“The Philosopher’s Web,” an Interactive Data Visualization Shows the Web of Influences Connecting Ancient & Modern Philosophers

How do we begin to read phi­los­o­phy? Can we slide a book from the shelf, thumb through it casu­al­ly, pick­ing out the bits of wis­dom that make sense?

Should we find a well-known “impor­tant” work, sit in a qui­et study, read the pref­ace, translator’s intro­duc­tion, etc…

How soon we dis­cov­er we know less about the book than when we start­ed.

We go wan­der­ing, lose our­selves in sec­ondary sources, gloss­es, foot­notes, com­ments sec­tions, Wikipedia arti­cles…. The impor­tant book remains unread….

In-between these two extremes are a vari­ety of approach­es that work well for many an auto­di­dact. When data sci­en­tist Grant Louis Oliveira decid­ed he want­ed to under­take a self-guid­ed course of study to “more rig­or­ous­ly explore my ideas,” he began with the hon­est admis­sion, “I find the world of phi­los­o­phy a bit impen­e­tra­ble.”

Where some of us might make an out­line, a spread­sheet, or a hum­ble read­ing list, Oliveira cre­at­ed a com­plex “social net­work visu­al­iza­tion” of “a his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy” to act as his guide.

“What I imag­ined,” he writes, “is some­thing like a tree arranged down a time­line. More influ­en­tial philoso­phers would be big­ger nodes, and the size of the lines between the nodes would per­haps be vari­able by strength of influ­ence.”

The project, called “Philosopher’s Web,” shows us an impres­sive­ly dense col­lec­tion of names—hundreds of names—held togeth­er by what look like the bendy fil­a­ments in a fiber-optic cable. Each blue dot rep­re­sents a philoso­pher, the thin gray lines between the dots rep­re­sent lines of influ­ence.

The data for the project comes not from aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ship but from Wikipedia, whose “seman­tic com­pan­ion” dbpe­dia Oliveira used to con­struct the web of “influ­enced” and “influ­enced by” con­nec­tions. (Read about his method here.)

As you zoom in, click around, and access dif­fer­ent views, the dots and lines wave like ten­drils of a sea anemone. Oliveira describes the process thus: “the more influ­en­tial the philoso­pher, the thick­er and more numer­ous the lines ema­nat­ing from him. You can click on any one of these nodes to see which philoso­pher it rep­re­sents. If you click and hold, it will dis­play the net­work of philoso­phers he has been influ­enced by, and has influ­enced. Each line has an arrow at the end to denote the direc­tion of the rela­tion­ship.” (Despite his use of the mas­cu­line pro­noun, Oliveira’s web of con­nec­tions is not exclu­sive­ly male.)

Both the pro­jec­t’s site and Dai­ly Nous have more nuanced, detailed instruc­tions. While at first glance the Philosopher’s Web can itself seem a bit impen­e­tra­ble, it reveals more of its inner work­ings the more you use it. Press and hold on one of the blue dots, and it expands into a small­er clus­ter of its own, show­ing a cloud of con­nec­tions hov­er­ing around the cen­tral fig­ure. Tog­gle the “focus” and you get sec­ondary and ter­tiary rela­tion­ships.


Click on the lines of influ­ence and see, instead of an expla­na­tion, a some­what mys­ti­fy­ing “influ­ence score.” Click on the “Fil­ter” tab under “Set­tings” and find a range of fil­ters that allow you to nar­row or widen the scope of the map to cer­tain his­tor­i­cal peri­ods.

In addi­tion to indi­vid­ual philoso­phers, the web also con­tains the names of sev­er­al writ­ers, jour­nal­ists, colum­nists, and pop­u­lar pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, like Paul Krug­man and Ayaan Hir­si Ali. It also dis­plays sev­er­al move­ments or schools of thought as blue dots. Want to know the big names in “Insur­rec­tionary Anar­chism”? Click on the node and chose your lev­els of speci­fici­ty.

The weak­ness­es of the approach are per­haps imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent. What good is a clus­ter of unfa­mil­iar names to the begin­ner, espe­cial­ly since each one appears devoid of his­tor­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al con­text? Oliveira dis­clos­es some oth­er prob­lems, includ­ing an issue with the soft­ware ren­der­ing accents and for­eign char­ac­ters (as you can see in Slavoj Žižek’s entry above.)

But the more one uses the Philosopher’s Web, the more its util­i­ty becomes appar­ent. “Hope­ful­ly based on con­text,” writes Oliveira, “you should be able to fig­ure out who these peo­ple are with a lit­tle bit of google.” Visu­al­iz­ing the con­nec­tions between them gives one an instant sense of the com­mu­ni­ties and con­ti­nu­ities to which they belong, and among each clus­ter will always be at least one or two famil­iar names, at least in pass­ing, to act as an anchor.

All in all, the Philosopher’s Web should prove to be a use­ful appli­ca­tion for a cer­tain kind of learn­er, and it rep­re­sents a step-up from the rit­u­al of click­ing through Wikipedia links to try and put the puz­zle pieces togeth­er one at a time. The Philoso­pher’s Web joins a num­ber of oth­er sim­i­lar visu­al­iza­tions (see the links below) that aim at cre­at­ing sim­i­lar maps of the dis­ci­pline.

Should you find the approach a lit­tle ster­ile and schemat­ic, well… there’s always that book you put down a few hours ago.…

via Dai­ly Nous

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Entire Dis­ci­pline of Phi­los­o­phy Visu­al­ized with Map­ping Soft­ware: See All of the Com­plex Net­works

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy, from 600 B.C.E. to 1935, Visu­al­ized in Two Mas­sive, 44-Foot High Dia­grams

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy Visu­al­ized

Intro­duc­tion to Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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