“To treat of the World”: Paul Otlet's Epistemology and Ontology and the Circle of Knowledge

“To treat of the World”: Paul Otlet's Epistemology and Ontology and the Circle of Knowledge

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  “To treat of the world” Paul Otlet’s ontology and epistemology andthe circle of knowledge Steffen Ducheyne  Research Foundation, Flanders, Belgium, and Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science,Ghent University, Belgium Abstract Purpose  – ThepurposeofthispaperistodocumenthowPaulOtlet,founding-father ofwhatistermedatpresentas“information science”,attemptedtoprovideacomplete“imageoftheworld”(andrealityingeneral) by establishing the scientific discipline he dubbed “documentation”. The paper also aims tofocus on how Otlet represented human knowledge and reality in a systematic and unified way. Design/methodology/approach  – A close reading of Otlet’s primary works and some of hispersonal archives was undertaken. Findings  – Most importantly, it is shown that Otlet’s views on documentation were immersed in acosmological, objectivist, humanitarian and ontological framework that is alien to contemporaryinformation science. Correspondingly, his alleged affinity with positivism is reassessed. Originality/value  – The philosophical foundations of the origins of information science arehighlighted. Indirectly, this paper is relevant to the ongoing debate on realism and anti-realism ininformation science. Keywords  Information science, History, Knowledge sharing, Document management, Encyclopaedias,Entrepreneurialism Paper type  Research paper 1. The need for encyclopaedia After the second scientific revolution which occurred during the first decades of thetwentieth century, several scientists, social reformers, utopians, philosophers andmany others felt the ardent necessity of establishing a uniquee synthesis (“ une syste´ matisation unique ”, as Otlet (1934, p. 7) wrote) of the ever increasing myriad of scattered scientific material, which could harvest intellectual and social progress (Otlet,1934, pp. 3-4, 9, 23)[1, 2]. The call for a unifying synthesis that could guarantee socialstability and a peaceful world society was a typical inter bellum period topic[3]. Theensemble of the sciences, Otlet noted, leads to knowledge of the Universe and itstotality (Otlet, 1935, p. vii). Otlet firmly believed that one could give a uniquedescription and classification of reality. The universality of scientific knowledge helpsto conceive the world as a universal (Otlet, 1935, pp. 260-261). The  Leitmotiv  questionin Otlet’s oeuvre was “How to grasp this complex universal, the World,at a singleglance?” (“ Comment d’un coup d’œil embrasser ce complexe universel, le Monde?  ” The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at www.emeraldinsight.com/0022-0418.htm The illustrations from personal papers of Paul Otlet (Papiers Personnels Paul Otlet) arereproduced with the permission of the Mundaneum, 15 Rues Passages, B-700 Mons, Belgium(www.mundaneum.be). The author is highly indebted to Ste´phanie Manfroid, the Director of theMundaneum, for her kind assistance during his consultation of the archives. To treat of the world 223 Received 5 February 2008Revised 14 May 2008Accepted 16 May 2008  Journal of DocumentationVol. 65 No. 2, 2009pp. 223-244 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited0022-0418DOI 10.1108/00220410910937598  (Otlet, 1935, p. 105). “Documentation”, or what we would nowadays call “informationscience”, was the means by which the required synthesis Otlet envisioned was to beestablished[4]. He wrote as follows on the aims of documentation: [ . . . ] a general science, a philosophy of science, encyclopaedia are necessary to unite allparticular sciences, so that their fragmentary connections are removed[5], that they reveal[6]their principles, methods, [and] the program of their development and succeed in simplifyingtheir conception and their expositions (Otlet, 1935, p. 360)[7]. He stressed the need of profiting from the modern instruments for synthesizing andrepresenting our knowledge: “[t]here no longer is a Temple of Artemis[8] [a sacredtemple where manuscripts could be consulted], but [now] we have Typography,Typographers, [and] unknown and loyal friends” (Otlet, 1934, p. 436)[9].As Otlet himself noted, the word “encyclopaedia” derives from the Greek “ kyklo6  ”(circle) and “ paid  1 ia ” (general education), both combined thus meaning “the circle of science” (Otlet, 1934, p. 137, p. 360). According to Otlet, science (includingdocumentation) represents the elements of reality either verbatim, graphically orplastically. The aim of documentation is to represent and generalize the elements thatscience provides into a meaningful and unified whole that transcends mere fragmentedknowledge (Otlet, 1934, pp. 372-3). As we shall see, in stark contrast to contemporaryinformation science, Otlet’s documentation was imbedded in a metaphysical andcosmological framework. Birger Hjørland, himself a proponent of realism ininformation science, notes that: In information science, most research activities have in recent decades been directed towarduser preferences and attitudes, not toward the basis for the knowledge claims represented ininformation systems. Most relevance research seems to assume that the relevance of givenkinds of information can be established by studying the relevance criteria for users. This isclearly an idealist position, although probably nobody would admit it (Hjørland, 2004, p. 497). This tendency to focus on the subjective has removed attention from reality ininformation science, Hjørland (2004, p. 498) notes. In documentation, as Otlet conceivedit, the world and reality occupied centre-stage. It is this objectivist framework we shalladdress in section 2. Correspondingly, we shall reassess Otlet’s affinity with positivism:I shall argue that Otlet’s objectivist views were at odds with positivism. Furthermore, Ishow that the representations and figures Otlet used in documentation and informationscience can only be understood within this objectivist setting (section 3). 2. Otlet’s epistemology and ontology The world as we observe it, Otlet noted, provides only knowledge of   prima facie unconnected and chaotically distributed particulars. In order to arrive at true, i.e.scientific, knowledge of the world, human beings have to simplify and order thismultiplicity: The world presents itself before our eyes as a multiplicity. To think, to act on it, [or] to besimply moved by it, we have to enumerate it, to name it, to decompose it, to classify it, tomeasure it, to recombine it, to create or display it with the elements of new compositions.Placed before the panorama of things – the most general expression to indicate theseparticular elements by which the entirety constitutes itself – we perceive substances, beings,phenomena, viewed either by themselves or in [their respective] environments (Otlet, 1935,p. v)[10].  JDOC65,2 224  The world unfolds itself to as according to four modalities: by direct perception of reality, by thought, by language, and by documents: The World presents itself to humans living in societies under four modalities: the  Real World  (Reality), the  known World   (Thought), the  expressed World   (language), the  depicted World  (Document). These four modalities of the same world are interdependent. In principle all theirparts should perfectly match. In fact, there is discrepancy, inexactness and incompleteness(Otlet, 1935, p. vii-viii [italics added])[11]. Otlet aimed at unravelling the essential unity (“ unite´  essentielle ”) behind all pluralities,separations and particular scientific disciplines (Otlet, 1935, pp. iii-iv). Science tendstowards universality, certainty and necessity, and serves as the basis of both ourworldview and our practical and intellectual needs: Goal:  to form an intellectual image of the varying world (static and dynamical science) andthe determination of the action items on the basis of which action is possible according totheir transformation of the world in view of human needs (material and intellectualdesiderata) (Otlet, 1935, p. 248)[12]. By an increasing process of abstraction the human mind is able to trace and generalisethe necessary connexions between these particulars (Figure 1) (Otlet, 1934, p. 30).Accordingly, we gradually establish a synthesis of the world: Synthesis is the establishment of a science of total knowledge, of an exposition of the world(its conception and laws) that encompasses all particular knowledge which is [normally] dealtwith by the study of analytic facts and partial syntheses (Otlet, 1934, p. 351)[13]. Documentation, as a scientific discipline, conforms to the standard scientific methodsof analysis[14] (reasoning from particular instances to more general ones) andsynthesis (reasoning from general notions to particular instances): We distinguish between analysis and synthesis, induction and deduction, [and] byconsequence rational sciences are founded on deduction; empirical sciences are founded oninduction. Documentation