As we have seen, there were a lot of early philosophers who outlined the world as they saw it. While that’s an ambitious undertaking (especially for academic trailblazers), they truly built an outline; they truly built a taxonomy of the world as they saw it.









From John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, ca. 1400

Look at the works of Plato. Lots of people have diagrammed what they thought he meant. His thoughts can be put into a hierarchical outline. His theory of knowledge displayed as an outline of knowledge. While Plato was an early outliner of reality, he was probably not the first. However, he is the first who we know of who thought of the knowledge of reality as a philosophy.

The way we perceive some field, or reality in general, is our philosophy. If we look at the world through a pair of lenses, we see it one way; if we look at the world through a different pair of lenses, we see it differently. That is important to realize when you build a thesaurus, because the people involved with a particular field tend to think of the field in one specific ways, or perhaps one of a few specific ways.

Much later than Plato, realism came along. Saint Augustine was one of the first ones to try to reflect the world as it really was, as he really saw it. And, perhaps inevitably for someone dealing with the nature of reality, he also did an outline of knowledge. As one modern information scientist has pointed out,

Reality is chaotic. It consists of entities and objects of all types and forms. These entities change over time and sometimes morph into other distinct objects. As a result entities are interrelated in numerous and complex ways. ….

People try to understand and work with this chaotic reality by simplifying it. Using categorization and classification they create artificial ordered realities in which entities fit into convenient slots.

(Carl Lagoze, “Accommodating Simplicity and Complexity in Metadata: Lessons from the Dublin Core Experience,” presented at the Seminar on Metadata, Netherlands Institute for Archival Education and Research, June 8, 2000. Retrieved at on April 8, 2013.)

After Saint Augustine, another philosopher who turned thinking on its head  was Saint Thomas Aquinas. He came up with yet another outline of knowledge, saying that where the particulars (the objects of the senses and of belief) are common, the characteristics are common. Without those common characteristics, an object is not the same as some other object. Coming up with the characteristics in common, so that we can say that this is the same object as some other object, and can describe it to someone who is not in your monastery but is 100 miles away in some other place, to really describe it so they know exactly what you are talking or writing about, is not easy. It helps if you can group things together based on their particulars. This was really radical thinking in 1200.

The outlines of knowledge that these early philosophers formulated have shaped our thoughts in the Western world, and our understanding of reality.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations