Archive for the ‘semiosis’ Tag

On an Epistemic Center

A SIG/CR panel at this year’s ASIST annual meeting in Copenhagen was devoted to the concepts of global and local knowledge organization. It was a continuation, of sorts, of the 2015 conference held under the auspices of the Royal School of Library and Information Science at the University of Copenhagen,  orchestrated by Jens-Erik Mai, to consider whether approaching knowledge organization from the dual poles of global and local might shift the domain in new and useful directions from its standard dichotomy of universality versus domain-specificity. A report of the conference appeared in Knowledge Organization (Martinez-Avila 2015). The ASIST panel spent only a small portion of the allotted time in presentations, choosing instead to pose a series of questions in order to promote discussion.

One of the more intriguing ideas arose from John Budd, who spoke from the floor for a bit about phenomenological approaches to knowledge organization. I also have embraced phenomenological KO from time to time because of my conviction that a core problem in any form of KO is perception. A basic problem always exists because perceptions are not fixed, even in any particular individual, let alone in a community or among strangers. If KO is based ultimately on the atomic concept, how can concurrence on ontological distinctions ever be reached if every concept is subject to individual perception? There is no good answer to the question. There only are utilitarian explanations about what, in fact, is done in individual knowledge organization systems or applications to force perceptual concurrence. The central problem remains.

In his comments, which I by no means remember in full, Budd made reference to work by Paul Ricoeur in which the notion of “just institutions” plays an important role. Institutions that are just, in a phenomenological sense, must become so by arriving at, negotiating, navigating or even simply hovering over an epistemic center. Budd asked the group to consider whether there is an epistemic center in KO. If there were, presumably it would be located between and overlap the interests of both global and local considerations.

It’s an interesting question, by which I mean it is a critical question for KO, to consider how or whether an epistemic center, or epistemic centers, exist or function in the domain. If so they would provide a kind of unity, or maybe community is a better term, of perceptual conceptual loci. There are various approaches to phenomenology, of course, but most assert the role of the individual as a lens for perceiving reality. In Husserlian phenomenology (see Smiraglia 2014b, 28-29), noesis is the action by which the individual perceiving any entity sweeps his own ego for experienced perceptions and settles on, however briefly, a synthesis of experience that becomes in that moment the perception of that entity. When the entity is a concept, it means the noetic act involves sweeping and synthesizing cognizance based on experiential evidence. The problem for KO, of course, is that, if every individual is perceiving every concept individually, there is a high probability of misunderstanding from one individual to another or from individual to community. How can there be a knowledge organization based on concepts, if all concepts are subject to perception, and perception is a function of individual lived experience?

The answer has to lie in this notion of an epistemic core, a central gathering space as it were of overlapping perceptions that arrive at overlapping noetic synthesis and thus an agreed (conscious or not) ontology of any particular concept or set of concepts.

Such an epistemic center (epistemic because it relies on knowledge) has to be what we often refer to as culture. In Cultural Synergy in Information Institutions I wrote (Smiraglia 2014a, 1):

Cultural forces govern the synergistic relationship among information institutions and thus [shape] their roles collectively and individually. Synergy is that combination of forces whose power is greater than the individual power of its constituent elements. Culture is that base of knowledge that is common to any particular group of people, such that it shapes their perception as well as their behavior as a group and as members of that group. Cultural synergy, then, is the combination of perception- and behavior-shaping knowledge within, between, and among groups that contributes to the now realized virtual reality of a common information-sharing interface among information institutions.

Culture then, such as it is, must be the ethos of an epistemic center. If so, it must necessarily be a dynamic space, much like Peirceian semiotic space (see Smiraglia 2014b, 23-26), in which a constant process of synthesis on the part of individuals and groups sweeps experience for perceptual understanding arriving momentarily simultaneously on overlapping ontologies of concepts. (By ontology of a concept I mean its definitive boundaries, and the factors that determine what is or is not an exemplar.) Such a dynamism is the combination of semiosis with noesis.

The epistemic center must be the space in the universe of knowledge where perception takes place, leading to signs and concepts, the combination of which constitute works, which in turn constitute taxons, which constitute canons that represent cultures (see Smiraglia and van den Heuvel 2013, 374). The epistemic center (or any epistemic center) is the working place from which knowledge organization arises; it is the foundry where Paul Otlet’s grinder chugs away rearranging perceived knowledge into newly discoverable clusters (378). Culture, in all of its meanings, defines the boundaries of epistemic center. Ontological boundaries must therefore be constantly shifting (this we know already from common sense and more recently, empirically from ontogenetic studies of KO).



Martínez-Ávila, Daniel. 2015. “Global and Local Knowledge Organization, Copenhagen, August 12, 2015. Knowledge Organization 42: 470-3.

Smiraglia, Richard P. 2014a. Cultural Synergy in Information Institutions. New York: Springer.

Smiraglia, Richard P. 2014b. The Elements of Knowledge Organization.  Cham: Springer.

Smiraglia, Richard P. and Charles van den Heuvel. 2013. “Classifications and Concepts: Towards an Elementary Theory of Knowledge Interaction.” Journal of Documentation 69: 360-83.

Posted October 23, 2016 by lazykoblog in epistemology, phenomenology

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