Scaling knowledge: Should our disciplines have mesh or tree-like relation to each other?

Beyond Open: Culture and Scaling in the Making of KnowledgeI’ve just been reading some of Tim Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web about building the World Wide Web and it put me in mind of Paul Frijters’ recent post on teaching the social sciences. Paul argued that:

The biggest change needed is to teach the material in terms of basic patterns, with more complex arguments taught later as combinations of basic patterns. Another change needed is to enforce a single language on the entire curriculum. Finally, what is needed is far more use of virtual reality-teaching and field trips so that students experience the phenomena they are meant to understand, unlocking their visual acuity and emotional skills as learning tools. Students should learn with their whole being, not merely with their abstractive capacities.

Regarding the first two points, 1Berners-Lee’s frustrations with the world before he changed it seem to mirror Paul’s. He was frustrated with the ‘tree like’ organisation of knowledge 2. and wanted to invent a looser, more ‘associative’ form of knowledge architecture which he called ‘mesh’.

Be that as it may this seems like quite a big deal to me. Indeed, as the internet grew in order to effectively scale it needed to move away from ‘tree-like’ architectures for sending data packets through the net as outlined in this write up of the Border Gateway Protocol (or as us aficionados call it the BGP – some of us have only been aficionados for the last couple of minutes, but we’ll leave that to one side).

Anyway, the way knowledge started being classified in the 19th century was by discipline. Sometimes a discipline disappeared because it was discredited – as in the case of phrenology. But mostly the disciplines stayed in place and each spawned endless sub-disciplines. The disciplines are tree-like structures of knowledge, sometimes paying obsessive attention to their unitary structure as in the case of micro-foundations in economics and selfish genes as in the case of neo-Darwinism.

There are occasional cross-overs, as in the case of behavioural science and economics or imaging and psychology or evolutionary psychology for instance. Interdisciplinarity is spoken of at least by some with reverence, but all the disciplinary incentives are against it and the tree-like structures of each discipline remain in place. Thus these crossovers might be likened to rhizomes rather than any real challenge to the tree-like structure of disciplines and plantation like structures of knowledge generally.

As knowledge has proliferated over the last two centuries, you’d expect some re-architecture of the relations between disciplines, but there’s been no systematic change whatever, and what occasional change there has been, has been limited to ad hoc marriages of sub-disciplines where new technical possibilities present themselves or where exhaustion with the sterility of one discipline sets in and some (usually very limited) reaction is in order. An example of the former is where MRI imaging is now used in psychology and even in philosophy and of the latter is behavioural economics or the empirical or ‘Freakonomic’ turn in economics (though this is also to some extent the response to the new technical possibilities of ‘big data’ and desktop computing).

  1. I won’t comment on his third point other than including it here because of its importance and my strong agreement with it.
  2. The paper proposing that he work on what became the World Wide Web had a heading “The problem with trees” and began “Many systems are organised hierarchically”
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Scaling knowledge: Should our disciplines have mesh or tree-like relation to each other?

  1. paul frijters says:

    disciplines as trees? Reasonably apt analogy really. The juices all come from the stems and yet the leaves of one tree might take up the territory of another one, doing the same thing and yet still incompatible.

    I have wondered whether that disciplinary structure comes out of the territorial nature of humans (which would make it innate to smart people competing for space and hence somewhat inevitable) or whether it more deeply comes out of the Western tradition of monotheism. After all, the Western universities were nearly all institutions of the church. It is easily forgotten by those who want to believe science rose despite of the church, but the reality is that the church founded Western science, a bittersweet irony (sometimes our children come back to kill us, a favoured motif in Greek mythology).

    So perhaps social science inherited some of the monastic traditions. Monastic life is monotheistic in the sense that there is the presumption of a single truth and a set of undoubted truths one cannot question. Economics in particular is highly monotheistic and even presumes all humans are monotheistic too (any deviation from that is termed a bias or a fallacy; this shields economists from having to deal with the reality of human thinking).

    I am wondering whether a polytheistic mindset has more of a chance in today’s world. I view monotheism as very artificial in the sense that it is not how people really think at all, but it arose against the grain for a reason. It is natural for a central authority to have a single focal point and thus be monotheistic. Yet the web and the internet is decidedly polytheistic.

    • Paul
      Regarding polytheistic mindsets
      I have been making multiple ‘view, polyphonic’ images for a pretty long time: there is only one mountain but you can view it from so many different points etc.
      ( I always ultimately fail but keep trying.:-)

      I would say that many people these days are if anything less open to the possibility of seeing things from many different view points than they were thirty years ago. The contemporary ‘group mind’ seems more like a torrent of disconnected fragmentary ,yet all consuming, moments with little in the way of overarching meta relationships.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Paul,

      Well the Jews were the first monotheists we know of weren’t they? Was that an organisational structure thing. Perhaps Moses was a pretty heavy dude, but at least thinking aloud, if I’m looking for the origins of monotheism in this case isn’t it totalising the Jews sense of their compact with their god, which then becomes the God?

