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.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

One comment

  1. Paul Gowan

    There isn’t much that is really ever new under the sun and reinventing the wheel and multiple discoveries are common. Whatever you do then, don’t read “Education Automation” by Buckminster Fuller (1962) where he talks about a home-based educational documentary call-up system with some kind of symbolic navigation feature for children to find documentaries on subjects that interest them.
    In the first three volumes the editors of “Great Books of the Western World” discussed the difficulties of putting together this Western canon and the selection of the 102 Great Ideas, Topics, additional readings and the Inventory of Terms. It was quite an achievement nonetheless. It can be quite useful as well. It’s too bad they didn’t have Google and Natural language Processing Artificial Intelligence like Dyer’s BORIS or IBM’s Watson to help them. I would love to have a search engine that works like the Syntopicon across a corpus. I would challenge IBM to see how close Watson could get to recreating the Syntopicon. You could also take an idea in Fernandez-Armesto’s book “Ideas that Changed the World” or in Peter Watson’s “Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud” and discover something like the Knowledge Web of James Burke and follow the history of an idea through numerous written works. What is really needed is software of the type that was being researched in the early 1980’s at Yale that attempted to comprehend natural language text and not just extract keywords. You might see that reappearing in the semantic web with Cyc, and ontologies like SUMO and the work of Boris Katz, Ken Forbus and others.The Yale NLP work had a lot of drawbacks and the researchers dispersed finding easier things to work on such as statistical approaches.
    The Syntopicon could be used to guide Sitepal A.I. avatars of each author in conducting a conversation on specific topics such as music or you could ask what Aristotle wrote about music and use every known written work by Aristotle not just in the “Great Books” canon. I would do a “Great Books” Syntopicon search on music but just recently, the entire first edition set of 54 volumes was placed in Humanities Storage at my public library because the volumes are rarely taken out and have been neglected by the public mostly through ignorance of its existence. I was using the Syntopicon to find references in the Great Books series to topics like inventions. Adler used it for quotes in “Great Treasury of Western Thought”.
    Dr. Roger Schank proposed Story Archive search agents in which there was an agent that found analogous cases and one that found the context. The personas of the History Agent pursue these guiding questions:

    • Herodotus: “When has something like this has happened before?”

    • Tacitus: “What is the historical background of this story?”

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