Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto - OCS, 15th INTERNATIONAL ISKO CONFERENCE

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Joseph T. Tennis

Last modified: 2017-12-18


Subtheme: Foundations and methods for Knowledge Organization

Title: Intellectual History, History of Ideas, and Subject Ontogeny

Objectives: Outline methodological stances in subject ontogeny research through examination of work in intellectual history, history of ideas, and in the philosophical commitments of realism and nominalism

Methods: Comparative analysis and construct creation and naming, logical argumentation.

Main results and conclusions: A rich vocabulary is available to us through this comparative work and we can begin to differentiate kinds of subject ontogeny work through these descriptions of methodologies.

Keywords: Nature of Subjects; Subject Ontogeny; Comparative Work; Foundations in Knowledge Organization


Intellectual History, History of Ideas, and Subject Ontogeny

Joseph T. Tennis

University of Washington


In the context of subject ontogeny research, that is, the study of how subjects change or do not change through revision of indexing languages, there a number of methodological questions.  The nature of semantics, ideas, and subjects is a long and rich discussion in the context of knowledge organization (Raganathan, 1967; Wilson, 1968; Foskett, 1969; Hjørland, 1992; Mai, 2001; Olson, 2002; Zeng, Zumer, and Salab,a 2010; Dutta, 2015).  This discussion is kept current by Birger Hjørland’s reference work on the matter (Hjørland, 2017).  However, the discussion predates the founding of the discipline of library and information science.  Ranganathan cites the early Vedic work (fl. 1500-600 BCE) on subjects (Ranganathan, 1957).  Plato (c. 380 BCE) lists those subjects that are required for a good education of future leaders and contemplates their nature (Emlyn-Jones and Preddy 2013).  Following Plato’s dialogues the Western encyclopedists, and ultimately bibliographers, write subjects into their work, sometimes reflecting on them, but often not (c.f., Diderot and d’Almbert 1751-1772).


Our contemporary preoccupation with subjects and how they remain the same or change is linked directly to our philosophical assumptions.  In this context we often talk about realism and nominalism (Bosewell, 1986).  Realism considers subjects (categories, ideas, semantics) to be “the footprints of reality… they exist because humans perceive a real order of the universe and name it,” (Bosewell, 1982 p.91).  The nominalists subscribe to “the belief that categories are only the names… of things agreed upon by humans, and that the ‘order’ people see is their creation rather than their perception,” (Bosewell, 1982 p. 91).  There are refinements and caveats to these two extremes, and there are different and various ways realism or nominalism manifests (e.g., in the mind, external to the mind, in action, or in culture).   Further, it is rare to see any researcher hold one of these beliefs absolutely.  It is possible to hold a realist position and assume the same phenomenon is named differently in different context and in different points in time.  And here is where the methodological question comes back to subject ontogeny work.  Namely, does research done in one or the other camp use different methods to arrive at a description of how a subject changes over time in the life of an indexing language?


Because of our rich tradition within and before, we can work within those context to find some answers, but to date, most of those discussions assume a kind of asynchronicity to subjects, i.e., the reason we would change our indexing languages, to discuss subjects, would be to add new subjects, or to further refine the subject that was already present in the indexing language.  The subject itself does not change in this case.  It remains the same or is further specified.  However, we have a recent literature that looks at change (Fox, 2016) or the lack thereof (Lee, 2016), and builds on more than a decade of investigation into this topic (Tennis, 2002).  So if change is observed, what is changing? Is it the subject or the name or some admixture of the two?  What ways can we make arguments for any of these three camps?  This brings us to our discussion of the disciplines of intellectual history and history of ideas.


