PhiloSURFical: Browse Wittgenstein’s World with the Semantic Web

Michele Pasin, Enrico Motta, Milton Keynes


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. RDF, SPARQL, OWL). 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.


20th century philosophy; media philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; e-learning; formal ontology; navigation; Tractatus logico-philosophicus

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