An Interactive Visualization of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

2020 was “a year for the (record) books in pub­lish­ing,” wrote Jim Mil­liot in Publisher’s Week­ly this past Jan­u­ary, a surge con­tin­u­ing into 2021. Yet some kinds of print books have so declined in sales there may be no rea­son to keep pub­lish­ing them, or buy­ing them, since their equiv­a­lents online are supe­ri­or in almost every respect to any ver­sion on paper. As I final­ly con­ced­ed dur­ing a recent, aggres­sive spring clean­ing, I per­son­al­ly have no rea­son to store heavy, bulky, dusty ref­er­ence books, except in cas­es of extreme sen­ti­ment.

The online Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, or the SEP, dis­pensed with the need for phi­los­o­phy ency­clo­pe­dias in print years ago. It’s “the most inter­est­ing web­site on the inter­net,” wrote Nikhail Son­nad at Quartz in 2015. “Not because of the con­tent — which includes fas­ci­nat­ing entries on every­thing from ambi­gu­i­ty to zom­bies—but because of the site itself. Its cre­ators have solved one of the internet’s fun­da­men­tal prob­lems: How to pro­vide author­i­ta­tive, rig­or­ous­ly accu­rate knowl­edge, at no cost to read­ers. It’s some­thing the ency­clo­pe­dia, or SEP, has man­aged to do for two decades.”

Start­ed in 1995 by Stan­ford philoso­pher Edward Zal­ta with only two entries, the SEP is “pos­i­tive­ly ancient in inter­net years,” but it is hard­ly “ossi­fied,” remain­ing an online source “‘com­pa­ra­ble in scope, depth and author­i­ty,’” the Amer­i­can Library Association’s Book­list review wrote, “to the biggest phi­los­o­phy ency­clo­pe­dias in print.”

I per­son­al­ly think the SEP is just as inter­est­ing for its con­tent as its achieve­ment, if not more so — and now, thanks to engi­neer and devel­op­er Joseph DiCas­tro, that con­tent is more acces­si­ble than ever, though an inter­ac­tive visu­al­iza­tion project and search engine called Visu­al­iz­ing SEP.

Visu­al­iz­ing SEP “pro­vides clear visu­al­iza­tions based on a philo­soph­i­cal tax­on­o­my that DiCas­tro adapt­ed from the one devel­oped by the Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Phi­los­o­phy Ontol­ogy Project (InPhO),” Justin Wein­berg writes at Dai­ly Nous. “Type a term into the search box and sug­gest­ed SEP entries will be list­ed. Click on one of the entry titles, and a sim­ple visu­al­iza­tion will appear with your select­ed entry at the cen­ter and relat­ed entries sur­round­ing it.” At the top of the page, you can select from a series of “domains.” Each selec­tion pro­duces a sim­i­lar visu­al­iza­tion of var­i­ous-sized dots.

I found enough entries to keep me busy for hours in the very first domain graph, “Aes­thet­ics and Phi­los­o­phy of Art.” The last of these, sim­ply titled “Thinker,” links togeth­er all of the philoso­phers men­tioned in the Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, from the most famous house­hold names to the most obscure and scholas­tic. Just skim­ming through these names and read­ing the brief biogra­phies at the left will leave read­ers with a broad­er con­tex­tu­al under­stand­ing than they could gain from a print ency­clo­pe­dia. (Click on the “Arti­cle Details” but­ton to expand the full arti­cle).

The visu­al­iz­er project car­ries forth into the data-obsessed 21st cen­tu­ry one of the best things about the Inter­net in its ear­li­est years: access to free, high qual­i­ty (and high­ly portable) infor­ma­tion with few bar­ri­ers for entry. Learn more about how to best nav­i­gate Visu­al­iz­ing SEP at Dai­ly Nous.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

A Data Visu­al­iza­tion of Mod­ern Phi­los­o­phy, 1950–2018

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy Visu­al­ized in an Inter­ac­tive Time­line

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

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

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