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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