Blesok no. 25, March-April, 2002

Sprouting the Line
How Hypertext and Philosophy meet in David Kolb's Socrates in the Labyrinth

Sean Fenty

    In his hypertext Socrates in the Labyrinth, and in the much shorter essay version of his argument[1] with the same name found in George Landow's Hyper/Text/Theory, David Kolb begins by asking the simple and straightforward question, “Can we do philosophy using hypertext?” (Kolb 323). As the reader moves on into both versions of Kolb's text, however, it becomes clear that the issue is not whether philosophy can be done in hypertext, or even if doing philosophy in hypertext would not in many cases be beneficial, but whether or not hypertext “will make a new kind of philosophical writing possible,” or if it will merely be “an expository device or an informational tool for philosophical texts, unable to offer a brave world of new philosophical textual strategies” (Kolb 325-26). Central to Kolb's contention that hypertext can indeed offer “a brave world of new philosophical strategies” is his reconciliation of the seemingly fundamental incompatibility between hypertext and philosophy, which in the hypertext version of his work he not only effectively argues is possible, but illustrates by presenting several possible organizational strategies–or intermediate forms as he calls them–within hypertext that could bring to philosophy a richer understanding of the complex structures surrounding the typical linear philosophical argument and a truer sense of context and process of philosophical discourse.
    Hypertext, as Kolb points out in a related essay ”Scholarly Hypertext: Self-Represented Complexity,” is most widely used as a means of organizing information for easier and more efficient access and manipulation. Applied in this way, the technology of hypertext could certainly benefit philosophical writing, as well as scholarly writing in general, however, the benefit would amount merely to an “informational convenience.” Kolb argues that philosophy can use hypertext as more than an expository device, however, and that philosophy could benefit from being written in hypertext, because it would allow philosophy to break free of the false pretense of a clearly bounded totality: “hypertext looks like a natural for the attempt to show that any presumed overall structure, narrative or philosophical, argumentative or dialectical, works within a larger field that it does not control” (Kolb 334).
    But the idea of going beyond using hypertext as anything more than “fancy footnoting,” and really taking advantage of hypertext's complex linking structures between non-sequential nodes in philosophy, brings us to a seemingly fundamental incompatibility between hypertext and philosophy–an issue that Kolb admirably addresses head on, rather than skirting around–which is this: “philosophy essentially involves argument, and argument essentially involves a beginning, middle, and end, so that a truly philosophical text needs a line” (Kolb 326).
    This brings us back to our original question: “Can we do philosophy in hypertext?” If so, how is this possible? That is, how can hypertext, which is defined by its inventor, Ted Nelson, as “non-sequential writing consisting of a web of pieces of text that do not relate to one another in any unique way” be utilized in its truest and most complete sense by a discipline so dependent upon linearality? (Kolb2: hypertext).
    At first, Kolb addresses this issue not by refuting the notion that the line is necessary to argument, which in turn is central to philosophy–although he does make the obvious but important observation that there is more to philosophy than argument. Instead, he embraces philosophy's dependency on the line as a fact and provides reasons for why, in light of this fact, philosophy should not use hypertext “as more than an expository devise” (Kolb 326).
    Kolb points out that “a philosophical argument cannot be presented as a cloud of disjointed statements… philosophy's line cannot be dissolved in the way some have dreamed of dissolving the narrative line the line brings focus, and focused criticism is essential to philosophy” (Kolb 327). Furthermore, says Kolb, “[philosophy's] emphasis upon linear argument contrasts with hypertext webs that may have no fixed beginning or endings, are hard to explore, may have no conclusions, and may deliberately avoid being caught in any totalizing overview” (Kolb 327). And just in case these statements did not conclusively establish the inappropriateness of philosophy attempting to use hypertext as more than “an expository devise,” he also evokes the monumental specter of Plato as the fountainhead of linearity and a clear focus in philosophy: “from Plato on, philosophy has insisted on the need for de-cision, in its root meaning of cutting off what it takes to be wandering excess and keeping to the narrow path” (Kolb 328).
    Certainly, these statements only reinforce the notion that philosophical discourse, with its essential dependence on the line, is incompatible with hypertext, a medium so bound up with excess, multilinearality, and the exploration of meaning along many paths rather than a centralization of meaning and a focused progression from beginnings, to middles, to ends/ultimate conclusions. And yet, Kolb does in fact make the claim that not only can philosophical writing be done in hypertext, but that hypertext can offer a writer of philosophy new, more complex argumentative maneuvers than are possible in the traditional codex. How can he make this claim in light of the proclamations made above that only highlight the contrast between hypertext as a medium, and philosophy as a discipline? The answer lies in two crucial observations: one about the nature of philosophy's line, and the other about the nature of hypertext.
    Philosophy, says Kolb, as noted above, has traditionally[2] striven for truths along clear linear paths. But this linear progression has always been immersed in a more complex, subtle, and less clearly focused surrounding discourse. As Kolb explains, “arguments, big and small, are surrounded by a more informal discourse that leads us to and from the argument” (Kolb 330). And elsewhere, “even the purest philosophical line has vestigial or presupposed discourses surrounding it” (Kolb 330).

