As an historian of philosophy who is interested in exploring the role that new digital media can play in my own approach to historical research and to engaging students with the history of philosophy, I was intrigued to find Simon Raper’s attempt to graph the history of philosophy by using an algorithm to extract information from the ‘influenced by’ section of Wikipedia articles and then represent this information graphically. My initial reaction to the graph and the discussion of how it was generated was, admittedly, something like the reaction expressed in so many of the comments to the post, namely, “Wow, this is really cool! It would make a great poster or T-Shirt”.
Once the wow-factor wore off, and I had the chance both to read through some of the more critical commentary and to reflect for myself on what the graph might be thought to accomplish, however, I began to have a nagging worry about this attempt to visualize the last two and a half millennia of Western intellectual discourse. Here is Raper’s description of what the graph does:
Each philosopher is a node in the network and the lines between them (or edges in the terminology of graph theory) represents lines of influence. The node and text are sized according to the number of connections (both in and out). The algorithm that visualises the graph also tends to put the better connected nodes in the centre of the diagram so we see the most influential philosophers, in large text, clustered in the centre. It all seems about right with the major figures in the western philosophical tradition taking the centre stage.
The easiest way for me to explain my worry is to say that I think the concept of influence, as it is used to talked about relations between thinkers in the history of philosophy, is too vague to do any very interesting work here. It strikes me as somewhat odd to generate a graph that is meant to represent the system of interconnections between the thought of various historical figures by means of the ‘is influenced by’ relation. The resulting graph seems fitting because it places the “major figures in the western philosophical tradition” in the center, and because it produces groupings of figures that are often identified as being part of the ‘continental tradition’ and other groupings of figures that are identified as part of the ‘analytic tradition’. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether this feeling of fit results from the vagueness of the concept of influence.
There are so many different things we might mean in saying that one thinker was influenced by another, and claims about real influence (versus, say, apparent similarity) are at once very tempting to make and notoriously difficult to pin down in any exact way. As a result, I worry that the concept of influence lends itself far more readily to reproducing general perceptions about philosophy and its history than it does to formulating historical research programs and addressing critical questions about commonly held conceptions.
If we are after a graphic representation of what late-twentieth- and early twenty-first-century contributors to Wikipedia would have been likely to say about the relations of influence between figures in the Western tradition, this likely does a very good job of delivering us that (or, it would, if the various improvements discussed in the post itself and the comments were made). As an historian of philosophy, this information would be quite useful to me, but I wouldn’t assume that it tells me anything terribly interesting about the system of interconnections between the thought of various historical figures. As a teacher of the history of philosophy, this graphic representation might also be useful to me, in that it provides a picture that is suggestive of the complexity of the system, even if it doesn’t present that complexity in the kind of philosophically sophisticated and historically informed way that I aim for in my teaching. If my students think “Wow, this is really cool! It would make a great poster or T-Shirt”, then that is at least a start.
For me, then, the question is how to leverage tools like these to produce alternative representations that will not only inspire students to become interested in gaining a more sophisticated understanding of the history of philosophy, but also serve as a tool for helping them achieve this understanding. In order to do this, I think we need to come up with a different starting point, or set of starting points. Perhaps we could connect thinkers to one another in a series of graphs that focus on shared interests, commitments, claims, and/or methods. That might provide us with representations that are just as visually interesting as the one we see here while also providing more insight into the complex landscape of Western thought.
It might also draw our attention to the limits of some of the more common -ism groupings we tend to rely on when discussing historical figures (e.g., rationalism, empiricism, dogmatism, skepticism, monism, pluralism, materialism, dualism, and idealism). What would the modern period look like if we focused now on a commitment (or lack thereof) to physical atoms, or corporeal substance(s), or causal relations between finite substances; now on a commitment (or lack thereof) to an intellectual capacity in human beings that is really distinct from sensible and/or connative capacities; now on the commitment to extension as an irreducible property of bodies; now on a commitment to a demonstrative rational theology; now on a rejection of any a priori metaphysics? What would the ancient period look like if we focused now on conceptions of the highest good; now on the simplicity or complexity of the human soul; now on the role of passions in human life; now on the origins (or lack thereof) of the cosmos; now on the reality of change; now on the ontological status of universals?
These are only a few of the possible inputs that could be used, with respect to figures in only two of the conventionally accepted periods in the history of Western philosophy, to generate graphic representations that would be potentially much more revealing of its many contours than could one that was based on the information found in Wikipedia concerning who influenced whom. Who knows, a series of such representations might even do more than simply reproduce the general perceptions we started with. It might challenge those perceptions and suggest surprising alternatives that are worthy of further investigation. Perhaps we would get both cool new T-Shirts and interesting new lines of historical research!