      On the organisation of our knowledge into disciplines, I’m still going with what’s implicit in my post which is that ‘pioneers’ (Smith, Weber, Freud, Skinner, Malinowski etc) stake out various claims and then those claims are built on. Some turn out to be unviable at least in the mainstream, like natural magic, astrology, alchemy, phrenology and eugenics (though this latter one is suffused with a kind of mission which makes it a bit different.)

      But the remainder end up as ‘territories’ which are built on. So they’re like cities in the landscape and if you want to live somewhere you choose which city you want to live in. There are a few connections between them, but they’re built territorially. If you own a house in Geelong you can commute to Melbourne, but you pay your rates in Geelong.

      • Nicholas
        ‘Territories’ ‘ Disciplines’ seems similar to genus or possibly family . And the later 19C and early 20thC in your thinking seems analogous to the early Cambrian explosion; a relatively short space of time in which most of the basic forms-templates of complex lifeforms ; vertebrates , arachnids etc appeared , after which it been nearly all just ‘variations on a theme’ .

      • Fyodor says:

        Zoroastrianism has a better claim to be the first monotheism. There’s also a good, albeit inconclusive, argument that it was the Hebrews’ encounter with the rising Persian empire and its Zoroastrianism that triggered the conversion of a Canaanite polytheistic people into worshippers of a single god. If we take the biblical minimalist perspective, it’s highly likely that the bulk of the Tanakh/Old Testament was written and edited in the wake of the release from Babylonian Captivity, an event triggered by Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Neo-Babylonia and his enablement of the construction of the Second Temple. The Persian/Zoroastrian influence is also suggested by the fact that the Hebrews switched to the Aramaic alphabet dominant under the Persian Empire at the same time, ditching the Phoenician-based script used by Israelites in the pre-exilic period.

    • conrad says:

      I think it’s just territorial. Psychologists have far less strict sets of truths than economists, but you get all the same problems of people trying to be the main person in their area using all the dirty tricks they can etc. Similarly, on broader levels, psychologists have basically formed themselves into a profession with different sub-disciplines, even though most of the disciplines have nothing like a single truth.

      The only group that does are the clinical psychologists, who use the DSM book of voodoo categories as their truth (despite the authors of it noting right at the start that it is just a bunch of categories designed to help communication across people, not a theoretical work designed to understand the problems). Curiously, the government liked this idea so much they basically wiped out everyone else. After that it breaks down into therapies (of which there are many) whose main effects come from almost nothing to do with the actual therapies but rather the associated skills of the therapist (e.g., did they think of a good plan for them? Did the client like the therapist? etc.).

    • Fyodor says:

      It is easily forgotten by those who want to believe science rose despite of the church, but the reality is that the church founded Western science, a bittersweet irony (sometimes our children come back to kill us, a favoured motif in Greek mythology).

      As “Western science” has its roots in pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy (and arguably their precursors in the Near East), this is patently false. The fact that Church institutions – i.e. monastic and cathedral schools, followed by universities – were centres of learning in Europe from the medieval period onwards does not mean that the church “founded” Western science. It tells us only that they were the centres of literacy in Europe where the translation and propagation of Greek and Latin texts (often translated from Arabic) could take place, enabling the renaissance of Western science from its classical foundation.

      The monotheism/polytheism analogy doesn’t make any sense either.

      • Tumble says:

        this is patently false. The fact that Church institutions – i.e. monastic and cathedral schools, followed by universities – were centres of learning in Europe from the medieval period onwards does not mean that the church “founded” Western science. It tells us only that they were the centres of literacy in Europe where the translation and propagation of Greek and Latin texts

        All they performed was an ancient version of Google Translate? This is both a unique and an idiosyncratic reading of history.

        • Fyodor says:

          I didn’t write that was “all” that they performed. They were centres of literacy and learning. It’s just that they didn’t have all that much much to read, let alone learn or produce, before they recovered the Greek and Roman legacy.

          Also: translation is not a small thing, nor was the scrivening required to reproduce texts prior to the introduction of the printing press.

          • Tumble says:

            It would be interesting to know why the early science being done outside of Europe (in those centers you alluded to ) appeared to have just petered out. Do you have any thoughts? The Levant was important.

            Sent from my iphone

            • ‘Petered out’ ?
              China India ??

              • Tumble says:

                Yes, petered out at the original location that fed Europe. Try to maintain semblance of relevance, although I know it’s be very hard for you.

                Incidentally, it also petered out in those two mentioned by you.

            • Fyodor says:

              You stated in a response below that the “outside of Europe” you refer to was “the original location that fed Europe”, but I’m not much wiser on what you mean by that. So let me clarify what I meant.

