Digital Philosophy is coming – InPhO

“Digital Philosophy” is a term created on the template of “Digital Humanities” (wikipedia-entry). VERY briefly: humanities with computers. For instance computer-aided textual analysis and everything else where computational methods can be applied in the humanities.
In this post, I want to very briefly present one particular project of digital humanities, more particularly digital philosophy!
The Indiana Philosophy Ontology.
“Ontology” here is not used in the philosophical sense, but in the computer- and information-science sense. Let’s see:
The Indiana Philosophy Ontology is an ongoing project, in which philosophical concepts will be organized in a dynamic “ontology”. This means that the different concepts populating philosophical discourse will be extracted from different sources (for now, I think it’s mainly the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and also a little bit Philpapers) and put into relations to one another. These relations can be such things as “is an occurrence of”, “is a related term of”, “relates to thinker”, and so on. This is “dynamic”: it changes possibly a lot over time: new concepts are added, relations between concepts change.

In what sense is this digital? The extraction of the ontology is at least partly automated, i.e. information retrieval processes (such as text-mining, which is often (or always?) statistical) are applied to the sources. Even more importantly, the metacontent which is extracted in order to build the ontoloty is treated in such a fashion that it can be further used by humans as well as automated agents. Thus the ontology is of course built with an eye to current and future search engines, as well as to future not yet completely foreseeable uses of the metadata in new projects. Interoperability is an important aspect of computer ontologies. Not everything is digital though (just yet)! InPhO uses only mixed procedures relying on computers AND field-experts.

What’s the use of it? Even in a small research field such as philosophy, large amounts of texts are produced each year and the subject-terms, categories, keywords in terms of which philosophy is apprehended are quickly evolving, not to mention the relations between them, e.g. topics at one time unrelated can come to be seen as tightly related and vice-versa. Encyclopedias such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which use invited authors and employ a small amount of expert editors may improve on the older system of printed encyclopedias with similar editorial models. But with its continuing growth it is becoming difficult and labor intensive (SEP is free, as you know, funded by different agencies, libraries etc.) to produce cross-references, keywords and so on for the SEP. Thus the future lies probably in much more quickly evolving organizations of the philosophical content in keywords, categories and topics, which can be applied to SEP and other encyclopedias or similar projects, e.g. bibliographical databases such as PhilIndex or Philpapers, philosophy-webportals (do they still exist?), library catalogues, and so on.

Of course, as just mentioned, these developments are important also for the development of digital libraries. What is true of the old encyclopedias, that they cannot evolve quickly enough, that the cross-referencing is labor-intensive work, may be argued to be even more true of the old tools of the library to organize the content of a domain, namely classification systems, such as our “home-made CDU” in the BHAP, and subject-headings in the (online) catalogues -applied to texts manually by subjects librarians such as myself.

I have sometimes heard in conferences in the digital humanities, that such tools may come to influence the work of the researchers in the humanities to a much greater extent than before: Perhaps you will soon be programming tools to extract by statistical methods the next big philosophical claim from dynamic computer ontologies … or at least, you don’t need to rely solely on personal taste, the contingency of which departments you happen to be involved with, the influence and natural authority of your direct colleagues etc. in order to judiciously choose the topic of your PhD-thesis…

About Gian-Andri

Subject librarian for philosophy at the University of Fribourg. PhD philosophy, Fribourg 2007; CAS scientific librarianship, University of Zurich 2013.
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