Intellectual organization of knowledge

The term "intellectual organization of knowledge" is used analytically in contrast to social organization of knowledge.


The intellectual organization of knowledge consists of descriptions and representations of parts of the world. It is, for example, a geographical map, the periodical system of chemistry and physics, the taxonomies of biology etc. Intellectual organization of knowledge is thus concerned with how (parts of) reality is structured.


(Other terms are ontology and metaphysics. Such terms may have a negative bias and sound old-fashioned, but they are not just philosophical speculations about, for example, how many angels can be placed on the top of a needle (as criticisms of metaphysics might ironically describe the field).  Ontology and metaphysics is about what exists. As the example above shows is the structure of reality discovered by scientific investigations, in, for example, geography, physics and biology; see, for example, Bryant, 2001, about metaphysics and classification).


Often we believe that descriptions or representations of parts of the world are simply true, and that it is safe to base our knowledge organizing systems (KOS) on them. According to fallibilism, however, our knowledge may be wrong, we cannot be absolutely sure that what we believe are representations of reality are not just theories or constructions.


Knowledge Organization within Library and Information Science (LIS) is normally based on literary warrant. There may be different views on how to apply this principle in order to make sound KOS. Some, for example Jaenecke (1994), suggest that we should disregard pseudo knowledge, whereas others, for example, Kiel (1994) suggest a more open attitude towards what counts as valid knowledge.


Terms used about scientific disciplines are often ambiguous with regard to social versus intellectual KO. On the one hand is a discipline, such as "biology", a social organization. On the other hand is it often used to refer to the real processes, that biology study. In PsycINFO thesaurus this is made explicit (16-02-2006). For example, the Scope note for the term "Biology" is "Branch of science dealing with living organisms. Used for the scientific discipline or the biological processes themselves."

Why is it important for the theory of KO to make the distinction between intellectual and social KO? Because the methods to organize knowledge are based very differently in the two cases. In intellectual KO the basic method is to consider the theoretical and empirical arguments for knowledge claims and decide on that basis. Concerning social KO is the method the historical, sociological and bibliometric investigations of how expertise is organized in cultures, societies and intellectual groupings (disciplines, interdisciplinary fields, specialties and so on).


The relation between intellectual and social KO is an issue that is related to philosophical debates between different kinds of "realists" and (social) "constructivists". Without some background knowledge about this debate, this issue  can hardly be properly understood.






Bryant, R. (2001). Discovery and Decision: Exploring the Metaphysics and Epistemology of Scientific Classification. Madison, NJ. : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.


Jaenecke, P. (1994). To what end knowledge organization? Knowledge Organization, 21(1) 3-11. (For reply see Kiel, 1994).


Kiel, E. (1994). Knowledge organization needs epistemological openness: A reply. Knowledge Organization, 21(3), 148-152.


(This entry should not be mixed-up with intellectual or scholarly approach to KO).




Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 16-02-2006