A Visualization of Influence in the History of Philosophy


“I don’t know a lot about philosophy,” says Grant Louis Oliveira, a data analyst and quantitative social sciences researcher with an undergraduate degree in political science. He continues:

I’d like to change that and more rigorously explore my ideas, but I find the world of philosophy a bit impenetrable, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I know most the big names and have a basic sense of what a lot of them argued, but the works that they produced were made in a specific context, to address a specific conversation among the thinkers that preceded them and to which they were contemporary. It would be bordering on disrespect for me to try to jump in to any of them without a guide and act as though I’ve understood what is being said. So we need a map.

What I imagined is something like a tree arranged down a timeline. More influential philosophers would be bigger nodes, and the size of the lines between the nodes would perhaps be variable by strength of influence. Of course strength of influence needs a metric, but we’ll get there. I know that Wikipedia pages for academics and thinkers tend to have a field for “Influenced by” and “Influenced”, and it struck me that we could use Wikipedia’s semantic companion dbpedia to build our little map.

And so that is what he did. Here’s the view from a distance:

“Philosopher’s Web,” as he calls it, is an interactive map graphing the “influenced” and “influenced by” relationships for all philosophers listed in Wikipedia. Each node (blue dot) represents a philosopher, and “the more influential the philosopher, the thicker and more numerous the lines emanating from him.”

Taking a closer look, here is the map slightly zoomed in on Leibniz, whose blue dot has a thin red circle around it:

While there have been previous similar projects, Oliveira’s is a bit more advanced. The above image is a bit dense, with the lines almost impossible to follow. But if you let your mouse rest on the node of the philosopher you’re interested in, all but that philosopher’s lines of influence fade away:

If you then click and hold the philosopher’s name for a couple of seconds, those lines are organized into a more comprehensible map of influence, with each line having an arrow that denotes the direction of influence, like so:

From here, you can click on any of the other philosophers to see the relationship between his or her network and that of the philosopher you initially sought out. The image below shows what happens when I click on Husserl.

You can continue branching out in any direction you please.

There are a few other features as well, including ways to filter the philosophers shown. You can learn more about the project here, and try it out for yourself here.

Oliveira acknowledges that “Philosopher’s Web” has weaknesses, some stemming from the source material and some from the technology he’s using. He considers it a work in progress. Impressive work, nonetheless!

(Thanks to Daniel Brunson for bringing this to my attention.)

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Toby
Toby
4 years ago

Are the links updated if wikipedia is? For example some philosophers have very few links even though I would be (fairly) confident about adding more. And living philosophers would certainly be able to shed some interesting light on their own connections. Having this linked to wikipedia so it can be updated would be amazing.Report

Grant
Reply to  Toby
4 years ago

Hey Toby,

Unfortunately the map is not dynamically linked to Wikipedia. However, I do plan to update the map in the near future (say in a month or two) to add some extra widgets. If updates are made they’ll be included then.

Thanks for the feature Justin, I’m glad people liked it!Report

Gregory Sadler
4 years ago

Hmmm. Went into the Coppellia project by Simon Raper to see which philosophers he actually included in his set, and how he connected them (https://github.com/coppeliaMLA/graphingPhilosophy/blob/master/Phil.csv). Quite a few important relationships of influence are missing from that master set.

Just for one example – Maurice Blondel shows up in entries 922 and 923 – influenced by Emile Boutroux and Maine de Birain. No other connections whatsoever in the set. Influence on Blondel should probably include Augustine of Hippo, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Leibniz at a bare minimum.

Blondel exerted pretty significant influence in early-mid 20th century French philosophy. At the very least, he ought to be listed as influencing Gabriel Marcel – whose own connections are very underdeveloped in this data set as well. Marcel’s only influencer is Kierkegaard (even though Royce is in the set)? Marcel’s only influence was on Levinas? That’s very surprising to discover.

There are a lot of significant figures missing, and a lot of patterns of influence entirely absent in that data set. So, if the new visualization project is just drawing upon the older, and in many respects inadequate data set of the previous project, it would follow that it is going to provide a rather misleading visualization of influence relationships – at least in some respects.Report

Grant
Reply to  Gregory Sadler
4 years ago

Two things:

1) My map doesn’t draw on the same dataset, but it is from the same data source. They’re both extracted from Wikipedia’s “Influenced By” and “Influenced” sections, Raper’s version in 2012, mine in 2016. I’d assume this would mean mine is a little richer just given the passage of time. This method has some drawbacks that I call out in more detail in my blog post.

1a) Following from that, Wikipedia isn’t a rigorously detailed academic resource. It’s crowdsourced, it’s inconsistent, and that’s okay as long as we all understand what we’re looking at. As you’ve noted, some relationships are missed, some just because someone hasn’t dropped them in, some for more systematic reasons. You’ll notice for example that many of the classical philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have much smaller webs than newer ones like Alfred Whitehead. This just has to do with how people think when constructing articles. Editors probably figured it would be a waste of time to list everyone in the western canon in their “Influenced” section for Aristotle, instead opting to just say something like “More than 2300 years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential people who ever lived. He contributed to almost every field of human knowledge then in existence, and he was the founder of many new fields.” That being said, since I’ve released this map, I’ve had a ton of people message me and say, “So and so is missing from so and so’s article in Wikipedia. I’m gonna add it!” Which is great!

