A phenomenological scheme for information organization
John M. Budd and Kristine N. Stewart.
Introduction. The organization of information and knowledge is one of the essential concerns of librarianship and information studies. To say that the organization of information is challenging is a truism, and the discipline has been attempting that challenge for centuries. This paper explores the nature of this challenge and makes suggestions for addressing it.
Analysis. Recent attempts to conceive of organization represent advances in the idea of enhancing the ability of seekers to retrieve information. For example, the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) and Resource Description and Analysis (RDA) are efforts aimed at replacing former standards and guidelines for cataloging informational objects and helping users gain access to the objects. FRBR and RDA represent altered ways of thinking about the description of objects, and one purpose is the identification of works and instantiations of works.
Conclusions. The proposed paper will build upon Smith’s ideas, in which entropy inheres, to suggest a naturalistic design for organization (one that incorporates cultural objects and subjects of intentional activity).
The organization of information and knowledge is, it may be said, one of the essential concerns of librarianship and information science, especially research concerning libraries. This concern is not merely historical; that is, it is not essential because it has been around for a long time (the history of organization is not the primary interest here). To say that the organization of information (from this point forward, the organization of knowledge will be held implicit) is challenging is a truism, and the discipline has been attempting that challenge for centuries. One of the most challenging aspects of the organizational task is locating ontology within the actual organization. That is an initial task that those of us in library and information science cannot avoid. Ultimately, the nature of the challenge of organization, and a suggestion for addressing it, is the gist of the present paper. Admittedly, this is an ambitious job; both ontology and (as we will eventually see) phenomenology are difficult concepts, but, together, are at the heart of organization as we face it in the world.
Ontology and metaphysics
By way of a preliminary definition, we can turn to Dale Jaquette, who writes,
applied scientific ontology advances a preferred existence domain consisting of three categories of existent entities, including existent (we can also say actual) objects, existent states of affairs, and the actual world. ( Jaquette, 2002, p. xi).
This is a very useful beginning, since his categories can be taken to be inclusive of things, events, and ideas. All three of these categories are necessary to the organization of information and knowledge. There are ways by which philosophers (primarily) acknowledge specific ideas regarding reality. One notion is typified by John Heil ( 2003, p. 11), who accepts the strongly realist position that what exists in the world is mind-independent. This a tempting conception to adopt, but for inquiry into the organization of information one must consider, not just the physical world, but the world of ideas (perhaps including fictional or speculative ideas). In designing organizational schemata there is a task related to employing natural language to describe what is. Heil provides useful guidance here:
Concepts do not carve up the world. The world already contains endless divisions, most of which we remain oblivious to or ignore. Some of these divisions, however, are salient, or come to be salient once we begin enquiring systematically. ( Heil, 2003, p. 44).
It is, of course the job of the organizer to become fully cognizant of the salient divisions and to apply our languages to the descriptions of the divisions. The foregoing is especially pertinent, considering that the objects that are most frequently described are documents.
For the purposes of the present paper, what Budd has to say is applicable:
The thesis that will be presented here is not only that our being is essentially metaphysical today, but there is a need to derive an applied metaphysics for our futures to have meaning, purpose, and practice. For the purposes here, metaphysics will be used alongside ontology. ( Budd, 2014, p. 421).
Budd’s words will guide the analysis that will follow, when the matter of phenomenology is taken up in earnest. Budd’s work includes actions as well as objects, which is essential to a phenomenological stance. It is in keeping with John Burbidge’s admonition,
We interpret [givens], and this means, as Kant realized, that we introduce conceptual categories to make sense of them. The given data are taken as signs to be organized by our thoughts into coherent theories. ( Burbidge, 2014, p. 12).
For an exhaustive study of ontology and metaphysics, one would have to delve quite deeply into matters of semantics and reference. Those concerns are not components of this investigation, so will not be pursued here. For more on these topics, see Sider ( 2011).
Recent attempts to conceive of organization represent advances in the idea of enhancing the ability of seekers to retrieve information. For example, the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records and Resource Description and Analysis are efforts aimed at replacing former standards and guidelines for cataloging informational objects and helping users gain access to the objects. The Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records and Resource Description and Analysis represent altered ways of thinking about the description of objects, and one purpose is the identification of works and particular instantiations of works. Moulaison, Dykas, and Budd ( 2014, p. 34) explicate some of the particulars of the guidelines:
Making explicit references to relationships between entities and even between and among attributes represents a major advance in the RDA as a cataloging code. The relationships now cover a broader range of associations and there is greater specificity and consistency in delineating the nature of the relationships. Yet, the identified relationships are geared toward the bibliographic relationships traditionally provided in catalog/bibliographic records and they primarily appear in bibliographic records. Written expressions that have been adapted as performances are a primary example of a relationship that is effectively handled in RDA.