    As a scholar in philosophy himself, Kolb reflects on the process of writing philosophy and suggests that “the real structure of philosophical work is not simply argumentative,” but that “argument and fluidity are always linked” (Kolb 330-31). In the traditional codex, the philosopher typically cuts away the excess that surrounds and gives rise to the argument. But this extraction of the line from the fluid discourse that surrounds it, while seen as necessary and proper, is still accompanied by an ambivalence on the part of the writer who recognizes the relevance and importance of these supplements: “writing philosophy, one feels a constant tension between the desire to reach out into the surrounding discourse that opens a place for the line, and the reverse desire for compactness and linearity” (Kolb 330).
    So, if we accept that “philosophy's line finds itself constantly surrounded by supplements which it both desires and rejects” we begin to see how hypertext can offer philosophy something more than mere informational convenience; it can allow philosophy to be written more complexly, stripped of the false pretense of a clearly bounded linear progression to one ultimate logically proven Truth (Kolb 329). As Kolb says, “the argumentative line is surrounded by a fluid discourse in which there are no fixed primacies and no firm meta-levels, because in that discourse such things get established” (Kolb 331). “Hypertext” Kolb observes, “seems to be a medium in which this fluid discourse could flourish,” giving to philosophy a host of new discursive paths, and allowing philosophy to be done in ways both more profitable and unimaginable in traditional print (Kolb 331).
    Yet to reap the potential benefits of hypertext for philosophical discourse, it is important for scholars in philosophy to realize that “hypertext is a technology, not a literary genre” (Kolb:Scholarly). That is, there is no one way that hypertext must be used. In scholarly writing, for instance, Kolb insists that intermediate forms must be developed and applied that “involve more unity than theories of literary hypertext might recommend” (Kolb:Scholarly). For philosophical writing, or any scholarly writing for that matter, to be written in hypertext, scholars must apply appropriate intermediate forms, which will provide the structure necessary for assertions to be made. As Kolb points out, “We need a new nonargumentative form for a set of links, above the level of the individual lexia and short of the entire hypertext network,” because “the model that dominates hypertext's mechanism is that of independent bits of information linked to one another. Yet, the fluid discourse that shows that philosophy is not all linear argument also demands more kinds of structure than arbitrarily multiplied links” (Kolb 333).
    In philosophy, these intermediate structures will allow writers to maintain the strength of their arguments, while at the same time showing the “fluid discourse” that the arguments emerges from, or as Kolb says, “[intermediate forms allow] essences, identities, boundaries (and argumentative lines and definite claims) while showing how the claimed essences or unities break their own closure. They function, but the function as effects in a space they cannot dominate” (Kolb 334). Kolb notes that “in our (post)modern world we are gradually trying to create social and political forms that have neither atomic indivisible units nor totalizing structures if there is to be philosophical writing in hypertext, it needs such forms” (Kolb 337).
    In the print version of his argument, this is where Kolb stops–at the insistence that philosophy can benefit from being done in hypertext, but that for these benefits to be possible, “we need forms of hypertext writing that are neither standard linear hierarchical unities nor the cloying shocks of simple juxtaposition” (Kolb 339). In the hypertext version of Socrates in the Labyrinth, however, he not only makes this claim but also goes into greater detail about what he means by these forms, and provides graphical examples of them. Even more important than this, which he could have done in his print essay were it not for the restrictions of length placed upon him as a contributor to a collection of essays, as well as a restriction, perhaps, on the number of figures and diagrams the publisher would allow, is that he not only provides examples of possible intermediate forms in his work, but as Charles Ess states in a review of the work, “[he] skillfully exploits the various rhetorical and argumentative maneuvers made possible by hypertext, precisely in service to and as an integral part of the argument he seeks to develop” (Ess). Or as the abstract available online at Eastgate Systems (where you can buy Kolb's hypertext) puts it, “Socrates in the Labyrinth embodies several hypertext structures showing possibilities for writing and thought in the new medium”
[3]. In this regard, it could be said that Kolb does in the hypertext version of Socrates in the Labyrinth what Shelley Jackson accomplished in her hypertext fiction Patchwork Girl: he incorporated the hypertext form into his argument, just as Jackson incorporated it into her fiction, thereby proving his point that philosophical discourse can be enriched through this new and powerful medium.

Works Cited:

Ess, Charles. Review of Socrates in the Labyrinth.

Kolb, David. 1994a. “Socrates in the Labyrinth” in George Landow (ed.) Hyper/Text/Theory. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins UP, pp 323-344.

Kolb, David. 1994b. Socrates in the Labyrinth: hypertext, argument, philosophy. Hypertext, available on diskette. Watertown MA: Eastgate Systems.

Kolb, David. 1997. “Scholarly Hypertext: Self-Represented Complexity”, in Proceedings: Hypertext 97. The eighth ACM conference on Hypertext. Southampton, UK: ACM, pp 29-37.


1. The hypertext version of Socrates in the Labyrinth grew out of the shorter essay version that appears in Landow's Hyper/Text/Theory. Although the hypertext includes all of the text of the shorter linear essay and is significantly more complex and extensive–consisting of about 25,000 words compared to 9,000 words in the linear essay–I cite the essay version of the text whenever possible, because of interface problems I had with the hypertext version. I could not use many of the powerful features available in Storyspace, like saving my reading, that would have made citation of the hypertext easier. I also would often have to close and restart the program, because text would turn into meaningless lines of boxes and shapes. These problems did little to strengthen Kolb's claim that hypertext could be useful to philosophy, but I tried to ignore these technical problems in evaluating the implementation of his ideas.
2. Kolb does point out a long tradition in philosophy of those who have gone against this grain, however.


3. The hypertext version of Socrates in the Labyrinth also contains four auxiliary essays – “The Habermas Pyamid,” “Earth Orbit,” “Cleavings,” and “Aristotle Argument,” each of which is modeled on a certain experimental intermediate form that Kolb suggests could be beneficial, depending on one's purpose.

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