Integrative Levels Classification project scheme monograph references

« Layers and strata

A principle for knowledge organization

As the pattern of levels can encompass all classes of phenomena, it provides a useful principle for the organization of knowledge into a general system. Indeed, several thinkers have received the idea as a valuable basis on which to build a classification of all sciences. Among them are André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1806-1861), Patrick Edward Dove (1815-1873), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Ernest Cushing Richardson (1860-1939), James Duff Brown (1862-1914), Henry Evelyn Bliss (1870-1955), Bonifati Mihailovic Kedrov (1903-1985), Louis Glangeaud (1903-1986). Recently, Basarab Nicolescu suggested that "levels [...] offer the possibility of a new taxonomy" [Nic06. P 6].

Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus, the early terminological system presenting English terms in alphabetical order, also has a systematic presentation following a sequence similar to that of levels: abstract relations, space, matter (general, inorganic, organic), intellectual faculties, voluntary powers, sentient and moral powers. This was published in the 1911 US edition, and has been recently adopted as one system for browsing entries in the Wikipedia [Wik07].

J.D. Brown's Subject Classification was based on a sequence of "matter, life, mind, and record", closely matching the major strata discussed above, with the initial omission of forms:

matter, force, motion and their applications are assumed to precede life and mind, and for that reason the material side of science, with its applications, has been selected as a foundation main class on which to construct the system. Life and its forms, arising out of matters, occupy the second place among the main classes [...]. Human life, its varieties, physical history, disorders and recreations, follows naturally as a higher development. [Bro1906. P 12]

Classificationist Richardson also claimed that "the order of the sciences is the order of things", and "the order of things is lifeless, living, human, superhuman" [Ric30; Dou10]

This kind of ontological sequence is described as "serial classification" by S.R. Ranganathan and Ganesh Bhattacharyya; they observe that it is based on "Comte's claim that each subject is virtually an application of the preceding one", and mention Ampère and Spencer as its followers [Bha74]. Ampère's sequence differs from the others in that it places the applied disciplines just after the corresponding pure one: physics, engineering; geology, mining; botany, agriculture; zoology, animal husbandry, medicine. Ranganathan follows this order in listing the main classes of his Colon Classification.

Henry Evelyn Bliss found that the disciplines of knowledge can be arranged according to "the order of nature", which is dynamic and developmental: "this development has evidently arisen from the inorganic and has extended upward thru the biologic into the mental and the social" [Bli29. P 179]. Disciplines in his Bibliographic Classification are listed in an order of "gradation by speciality": first those dealing with all phenomena, that is philosophy, mathematics, and physics, then those dealing with increasingly special phenomena, that is biology, psychology, sociology, etc. This order was kept in the second, faceted edition of the Bliss Bibliographic Classification (BC2), edited by Jack Mills and other members of the Classification Research Group since the 1970s. In the same period, Eric Coates and other CRG members adopted a similar order for their Broad System of Ordering (BSO).

The CRG explicitly considered integrative levels, as presented by Needham and Feibleman, as the basis of a general classification scheme [Spi95; Jus01-04; Gno04b]. Ideas in this direction were adumbrated already by members Brian Vickery [Vic57-58], Barbara Kyle [Kyl58-59], and Leo Jolley [Jol64-74]. But it was especially Douglas Foskett who proposed to take Feibleman's theory [Fei54] as the basic structuring principle by which phenomena could be ordered, so to produce a list of phenomena instead of disciplines [Fos59-70]. His model was in good agreement with Jason Farradane's principle of unique definition [section 6; Far50-66]: indeed, levels provide a single place for the definition of each phenomenon, that can be expressed in a notational symbol, which will not change when its relationships with phenomena of different levels are discussed in documents.

The question of grouping entities within the main category [of Things] was discussed, and Mr Foskett suggested that the use of a concept such as "levels of integration" might be helpful. No other similar proposals were advanced, and it was thought that the application of this concept might be worth considering. Members of the Group agreed to re-read the statement by Joseph Needham (which is given in his book "Time the refreshing river") and to try applying the concept to entities in fields in which they were familiar. Note: Mr Vickery also deals with the exponents of the theory in Appendix A of his book. [CRG61. P 163]

The CRG worked for several years to explore the structure of a new general classification scheme, using a grant provided by NATO. Many features and problems of it were considered in the group meetings [CRG61-68]. Discussions were filled with original and interesting ideas, but members had different opinions about them, and could not reach a common conclusion on the final structure of the scheme. However, Derek Austin produced concrete drafts of its schedules and how it could work by his principles of freely faceted classification [Aus69-98].

