My previous post pointed to activities at Google for automatically extracting quotes from books and linking them together. In his talk in this project, Google research Bill Schilit mentioned the Great Books of the Western World project and the Syntopicon. I had not heard of this, but it’s quite intriguing.
In a nutshell, Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher, and Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, headed up a project in the earlier 50s to index ideas across key books in the western canon. This index of 102 core ideas across 431 works is called the Syntopicon, or collection of topics, which spans 2 volumes. Here are the ideas that were indexed:
Volume I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love
Volume II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World
It apparently took a massive team to read all the works, extract the ideas, and index them. And it cost a few million dollars. Apart from being completely impractical, there are obvious problems with the approach as well: a limited set of books, small scope of coverage (lots of philosophy), and bias from the people doing the indexing.
So, they are not my “great” books and not (necessarily) my key ideas. I didn’t see anything about music in the above list, for instance. And there’s a lot of overlap (where do Religion and Theology start and end?). Still, there are some interesting universal qualities to their collection of terms.
When you consider efforts like this–which started nearly 60 years ago–or things like the Science Citation Index from Eugene Garfield or the work of Paul Otlet, we see that a lot of the core ideas behind the new innovations in the digital era have predecessors in the offline world. I wonder what else we think we’re “inventing” anew that has already been thought of.