Moreover, the requirements for Machine-Readable Cataloging is compatible with relatively new standards, Functional Requirements for Authority Data, which, among other things, provides for the analysis and description of author information. In keeping with the theme of this paper, the requirements do not merely identify an author (personal or otherwise), but also all of the attributes of the author. This provides for connections among identities, as Foucault discusses in the context of intellectual and other symbioses that might exist.
One way to conceive of objects of thought is by means of intentionality. This is a complex concept and has partial roots in the philosophy of mind. John Searle ( 1983, p. 1) provides the most straightforward definition for that particular application of intentionality:
Intentionality is that property of many mental states and events by which they are directed at or about or of objects and states of affairs in the world. If, for example, I have a belief, it must be a belief that such and such is the case.
According to Searle ( 1983), intentionality can be directed at physical objects, persons, or (as he indicates) happenings in the world. This does not mean that all mental states include, carry, or are endowed with intentionality. That said, many states are intentional, and the language we use to speak of objects, etc. can be a key component of intentionality. Staying, for the moment, with the philosophy of mind, we should be aware of the trenchant observation of Richard Tieszen ( 2005, p. 183), ‘In the recent literature in the philosophy of mind there is virtually no consideration of whether or how the mind might be able to grasp abstract or ideal objects’. Tieszen ( 2005, p. 183) quickly adds, ‘Phenomenology. . . is committed to abstract objects like essences, ideal meanings, and noemata’. (Noemata are those objects or contents of thought). Organization of information, of necessity, must address the contents of thought, be they concrete or abstract.
So, intentionality is also an essential phenomenological concept and is connected to metaphysics adeptly by Tim Crane ( 2013, p. 3). As he states at the outset of his book, ‘Whenever someone thinks, they think about something. Or in other words: whenever someone thinks, there is something they think about. Some of the things exist and some of them do not’. An implication of Crane’s position is that there are diverse intentional objects about which we think, and by extension, which we can describe. The intentionality posited by Crane is employed here to accommodate human consciousness, which is both variable and dynamic. Each human subject has consciousness and employs that consciousness in intentional ways (in the phenomenological sense that consciousness is consciousness of something). It should be noted that intentionality is somewhat specific in its application in phenomenology. In what is likely the most accessible introduction to phenomenology, Robert Sokolowski ( 2000, p. 8) says,
The phenomenological notion of intentionality applies primarily to the theory of knowledge, not to the theory of human action. . . . In phenomenology, intending means the conscious relationship we have to an object.
Sokolowski, in affirming the place of intentionality notes, as is stated above, that consciousness is consciousness of something. This idea originates with Edmund Husserl ( 1970, p. 82, emphasis in original); borrowing from Descartes, he speaks of ‘intentionality, which makes up the egological life. Another word for it is cogitatio, having something consciously. . . , e. g., in experience, thinking, feeling, willing, etc.; for every cogitation has its cogitatum’. That dictum is directly applicable to the place of phenomenology in the organization of information (especially as it applies to a theoretical stance regarding knowledge.
As David Woodruff Smith ( 2004, p. 149) puts it, ‘each act of consciousness is performed or experienced by a subject and [is] directed via a content or idea toward some object’. (emphasis in original). Experience is of special importance to the proposal. Subjects may experience the world, including the informational world, in differing ways. What is (ontology) depends, to an extent, on experience (and on who is doing the experiencing). Heidegger ( 1996, p. 31) makes the connection explicit:
Phenomenology is the way of access to, and the demonstrative manner of determination of, what is to become the theme of ontology. Ontology is possible only as phenomenology. The phenomenological concept of phenomenon, as self-showing, means the being of beings—its meaning, modifications, and derivatives. This self-showing is nothing arbitrary, nor is it something like an appearing. The being of beings can least of all be something behind which something else stands, something that does not appear. (emphasis in original).
Heidegger’s text is rather abstruse, but the link between ontology and phenomenology is intentional. No more will be said about Heidegger; other phenomenologists will take center stage from this point forward.
What does all this have to do with information organization? The things that are described, the texts, documents, artifacts, etc., are products of consciousness. In one sense, these things are subjective; they are products of minds acting in relationship with other minds. Communication itself is a phenomenological act. This observation does not mean that individuals perceive only subjective experiences. As Searle ( 2015, p. 11) asserts, we do indeed perceive objects and states of affairs directly. Our experiences are informed by such direct experiences, and we then describe them. What we perceive, in Heideggerian terms, are things-in-themselves. Heidegger, who was a student of Husserl (although he departs from Husserl in important areas) draws some fundamental characteristics of the thing-in-itself from Husserl. It is Husserl (1970, p. 13, emphasis in original) who writes about ‘that-which-is’, and states, ‘True being is everywhere an ideal goal [this is a component of his transcendental phenomenology], a task of episteme or reason, as opposed to being which through doxa [opinion] is merely thought to be, unquestioned and obvious. Information organization, in other words, is the questioned, that which is not obvious. Searle ( 2015, p. 35) elaborates on the point:
Intentional states typically fit the world with one of two directions of fit. Perceptions, beliefs, and event memories are supposed to fit how a world is. They have a mind-to-world direction of fit. Desires and intentions are not supposed to fit how the world is, but how we would like it to be or how we intend to make it to be. They have a world-to-mind fit.
Information organization can also be said to have one of two directions of fit, emulating Searle’s description. There are objects to be described, objects individuals can perceive and believe (such as a scientific theory). There are other things that individuals can wish or desire or want to make so. Both directions require description; but one may have an intentional object, and one may not. Desires or wishes do not have intentional objects; they are based in the world-to-mind fit and require a particular kind of description. Searle ( 2015, pp. 39-40) is helpful again. Most of our beliefs are about objects, people, states of affairs, etc., not about propositions. Therefore, our beliefs (and perceptions) are explicable in terms of those objects, and so on. Searle, though, is a materialist when it comes to philosophy of mind. He views thoughts as concrete objects in the mind. Husserl’s notion of cogitatio, however, leaves room for thinking about abstract entities (see above), and these entities require at the least a unique attitude toward description. In short, information organization must address not only the two directions of fit, but (tacitly) the challenge of qualia. As Smith ( 2004, p. 51) explains, physical perception is imbued with evidence—something tangible that can be experienced directly. There can also be a phenomenal or qualitative aspect of perception in the sense of an inner awareness that cannot be adequately defined in physical terms. David Chalmers ( 1996) refers to this quality as mysterianism. Information organization, if one follows Chalmers and others, must deal with the latter, qualitative, perception as well as the former, evidentiary, perception.
According to Husserl (and almost all subsequent phenomenologists) phenomenology is an applied, practical program. It is intended to enable examination and action relating to the tenets that the likes of Husserl defined. That said, there are desiderata related to action. Zahavi (2003, p. 11) informs us,
These are the conditions that have to be fulfilled if we are to speak of realized knowledge in the subjective sense. Of the knowing subject did not possess an ability to distinguish between truth and falsity, between validity and nonvalidity, fact and essence, evidence and absurdity, then objective and scientific knowledge would not have been possible either.
Husserl (1970, p. 40) himself states:
Discovery is really a mixture of instinct and method. One must, of course, ask whether such a mixture is in the strict sense philosophy or science—whether it can be knowledge of the world in the ultimate sense, the only sense that could serve us as a [genuine] understanding of the world and ourselves.
In his Logical Investigations, Husserl (1970) repeatedly makes the point that phenomenology serves to provide genuine perceptual descriptions of the phenomena described (human actions or objects in the world, thus avoiding both psychologism and scientism (undeserving reduction to the psychological or the seemingly empirical). This requirement by Husserl is most applicable to information organization, as we will see.
So far, the discussion has concentrated on what we might refer to as existent objects and events. That is, what is at least tacitly considered has been what literally and physically exists. This concentration leads to a question: What about the non-existent? That question may almost seem to be a non-starter, but Crane (2013) addresses the issue. According to Crane (2013, pp. 52-53) there are objects of thought that do not exist in the same ways that physical objects and human actions exist. Fiction is one qualifying entity, but so are, for example, philosophical theories that may be based in hypotheticals and even some pure science that relies on speculation. Such non-existent entities must still be described according to an organizational system. Moreover, the system can (perhaps must?) be co-ordinate with the organizational system designed for existent entities. Non-existent entities, for one thing, also have properties to be identified and described. As Crane (2013, p. 69, emphasis in original) points out, ‘Existing objects instantiate properties, but non-existent objects encode properties. The very same property can be encoded and instantiated’. We can, for instance assign the properties of time and space to both existent and non-existent entities. For something like an event, those properties would be instantiated. For a theory or an imaginary entity, the property would be encoded.
