Curativity Center
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Curativity Center

Diagram: A Universal Reference for Knowledge Engagement

Heaven, Earth, Birth, and Death

The above diagram is called Universal Reference.

What does it mean?

As an information architect and a diagramming thinker, I consider it as “A Diagram of Everything” which is inspired by Theory of Everything.

Many years ago, I found Ken Wilber’s A Theory of Everything and a diagram below.

To be honest, I am not a fan of his Integral Theory. However, I really like his diagrams.

Why did I make it?

I am working on Curativity Center which aims to develop tools for thought in order to curate pieces into a meaningful whole. A diagram is a useful tool for knowledge curation.

How did I make it?

Wow! This is an exciting moment.

It was inspired by a typology of diagrams. Last year, I worked on the D as Diagramming project which produced two books (drafts) and a set of tools for studying knowledge diagrams.

The diagram below is called the Means — End Spectrum which was introduced on Nov 29, 2021.

On Oct 27, 2022, I modified the above diagram and made a new version. Now it has a new name: the Diagramming Reference Frame. See the diagram below.

The major change is adding two types of diagrams:

  • Semiotic System Diagrams
  • Meta-diagrams

Six months ago, I contact Ping-keung Lui who is a theoretical sociological theorist. Lui aims to build a brand new theoretical sociology as a candidate for the paradigm of sociology. According to Lui, “There are three kinds of theories in sociology, namely, social theory, sociological theory, and theoretical sociology. ”

In the past several months, I read his books and papers and learn about his approach to theoretical sociology. One thing I really like is his Semiotic System Diagrams and the related method using Semiotic System Diagrams to curate sociological theories.

The structure of Lui’s theoretical sociology is a nested structure. See the diagram below. According to Lui, “The realism comprises a subjectivist structuralism and an objectivist stock of knowledge, while the hermeneutics is an interpretation and an analysis. Second, I shall present an ontology that nests the realism within its boundaries.” (p.250, 2016, Aspects of Sociological Explanation)

Source: Aspects of Sociological Explanation (Ping-keung Lui 2016, p.251)

We should see this grand theory as a dialogue between philosophy and sociology because “Ontology” and “hermeneutics” are respectable terms in philosophy, but “realism” — sandwiched between them — is not.

The whole structure of the grand theory is represented by the following semiotic system. You can find more details about Semiotic System Diagrams in Three Paths of Creative Life and A Semiotic System.

Lui’s Semiotic System Diagrams are quite unique because remove the spatial structure from normal diagrams and only keep concepts.

This is a counterexample of the Means — End Spectrum. Originally, I can place it on the Means — End Spectrum. Later, I realized that I can expand the spectrum into a matrix.

Langue and Parole

One important notion I learned from Lui’s theoretical sociology is from Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics.

Langue and parole is a theoretical linguistic dichotomy distinguished by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics. Langue refers to the abstract system of language while parole means concrete speech.

Lui’s theoretical sociology and Semiotic System Diagrams are inspired by Saussure's structural linguistics.

The theoretical sociology I have conceived is an example: It has an ontology, a realism and an hermeneutics, each of which is by itself a cluster of interconnected keywords; and then there are some more interconnections between some members of any two clusters. Thus, a network of all keywords of a theoretical sociology is formed, and together with annotations of every keyword and every interconnection between keywords, the theoretical sociology is specified. Clearly, annotations are meant to guide us to read and understand the network of keywords. In fact, this network is the famous semiotic system in Saussure’s structural linguistics. As I have said early, he calls it language because innumerably many speeches can be made within its four corners.

Source: Ingold’s Idea of Making — A View from Theoretical Sociology (Ping-keung Lui 2020, p.21)

Lui used “Langue (Language)” to refer to his theoretical sociology while “Parole (Speech)” refers to all empirical sociologies.