The map doesn’t claim to cover every possible relationship among any philosopher, just those within Wikipedia. It’s meant as imperfect, accessible guide for beginners, not a reference for academic professionals.Report

Gregory Sadler
Reply to  Grant
4 years ago

I appreciate the response.

So you used English Wikipedia to create the entries. I understand the reason why that would be a natural source to rely upon exclusively, but I suspect that had you also consulted French Wikipedia’s articles, the Blondel and Marcel entries would have been more complete. German Wikipedia would have resulted in more connections for Max Scheler, and one could multiply such examples.

As someone who generates online comment (and also gets a lot of similar “why didn’t you also. . . ?” questions), I can certainly understand the limitations of time that would preclude extending the research to a larger set of Wikipedia sources for your visualization.Report

Grant
Reply to  Gregory Sadler
4 years ago

Yes, this is another weakness I called out in the article. The visualization is naturally Euro-centric and English biased. It would be significantly more complex to connect in data from other language -pedias, but I agree that it would be a neat experiment.Report

Malcolm Keating
Malcolm Keating
Reply to  Grant
4 years ago

Hi Grant, relatedly, I couldn’t tell from your post why it is that philosophers like Confucius are included but not Nāgārjuna (that I could find–with or without diacritics). Maybe there is a way to update the source code so that it pulls from all of the categories of philosopher on Wikipedia? That step, even if it is short of pulling from other, non-English wikis, might help with the range of philosophers represented.Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
4 years ago

I have a real question about how the category of philosopher is circumscribed. Because I have an interest in early modern women philosophers and because I am confident they had much more influence than is usually attributed to them, I thought I would search a few names and see what turned up. While Mary Astell does turn up, Margaret Cavendish and Catherine Cockburn do not. Not a promising start. Even worse when you consider that Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Sanger do turn up. I wouldn’t call them philosophers, though their work might well be influenced by or influence philosophers. Thankfully, Mary Wollstonecraft turns up. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia does not. All of the omissions have Wikipedia entries. The situation gets worse when I start looking up the names of French women.

I also have a question about what counts as influence. It is incredibly difficult historical work to establish lines of influence. You have to be creative, looking at dedications, prefaces, library holdings, etc, in eras prior to the contemporary practice of footnoting. While data mining is fun and all, please let us not let it replace the real work that our archival historian colleagues do. And if you’ve never talked with an archival historian, seek them out. They have amazing stories.Report

Grant Louis Oliveira
Grant Louis Oliveira
Reply to  Lisa Shapiro
4 years ago

Please see my responses to other comments, I think most of these criticisms are addressed. The most important thing to remember is everything seen here is totally at the mercy of how well maintained the philosopher’s wikipedia page is. Influence is 100% contingent on who the writer(s) of the article decided to list, no more no less. Some may be archival historians, some may be teenagers with no specialty knowledge whatsoever. No way of knowing at all. As far as philosophers not showing up, it most likely just means that no one has gone in and tagged those philosophers as “philosophers” in Wikipedia. A good way to check this would be to scroll to the bottom of their page and see what categories they are in. Judging by some of the complaints I’ve received, I think some philosophers are categorized as something like “female philosophers” or “buddhist philosophers” and not “philosophers” in general. That’s just a theory, it could be wrong. I just notice that the people missed tend to come from a certain niche, and are less well known to the general public. This goes back to what I’ve said before re: Wikipedia’s euro-centric and english language bias.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

The map is a fantastic thing. Very clever. I can imagine it might be very useful sometimes. But it is almost certain to be misleading even with teams of programmers working around the clock. I cannot imagine exactly how it would help anyone understand philosophy, but for a historian facing an exam it might be handy.

I reckon with these visual features it might be packaged as an app and sold as a method for creating mind-maps, to-do lists, business-models and work-flows. .Report

oneemos
oneemos
1 year ago

I think a name deserve to be included in the map which is SUHRAWARDI because he is a major figure in the history of islamic philosophy and considered the founder of the illuminationist school , some of the names that was influenced by him : shahrazouri , qutb-din shirazi , jalal-din dawani , henry corbin , gholam hossein ibrahimi dinani , hossein ziai , john walbridge , and even mulla sadra …
also some of the names he himself was influenced by : al hallaj , abu yazid albastami , also alghazali , plato , zoroaster , hermes .Report

oneemos
oneemos
1 year ago

i hope also other guys add more names from different philosophical traditions .Report

oneemos
oneemos
1 year ago

Also another muslim philosopher not included in this impressive map who is : Fakhr al-Din al-Razi a major sunni theologian , actually many considered him the greatest muslim theologian in history at least in the ashaari school because he influenced virtually all subsequent sunni theology including important theologians like Al-Baydawi , Al-Taftazani and al-Bahūtī …
he himself was influenced by :Al-Shafi‘i , Al-Ash’ari , Al-Baqillani , Avicenna , Abu’l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī , Al-Juwayni , Al-Ghazali .Report