Saturday, June 8, 2019

35 The problem with cataloguing philosophy (the Dewey 100s)

I’ve been off the blog world for a couple of years doing a degree in Philosophy (!). Now that I have a bird’s eye view of the field, here are my gripes with Philosophy (100s) on the Dewey.

The problem is that you could divide the field in more than one way. First of all, there is the period-wise arrangement – ancient, medieval, modern, or whatever finer slices you may prefer. Second is the civilization-wise division: western, mid-eastern, eastern, east Asian, south Asian, meso-American, Polynesian, and so on. Then you could divide it up by country or ethnicity: Greek philosophy, Indian philosophy, and so on. You could divide it up by religion: Jewish philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, etc. Or you could classify by “school” of philosophy: idealist, empiricist, positivist, pragmatist, existentialist, and many others. Another approach would be by the main person: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel. You could have combinations of these criteria: arranging the main thinkers of each culture or civilization by period, school and person.

Then we have subdivisions of the subject matter of philosophy – things like ontology (the study of existence) or epistemology (of understanding, which links up to psychology and brain science in turn). Last, but not the least, we can (and do!) have a whole series of “philosophy of” headings, like the philosophy of religion, of war, of love, and so on, some of which may be similar to the subdivisions, e.g. philosophy of knowledge.

It’s obvious that no system will satisfy all these alternative approaches. The actual arrangement prescribed by Dewey (DDC22 in my case) gives all options, which makes for a bit of confusion. Let me get at this now.

For a start, the hundred 100s sections (100-199) cover not only philosophy, but also psychology and a lot of other things like parapsychology and occultism (!).  So the field of Philosophy in itself tends to get chopped up or segmented more than a little bit. To illustrate: we start with hard core philosophy headings in 101-109 Standard subdivisions of philosophy, then 110 to 119 Metaphysics, with various specific headings, 120 to 129  Epistemology, causation, humankind. After this there is a transition to other subjects: 130 to 139 Parapsychology and occultism (!), which includes 133.1 Apparitions, 133.4 Demonology and witchcraft, 135 Dreams and mysteries, 137 Divinatory graphology, 138 Physiognomy, 139 Phrenology. So the (supposedly) clear waters of rational thought are already being muddied by superstition and cant! A person seeking knowledge of the heavens may be induced to give up his search around this fracture zone.

After this DDC shifts to Specific philosophical schools and viewpoints from 140 to 149: 141 Idealism and related systems and doctrines,  142 Critical philosophy (which includes 142.3 Kantianism, 142.7 Phenomenology, and the other digits available for future assignments). We have subdivisions (subsections) for all sorts of –isms and -ologies: Modern Platonism and Neoplatonism, Transcendentalism, Individualism, Personalism, Romanticism, 143 Bergsonism and intuitionism, Humanism which consists of Pragmatism, Instrumentalism, Naturalism, Utilitarianism, Materialism, and so on; then 147 Pantheism, comprising 147.3 Monism, 147.4 Dualism and pluralism; and a number of others like Realism, Mysticism, Nihilism, and lastly, 149.9 Miscellaneous systems and doctrines.

Here starts our problem: we would have to assign each work to one of these subclasses. This would call for a substantial effort on our part to assess the work from a scholarly angle. Does a work by or on Gandhi, for instance, go into Idealism or Realism or Pragmatism or Mysticism or what have you – or do we need a separate entry for Gandhianism! Or would a work on Advaita go under Monism or Mysticism or even have to be sent to Ancient philosophies or Religion or so on? How do we decide which “system” any work fits into (if it’s not specified in the title or subtitle of the work)?

 When we come to the end of the 140s, we are suddenly yanked into another discipline altogether – 150 to 159 Psychology. These are more “scientific” than “humanistic” branches of knowledge, except for 150.1 Philosophy and theory, which have subject headings that seem to overlap with philosophy headings: existential schools, reductionism, and so on which may be parts of epistemology (how do we know?).  160 Logic brings us back to the Science of reasoning, Fallacies, and so on – hard core stuff. These are obviously bridging disciplines and approaches that interface between the expansive stuff of philosophy and the exact sciences. They should then go on to scientific thought and scientific knowledge, but that doesn’t come till the 500s. In the meantime, we have to deal with 170 to 179 Ethics (Moral philosophy), which seem to repeat things which would have already been covered as part of previous sections. Then comes 180 to 189, which deals with, in order, 181 Eastern philosophy, 182 Pre-Socratic Greek ph., 183 Sophistic, Socratic, ph., 184 Platonic ph., 185 Aristotelian ph., 186 Skeptic and Neoplatonic, 187 Epicurian, 188 Stoic, and 189 Medieval western philosophy. This transitions fairly smoothly to 190 Modern western and other non-eastern philosophy, followed by 191 United States and Canada, and so on to 199 Other geographic area. This looks somewhat redundant, as 199 really covers all geographical areas from the standard place names list under 4-9 subdivisions.

