophy:

“…part of the project is a classification scheme, under which any paper in philosophy can be classified in up to three areas. …Philosophy is divided up into five clusters (Metaphysics and Epistemology, Value Theory, Science Logic and Mathematics, History of Western Philosophy, Other Philosophical Traditions).  Each cluster is divided into six or more fields (in M&E, for example, these are Epistemology, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Religion).  Each field is divided into 5-10 areas (in Philosophy of Mind, for example, these are Consciousness, Intentionality, Perception, Metaphysics of Mind, Epistemology of Mind, Mental States and Processes, and Misc).”

After more detailed explanation, the Davids state:

“At the moment, the various areas of M&E (apart from philosophy of religion) are developed to a fair degree of detail, though there is still work to be done.  Value Theory and Science/Logic/Mathematics are more patchy.  Some fields in these clusters (such as Philosophy of Gender, Race, and Sexuality, Philosophy of Education, and Philosophy of Social Sciences) are hardly subdivided at all, while other areas (such as General Philosophy of Science, Social and Political Philosophy, and many other areas in these clusters) are extremely patchy and incomplete.  As for History of Philosophy, we’ve decided not to subdivide this for now beyond a few obvious groupings, and then categories for a few individuals in each period (these were settled by mechanically choosing those with more than n entries with their name in the title in the database, followed by a small amount of tweaking), although we may well subdivide these further eventually.  And we haven’t made any attempt to subdivide the Other Philosophical Traditions.” (emphasis added)

Anyone interested in attempting to subdivide Chinese philosophy so that papers on it can be further classified? Have at!

Maybe at the end of the discussion, if we’ve been careful to follow their stipulations, we could send it off to Chalmers and Bourget for inclusion.

13 thoughts on “Taxonomic Stimulus

  1. What is this “subdividing” of which you speak? All is one, grasshopper… 😎

    Seriously, though, there’s something that bugs me about that project, metaphilosophically speaking.

  2. Hi Dave,

    There’s something very geeky about it, but do you sense something more nefarious (or is there just gas in the room…)?

    (By the way, do you know the duckrabbit brewery, owned and operated by my former graduate student colleague and roommate, Paul Philippon? It turns out that going from philosophy to beer-brewing is some kind of natural and good fermentation/progress–his beer is awesome!)

  3. Of course I get the intention behind the taxonomy, and it sounds like it could be very useful, but I do in fact sense something a *bit* nefarious there as well. It won’t surprise you to hear that I draw some inspiration from Wittgenstein; and in my own efforts I often see myself trying to foster “just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections'” [PI §122] – which means that in any one paper I am concerned not simply with its ostensible subject (truth, skepticism, whatever) but also, and perhaps even more, with the halo of philosophical concepts and issues which surround it. So the very idea of such a “taxonomy” seems to beg the question about what sorts of things go into it. But perhaps I’m being too touchy. As I said, it sounds like it could be really useful.

    If you want an (even more) pretentious way to think of it, you might say (as Deleuze would put it) that such an explicitly “arborescent” organization of that material is entirely at odds with the sort of “rhizomatic” thinking which some philosophers (like Deleuze) are trying to use. So even if there’s a “continental” branch of that tree, with a twig labeled “Deleuze”, it seems like that kind of thinking is not really captured by such a structure. One more time, though, that’s surely not that much of a problem. Just kind of bad form, and (if I may say) typical of Certain Types of philosopher…

    I don’t know the brewery, but it certainly has a righteous name!

  4. If the point of the taxonomy were to inform anglophone departments on program design and departmental balance, then there wouldn’t be much reason to divide Chinese philosophy. But it seems the point is to organize an on-line index for intelligible access. And then I don’t see the reason for hierarchical organization.

    Offhand it would seem to make much more sense to organize the large and small categories not by exact inclusion but rather by association. That is to say,
    1. No category need meet the condition of entire inclusion within a larger category. Hence many natural categories that might otherwise be excluded from the scheme can be included, and no more philosophical agony over organization.
    2. Papers are assigned to categories independently: that is, assigning a paper to a small category doesn’t automatically assign it to a chain of larger ones.
    3. When you go to a category you see a list of associated categories, not a list of subcategories. The associated categories can be divided into three shortish lists: next level up, next level down, and horizontal.
    4. All categories are available in searchable alphabetic lists.

    Is that more or less what you were saying, Dave?

  5. Thanks for that interesting suggestion, Bill. I think that my objection, such as it is, even goes beyond the original restriction to hierarchy and inclusion. It’s also a rejection of the implicit assumption that one can (necessarily, that is) make a useful distinction between the “subject” of a paper (say, realism in metaphysics) and its actual content – such that we put the papers “about” that particular subject into one pile, regardless of their treatment of it, while papers which take the *same* sort of attitude toward *different* subjects can end up all over the place. Let’s say I take ontological realism and epistemological skepticism (or ontological relativism, for that matter) to be two sides of the same questionable coin. I may argue to that effect in a paper “about” skepticism – or I may manifest that attitude in a paper “about” free will or moral judgment or personal identity. Of course if *I* do all these things you can just look up *my* papers; but if it is instead my colleague who writes the latter papers, then you’re out of luck. Of course some such attitudes have their own categories [actually I just went and checked, and that’s not exactly true unless you count the “history of philosophy” section …].

    I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. It just reminds me of the problems Wittgenstein had in making clear that what he was doing was not simply advancing another philosophical theory – as if he rejected one “ism” for another, rather than (as he put it) “rotating the investigation around the axis of our real need.” I feel like taking that taxonomy and rotating it. But doing that requires abandoning a certain scholarly ideal of objectivity and entering the lists oneself – and I grant that such a procedure, while potentially more enlightening, would probably strike most users as confusing and tendentious.

