Just as vision and knowledge are linked etymologically, so too are knowledge and trees. 'Truth' and 'tree' were both once trēow,1 while 'wit' (as in wisdom) and 'wood' (as in forest) share a history of sounding suspiciously like vid.2 Though historical linguists don't trace either connection to a common source, the homonymy has apparently inspired at least a thousand years' worth of puns.3 Even without a formal connection, we still link the two concepts without a second thought, as when we look for the root of the problem, or discuss branches of knowledge.

This promisingly coincidental overlap is, perhaps, an unfortunate synecdoche for this entire section. Throughout medieval Europe, and pushing well past the Renaissance into the Enlightenment, knowledge and trees coincide frequently but implicitly. Writers simply don't often call attention to it. At least until, like Diderot and d'Alembert, people start explicitly rejecting tree as a useful geometry of knowledge.

Incidentally, books have a more direct etymological link to trees. 'Book' comes from a Germanic word meaning 'beech', as in the tree, and 'codex' literally translates to 'tree trunk'. These, of course, indicate the material history of writing.

Historians try to steer clear of two common traps: Whig history and confirmation bias. If I were to write this section as a thousand-year battle between trees and networks, with networks ultimately and inevitably winning due to their inherent appropriateness, I will have succumbed to writing a Whig history. That is, I will have made the same mistake many non-scientists make about evolution by natural selection: confusing drift for progress. The other specter plaguing historians, confirmation bias, is the tendency to only read into the past the narrative one is looking for. A thousand year chronology of two concepts, often left implicit, can easily fall into either trap. I could pick and choose early examples of tree-thinking and late examples of network-thinking, ignoring the rest, to paint my narrative onto the past. To avoid these traps, I stray from common historiographic practice by relying entirely on existing narratives in respected secondary sources. My goal is not to unearth previously unexplored aspects of history, but to weave a broad tapestry together from often disparate communities of historians.


Great chain of being surrounding sauvigny's tree

Feminist structures (eg McPherson's Scalar)

The World Wars set the backdrop for a renewed fascination with networks of all sorts. Destruction caused by the First World War, alongside a rapidly-growing automobile industry and other improving technologies of travel, led to lengthy discussions of transportation and communication networks. Hungary particularly enjoyed a period of rich international trade, at least until the Great Depression.

It was in this context that popular Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy wrote Láncszemek ("Chain-links"), a short fiction musing on the shrinking social world.4 Karinthy's story was the world's introduction to the concept of "six degrees of separation", the idea that everyone in the world is just a handful of friends-of-friends away from one another. Uncoincidentally, Karinthy's other pursuits included translating H.G. Wells and presiding over the Hungarian Esperanto Society, an organization in support of a global language for a networked world.

"The order of the world has been destroyed!" Karinthy's narrator proclaims at the end of Láncszemek, only a decade after Yeats wrote "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; // Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world". Both wrote in the shadow of the growing Nazi party, an organization determined, among other things, to bring bureaucratic order to their world.

When the Nazi librarian Hugo Krüss visited Paul Otlet's Mundaneum in 1940, with its non-hierarchical sprawling networked classification system, he considered the whole thing a useless mess. Otlet's ideals, and those of his spiritual contemporaries like Karinthy and Wells, were an odd mirror to Hitler's. Where Nazis sought to unify people under a powerful hierarchy where individual agency was subordinate to the state, Otlet and others sought unification through a distributed "World City", connected in peace via networks of information and communication (perhaps sharing a common language, like Esperanto).5 Neither goal succeeded. While we may find comfort in recognizing today's world as steering closer to Otlet's vision than to Hitler's, we must also recognize the new difficulties in fighting frontless wars against distributed communities.

  1. Dawson, R. MacGregor. “The Structure of the Old English Gnomic Poems.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 61, no. 1 (1962): 14–22.

  2. Lima, Manuel. Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

  3. Larrington, Carolyne. “Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T.A. Shippey.” The Modern Language Review 103, no. 4 (October 2008): 1087.

  4. Karinthy, Frigyes. “Chain-Links.” In The Structure and Dynamics of Networks: (Princeton Studies in Complexity), edited by Enikö Jankó, translated by Adam Makkai, 21–28. Princeton University Press (2006), Edition: 1, 592 pages, 2006.

  5. Wright, Alex. Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. 1 Edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.