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Chains and links.

Over 60 years ago, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, a professor at Johns Hopkins, gave a series of lectures that resulted in his classic work, The Great Chain of Being. Its central aim was to show that there was a:
      ... plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages
  and down to the late eighteenth century ... most educated men were to
  accept without question--the conception of the universe as a "Great
  Chain of Being," composed of an immense, or ... infinite number of
  links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of
  existents ... through "every possible" grade up to the ens

At the top was God, of course. Then came angels and demons, then humans, then animals, then plants, minerals and, at the bottom, non-being. Within these broad categories, each and every thing had its place, depending on how much "spirit" it contained as opposed to mere "matter." Not only were rabbits ahead of fish and gold ahead of lead, but squires were above merchants.


While the hierarchy of beings was laid out as rungs on a ladder, the theory of "correspondences" added a layer of complexity and even beauty to the notion. Different sets of rungs reflected the order of larger sets in what we would today call a fractal way. The governmental order reflected the order of the cosmos, human psychology reflected the four elements, etc.

Despite this nicely complicating wrinkle, the fundamental fact and purpose of the Great Chain of Being was to be simple and complete: Every entity has its spot in the hierarchy, every spot is filled, and there can be no movement and no vacancies ... ruling out evolution and extinction, not to mention making social mobility a crime against nature.

Why believe such a foolish thing? After all, it can't be derived from evidence. It does, however, do something that all great theories do: It unifies disparate experience. In fact, the Great Chain is precisely about showing the inner order of the diversity of entities. It unifies them not only in terms of their rank order but also in terms of their value. And it explains why there are precisely these types of creatures and not others.

Even though the Chain has gone through some serious revisions over the millennia, in one important way it has remained the same. In the 18th century, Linnaeus re-did Aristotle's classifications, adding a couple more grand categories. But, like Aristotle, Linnaeus assumed that he was uncovering God's own way of classifying the world. Likewise, modern "cladistics" redraws Linnaeus' tree (and Stephen Jay Gould would remind us that it's more like a bush than a tree) according to each animal's ancestry, not according to the similarities of their anatomy, which is all Linnaeus had to go on. In all these cases, the chain or tree is assumed to represent real classifications, although the nature of the reality--God in Aristotle's or Linnaeus' eyes, Nature's in Darwin's--is different.

But now we are at a breaking point, for the digitization of knowledge makes it inescapably clear that most of the classificatory schemes that we care about are invented, not discovered. Why is this so clear? Because it's so easy to switch schemes, to pivot the axes, to file ideas under multiple categories. Classifications are tools.

Further, classifications often no longer are the best guides to value. Google beats Yahoo because, while Yahoo puts everything into neatly arranged folders, Google looks at the one-to-one links that spread across the tree of knowledge like the work of a million spiders on LSD.

The change from trees to webs matters because it means that instead of something getting its meaning from the bucket it's in, its meaning is determined by the billion different reasons people thought it'd be interesting to link to it. If you want to see what something is, don't look to where the Great Bucketer in the Sky put it. Instead, look to what the population of people who care about it think that it's about. That's why Google in theory can turn up pages that don't even have the words on it that you're looking for: The page thought it was about a maintenance manual for O-rings and didn't know that it's in fact about why the Challenger blew up. But the web of interested people knew it.

Once we recognize that classification schemes are tools and not representations of reality, they get much handier as tools. Of course, the price is giving up our place in the eternal order of the universe.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (, e-mail
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Title Annotation:Opinion
Author:Weinberger, David
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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