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Accessing Knowledge

Document from the Zurich Project

"Wie funktioniert ein Zugriff auf Wissen?"

Translation made by Sabine Michel

Ways of Accessing a Knowledge Store

 We propose a basic differentiation between three interlinked steps which are involved in the process of accessing a store of knowledge (i.e.: process of consultation – transfer of knowledge – information retrieval):


(i) The precondition for consulting an encyclopaedia – if one is not browsing through one for amusement – is a question, or a gap in the user's knowledge / information.

(ii) The information that is sought can only be transferred (searched for / displayed) in parts; the whole of a society's knowledge has to be divided into distinct units and provided with an address – i.e. a keyword or lemma – for the purpose of transfer.

 (iii) In order to understand the document – i.e. article – in which the knowledge is presented, or in which the question is answered (using the medium of image, text, or film etc.), the user has to apply further knowledge and link the document to what he or she already knows.

These cognitive-psychological foundations of the encyclopaedia are clarified below.

(i) " … wonder is the only beginning of philosophy" (Plato, Theaetetus 155d)

The average person does not actually experience a sense of ignorance and a desire for information very often in everyday life. When we are bound up in goal-oriented everyday processes, we are conditioned – either by habit or specific training – in such a way that we hardly ever encounter anything questionable. (A car-driver who kept having to ask himself or herself afresh which vehicle had right of way, or what exactly each sign meant, would not get very far without causing an accident.)

Our life is simplified by conventions: they relieve us of the burden of having to debate every problem or course of action. We thus regard many things as 'matters of course', or things which can be taken for granted. We are adapted to our environment to such an extent that we get by even if there is a certain percentage of things we do not understand. We even refuse to admit to knowledge-gaps, preferring to close our eyes to them; we are 'neophobic'. At the same time, these matters of course hinder innovation and the development of knowledge.


"It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place about the mysteries they encountered." (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.982b)


How can we start to call into question the things we take for granted? Kant's question "What can we know?" should be preceded by the question 'How do we realise that we do not know?' How do we gain a critical perspective on the seemingly familiar? Sometimes this occurs in trivial situations; other cases are more interesting or even artificially provoked:

- an unfamiliar word crops up in a text: "In the wall of the fortress, a ravelin was damaged."

- an action cannot be performed because the relevant knowledge is lacking (What is Madeleine's phone number? How do I prepare a blancmange? Which button do I press to set the video recorder to standby?)

- a stranger asks us something – this dialogic situation is artificially produced in quiz shows such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

- a teacher's insistent questions force us to admit to a knowledge gap and fill it – if necessary as a piece of homework

- paradoxical formulations of a text which lead into an aporia provoke further questions

- curiosity, the ability to wonder

The special nature of the knowledge gap corresponds to the logic of the article which contains the lacking piece of knowledge, cf. (iii) >>>Link zu iii<<<

- the gap may be a missing name, a word or a number: Give a synonym for 'spring'! Who composed the Jupiter Symphony? When was the treaty known as the Peace of Westphalia signed?

- the gap may arise from classification problems or because the specific character of an element of knowledge is not known: Is the luge an Olympic discipline? Is the shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus)edible?

- the gap may require filling by a story: Who was Girolamo Cardano? How can the multiple layering of different cultures on the island of Malta be accounted for?

- the gap may consist of unfamiliarity with a work process: How does one extract a square root?

- the gap may consist of not knowing what is allowed and what is forbidden: What does 'fasting' mean within the context of the Catholic church?

- the gap may consist of a lack of 'background' knowledge. For a full understanding of 'the Fall of the Berlin Wall', various aspects may be taken into consideration: the German reunification debate, the policy of perestroika …


There may well be further types, but these soon lead into specialised fields.

(ii) "Why, on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all?" (Plato, Meno 80d)

(a) In systematic (taxonomic) encyclopaedias, the lemma is a place at the end of a tree structure; in alphabetical encyclopaedias, it is a word. In the first case, the lemma is comparatively independent of language, or it can even consist of an abstract notion (as for example in the case of a collection of aphorisms: 'Evil breeds evil'); in the second case, the lemma is dependent on the semantics of the encyclopaedia's and users' language.

(b) Depending on the lemma of the search, the findings may be more or less to the point. Areas of knowledge which are well structured per se(e.g. animals, chemical substances) are fairly unproblematic – constructed objects are much trickier (examples: 'furniture', 'game').

