Saturday, March 16, 2024

From Montaigne's "Essais" to Knowledge Graphs

Pretty much everything leads to a thought related to knowledge graph these days. Here is today's train of thought:

I was considering reacquainting myself with Montaigne's essays for a number of reasons.  

  1. The style and how it relates (or not) to the blogging of today
  2. The humanism/humanistic aspect of his writing and how it relates (or not) to today's conversations around humans and AI.  
  3. His knowledge skepticism, introspection, questioning of his own knowledge, asking "Que Sais-je?"/What do I know?

 Digression Warning!

Montaigne was one of the authors I needed to study deeply in high school (French High School) to prepare for one of the end of high school exams.  In fact, the French Literature exam was not at the end of the last year of high school but at the end of the second-to-last year.  This involved very intense literary text analysis (for a 16-year-old) and an oral exam that required both presentation of a specific text and answering questions about the text from an examiner. You had to prepare a number of texts, come to the oral exam with a list, and the examiner would pick one and start drilling you.   I remember that our teacher preparing us for this exam was very demanding and therefore prepared us very thoroughly.  I bet that if by some miracle my list of prepared texts was put in front of me, I would suddenly remember a lot about each of them. Well, no great miracle needed. I found all my high school exams in the basement -- where all matters of interesting knowledge artifacts can be found.  I also have some of my handwritten (cursive), in-class philosophy exam essays, but I digress even within the digression, a sure sign that this should be a separate post. 

A couple of years later, I would find myself in English 101 in college in the US, totally lost trying to analyze Shakespeare and other English language literature not only because English was still challenging for me, but because the type of text analysis expected of students seemed so different.  I didn't "get" the assignment and struggled in English 101.  Perhaps this was an early lesson in how language, literature, and culture are so interconnected and part of what makes us so uniquely human.

End of Digression

I went down to my basement book collection and while I don't seem to have any Montaigne on hand, I did find a "Dictionnaire de Citations Francaises," 1978 edition. Luckily, quotes from long-deceased authors are reliably static, so this isn't a book that would age with time.  In fact, it's probably more accurate than most web-based collection of quotes.  I wanted to dig into some Montaigne quotes.  

There are multiple pages of Montaigne quotes, all from his "Essais". 

It's a heavy book, like most physical dictionaries, with a narrow page.  It's also a beautiful example of organized knowledge, with multiple indexes and numbered references.  I can search by topic, by author, by historical period.  So, immediately, I think... this needs to be turned into a knowledge graph.  I want to be able to visually SEE how these 16,460 quotations are connected.  Would it tell me something I can't possibly see by reading the dictionary?  I would think so. Perhaps I should try on a small scale.  

That being said, focusing on individual quotes extracting from essays could really fail to convey the context and full breadth of meaning and nuances that you would get from reading the full essays.  If I were asked to explain the meaning of a quote, wouldn't I want to know what was written before and after the specific quote?  So, while a knowledge graph based on individual quotes might be interesting as a small scale experiment, I can already see how it would have significant flaws, unless it could be paired with access to the full text for sensemaking purposes. 

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