Universe of knowledge

"Universe of knowledge" is a metaphor that has been important in library classification theory. Francis Miksa discuss this concept within traditional classification research:


"This kind of thinking may not seem very important to us today because library classificationists have expounded on the universe of knowledge extensively since Richardson's time. Sayers concluded, for example, that no matter how the universe of knowledge is structured, that structure is ultimately strictly logical in character. Later, in the 1920s, Bliss expanded Richardson's idea of the relationship of classification categories to the "things" of actual existence into a grand theory of Nature, a corresponding grand theory of scientific consensus related to the investigation of the things of Nature, and a reasoned approach to arranging the categories which arose from that consensus-that is, scientific fields arranged by the idea of "gradation by specialty." Still later in the 1960s, members of the British Classification Research Group resorted to ideas of integrative levels spun off from Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General System Theory in order better to articulate Richardson's and Bliss's vision of the "things" of actual existence. At the turn of the century, however, this kind of thinking was not common. It took the explanations of these four writers to legitimize discussions of the universe of knowledge. The result of their efforts was to help make the universe of knowledge an object of investigation in and of itself, a phenomenon worthy of investigation; one could produce hypotheses about it, speculate as to how to characterize change in it, and so on.
As the universe of knowledge has become a legitimate object of investigation, classification theorists have discovered that it is a much more complex phenomenon than was previously supposed. In fact, the closer Richardson, Bliss, Sayers, Ranganathan, and those who have followed them got to the phenomenon, the more complex it appeared and the more difficult it was to describe. Much of this new sense of complexity was due to the new approach to subjects that arose from the documentation movement and elsewhere, where subject complexity is a direct reflection of the way in which scientists, engineers, and specialists of all kinds search for information.
Two derivative results subsequently arose from this effort to characterize the universe of knowledge. One result has been an ongoing attempt to characterize the universe of knowledge in all of its complexity by means of some suitable analogy. Various analogies have been propounded in this respect, some of which have been fairly traditional. For example, Richardson, Bliss, and Ranganathan at one time or another resorted to the analogy of a growing tree as a way to speak of the universe of knowledge, the tree's various branches representing its divisions and the tree's system of branches representing its complexity. Since their writings, other analogies have been put forward, one of the most striking being that of E. J. Coates in his Subject Catalogues (1960, p. 32) where he pictures the universe of knowledge in terms of a geographical metaphor in order to show the growing complexity of the universe of knowledge since the nineteenth century.
The most striking analogy of all, however, is Ranganathan's mathematical analogy of a multidimensional realm of subjects, a matter already discussed at some length. Ranganathan fundamentally changed the way the universe of knowledge (i.e., Ranganathan's universe of subjects) is viewed in library classification theory and technique by shattering the previous view of it as a singular, one-dimensional hierarchical structure and replacing that view with one that is structured in a complex, modular, faceted way. Since Ranganathan's day no library classificationist has failed to view the universe of knowledge in this new complex arrangement of faceted structures. At the same time, it should also be noted that few, if any, library classificationists have adopted Ranganathan's picture of the universe of knowledge in terms of the mathematical analogy behind it. Library classificationists appear to have adopted Ranganathan's view chiefly because it offered a more satisfactory way to view and deal with subject complexity than was offered by any previous
approach" (Miksa, 1998, p. 74-75).


This metaphor may also be compared to other metaphors and concepts such as atlas of science, which is more related to bibliometric research and the systems of disciplines in the social division of labor. This last concepts are less "metaphysical" and more in accordance with modern views as knowledge production as a social activity.


The discourse of the universe of knowledge (and similar concepts) within library and information science seems too unrelated to the discourses about ontological and metaphysical assumptions in modern science and philosophy. Hjørland (1992) found that Ranganathan's view of the universe of knowledge represents a metaphysical view known as "objective idealism", while attempts to base classification on knowledge from users represents the view known as "subjective idealism". Forms of pragmatism, realism and materialism represents a third metaphysical view. The kind of metaphysical assumptions on which Library and Information Science (LIS) is based have important implications for the development of LIS.


It is important to realize that the principle of literary warrant (or other kinds of warrant) introduces an empirical principle in knowledge organization. What is classified? "Universe of knowledge" is an expression with a somewhat metaphysical sound. The classes in classification systems are (mainly) based on the literature that they classify. In 1969 was published a Danish dissertation on auto kinesis, which is a visual illusion. This dissertation was indexed in the Danish national bibliography and the concept was added to the index to the Danish Decimal Classification, DK5. There may be several hundred kinds of visual illusion which are not labeled in DK5, just as the generic class "visual illusion" is not a class in this specific system (but may be formed if the monographic literature about this subject at a future point in time produce a warrant for it). The important implication is that classification systems based on literary warrant are not well-suited to classify other kinds of documents (or other samples of documents) than those they are based on (e.g. journal articles, literatures from other cultures etc). 





Hjørland, B. (1992). The Concept of "Subject" in Information Science. Journal of Documentation, 48(2), 172-200. Click for full-text PDF


Miksa, F. (1998). The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Albany, NY: Forest Press.



See also: Exhaustivity


Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 01-08-2006