From the time of Plato, philosophers have been outlining the world as they saw it and they truly built an outline of the world; they truly built a taxonomy of the world as they saw it. The way we perceive some field, or reality in general, is our own philosophy. If we look at the world through these lenses we see it one way; if we look at the world through a different set of lenses, we see it absolutely differently. That is important to realize when building a thesaurus, because people are thinking of a field in one specific way or another.

Speaking of philosophy and vocabularies, there was the rise of nominalism in the 1400s, in which it was really thought that you could represent concepts using words. Pretty radical! Conceptualism itself was just that general concepts were mind-dependent and formed by your experience. So, what you think of things – your experience, your background, your education – is going to dictate how you think about concepts.

So, when we get into thesaurus building and somebody’s got a major in a particular field and wants to make significant changes to that field, we have to consider whether or not they have the data to support those changes (which they might or might not). They might be biased toward heavy coverage of a topic, or they might have valuable insights, or both. Their perception is going to be based on their experience.

So, we get to the person who knows something about the subject and also the object itself, in this case articles that we are trying to tag using the thesaurus.  That tagging, that knowing, that writing about it, is still a subjective process.

We need to realize that what we are building when we build a thesaurus is a subjective experience. It’s an act. It’s a process. It’s a concept. Whatever it is that we have come to know about what to describe is still going to be colored by our perception.  When, as a fact, all of us could share the same perception giving to it separately. It would be nice if everything would be yes or no, black and white answers. A lot of them are gray. It’s exciting and fun and it’s mentally challenging, but it is very gray. Everything is gray.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations

This posting is one of a series based on a workshop, “Thesaurus Creation and Management,” that Marjorie Hlava presented in December of 2012.