This may seem to be a dilemma for information organization and research in libraries, but it is not such a problem. It is necessary to categorize, for instance, a literal event, such a battle or a discovery. The Battle of Hastings occupied at a point in time, in a specific location, between certain combatants. All such properties (and more) would be components of the categorization of the event, of necessity. The properties exist; there was a time, place, etc. at which the event occurred. Let us take another example - the linguistic theory of reference. Reference is a symbolic relationship that applies even to abstractions (while it can also apply to concrete objects). Reference, though, has properties, including precisely what the abstraction is. A property may be an inferred emotional state of a person, where overt physical properties are not obvious. Husserl (1931), early in his career, noted that there is a distinction to be made between meanings expressed in speech sense whether it is expressed or not. It is not possible to delve more deeply into non-existent entities here, but see, for example, R. M. Sainsbury (2005).
Just a bit more will be said about phenomenology before we turn to its potential impact upon information organization. Perhaps more than any other observation, Zahavi’s (2017, p. 16) is the most important to keep in mind:
For Husserl, the main difference between phenomenology and psychology is that whereas the latter accepts a number of commonsensical metaphysical presuppositions, the former is engaged in a transcendental investigation of those very presuppositions.
Individuals’ perspectives of the world are what count, and the objective world is not discernible except through perception and intentionality. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 207) most aptly expresses the shortcomings of limited objective thought (of the limited character of the objective world as it is given to us in a natural mode):
Objective thought is unaware of the study of perception. This is because it presents itself with the world ready-made, as the setting of every possible event, and treats perception as one of these events.
Objective thought, then, is limited to a naïve empiricism. What phenomenology offers is the necessity that perception is a product of a mind within and of the world (Husserl, 1960, pp. 115-16).
Information organization within a phenomenological context
It is a safe assumption to assert that information organization is a means of conducting meaning to an audience. Additionally, that audience can be assumed to be large—all individuals who are seeking some document or artifact that has pertinence to a purposeful search. What can phenomenology do to contribute to success relating to such a search? Sokolowski (2000, pp.169-70, emphasis in original) points to three levels of structure which lend meaning to such actions as information searches:
- The first level deals with the kinds of syntactic combinations that yield meaningful propositions. . . .
- Once we have reached syntactically meaningful propositions, however, a second level of structure arises that is related to the consistency of propositions. Two statements can be syntactically meaningful yet contradict one another. . . .
- The third level of structure, however, deals with the content of what we say. It deals with the coherence of the statements we make. We may succeed in making statements that are both syntactically correct and consistent but fail because their contents do not have anything to do with one another.
It is here, with this proposed structure, that semantics enters the picture. There will not be any substantial excursus into semantics here, but mention is necessary. Crane (2013, p. 128) sums up the challenge related to propositions: ‘The point of propositions. . . . is to identify similarities in the way the world is represented in a mental state’. He (2013, p. 128, emphasis in original) goes on to add,
These are similarities in how the states represent the world as being (in the case of belief and judgement) and how they represent things as desired-to-be (in the case of desire) and so on mutatis mutandis for hopes, wishes, and other propositional attitudes.
With the background that has been provided, and because of all the foregoing, especially intentionality and content, the model suggested by Smith (2004, p. 2) is the one that can (and, perhaps, should) guide organization:
context | ----- subject ----- act ----- content ----→ object
According to Smith, organization which follows phenomenological ontology adapts itself to allow for ‘formal categories’ (including individual, species, quality, etc.) and ‘everyday materials categories’ (including object, event, place, etc.). Further, he (2004, p. 3) maintains that any entity is divided into three discreet (yet in some ways related) fundamental facets¬ - form, appearance, and substrate. The three facets, for Smith (2004, pp. 17-18, emphasis in original) are integral to the nature of categorization:
- The form of an entity is how or what it is: its whatness or quiddity—the kinds, properties, relations that make it what it is.
- The appearance of an entity is how it is known or apprehended: how it looks if perceptible. . . but also how it is conceived or conceivable. . . .
- The substrate of a thing is how it is founded or originated: how it comes to be, where it comes from, its history or genetic origin if temporal, its composition or material origin if material, its phylogenetic origin if biological or cultural origin if a cultural artifact.
Smith offers an image of the three fundamental facets (see Figure 1).
