Saturday, March 04, 2006

If you're my age and your parents were upper-middle class (like mine were), you may have had a copy of the series Great Books of the Western World in your home. This collection of some 50 volumes covers many of the standards for a liberal education (in fact, our friend Jonathan attends a college based on the Great Books): i sampled many when i was a geeky kid who spent more time thinking that hanging out with friends (come to think of it, that's still the case).

One important contribution by Mortimer Adler, who oversaw the project, is called the Syntopicon (all the major topics are listed on Wikipedia). It's an overview of some 100 key concepts in the history of ideas (e.g. Wisdom), with considerable detail about sub-topics. For example, under Wisdom we have

  • 1. The nature, origins, and kinds of wisdom

    • 1a. Diverse conceptions of natural wisdom: the supreme form of human knowledge
    • 1b. The distinction between speculative and practical wisdom, or between philosophical and political wisdom
    • 1c. Theological and mystical wisdom: the supernatural wisdom of faith and vision; the gift of wisdom
    • 1d. The wisdom of God: the defect of human wisdom compared with divine wisdom; the folly or vanity of worldly wisdom
  • 2. Wisdom, virtue, and happiness

    • 2a. Wisdom as an intellectual virtue: its relation to other intellectual virtues, especially science and understanding; the vice or sin of folly

and so forth. The first two volumes of the Great Books series consist simply of the Syntopicon, some introductory comments about each topic, and then a gigantic index to the Great Books. So under Wisdom.1d (the wisdom of God), you'll find references to Old and New Testament passages (e.g. James.3.13-18: note the Bible itself is not part of the Great Books series), as well as Aristotle, Aquinas, Melville (Moby Dick), and so on. Given this is all pre-cyberspace, the index alone takes up all kinds of space, and you've got to have the whole bookshelf to benefit from it. These days it would all be different.

I'd long since forgotten about my childhood explorations in the Great Books: but now that i've got ontological glasses on, this might be a very useful thing to convert into a formal ontology (e.g. OWL) for reference purposes. Furthermore, i didn't remember at all that there were references to the Bible embedded in it. I don't know of a machine-readable version of the Syntopicon (though surely they must sell them on CD by now), or how to get plain data out of it, and of course it would be copyright-restricted. But a index between these topics and the passages they reference would be both interesting and useful.

There's also an interesting article here by Internet luminary David Weinberger about the Great Books, Adler, and the problems of alphabetical order.


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