Integrative levels

by Michael Kleineberg

Table of contents:
1. Introduction
2. A short history of an idea
    2.1 The Great Chain of Being
    2.2 Evolutionary order
    2.3 Levels of reality
    2.4 Integrative levels
3. Integrative levels as organizing principle
    3.1 Principles of organization
    3.2 Hierarchies and order relations
    3.3 The problem of transitivity
    3.4 Evaluation of level sequences
4. Common criticisms
    4.1 Hierarchy and formal logic
    4.2 Picture theory of meaning and universality claim
    4.3 Teleology and value ranking
5. Fields of application
    5.1 Interdisciplinary knowledge organization
    5.2 Semantic information retrieval
    5.3 Comparative method
    5.4 Viewpoint analysis and indexing
6. Conclusion
Appendix A: Sample of sequences based on the idea of integrative levels
Appendix B: Sample of conceptions of integrative levels
Appendix C: Sample of conceptions of integrative levels of knowing

This article provides a historical overview and conceptual clarification of the idea of integrative levels as an organizing principle. It will be demonstrated that this concept has found different articulations (e.g., levels of integration, levels of organization, levels of complexity, levels of granularity, nested hierarchy, specification hierarchy, hierarchical integration, progressive integration, holarchy, superformation, self-organization cycles) and widespread applications based on various, often unrelated theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds. In order to determine its role in the field of knowledge organization, some common misconceptions and major criticisms will be reconsidered in light of a broader multidisciplinary context. In particular, it will be shown how this organizing principle has been fruitfully applied to human-related research areas such as psychology, social sciences, or humanities in terms of integrative levels of knowing.

1. Introduction

In the field of knowledge organization, the organizing principle of integrative levels has a substantial though not uncontested tradition. The term "integrative levels" was first introduced in the late 1950s by the Classification Research Group (CRG) referring particularly to biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham (1937), who invented this term, and philosopher James Feibleman (1954), who provided some generalizations or laws of the levels (Vickery 1958; Foskett 1961; 1962). Concerned with the determination of a scientifically justified sequence of main classes for a general classification scheme, Douglas Foskett (1961, 139) expressed the idea as follows:

The theory of integrative levels is that the world of things evolves from the simple towards the complex by an accumulation of properties, and that, at a succession of levels, these aggregations reach new degrees of complexity and become new wholes, with individual and unique identities.

Accordingly, integrative levels can be defined as a developmental sequence in which entities at each new level integrate the essential properties and structures of the entities at the older levels, while they exhibit some emergent qualities and, therefore, more complexity than their predecessors. A typical example of such a hierarchical order is presented by the sequence atoms—molecules—cells—organisms (Feibleman 1954, 62).

In more recent knowledge organization discourse, other authors emphasize other authorities who offer more or less independently developed but quite similar level conceptions. For example, Ingetraut Dahlberg (1974; 2008) as well as Claudio Gnoli and Roberto Poli (2004) rely on Nicolai Hartmann's concept of levels of reality that is based on two different kinds of hierarchical relations, namely, integrative levels called superformation and non-integrative levels called superposition, the latter without an accumulation of properties at each higher level. Furthermore, Søren Brier (2003) proposes the concept of levels of existence based on the co-evolution of matter and qualia inspired by Charles S. Peirce's evolutionary semiotics; Michael Kleineberg (2013) introduces Ken Wilber's concept of levels of being and knowing; and María López-Huertas (2013) discusses Basarab Nicolescu's concept of levels of reality and perception.

The history of the organizing principle of integrative levels, avant la lettre, can be traced back at least to the classifications of sciences by Herbert Spencer or Auguste Comte, which have influenced the work of many 19th and early 20th century classificationists or thesaurus constructors including, among others, Charles A. Cutter's Expansive Classification, Ernest C. Richardson's Order of the Sciences, James D. Brown's Subject Classification, Henry E. Bliss's Bibliographic Classification, and Peter M. Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (Dousa 2009; Gnoli 2005, 2017). Since the time of the CRG, the concept of integrative levels has been discussed extensively and in the course of a profound critique of discipline-centered approaches explicitly applied in knowledge organization systems (KOSs) that are primarily oriented on phenomena or objects of being such as Kyle Classification (Kyle 1969), Information Coding Classification (Dahlberg 2008), Integrative Levels Classification (Gnoli 2008), or Basic Concepts Classification (Szostak 2012).

The strength of the idea of integrative levels is seen in its synthesizing force that enables a non-reductionist organization of the diversity of world phenomena based on logically coherent principles and a universal scope of coverage. As suggested by Foskett (1961), it provides a helpful framework for both the specialists systematizing their own subjects and the generalists identifying the interrelations of different research areas. Therefore, it is recommended as a theoretical foundation for interdisciplinary knowledge organization (ISKO Italy 2007; Szostak, Gnoli, and López-Huertas 2016). Additionally, the idea is proposed as a disambiguation tool for different meanings of core concepts like "information," "knowledge," "cognition," or "communication" and their related theoretical and methodological approaches (Fenzl et al. 1996; Brier 2003; Wilson 2003; Bates 2005; Gnoli and Ridi 2014); or by the same token, as a comparative tool for cross-cultural studies and the organization of the epistemological dimension of human knowledge (Kleineberg 2014).