Then the grant was not renewed, and Austin became busy with another big project concerning verbal subject indexing at the British National Bibliography, which took the form of PRECIS, the Preserved Context Indexing System. In the meantime, Mills, Coates, Foskett and others began to focus on the new edition of the Bliss Classification. Although not being a classification, PRECIS inherited many features of Austin's previous work, especially for what concerned the free combination of concepts by role/facet operators. In turn, this influenced the formulation of similar principles by the Italian Research Group on Subject Indexing (GRIS), which are now partially being introduced in the Nuovo Soggettario, the general thesaurus developed at the Central National Library of Florence.

Similar, though probably less sophisticated, attempts at a classification based on an evolutionary arrangement of knowledge objects were also performed by Ejnar Wåhlin [Wåh63], Martin Scheele [Sch77], and Alexander Shpackov [Shp92]. Ingetraut Dahlberg's Information Coding Classification also has 10 main classes of knowledge objects inspired by Hartmann's ontology: form and structure, energy and matter, cosmos and Earth, bio, human, socio, economy and technology, science and information, culture. It is interesting to notice that this list extends beyond the naturalistic domains to include also technological and intellectual products (Hartmann's spiritual stratum), an idea agreed by the present project. However, ICC main classes are divided according to categories of an epistemological nature, thus yielding subclasses representing again knowledge fields, rather than more specific phenomena [Dah82;08].

This story explains how very promising ideas were introduced in classification research, but were not fully exploited to achieve the publication of a new classification of phenomena structured by integrative levels. Although some, like Dahlberg [Dal74-78; pers. comm.], see this as the result of theoretical failures, I am persuaded that the stop in development was mostly due to contingent factors, while the basic idea is still valid. Austin's papers on classification are a very advanced achievement from both the theoretical and the technical sides, which has not been equalled subsequently.

In this spirit, the ILC project started to resume experimentation with a classification of phenomena arranged by integrative levels and combinable as free facets. The list of ILC classes is partially different from those produced by the CRG, and the subsequent development is independent from them, still the works by Foskett and Austin must be seen as its main references.

Open questions »

References cited in this section

Bha74: From knowledge classification to library classification / G Bhattacharyya, SR Ranganathan = Conceptual basis of the classification of knowledge : proceedings of the Ottawa conference. P 119-143 / Jerzy A Wojciechowski – Saur : Pullach bei München : 1974

Bli29: The organization of knowledge and the system of the sciences / Henry Evelyn Bliss – Holt : New York : 1929

Bro1906: Subject classification : with tables, indexes, etc., for the sub-division of subjects / James Duff Brown – Library supply : London : 1906

Dah82: Information coding classification : principles, structure and application possibilities / Ingetraut Dahlberg = International classification. 9: 1982. 2. P 87-93

Dah08: The Information coding classification (ICC): a modern, theory-based fully-faceted, universal system of knowledge fields / Ingetraut Dahlberg = Axiomathes. 18 : 2008. 2. P 161-176

Dou10: The simple and the complex in EC Richardson's theory of classification : observations on an early KO model of the relationship between ontology and epistemology / Thomas M Dousa = Paradigms and conceptual systems in knowledge organization : proceedings of the Eleventh international ISKO conference: 23-26 February 2010: Rome (Italy). P 15-22 / Claudio Gnoli, Fulvio Mazzocchi : ed - Ergon : Würzburg : 2010

Ric30: Classification, theoretical and practical # E 3 / Ernest Cushing Richardson – Wilson : New York : 1930

Sch77: Ordnung und Wortschatz des Wissens. 1: Das Ordnungssystem: Universelle Facetten-Classifikation (UFC) / Martin Scheele – Guntrum : Schlitz (Hessen) : 1977

Shp92: The nature and boundaries of information science(s) / AA Shpackov = Journal of the American society for information science. 43 : 1992. 10. P 678-680

Wåh63: Principles for a universal system of classification based on certain fundamental concepts and an outline of a variant adapted to technology / Ejnar Wåhlin = Journal of documentation. 19 : 1963. 4. P 173-186

Wik07: Wikipedia. Outline of Roget's Thesaurus = (Wikipedia) – <> : 2007-


Integrative Levels Classification. Philosophy. Integrative levels. A principle for knowledge organization / Claudio Gnoli – ISKO Italy : <> : 2009.02.27 - 2011.07.29 -

  Integrative Levels Classification project scheme monograph references