I notice that all theoretical sociologies I happen to come across in the literature are each a speech, and usually a long one. But, in contrast, I conceive my own as a language, that is, a semiotic system in which innumerable number of speeches can be made within its four corners. Figuratively speaking, a semiotic system can be likened to a wetland in which innumerable speeches live and breed like birds. On the other hand, all empirical sociologies are in the first place each a speech, and if they can be made within the four corners of a certain semiotic system then they can be said to be supported and contained by the theoretical sociology that is represented by its semiotic system. Empirical sociologies are birds in that semiotic system as a wetland.

Source: Ingold’s Idea of Making — A View from Theoretical Sociology (Ping-keung Lui 2020, p.23)

Lui’s Semiotic System Diagrams inspired me to reflect on the Means-End Spectrum.

Langue and Space

The notion of “meta-diagram” considers a special type of diagram as an independent thing that doesn’t have to be a representation of an existing theory or model. For example, the 2x2 matrix diagram is a meta-diagram that doesn’t refer to any concrete theory or model such as BCG’s Growth-share matrix.

In the past several years, I designed a series of meta-diagrams. See the picture below.

If we put Lui’s Semiotic System Diagrams and my meta-diagrams together, we can find two extreme examples of diagrams.

  • Semiotic System Diagrams: remove the spatial structure from normal diagrams.
  • Meta-diagrams: remove all texts from normal diagrams.

This is a significant insight!

I realized that there is a new dimension for thinking about diagrams and diagramming: the Langue—Space dimension.

Finally, I made a new version of the Means — End Spectrum.

It has a new name: Diagramming Reference Frame.

The Reference Space

The Diagramming Reference Frame was made on Oct 27, 2022. Later, I reflected on the matrix. I realized that it can be used for discussing other things.

The matrix defines a Reference Space in which we can place diagrams, concepts, models, and other knowledge-related entities.

It is a universal tool of thought!

The Universal Reference Canvas

The Diagramming Reference Frame inspired me to reflect on the Knowledge Discovery Canas.

These two diagrams share the “Means — End” dimension. However, they both are developed for specific purposes. While one is about diagrams, the other one is about themes.

Inspired by the above two diagrams, I made a new one called Universal Reference. See the canvas below.

The above canvas uses a new approach to name dimensions. I use multiple words to name one dimension.

Knowledge: The Degrees of Abstraction

The Vertical group refers to the Degrees of Abstraction of “Knowledge”.

The “Theory — Practice” dimension is shared with the following pairs of concepts:

  • The “Heaven—Earth” dimension
  • The “Langue — Space” dimension
  • The “Episteme — Empeiria” dimension

The “Heaven — Earth” dimension is a metaphor that is a popular pair of concepts in Chinese philosophy. 天 (Tian) heaven, 地 (Di) earth, and 人 (Ren) humans, are three spheres of origin, 三才 (San Cai). This threefold structure of the universe offers a coherent and systematic approach to understand nature and society.

I’d like to use “天 (Tian) heaven” to refer to the high degree of abstraction of knowledge while “地 (Di) earth” is associated with the low degree of abstraction of knowledge.

The above discussion has mentioned the “Langue — Space” dimension. The “Langue” refers to universal concepts or vocabulary while “Space” refers to spatial structure and immediate embodied experience.

The “Episteme — Empeiria” dimension refers to Aristotle’s typology of thought: technê, epistêmê, phronêsis, sophia, and nous. According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “At the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that the person with epistêmê and the person with technê share an important similarity. There Aristotle contrasts the person of experience (empeiria) with someone who has technê or epistêmê.”

Engagement: The Situations of Activity

The Horizontal group refers to the Situations of Activity of “Engagement”.

The “Means — End” dimension is shared with the following pairs of concepts:

  • The “Birth — Death” dimension
  • The “Attach — Detach” dimension
  • The “Self — Other” dimension

The “Means — End” dimension is adopted from Activity Theory. The Means-End issue is a complicated issue in the literature of Activity Theory and Vygotsky’s Cultural-historical theory of psychology because scholars have different interpretations of Vygotsky’s ideas.

