Re-Engineering the Tree of Knowledge: Vector Space Analysis and Centroid- Based Clustering in the Encyclopédie

  1. 1. Glenn Roe

    University of Chicago

  2. 2. Robert Voyer

    University of Chicago

  3. 3. Russell Horton

    University of Chicago

  4. 4. Mark Olsen

    University of Chicago

  5. 5. Charles Cooney

    University of Chicago

  6. 6. Robert Morrissey

    University of Chicago

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The Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond
d’Alembert is one of the crowning achievements of the French
Enlightenment. Mobilizing many of the great – and the not-sogreat
– philosophes of the eighteenth century, it was a massive
reference work for the arts and sciences, which sought to
organize and transmit the totality of human knowledge while at
the same time serving as a vehicle for critical thinking. The highly
complex structure of the work, with its series of classifi cations,
cross-references and multiple points of entry makes it not
only, as has been often remarked, a kind of forerunner of
the internet[1], but also a work that constitutes an ideal test
bed for exploring the impact of new machine learning and
information retrieval technologies. This paper will outline our
ongoing research into the ontology of the Encyclopédie , a data
model based on the classes of knowledge assigned to articles
by the editors and representing, when organized hierarchically,
a system of human understanding. Building upon past work,
we intend to move beyond the more traditional text and data
mining approaches used to categorize individual articles and
towards a treatment of the entire encyclopedic system as it
is elaborated through the distribution and interconnectedness
of the classes of knowledge. To achieve our goals, we plan on
using a vector space model and centroid-based clustering to
plot the relationships of the Encyclopédie‘s epistemological
categories, generating a map that will hopefully serve as a corollary to the taxonomic and iconographic representations
of knowledge found in the 18th century.[2]
Over the past year we have conducted a series of supervised
machine learning experiments examining the classifi cation
scheme found in the Encyclopédie, the results of which were
presented at Digital Humanities 2007. Our intent in these
experiments was to classify the more than 22,000 unclassifi ed
articles using the known classes of knowledge as our training
model. Ultimately the classifi er performed as well as could
be expected and we were left with 22,000 new classifi cations
to evaluate. While there were certainly too many instances
to verify by hand, we were nonetheless encouraged by the
assigned classifi cations for a small sample of articles. Due
to the limitations of this exercise, however, we decided to
leverage the information given us by the editors in exploring
the known classifi cations and their relationship to each other
and then later, to consider the classifi cation scheme as a whole
by examining the general distribution of classes over the entire
work as opposed to individual instances. Using the model
assembled for our fi rst experiment - trained on all of the
known classifi cations - we then reclassifi ed all of the classifi ed
articles. Our goal in the results analysis was twofold: fi rst, we
were curious as to the overall performance of our classifi cation
algorithm, i.e., how well it correctly labeled the known articles;
and secondly, we wanted to use these new classifi cations to
examine the outliers or misclassifi ed articles in an attempt to
understand better the presumed coherency and consistency
of the editors’ original classifi cation scheme.[3]
In examining some of the reclassifi ed articles, and in light
of what we know about Enlightenment conceptions of
human knowledge and understanding – ideas for which the
Encyclopédie and its editors were in no small way responsible
– it would seem that there are numerous cases where the
machine’s classifi cation is in fact more appropriate than
that of the editors. The machine’s inability to reproduce the
editors’ scheme with stunning accuracy came somewhat as
a surprise and called into question our previous assumptions
about the overall structure and ordering of their system of
knowledge. Modeled after Sir Francis Bacon’s organization
of the Sciences and human learning, the Système Figuré des
connaissances humaines is a typographical diagram of the various
relationships between all aspects of human understanding
stemming from the three “root” faculties of Reason, Memory,
and Imagination.[4] It provides us, in its most rudimentary
form, with a view from above of the editors’ conception of
the structure and interconnectedness of knowledge in the
18th century. However, given our discovery that the editors’
classifi cation scheme is not quite as coherent as we originally
believed, it is possible that the Système fi guré and the expanded
Arbre généalogique des sciences et arts, or tree of knowledge, as
spatial abstractions, were not loyal to the complex network
of contextual relationships as manifested in the text. Machine
learning and vector space analysis offer us the possibility, for
the fi rst time, to explore this network of classifi cations as
a whole, leveraging the textual content of the entire work
rather than relying on external abstractions.
The vector space model is a standard framework in which
to consider text mining questions. Within this model, each
article is represented as a vector in a very high-dimensional
space where each dimension corresponds to the words in
our vocabulary. The components of our vectors can range
from simple word frequencies, to n-gram and lemma counts,
in addition to parts of speech and tf-idf (term frequencyinverse
document frequency), which is a standard weight used
in information retrieval. The goal of tf-idf is to fi lter out both
extremely common and extremely rare words by offsetting
term frequency by document frequency. Using tf-idf weights,
we will store every article vector in a matrix corresponding to
its class of knowledge. We will then distill these class matrices
into individual class vectors corresponding to the centroid of
the matrix.[5]
Centroid or mean vectors have been employed in classifi cation
experiments with great success.[6] While this approach is
inherently lossy, our initial research suggests that by fi ltering
out function words and lemmatizing, we can reduce our class
matrices in this way and still retain a distinct class core. Using
standard vector space similarity measures and an open-source
clustering engine we will cluster the class vectors and produce
a new tree of knowledge based on semantic similarity. We
expect the tree to be best illustrated as a weighted undirected
graph, with fully-connected sub-graphs. We will generate
graphs using both the original classifi cations and the machine’s
decisions as our labels.
Due to the size and scale of the Encyclopédie, its editors adopted
three distinct modes of organization - dictionary/alphabetic,
hierarchical classifi cation, and cross-references - which, when
taken together, were said to represent encyclopedic knowledge
in all its complexity.[7] Using the machine learning techniques
outlined above, namely vector space analysis and centroidbased
clustering, we intend to generate a fourth system of
organization based on semantic similarity. It is our hope that a
digital representation of the ordering and interconnectedness
of the Encyclopédie will highlight the network of textual
relationships as they unfold within the work itself, offering a
more inclusive view of its semantic structure than previous
abstractions could provide. This new “tree of knowledge” can
act as a complement to its predecessors, providing new points
of entry into the Encyclopédie while at the same time suggesting
previously unnoticed relationships between its categories. References
[1] E. Brian, “L’ancêtre de l’hypertexte”, in Les Cahiers de
Science et Vie 47, October 1998, pp. 28-38.
[2] R. Darnton. “Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge.”
The Great Cat Massacre and Other Essays in French Cultural
History. London: Penguin, 1985, pp. 185-207.
[3] R. Horton, R. Morrissey, M. Olsen, G. Roe, and R. Voyer.
“Mining Eighteenth Century Ontologies: Machine Learning
and Knowledge Classifi cation in the Encyclopédie.” under
consideration for Digital Humanities Quarterly.
[4] For images of the Système fi guré des connaissance humaines
and the Arbre généalogique des sciences et des arts principaux
systeme2.jpg; and http://artfl
[5] G. Salton, A. Wong, and C. S. Yang. “A vector space model
for automatic indexing.” Communications of the ACM.
November 1975.
[6] E. Han and G. Karypis. “Centroid-Based Document
Classifi cation.” Principles of Data Mining and Knowledge
Discovery. New York: Springer, 2000, pp. 424-431.
[7] G. Blanchard and M. Olsen. “Le système de renvois
dans l’Encyclopédie: une cartographie de la structure des
connaissances au XVIIIème siècle.” Recherches sur Diderot et
sur l’Encyclopédie, April 2002.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None