This repetitious nature of the classification scheme means that we are never sure where to expect a certain book, say on Kant. Would it be under modern western philosophy, or modern European, or modern German, philosophy, or under idealism, or Kantianism, or…? What about works that compare different philosophers… say, Hume and Kant? Or Kant and the Bhagavad Gita? The problem is even worse because, as you scan the shelves, you get unexpected chunks of different fields like occultism and ghosts in between!

Because DDC philosophy is so fragmented as it is, there appears to be no real solution that will bring together all philosophy in one tidy sequence. Ideally, we should be able to group together all rational approaches in philosophy, followed by irrational modes under superstitions and magic, then go on to the inner workings of the human mind in psychology, to be followed by the exact sciences like logic and maths. But  it is not till 180 that we begin to get specific classes for different provenances (eastern, Greek…) and vintages of philosophy as we encounter them in surveys like Bertrand Russell’s massive History of  Western Philosophy (which stops at around 1930, so not touching post-war developments like existentialism). Since, however, 180 and 190 cover the major approaches in philosophy (with a sprinkling of subdivisions even for eastern philosophies, especially Indian and Chinese), perhaps a starting point would be to push as many items as possible under these two heads. This would give precedence (in the shelf position) to non-western philosophies, followed by ancient Greek, medieval western, and then modern western philosophies. While ancient Greek and medieval western are provided with specific subheads (medieval western not so detailed), when we come to 190-199 Modern western and other non-eastern philosophy, there are no subheads, but only geographical subclasses: 191 United States and Canada, and so on, to 199 Other geographical areas. Indeed, we could as well use just 199 with geographical (area) suffixes 4-9, from Table 2.

A couple of choices would have to be made if we wanted to avoid scattering our items over the whole range of the 100s. For a start we will usually have works by or on a prominent philosopher, say Kant. Modern western philosophy, to which this belongs, is pushed as far down as 190, but as we saw previously, 140 Specific ph. Schools and viewpoints provides specifically for 142.3 Kantianism (and neo-Kantianism) under 142 Critical ph.  But there is no parallel entry for, say, Hegel; under 140-, we would have to make a categorization of Hegel’s school: would it be Transcendentalism, or Romanticism, or Humanism, or Naturalism, or Evolutionism, or Mysticism? Would we put Vedanta together with Hegel? I would suggest that we should not be called upon to make such judgements. Hence I would prefer to put Kant and Hegel under 190 Modern western, but not under 193 Germany and Austria, because I think they belong to all humanity. I would cheat a little, by using letters: 190KAN for Kant, 190HEG for Hegel, and so on. This would at least give one specific destination (under Western ph.) for all works by and about Kant, or Hegel, or whoever.

For Indian ph., we are given specific heads: the six schools are well represented (Samkhya, Nyaya, etc.); Vedanta has individual entries for Sankara, Ramanuja, etc. Under 181, we also have the option of putting (from non-Christian religions 294-299) 181.04-.09 Philosophies based on specific religions: e.g. 181.043 Buddhist ph.  (from 294.3 Buddhism). We could even use further subdivisions, e.g. from 294.392 Mahayana Buddhism, we could form 181.04392 Buddhist Mahayana philosophy. Strangely, they don’t recommend this for Hindu ph.; so while we have 294.5512 Vishnuism, the philosophy has to go to Vedanta, e.g. 181.483 Ramanujacarya (Visistadvaita) or 181.484 Dualistic school(s). Again, “Christian” philosophy is assigned under 189 Medieval western ph. or 190 Modern western ph.; and again, the parallelism of philosophy and religion is not extended to 292 Classical religion (Greek and Roman religion) and 293 Germanic religion. Perhaps we should cheat a little in such cases, and extend the use 181.0- regardless of DDC’s specific instructions!

But a couple of problems will still remain. For one, a work covering both ancient and modern western ph. (like Russell’s History) cannot be put under 180 or 190; it would have to be pushed all the way back to 109 or even 100 or 101 if it were about the general principles of philosophy (like Russell’s shorter volume An Outline of Philosophy.  An alternative (for the latter) could be to take it as Russell’s philosophy, and put it under modern western ph. 190RUS. But the History would still have to go all the way back to 100 or 109!

A second issue is with books that treat of a given approach or school, without reference to a single individual. You have a book that deals with Idealism, say; where would you put it? It seems it has to be pushed all the way back to 141 Idealism and related systems, For an individual philosopher or thinker, you would still have to do some considerable research on which system he is related to; if, like Wittgenstein, he changed his approach over the years, it may even be difficult to assign the whole body of work to one system, which is why I would prefer to relegate it to modern ph., e.g. 190WIT. And the problem of the intervening chunks of Occultism, Psychology, and others would still remain!


A final word about the real problem with Philosophy: some 90% of it doesn’t make sense! After a lot of labour, one gets so little out of the remaining 10%, that it’s not a useful subject for study unless one wants to make it a profession!

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