From the perspective of Activity Theory, I consider the Means v.s. End issue within concrete activities. For a particular activity, a diagram might be an end, I call it Thought-to-Diagram. For another particular activity, the same diagram might be a means, I call it Diagram-to-Thought. If we combine these two situations together, we can develop a Means-End Spectrum and use it to present various instrumental values of diagrams.

The same logic can be applied to other things such as themes, concepts, frameworks, tools, events, etc.

The “Birth — Death” dimension refers to the “alive” status of things. Actions and Activities are only “alive” when we are acting. At the end of an activity, the thing we worked on is produced. It’s done. It’s no longer alive. If we use it in a new activity, it becomes alive again.

The “Attach — Detach” dimension considers the reference space as a container. People attach their minds to the reference space and detach their minds from the reference space.

The “Self — Other” dimension is about the “Self — Other” Relevance. On Nov 19, 2021, I published D as Diagramming: An Integrated Framework for Studying Knowledge Diagrams (Part 2) which discussed my “Relevance” thematic space and a practical perspective “Cultural Significance”.

In order to write the article, I developed the following typology of Relevance.

The above typology uses four units of analysis:

  • Intrapersonal Relevance: the Other is potential, not actual.
  • Interpersonal Relevance: the Other is actual, but the “Self—Other” is not considered as a whole.
  • Transactional Relevance: the Other is actual, and the “Self—Other” is considered as a whole.
  • Collective Relevance: the Other is pervasive, not proximal. The “Self — Other” relationship is understood as “Self — Group”.

The typology of “Self — Other” Relevance offers a way for understanding the situations of Activity.

The above diagram lists four types of situations of Activity:

  • Intrapersonal Situation: the Other is potential, not actual.
  • Interpersonal Situation: the Other is actual, but the “Self — Other” is not considered as a whole.
  • Transactional Situation: the Other is actual, and the “Self — Other” is considered as a whole.
  • Collective Situation: the Other is pervasive, not proximal. The “Self — Other” relationship is understood as “Self — Group”.

The Self — Other dimension echoes the Means — End dimension. In the Intrapersonal Situation, a person doesn’t work with others, a diagram can be a private draft for thoughts. In the Intrapersonal Situation, a person directly works or talks with others, a diagram is not a shared thing for thoughts.

In the Transactional Situation, a diagram is presented to a team or a group as a piece of internal knowledge. In the Collective Situation, a diagram is published by academic institutions or other institutions as a piece of public scientific knowledge or public social policies.

What can we do with the Universal Reference Canvas?

It is for understanding “Knowledge Engagement”.

By using the new canvas, I discovered a path for “Knowledge Engagement”:

Action > Creation > Curation

This path covers 1) Action and Reflection, 2) Knowledge Creation, and 3) Knowledge Curation. See the diagram below.

The above diagram represents four layers of knowledge engagement:

  • Langue (language)
  • Parole (speech)
  • Observable / Data
  • Unobservable / Hypothesis

I also put two blue entities on the canvas:

  • 0: Actor’s Actions (Subjective Experience)
  • 9: Theoretical Sociologies

According to Lui, Theoretical Sociologies refer to Langue (language) while all empirical sociologies refer to Parole (Speech).

First, every empirical sociology (observation, description or narrative about the empirical) can always be summarized and transcribed formally and abstractly into a network of keywords, that is, its semiotic system, the language in which it can be spoken out. Second, the semiotic system derived from a particular empirical sociology is always able to support innumerably many possible empirical sociologies besides the particular one from which it is derived. In other words, turning a particular empirical sociology into its semiotic system is a liberalizing act — liberalizing all the hemmed-in possibilities for yet-to-be-actualized empirical sociologies. It will be seen shortly that the great Saussurean idea of semiotic system bridges the huge gap between “theory about some specific thing” and “abstract Theory”.

Source: Ingold’s Idea of Making — A View from Theoretical Sociology (Ping-keung Lui 2020, p.10)

Lui also mentions techne/phronesis (“theory about some specific thing”, theorizing) and episteme (“abstract Theory”, theory). See the diagram below.

