This inspiring image is known as the “figurative system of human knowledge”. It was developed in an attempt to represent the structure of knowledge itself, produced for the Encyclopédie by Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot in mid to late 17th century France. This tree was intended to be a taxonomy of human knowledge, and despite its historically limited inclusions and omissions it remains one of the most thorough examples of how beautifully limited our understanding of the world around us is, whilst simultaneously arousing a sense of wonder into just how vast the potential bank of that static knowledge is. In its most humble state it is invaluable context for how isolated one mode of thinking can be if it makes a silo of itself; each silo being reflected by one subdivision or branch of this tree.
Its three main branches are: “Memory”/History, “Reason”/Philosophy, and “Imagination”/Poetry. The connection to cognition within each title is blatant. This image has always fascinated me for that reason, because it is an attempt to encompass in some form of structure, the relative positioning from where all various strands of potential understanding emerge. It’s relationship to any pursuit into inter-disciplinary thinking is clear in so far as that as a byproduct of its hierarchy it illustrates points of divergence and subdivision. This can be read in reverse to show points of commonality and interconnected understanding, albeit in broader strokes. If we are to presume that inter-disciplinary thought in any format relies crucially on a common vernacular and a common point of reference then this stakes a strong claim as an historical precedent for how a modern version of this structure might appear.
Perhaps the more exciting element of this pursuit then, isn’t just in recreating a modern technologically flexible equivalent that brings such a commendable venture into the 21st Century, but in what it might point towards and ultimately reveal. The periodic table itself was largely empty upon creation, and it was through the positioning of known elements and their relative key metrics (atomic number etc) that scientists could begin to see where they had blanks left to fill. What is the structure that reveals the blanks in current understanding? So, enter the next image…
This is an image that represents the hierarchy of visual information, and how it is structured and then understood. Now before we justifiably critique its pyramidal nature and subsequently agree that it should be represented as a cyclic process, lets focus on one vital key point of note. Knowledge, as something we have seen as the core focus of the tree structure above sits in the middle of this passage from data to action. This suggests two more fundamental states beneath such a tree. For instance, what is tree of human information? What is the tree of human data? These surely underpin the knowledge tree and surely set themselves up as precursors in how we would come to generate such a tree in the first place. In the age of big data this must be seen as a framework for ordering that data, through information, to knowledge. It requires exceptionally broad networks to be derived that cross all forms of thought, but it would generate insight invaluable to every possible aspect of human understanding. Let us now enter a period where we define the spaces in between.
This concept behind building a structure of human understanding is vital in terms of bridging the current horizon for silos of detailed knowledge, which as previously stated is at the core of shedding light on inter-disciplinary thinking, and therefore by extension on inter-disciplinary design. Yet we now also know that human understanding is a sequentially layered process. So where knowledge was once the limit, it now becomes rooted in structuring the information that has been ordered to become that knowledge, and even data that has been linked to become that same information.
The interesting byproduct of this pursuit would see a revival of academia in terms of altering its current trajectory towards a more and more specified self-serving space, understandable only to those who breathe the same air so to speak. Depth is isolating if it is sought on the basis of attaining a state of originality. While this new system requires those who choose to think and operate across disciplines it is enabled and catalyzed by those who have attained a certain level of depth in one specific field of study. Consider the economist who upon reaching PhD level decides to create and design common ground systematically between his field of expertise and computer programming for example, or perhaps a field of study more detached like neuroscience. Is there an opportunity to create a standard beyond the PhD for instance that requires experts in their field to attain a new level of understanding by attempting to translate and subsequently relate their field across all fields? Experts who then begin to chart and navigate the spaces between the ultra-specific character of the “philosopher”?
This is the current horizon. This is what stops corporate giants dictating the nature of education systems, and in turn the highest level of performance and understanding, given they can’t shape a graduate to become something that hasn’t been defined yet. What lies between expertise? Isn’t that the fundamental point of education? The mystery? The challenge? Those who accept inter-disciplinary thinking as their lens accept and embody this particular philosophy. It is my personal belief that the character of any potential pursuit into sustainable solutions to persistent problems globally lie in this uncharted space; in the legacy of the knowledge tree.