              When I wrote earlier that Western science had its roots in Greek and Roman philosophy with arguable precursors in the Near East, what I was referring to was the foundation of Western science in the Greek tradition, i.e. beginning with Thales and the Milesian School and then the broader Ionian Enlightenment. Now, that philosophical flowering was unprecedented globally and thus unique in history up to that point, but did not occur in a vacuum. So when I noted that it had arguable precursors in the Near East, I was referring to the intellectual, social and political advances in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia (Sumeria, Babylon etc.) and Phoenicia (collectively the “Levant”, as you note) that undoubtedly influenced the early Archaic Greek philosophers, e.g. the advances in geometry, mathematics and astronomy of Egyptians and Babylonians and the adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet into the Greek alphabet. Thales himself studied in Egypt and Greek philosophers of the archaic period refer to Egyptian and Babylonian intellectual achievements. HOWEVER, there is little evidence in the Near East prior to the Ionian Enlightenment of anything approaching scientific method and even rudimentary attempts to explain “nature” based upon reason and evidence, as opposed to supernatural phenomena. All of that – the core of Western science – begins with the Greeks.

              Thus I don’t see “early science” being done in the Levant prior to the Greeks. Intellectual – “scientific” – advances, certainly, but not science as we would call it.

              To answer your question more directly as to why it “petered out”, I don’t think we can explain the relative intellectual decline of the Near East in the ancient period without acknowledging: 1) the extraordinary achievements of the Greeks, which eventually overshadowed all societies around them; and 2) the geopolitical upheaval in the Near East in that critical period when Greek philosophy was taking off, i.e. the conquests of the Neo-Assyrians (including of Egypt) followed by the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which in turn was subsumed into the post-Alexander Hellenistic period when Greek influence permeated all of the Eastern Mediterranean right through to the Indes.

              • Tumble says:

                Great comment. Thanks for replying.

                You stated in a response below that the “outside of Europe” you refer to was “the original location that fed Europe”, but I’m not much wiser on what you mean by that. So let me clarify what I meant.

                What I meant was the learning and science entering Europe through the Greeks. However, your explanation clarified all.

    • Paul background to this
      1 Christianity (and faith in general in the Middle East )at around 400 AD was a, very very heterogeneous thing.
      (in truth its still much more heterogeneous than many realise ,for example there are mainstream Christian churches in the east that do not believe in the actual resurrection of Christ)
      2 The main thing the early, 500 to 900AD, monastic scholastic groups set out to do was to create’ An authorised ‘ universal ?”Catholic ” version of what was a polyphonic reality.

      3What they also produced was a culture that was quite boys club in flavor .
      Suspect that the similarities might be really about clubs for the right kind of chap rather than about faith.

      4 Lastly there is a major ongoing stream of eastern monastic life that is based in the belief that the fundamental nature of god-spirit is intrinsically not understandable , it can be experienced but not understood ,at all. About 30 years ago in one of those eastern monasteries somebody discovered a second century copy of one of St Paul letters, it had been used for centuries as wrapper for the stopper for a big olive oil Jar.

  2. Matt Moore says:

    1. The citizens jury post is locked so I am just plonking this here.

    “I don’t hate the idea of citizens’ juries. But perhaps we need to try them at different scales – I wonder if local government might actually be a better place to start. This is as much about building a deliberative capability as about any individual decision.

    Thanks for the Nussbaum recommendation. I have been thinking about emotions in politics recently.”

  3. Matt Moore says:

    2. Modern universities are a weird collision of 2 different organizational forms – both of which reinforce disciplinary structures in their own ways.

    Firstly, there is the scholastic tradition that has its roots in religious communities (as Paul correctly notes). This is hermetic and tribal. There is an initiation process that new members need to undertake (the stress and confusion of the PhD is a feature not a bug). There are charismatic leaders seeking acolytes. There are stylites and hermits. There are wars fought with other tribes for territory and honour. And your tribe is the true tribe. The discipline (or sub-discipline) is your tribe.

    Secondly, the modern university is an education factory, each one churning out 10,000s of credentialed individuals a year. As with any industrial enterprise, you need well-established, clearly-branded, easily-replicable product lines to sell. And these brands are typically what customers want to buy. The discipline is the brand.

  4. Rafe Champion says:

    A bit of a tangent, suggestions about building a personal web of learning in a lifelong career of research and publication from the late C Wright Mills. It is a bit wordy so be prepared to skip but don’t stop until you have read the advice on writing near the end – thinking in terms of issues and themes etc.
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/2010/Intellectual_Craftsmanshp_C_Wright__Mills.pdf
    It is something to revisit from time to time over the years, rather like George Orwell on “Politics and the English Language”.

Leave a Reply

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

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.