Saturday, April 29, 2006

What's in a Wikipedia Name: The Genesis of an Idea

This is an email query I received from a friend, along with my response. I think the basic question - how do ideas, generally speaking, come to be named? - is an interesting one, and I'd welcome further feedback and contributions from you all on this topic.

[initial email: tom]

one time a while back, you and i were having one of our typically long phone chats and i think one of us raised the idea that climates dictated the behaviors, attitudes, and even thinking patterns of populations. (so on the Med you get more laid-back loungers; in the colder climes you get more philosophers and readers--that sorta thing. cf America.) anyway, i know that either i suggested it, or you suggested it and i inserted that i had also read of that notion in Byron, where he talks about the sexual licentiousness that often accompanies warm climates. i think the conversation ended there because it was just sorta that: 'huh...yeah, that's
kinda interesting.'

turns out it goes back as far as Montesquieu in the Enlightenment, and to one of his favorite writers Tacitus before that, and before that...? here's from Wikipedia on M:

'One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, is the climate theory, which holds that climate should substantially influence the nature of man and his society. He even goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being the best of possible climates. His view is that people living in hot countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate in middle Europe thus breeds the best people. (This view is possibly influenced by similar statements in Germania by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu's favourite authors.)'

so i guess my question is this: is there a way to catalogue certain ideas? then how does one access/search them? could it somehow be as efficient, or nearly as efficient, as a dictionary? i'm assuming this particular theory doesn't have a name, and maybe that's all that is required--to make one up. e.g., let's call it psychoclimatology, give it a Wikipedia page, give it a bit of history (and always inviting people to add places in other literature where the notion may have first appeared), any scientific backing it may have, any recent developments, where it stands now (credibility-wise), etc. this is, then, how it is actually 'entered' into our world of data, and how it becomes searchable and usable.

but is this the only way? and what if it doesn't have a name? would the Wikipedia entry be, 'Theory_That_Climates_Affect_Human_Evolution_And_Development_And_Behavior'? what about for even more nuanced theories?

ok, i'm on the brink of deleting this whole email because i don't know where i'm going with this...but i'll send it anyway and see if it inspires any random musings from you.

[and a reply email: tim]

I don't remember the specific discussion about climate theory but we must've had it some time ago, otherwise I'm sure I would've gone on about all the evolutionary explanations that convincingly tie climate to behavior, activities, etc. in human beings, and in countless other species as well. Don't remember anything about Byron or Montesquieu but I suppose that's not really your point...

Your question is how we define and delineate ideas, but I think that you might be thinking about it too rigidly. I don't think this particular idea, or many other ideas, need to be easily defined and labeled for purposes of their own Wikipedia page (or some other system of cataloguing). I think that ideas like this one aren't discrete and bounded in a way that lends to their easy description in one topical name, or one sentence, or one webpage. The notion that climates affect human evolution, development, and behavior is one that can be addressed from many different angles, and relies of numerous other ideas (I won't call them "sub-ideas" because some are as or more encompassing than this particular one) from a whole host of disciplines: evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, social psychology...just to name but a few.

I think it's tempting to want to isolate every idea from every other ideas - to show their connections (think html links), yes, but also to show their boundaries as well. Only, I don't think it works that way. To do so would require placing such a vast amount of material in so many different places - consider the importance of something like natural selection to this idea, to Darwin's theory of evolution, to the development of common law jurisprudence, etc., etc., etc. - that it would be an impossible feat.

So we have chunks of ideas. And they float out there, in the collective knowledge of history, attached and detached from other chunks of ideas at various points in time. Sometimes they coalesce in a way that lends itself nicely to a Wikipedia name - the theory of evolution, the theory of global warming, philosophical skepticism, etc. - and sometimes they don't. I'm not sure it's something that can be forced other than...well...other than pulling together all of those disparate idea nodes and writing yourself a paper or a book or a treatise that makes sense of them all, that binds them in a way that other people find believable and compelling. In many respects I think that is what lies at the core of most academic scholarship. Very few people, academics or otherwise, describe something entirely new in the world. Much more often, it seems to me, the role of the academic is one of synthesis: taking all those ideas that are more or less fairly related to something that interests her, pulling them all together, and spitting out something that is nicer, clearer, and lends itself to a Wikipedia page. Do that and you've probably earned yourself tenure at a university somewhere.

Don't know if that was helpful it all - but those are my quick thoughts...

Looking forward to some more opinions on this topic...


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home