PhiloSURFical: browse Wittgenstein’s world with the Semantic Web

Michele Pasin


How could a web navigation enhance or affect a philosophy scholar? Especially within
an educational scenario, is the constantly increasing number of philosophical web
materials a source of confusion, or an advantage? In our work we have been
investigating the requirements and features of the possible navigation mechanisms a
philosophy student could benefit from. In particular, in the context of the Semantic
Web, we have identified some of the "learning pathways" which can be used for
dynamically presenting these materials within a meaningful context.

For example, imagine that from the paragraph 7 of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, by
selecting an interpretative navigation path, you could easily jump to Max Black's
detailed commentary on it. And from there, being interested on Black's interpretation
and wanting to gather information on its possible origins, you were able to query the
web using a comparative navigation path, aimed at highlighting what Wittgenstein and
Black had in common. Two main results are returned: both studied at Cambridge, both
worked in the philosophy of language area. You decide to focus your attention on
Cambridge, click on it, select an historical perspective and see that while in
Cambridge, in the the 20's, Black had the opportunity to listen to and meet some of
the major scholars of the time: Russell, Moore and Ramsey were among them. Now you
may want to reorganize these results, according to a theoretical perspective. Thus
you discover that another link among all these philosophers is their interest in the
philosophy of mathematics, and that actually Black's first book was centered on this
topic. So you drift away for a moment, select again a theoretical navigation, pull up
a small map of the important views in philosophy of mathematics in the last century,
and see that among them there is also the first philosophy of Wittgenstein. You click
on it, select a textual navigation and automatically you are taken back to the
Tractatus, but this time to paragraph 6.2.

The sort of links that would make possible such navigations are of a slightly
different nature than the famous hyperlink which, together with other things, made
the fortune of the web. And if Google does a great job in meaningfully organizing for
us the web of hyperlinks, it cannot do much if we wanted to query directly the web of
relations existing among our world's entities. In order to do so, resources need to
be indexed and described not only at the syntactical level (e.g. with respect to
their status as an image, a text file or a video), but also at the semantic one, i.e.
with respect to their content. The Semantic Web effort, or web of data, brings
forward the ambitious vision of creating and maintaining this "semantic layer" of the
web, so to allow software agents (e.g. programs like the navigation tool described
above) to accomplish various operations which would not be otherwise possible. In
this paper we present PhiloSURFical, a pedagogical application which allows the
contextual navigation of a semantically-enhanced version of Wittgenstein's Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus. By relying on an ontology created to describe the philosophical
domain at various levels of abstraction, users can benefit from multiple perspectives
on the text and on related resources. Moreover, users can use the application for
storing their own annotations about the Tractatus and possibly contribute to the
creation of an network of philosophical resources centered around the text and its
author. For the moment, as the availability of free and adequate semantic data on the
web is still limited, PhiloSURFical strongly relies on an internal knowledge base,
but its architecture wants to be open and extensible so to allow future integration
and querying of different repositories, using the appropriate web standards (e.g.

Often, with great and inspiring visions, also come great and challenging
difficulties. The Semantic Web makes no exception here. During our work with the
PhiloSURFical tool we faced many of them, some with an exquisitely philosophical
flavour, others of an inherent technical character. Thus, here we also want to
discuss some lessons learned during the development of the tool, and hopefully show
the reader how, despite the various limitations, the benefits of such an approach
make the enterprise worth pursuing.


philosophy; 20th century philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; computational ontology; digital storytelling; learning pathway; active learning; knowledge representation

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