(c) The lemma presupposes an enquiry on the part of the user, as though to say, 'This is what you want to know more about, isn't it?' Thus the encyclopaedia assumes that only a part of the knowledge is unknown to the user, or that he has simply forgotten about it – but that he knows at least a 'corner' of it, that he knows how or by which keyword to get hold of it, or that he knows its approximate position within the system. The search is certain to succeed only if the encyclopaedia's system corresponds to the one in the user's head. Anybody searching an encyclopaedia – be it with a systematic or an alphabetical browser – must have some advance information about what he or she is looking for.

(d) Every approach favours certain elements of knowledge and inevitably disregards others. Every community of encyclopaedia-editors and users has its blind spots. These only become visible by intercultural comparison or by looking back to historically distant epochs. By their claim to universality, encyclopaedias give the impression that there is nothing in the world which has not been carved up to fit between their covers. 

Usually, the information search only works in one direction. An enquiry such as 'When was Cézanne alive?' does not cause much difficulty. However, if the sole 'corner' of knowledge available to the user consists of a vaguely outlined idea, he is at a complete loss: 'What was the name of that painter who used to put horizontal and vertical bars across the canvas and fill the gaps with colour?' Or: 'What was the name of the man who set the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus on fire so that his name would be remembered in posterity?' (Only a full-text search of an electronic data base will provide the information.) 


How might an encyclopaedia highlight its own incompleteness? A printed medium like a book offers the possibility of leaving pages blank. 

Schedel's World Chronicle (German: Schedelsche Weltchronik, 1493) for example contains the following sentence after describing incidents of its day, and before the description of the Last Judgement (on fol. CCLVIII verso): "several pages have been left blank hereafter for the description of further stories or future things" – followed by several blank pages. 

Johann Jacob Scheuchzer would leave pages of his catalogue of the Zurich art cabinet ("Kunstkammer", Museum Civicum Tigurinum, Central Library Zurich, Archive 24) half blank whenever he assumed a thing existed even though he had not come across it in the museum. 

(iii) "All instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge." (Aristotle, Analytica Posteriora I,1 71a)

 In the article, the encyclopaedia gives an answer to the presupposed question of the user. Reading an article is subject to the same hermeneutical conditions which apply to all texts; these general conditions are complemented by a few specific ones. The fundamental rule is that accessing a store of knowledge requires previous knowledge. There is no such thing as a zero point of knowledge. – We are leaving aside the issue of familiarity with the language in which the encyclopaedia is written, i.e. syntax, everyday semantics and connotations (e.g. the pejorative ring of the word "vermin" in an article about mice).

(a) A certain degree of organisation requires the use of conventions concerning the configuration of the articles. These help the user structure his or her reading. (Example: Polydor Vergilius always traces a historical development from good beginnings through gradual decline to, finally, his own time.)

 (b) "Crocodiles belong to the lizard family, and they are as big as oxen." The alien thing mentioned in the lemma is introduced by comparing it to something familiar (here: an indigenous animal) and by suggesting an operation that the user has to carry out (here: a conversion of size). Each sentence in the article builds on existing knowledge and premises a skill (in linguistics: 'presuppositions').


* Knowledge that the user can look up elsewhere in the encyclopaedia is made accessible via cross-references ('renvois'); this is unproblematic except in the case of circular references. It should be borne in mind that there are various types of reference.

 * Knowledge which has to be contributed to the encyclopaedia from external sources are more problematic. Often, these external sources include judgements (e.g. that the Battle of Marignano represents one of the lowest points in Swiss history), paradigms (that historical development proceeds in gradual steps), frames and scripts, or other unquestioned basic assumptions (that rare things are precious; how far into people's lives the sphere of control of a powerful person reaches).


(c) In fictional texts the reader may fill gaps (Wolfgang Iser's "Leerstellen") or places of indeterminacy (Roman Ingarden's "Unbestimmtheitsstellen") according to his or her fancy – indeed, texts that offer scope for this process tend to go down particularly well. By contrast, specialised (non-fictional) texts seek to restrict the reader's freedom to fill gaps (in the case of manuals: so that the video recorder will work; or in a legal text: so that the culprit will receive just punishment; etc.). This begs the question of how an encyclopaedia uses textual means to manage the process of gap-filling.