    It’s even possible that I’m blaming the taxonomy for, or seeing therein, the unapologetic Cartesianism of its more renowned promulgator. (I’m touchy that way, I admit.)

  6. Hmm. Yes. I suppose some of the work of drawing a reader from one paper to another has to be done by the author within the paper.

    I’m not at all happy with the idea of a static set of categories for philosophical papers, but going through once a year and assigning papers to new categories is impractical. One could take more of a wiki approach and allow people to assign their own new papers to (a maximum number of) categories, including new ones that people are free to introduce but which won’t be listed among any existing category’s associates until a minimum number of published papers are assigned to them, or something like that. Or readers could assign papers to categories by some sort of never-ending automated voting.

    I wonder what difference is made by a focus on (briefly nameable) topics rather than on questions. Not that we don’t already focus on topics rather than questions.

  7. David Chalmers responded thus to my proposal and another similar one reflecting our concerns:

    “We settled on a hierarchical structure in part because easy and quick access is important for our purposes: one can reach any subtopic by following a few levels down from the top. For an associative structure, this isn’t nearly as straightforward (an alphabetical list would be enormous), and it also wouldn’t fit various other aspects of our project. And crosslisting helps at least a bit with ‘surprises’. In any case, this aspect of the structure is now hardcoded into the program and is settled, though we may also end up with other more flexible classificational mechanisms to supplement this.”

    I have difficulty finding any prima facie reason in all of that, unless the idea is that the database is to be used by beginners who don’t have any overview of the lay of the philosphical land they’re exploring. Oh well. At least the project is using overlapping categories and perhaps even overlapping hierarchies. Which brings us back to the question: what about Chinese philosophy?

    I gather a category needs about 40 on-line papers in order to qualify for inclusion in the project’s structure.

    Obvious ways to categorize materials available on line include key topic-terms such as xiao 孝, and the texts being discussed.

    How then to classify the texts? There’s genre, school (as traditionally understood?) and period. Assigning an early text to a school and period is often problematic, but a Miscellaneous category can help. Maybe a category for Recently Unearthed Texts. What else?

    Should saliently comparative work be classified also by the non-Chinese material with which the Chinese material is being compared? The categories would have to be pretty broad.

  8. Here’s a large division that I’ll put on the table:

    I. Textual Exegesis

    II. Constructive Engagement

    How large is this? Do these overlap too much? Is there a larger taxonomic distinction for papers in our field?

  9. Whew!

    That’s a big fat pair of categories that sits across the whole field, and in that sense is as large a distinction as any. And a useful one. So many times this happens to me: I’m trying to find out whether Zengzi ate perch with his fingernails, and to find anything good I have to glance at and then away from reams of stuff about family, democracy, and human rights.

    On the other hand, as you suggest, Manyul, it seems there would be so much overlap that the classifiers might have to work short shifts to protect their mental health, like air traffic controllers; or else put most papers in both categories.

    The distinction might not need to be drawn explicitly, so long as we have a text-based classification and a topic-based classification cutting across it: an exegesis/engagement distinction might sort of emerge out of the other distinctions, such as a distinction between papers that focus on one or a few texts and papers that focus on a tradition more broadly; or between papers that focus on ritual or ren and papers that focus on rights or relativism.

  10. Hi Bill,

    Always remember to exhale. I was thinking mainly of something we could call the “thesis trajectory” of papers. So, one might need to exegeticize in order to engage at a sufficient level to say something philosophically constructive–i.e. to add to some contemporary philosophical discussion. Nonetheless, that paper would aim for the latter, rather than aiming, as some papers do, to clarify (with the aim of some kind of accuracy) what it is that a particular historical figure said or meant or held “as a view.” That kind of paper would be primarily exegetical in aim (though it might also need to engage in some contemporary philosophical discourse in order to apply needed distinctions to the historical text).

    I think I see papers generally aiming in one of these directions or the other; and it usually makes for a better paper if the author is explicit about this and front-loads it. That’s why I thought it would be a good first divide for classification.

  11. I think that’s more or less what I thought you meant. I hope my line about perch didn’t seem to be mocking; I’m sorry if it did.

    My impression is that journal editors apply pressure for thesis trajectories not to be purely exegetical. I think that’s probably a good thing. I doubt the categories in an on-line index would apply any significant pressure in the opposite direction.

    My impression is that papers toward the engaged end of the spectrum in our field are also often broadly exegetical in that they’re arguing about what resources a tradition has or doesn’t have.

    The web project seems to aim to use multiple principles of division, though for small fields like ours there may not be room for many. I’ve suggested two simultaneous classifications: by text/tradition and by topic. I wonder whether your thought is that there should instead be one scheme that starts with your XN distinction, or that both sides of the XN distinction can be subdivided by both my schemes.

    A third possibility is to have an XN distinction brought in at a lower level in the two schemes, thus encouraging people to move between the two kinds of discussion but not forcing people interested in ancient concepts similar to rights to look at all the engaged papers.

    I don’t know how easy it’s going to be in their project to shuttle between categories at low levels on different trees. Offhand it seems that their thinking isn’t sufficiently informed by what computers can do. They’re thinking about the kinds of classification that fit easily into minds. So I’m thinking their project might not be long-lived.

  12. Oh man, I would totally undo even the taxonomy they’ve already assumed, and it would take a really long blog post to get through it all.

    Maybe I should link to this blog post, instead. I’ll post if I write something of significant length on this area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.