is an empirical science which, once a general expression of certaingeneral connexions has been arrived at, uses the deductive method to generalize givens andthe methods of combination or invention to imagine new givens (Otlet, 1934, p. 23,  cf.  p. 97;Otlet, 1935, p. xiv)[15]. By means of the analytic method we establish a general principle which is ageneralization of the particular elements we have considered. Afterwards, by themethod of synthesis we deduce new elements, which were not included in the set of particulars that served as the basis of our initial inductive generalization, from thepreviously established principle[16]. Encyclopaedia’s primary aim is to provide us witha set of abstract and universal concepts that captures reality and it may therefore beaptly considered as “the book of books”[17] or  Index Scientiae . On concepts Otlet notes: Thought proceeds from the real (immediate givens of consciousness) and tends towards theintelligible . What thought seeks are abstract concepts (as economically as possible), that serve[thought] to deal with facts, to anticipate them, to understand them as simple, practical andmanageable as possible, to case them in the most universal, the most systematic, (and byconsequence) the most abstract forms (Otlet, 1935, p. 351, emphasis added)[18]. Otlet, as has I have argued elsewhere, endorsed linguistic objectivism. Linguisticobjectivists subscribe to the following thesis: To treat of the world 225  (LO):  Linguistic atoms [which express concepts] uniquely correspond to certain discrete andwell-defined elements in the world and further combinations of these linguistic atoms canobjectively capture “the order of the world” (Ducheyne, 2005b, p. 114). As a linguistic objectivist, Otlet endorsed the view that a true synthesis of ourknowledge should be more than a scheme we merely and arbitrarily impose on nature.Scientific knowledge should thus be based on representative concepts of thingsthemselves (  cf.  “concepts repre´sentatifs des re´alite´s elles-meˆmes” (Otlet, 1935, p. vii)).For instance he noted that: The definition of words must be based on the definition of things, the facts and the notionsthemselves which they serve to express. A definition has to expose in a precise way thenecessary and sufficient qualities in order to create a class to indicate the objects whichbelong to this class. [ . . . ] Definitions lead to (scientific) laws. The definitions here consideredare the expression of the relations between things. An expression can only be as clear as therelated things themselves have been clearly defined (Otlet, 1934, p. 12)[19]. Figure 1.  JDOC65,2 226  It seems therefore that Otlet, in line with his linguistic objectivism, endorsed what wetoday would call the “classical theory” of lexical concepts[20]. According to the“classical theory”, a lexical concept  x  is defined by a set of simpler concepts thatexpress necessary and sufficient conditions for falling under concept  x [21]. In theirendeavour to construct an ideal representational system, linguistic objectivistsfrequently attempted to cleanse natural language from its inherent ambiguities. Otletindeed made statements that referred to this kind of purification of naturallanguage[22]. After the discussion of his world formula in  Monde , for instance, Otletnoted that his notation is international and does not depend upon any naturallanguage: “it refers to concepts and  not to words and their fluctuating synonyms ” (Otlet,1934, p. xxiii,  cf.  p. vii [italics added]). Likewise, science in general deals with the“specific and irreducible logical elements” of things (Otlet, 1934, p. xv).Correspondingly, Otlet was also an essentialist: he believed that for each entity thereis an enumerable set of characteristic properties which is shared by all its instances. Inthe Otletian framework there was a rigid correspondence between knowledge andreality. According to Otlet, the permutations delivered by the Universal DecimalClassification correspond both to “motions” in objective reality (“ re´ alite´  objective ”) andto “motions” in the mind (Figure 2) (Otlet, 1935, p. xxiii).Ontology was an essential part of   Monde [23], for Otlet noted that to treat of theworld (“ traiter du monde ”) is to expound a conception of the world, which has been aperennial quest in philosophy (Otlet, 1935, p. xiii,  cf.  pp. 10-11). Otlet was clear from theonset about the aim of   Monde : Figure 2. Otlet’s decimal system To treat of the world 227
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