On the other hand, the idea of integrative levels is challenged by internal and external criticisms. Internal criticisms are sympathetic with the level concept but point to some inconsistencies in proposed hierarchy models such as branchings and dead ends that seem to violate the linearity of the level sequence, as noted since early discussions (Feibleman 1954; Foskett 1961; Austin 1969c; Kyle 1969; Tomlinson 1969b). For example, Tomlinson (1969b) notes that the development from the level of molecules seems to branch into non-living phenomena (e.g., minerals, rocks) and living phenomena (e.g., cells, tissues). Moreover, there is some doubt that the organizing principle of integrative levels, which might work well for a hierarchical order of phenomena investigated in the natural sciences, can be fruitfully applied to those in the social sciences or humanities (Huckaby 1972; Langridge 1976; Spiteri 1995; Poli 2001; Dousa 2009). External criticisms, however, tend to reject the idea of integrative levels as such, for example, due to the presumptions of a reductionist logical class formation and oppressive hierarchical relations, an underlying picture theory of meaning and universal claims of validity, or a hidden teleology and an implicit value ranking (Olson 1999; Svenonius 2004; García Gutiérrez 2011).

The following sections are concerned with a historical overview of the idea of integrative levels, its utilization as an organizing principle for knowledge organization systems, a reconsideration of common criticisms, and an outline of major fields of application in knowledge organization research.

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2. A short history of an idea

2.1 The Great Chain of Being

The idea of integrative levels has a long history. Its origins are described in Arthur Lovejoy's (1936) The Great Chain of Being, a study that once established the discipline known as history of ideas by telling the story of one of the most influential ideas in Western history: the hierarchical order of reality. The genesis of this idea based on the principles of plenitude, continuity, and linear gradation, is traced back to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly to Plato's (1929, 2013) Timaeus and Republic, and its first full expression in the work of Aristotle. In Generation of Animals, Aristotle (1942) classifies animals according to their degree of perfection in eleven general grades from human beings at the top to so-called zoophytes at the bottom, an idea that will be later known as a single graded "scala naturae" (Lovejoy 1936, 58) — from Latin scala "ladder" or "staircase" of nature. Even more significant, Aristotle's (1935) On the Soul presents a hierarchical order of all living beings according to their powers of souls ranging from plants with nutritive power to human beings with rational power to possibly another even superior kind, with "each higher order possessing all the powers of those below it in the scale and an additional differentiating one of its own" (Lovejoy 1936, 58–59). In other words, this hierarchical order presents a historical precursor to the idea of integrative levels since each higher level integrates the essential properties of the lower levels, while adding something new.

According to Lovejoy (1936), the conception of the universe as a Great Chain of Being, exemplified in classical antiquity by Plotinus's (1992) Enneads and the Neoplatonist tradition taking the form of a hierarchical order from the supreme being of a godlike ens perfectissimum down to the meagerest kind of existents, was accepted by most philosophers and scientists without question during medieval times and until the late 18th century. Even in non-Western cultures, particularly in the wisdom traditions of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Islam, ideas quite similar to the Great Chain of Being have been articulated (Smith [1976] 1992; Wilber 1993).

Influential representatives are, for example, Augustine of Hippo and Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite who both are seeking to combine Neoplatonist and Christian thought. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for inventing the term hierarchia "hierarchy" — a neologism from Greek hieros "sacred" and arkhia "rule" — denoting an order set out by God as the expression of divine law and will (Pseudo-Dionysius 1987, 153):

In my opinion, a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding and an activity approximating as closely as possible to the divine.

He distinguishes a celestial (intelligible) and an ecclesiastical (sensible) hierarchy, each divided into a series of triads where the first member "contains the power of the lower two, and so on" (Wear and Dillon 2007, 57). In this way, the hierarchical order of the universe reflects the distinctions of powers from different ranks of angels down to rational souls to irrational souls to plants, and to soulless matter.

Within the Christian tradition represented, among others, by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, or Baruch Spinoza, the most determinative and pervasive version of the Great Chain of Being, according to Lovejoy (1936), is to be found in Gottfried W. Leibniz's ([1720] 2014) Monadology, in which he presents a hierarchical order from the divine at the top to human beings with rational souls to animals with non-rational souls down to simple substances or monads with lower perceptions. In order to solve the mind-body problem, Leibniz relies on the metaphysics of panpsychism, the assumption that all material entities have also a mind-like quality, and describes consequently his law of continuity stating that all properties attributed to a given level are integrated by each higher level in both physical and psychical terms, that is, as levels of being as well as "levels of consciousness" (Lovejoy 1936, 144).

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2.2 Evolutionary Order

During the 18th century, a "temporalizing of the Chain of Being" (Lovejoy 1936, 244) takes place as a reaction of paleontological findings and early evolutionary hypotheses that are questioning the idea of nature as a static order where every being finds its fixed and final god-given place. While the traditional order of emanationism descending from the most complex to the most simple is still to some extent echoed in the work of naturalists like Carl Linnaeus's (1758) Systema Naturae with its kingdoms of animals (e.g., mammals — birds — amphibians — fishes — insects — worms), plants and minerals, or Charles Bonnet's The Contemplation of Nature (Anderson 1976), the new temporalized chain of being or scala naturae follows the evolutionary order ascending from the most simple to the most complex, as stressed, among others, by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck ([1809] 1914, 128):

I do not hesitate to say, however, that our general classifications of animals up to the present have been in the inverse order from that followed by nature when bringing her living productions successively into existence.

Therefore, in his Zoological Philosophy, Lamarck ([1809] 1914, 131) proposes six "stages of organization" according to what he considers as natural order and its progress of complexity (e.g., polyps — worms — insects — mollusks — fishes and reptiles — birds and mammals).

This kind of inversion and dynamization of the hierarchy reflects the Zeitgeist at the end of the 18th century in which various classification schemes in the natural sciences and also in academic libraries move human beings from the beginning to the end of the sequence (Šamurin [1955] 1977). Among phil