Article Summary for Lecture #11—Olsen, Nielsen, and Dippie

In “Encyclopaedist Rivalry, Classificatory Commonality, Illusory Universality” Hope Olsen, Juliet Nielsen, and Shona Dippie examine the cultural construction of classification systems by deconstructing encyclopedic texts produced by Jean d’Alembert, Denis Diderot, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their findings suggest the presence of biases within certain classification structures with the “potential to erase cultural identity.” Specifically, the authors assert that the hierarchical structure of mutually exclusive categories presented by Coleridge and d’Alembert (and, to a lesser degree, Diderot) “result in a homogeneity that denies difference and identity.” The article offers excerpts of the texts, careful descriptions of the classification systems put forth within them, as well as analyses of the cultural and historical underpinnings of each. By revealing the potential for bias within the classification structures of the selected texts, the authors hope to encourage alternative approaches to these widely embraced forms of knowledge organization. (457, 463-464)

Following a brief introduction and an explanation of their methods used to encode the texts, the authors denote some key differences between the French and English schools of classification. The first of these deals with purpose. Diderot and d’Alembert, influenced by the French Revolution, sought to supplant the traditional authorities of crown and church with enlightened reason. Their inspiration, therefore, was grounded heavily in the European Renaissance. Coleridge saw the French Revolution as an attack on legitimate sources of logic and reason, primarily the divine, esteeming the order and method found within medieval England’s scholastic curricula—the trivium and quadrivium. But while the French and English writers “seem leagues apart” in terms of purpose and history, the authors contend that their texts express several important commonalities. (458-460)

The authors claim that Coleridge and d’Alembert shared a belief in the universal structure of knowledge organized in mutually exclusive categories arranged according to teleological progression and hierarchical primacy. The basis for mutually exclusive categories is found both within d’Alembert’s concept of “impenetrability,” which divides space into categories separated by the unique properties of the bodies they contain, and Coleridge’s differentiation of the uniting and progressive attributes of, respectively, law and theory. In addition, both writers saw knowledge as working toward human progress, a purpose that, according to the article, resulted in the logical subdivisions of classification presented by each. Coupled with this teleological progression was also an adherence to hierarchical arrangement. The authors ably show that Diderot and Coleridge classified objects and ideas by nesting categories representing them within one another, reducing and expanding knowledge in order to promote a generalized portrait of reality. (460-462)

While the classification schemes presented by the English and French thinkers might be applied universally, the authors contend that they are limited to western thought. The categories of classification suggested by Diderot and Coleridge, based on a progression of culture advancing certain principles of knowledge over others means that “cultures not characterized by these principles are not able to have knowledge, are not authoritative and lack identity.” (463) Olsen, Nielsen, and Dippie make a strong argument. It is important for organizers of information to deconstruct the theories and philosophies beneath the classification structures they employ, to point out potential flaws, and to work toward improvement. A system widely embraced and accepted to be universal in application may turn out to be exclusionary. However, classification professionals often have limited resources available to manage an ever-expanding abundance of information and, therefore, have to make the most of the systems in place. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for, and what the authors of this article assert, is that alternative approaches can work alongside traditional ones to foster greater cultural inclusivity.


One thought on “Article Summary for Lecture #11—Olsen, Nielsen, and Dippie

  1. Good work! I feel that I overlook some of the other important contributions to (and influences upon) early library classification in the US when I (over)emphasize the Aristotle->Linnaeus->Melvil Dewey historical arc in my class lectures. This research does a good job in showing that universalist impulses in knowledge organization in the 19th century were much more widely deployed!


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