In a piece from 2012, Peter Gordon addressed the relationship between intellectual history and history of ideas.  Of the former he said, “[b]roadly speaking, intellectual history is the study of intellectuals, ideas, and intellectual patters over time.  Of course, that is a terrifically large definition and it admits of a bewildering variety of approaches,” (Gordon, 2012, no page numbers given).  For this history of ideas, he says, it is a discipline “which looks at large-scale concepts as they appear and transform over the course of history.  An historian of ideas will tend to organize the historical narrative around one major idea and then follow the development or metamorphosis of that idea as it manifests itself in different contexts and times, rather a musicologist might trace a theme and all of its variations throughout the length of a symphony,” (Gordon, 2012, no page numbers given).  He goes on, “[b]y insisting that the idea is recognizably the same thing despite all of its contextual variations, the history of ideas approach tends to encourage a kind of Platonist attitude about thoughts, as if they somehow preexisted their contexts and merely manifested themselves in various landscapes,” (Gordon, 2012, no page numbers given).  In contrast, intellectual history “regards ideas as historically conditioned features of the world which are best understood within some larger context, wither it be the context of social structure and institutional change, intellectual biography (individual or collective), or some larger context of cultural or linguistic dispositions (now often called ‘discourses’),” (Gordon, 2012, no page numbers given).


Using Gordon as a point of departure, I enumerate the ways in which intellectual history, the history of ideas, realist and nominalist debates, and the literature on subjects, ideas, and semantics in knowledge organization resonate with the methodological challenges borne out in contemporary subject ontogeny work.  The purpose being, to work toward providing us with a robust framework to describe our methodological stances (both philosophically and tactically) we take in describing subject change in indexing languages, and their deployment in information systems through time.




Boswell, J. (1982). IV: Toward the Long View Revolutions, Universals and Sexual Categories. In Salmagundi 58/59: 89-113.


Diderot, D., and d’Almbert, J. l.R. (1751-1772). Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. André le Breton, Michel-Antoine David, Laurent Durand, and Antoine-Claude Briasson.


Dutta, A. (2015). Ranganathan’s elucidation of subject in the light of ‘Infinity (∞)’.  Annals of Library and Information Studies 62: 255262.


Emlyn-Jones, C. J. and Preddy, W. Eds. Plato, Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Foskett, A. C. (1969). Subject Approach to Information. London: Bingley.


Fox, M. (2016). Subjects in Doubt: The Ontogeny of Intersex in the Dewey Decimal Classification. In Knowledge Organization 43(8): 581-593.


Gordon, P. E. (2012). What is Intellectual History? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field. Available: http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/history/files/what_is_intell_history_pgordon_mar2012.pdf


Hjørland, B. (1992). The Concept of Subject in Information Science. In Journal of Documentation 48(2): 172-200.


Hjørland, B. (2017). Subject (of documents). In the Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization.  Available: http://www.isko.org/cyclo/subject


Lee, W-C. (2016). An Exploratory Study of the Subject Ontogeny of Eugenics in the New Classification Scheme for Chinese Libraries and the Nippon Decimal Classification. In Knowledge Organization 43(8):594-608.


Mai, J-E. (2001). Semiotics and Indexing: An Analysis of the Subject Indexing Process.  In Journal of Documentation 57(5): 591-622.


Olson, H. (2002). The Power to Name: Locating the Limit of Subject Representation in Libraries. Boston: Kluwer.


Ranganathan, S. R. (1957). Prolegomena to Library Classification. 3rd Ed. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.


Ranganathan, S. R. (1967). Prolegomena to Library Classification. 3rd Ed. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.


Tennis, J. T. (2002). Subject Ontogeny: Subject Access through Time and the Dimensionality of Classification. In Challenges in Knowledge Representation and Organization for the 21st Century: Integration of Knowledge across Boundaries: Proceedings of the Seventh International ISKO Conference. (Granada, Spain, July 10-13, 2002).  Advances in Knowledge Organization, vol. 8. Würzburg: Ergon: 54-59.


Wilson, P. (1968). Two Kinds of Power: An Essay on Bibligraphical Control. Berekeley, CA: University of California Press.


Zeng, M. Zumer, M., and Salaba, A. (2010). Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Data: A Conceptual Model. Final Report Approved by the Standing Committee of the IFLA Section on Classification and Indexing.