Source: Ingold’s Idea of Making — A View from Theoretical Sociology (Ping-keung Lui 2020, p.13)

Lui emphasizes that this is a hierarchy of scientific pursuit of knowledge, “In short, empeiria — (techne/phronesisepisteme) — episteme is a hierarchy raised by human capacities of the sociologists, theoretical as well as empirical, in the scientific pursuit of knowledge, that is, more specifically, the scientific project of sociology, whose centre-piece is technne/phronesisepisteme.” (Source: Ingold’s Idea of Making — A View from Theoretical Sociology (Ping-keung Lui 2020, p.13)

The pair of concepts “Observable / Data — Unobservable / Hypothesis” is inspired by Jim Bogen’s Theory and Observation in Science.

Reasoning from observations has been important to scientific practice at least since the time of Aristotle, who mentions a number of sources of observational evidence including animal dissection (Aristotle(a), 763a/30–b/15; Aristotle(b), 511b/20–25). Francis Bacon argued long ago that the best way to discover things about nature is to use experiences (his term for observations as well as experimental results) to develop and improve scientific theories (Bacon 1620, 49ff). The role of observational evidence in scientific discovery was an important topic for Whewell (1858) and Mill (1872) among others in the 19th century.

According to Lui, “In the social sciences, the distinction between observation and experiment began to become serious when questionnaire design, sampling method, and statistical analysis were introduced a century or more ago. They are experimental instruments in the physical and/or mental sense, more or less like the telescope and the microscope for the natural sciences. The distinction, nowadays, often appears in disguise as the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. The latter is dominant in sociological theory (remember: it is one part of the scientific project of sociology; the other part is theoretical sociology), whose jargon such as ‘data’ and ‘hypothesis’ has spilled over to the former.”

Actor’s Actions (Subjective Experience) can be observed or not. If we want to turn Unobservable Actions or Experiences into scientific knowledge, we have to make a Hypothesis about them and use observable Data to validate it.

Observable Actions or Experiences are Data for Empirical Sociologies.

Empirical Sociologies are Data for Theoretical Sociologies.

In this way, we see a path for “Knowledge Engagement” in the field of Sociology:

  • 0: Actor’s Actions (Subjective Experience)
  • 1–8: Empirical Sociologies
  • 9: Theoretical Sociologies

Knowledge Creation means from #0 to #1–8, while Knowledge Curation means from #1–8 to #9.

The Landscape of Sociological Knowledge

Finally, the Universal Reference Canvas can be used as a tool for knowledge curation too. See the diagram below.

Now you can see #1–8 in the canvas.

This canvas is inspired by Lui’s typology, Michael Burawoy’s typology, and other individual theoretical approaches.

According to Lui, “There are three kinds of theories in sociology, namely, social theory, sociological theory, and theoretical sociology. ”

  • Social theories are speculations about the social world. They constitute the speculative project of sociology.
  • Some social theories are amenable to positivistic investigation under certain specific conditions. I call them sociological theories.
  • Also, some other social theories, being very ambitious, attempt to recruit as many as they can sociological theories supporting themselves. I call them theoretical sociologies. They compete against each other. The winner becomes the paradigm of sociology, and its supporting sociological theories become exemplars of the paradigm. In this way, theoretical sociologies and sociological theories constitute the scientific project of sociology.

In fact, Lui considers all “Social Thoughts”, “Logs”, and “Ideology” as “Social theories”. For example, a political party’s ideology and a professional community’s knowledge framework are “Social theories” from his perspective.

While Lui’s focus is only on the scientific pursuit of knowledge, Michael Burawoy’s typology considers both science and practice.

Source: Michael Burawoy (For Public Sociology, 2004)

Michael Burawoy defines Instrumental Knowledge as the puzzle solving of professional sociology or the problem solving of policy sociology. Reflexive knowledge refers to a dialogue about ends, whether the dialogue takes place within the academic community about the foundations of its research programs or between academics and various publics about the direction of society.

This is a test of the Universal Reference Canvas. Though this example is about Sociological Knowledge, we can see the potential of the canvas for Advanced Knowledge Curation and other usages.

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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.