From this point on, the paper will build upon Smith’s ideas in order to suggest a naturalistic design for organization (one that incorporates cultural objects and subjects of intentional activity). Smith does draw from Husserl in designing categorial schemes that can be used primarily for the outline of knowledge. For example, he (2004, p. 257) illustrates the fundamental Husserlian categories (see Figure 2). He (2004, 257) elaborates on what Husserl’s fundamentals represent:
the type Fact includes concrete individuals and, presumably, events: these entities take the place of Aristotelian “substances.” The type Essence (Wesen, from was-sein, “what” a thing “is”) covers Aristotelian “attributes.” And the type Sense (Sinn) is drawn from logical theory but used in Husserl’s own theory of intentionality: sense includes ideal intentional contents (many of which are expressible in language as “meanings”).
The three types are indeed fundamental; each can have accompanying aspects that lend themselves to a more compete categorial picture (see Figure 3). As Smith (2004, p. 260, emphasis in original) illuminates, ‘For our purposes. . . , we group all the preceding types of entity under proper categories (and subcategories) in a Husserlian Ontology. For we are organizing different types of categories, featuring Husserl’s division of essences into formal and material essences’. To be clear, Husserl’s ontology, as he made clear in a number of his works, is formal, and ‘” Formal ontology” is the name for the discipline that investigates what it means to be an object. It is considered a formal enterprise, for it abstracts from all considerations concerning content. . . . Formal ontology is consequently engaged in an analysis of such categories as quality, property, relation, identity, whole, part, and so on’ (Zahavi, 2017, p. 74).
Smith (2004, p. 275) proposes his own categorial system which, he says, is simplified from those of Aristotle, Husserl, and Whitehead. It is depicted in Figure 4.
Smith does not claim this system to be final; there can be modifications or elaborations to it in the future, if need be. The system is presented here as something of a culmination of what has gone before. It is here intended to be a summation of formal categorization, a summation which can be employed as a guide to the development of later iterations of organizational theory. And Husserl and other phenomenologists may provide additional guidance for thinking about, for example, the perception of objects and event. For example, Husserl (1973, pp. 112-15) explicates a fairly well-developed notion of the process of perception, which he avers tends to be progressive (‘seeing’ an object in parts in order to perceive the whole). What is presented here might be viewed as prolegomena to that future theorization.
About the author
John M. Budd is Professor Emeritus with the University of Missouri. He has also been on the faculties of Louisiana State University and the University of Arizona. He is the author of more than 150 publications and he has presented at approximately 125 conferences. His work includes scholarly communication, information retrieval, and the philosophy of information. He can be contacted at BuddJ@missouri.edu
Kristine N. Stewart is Assistant Professor and the Information Literacy Coordinator at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She received her Ph.D. in Information Science from the University of Missouri. Her research interests include information literacy, human information behavior, and information policy. She can be contacted at email@example.com
- Budd, J. (2015). Organizing acts and objects: Metaphysical foundations. Knowledge Organization, 41 (6), 419-428.
- Burbidge, J. W. (2014). Cause for thought. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Chalmers, D. (1996). The conscious mind . New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Crane, T. (2013). The objects of thought . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and time (trans. by J. Stambaugh). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
- Heil, J. (2003). From an ontological point of view . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Husserl, E. (1960). Cartesian meditation: An introduction to phenomenology (trans. by L. Hardy). The Hague, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.
- Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology (trans. by D. Carr). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Husserl, E. (1973). Experience and judgment (ed. by L. Landgrebe, trans. by J. S. Churchill & K. Ameriks). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Husserl, E. (1931). Ideas: General introduction to pure phenomenology (trans. by W. R. B. Gibson). New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Husserl E. (1970). Logical investigations , two vols. (trans. by J. N. Finley). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Jacquette, D. (2002). Ontology . Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (trans. by C. Smith). London: Routledge.
- Moulaison, H. L., Dykas, F. & Budd, J. M. (2014). Foucault, the author, and intellectual debt: Capturing the author-function through attributes, relationships, and events in knowledge organization systems. Knowledge Organization, 41 (1), 30-43.
- Sainsbury, R. M. (2005). Reference without referents . Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Searle, J. R. (1983). Intentionality . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Searle, J. R. (2015). Seeing things as they are . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sider, T. (2011). Writing the book of the world . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Smith, D. W. (2004). Mind world Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Sokolowski, R. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Tieszen, R. (2005). Consciousness of abstract objects. In D.W. Smith & A. L. Thomasson (Eds.), Phenomenology and philosophy of mind (pp. 183-200). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Zahavi, D. (2017). Husserl’s legacy . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Zahavi, D. (2003). Husserl’s phenomenology . Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.