Mentefacts as a missing level in theory of information science

Publication Date08 Oct 2018
AuthorClaudio Gnoli
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Mentefacts as a missing level in
theory of information science
Claudio Gnoli
Science and Technology Library, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
Purpose The current debate between two theoretical approaches in library and information science and
knowledge organization (KO), the cognitive one and the sociological one, is addressed in view of their possible
integration in a more general model. The paper aims to discuss these issues.
Design/methodology/approach Personal knowledge of individual users, as focused in the cognitive
approach, and social production and use of knowledge, as focused in the sociological approach, are
reconnected to the theory of levels of reality, particularly in the versions of Nicolai Hartmann and
Karl R. Popper (three worlds). The notions of artefact and mentefact, as proposed in anthropological literature
and applied in some KO systems, are also examined as further contributions to the generalized framework.
Some criticisms to these models are reviewed and discussed.
Findings Both the cognitive approach and the sociological approach, if taken in isolation, prove to be cases
of philosophical monism as they emphasize a single level over the others. On the other hand, each of them can
be considered as a component of a pluralist ontology and epistemology, where individual minds and social
communities are but two successive levels in knowledge production and use, and are followed by a further
level of objectivated spirit; this can in turn be analyzed into artefacts and mentefacts. While all these levels
are relevant to information science, mentefacts and their properties are its most peculiar objects of study,
which make it distinct from such other disciplines as psychology and sociology.
Originality/value This analysis shows how existing approaches can benefit from additional
notions contributed by levels theory, to develop more complete and accurate models of information and
knowledge phenomena.
Keywords Information theory, Information science, Ontology, Knowledge organization, Epistemology,
Levels of reality
Paper type Conceptual paper
1. Introduction: competing paradigms in library and information science
(LIS) and KO
This paper discusses some aspects of currently dominating theoretical approaches to LIS
and knowledge organization (KO).
We will consider LIS and KO together as they are clearly related fields, although the
exact nature of their relationship can be debated. Knowledge may be commonly understood
as a substantial corpus of information that is structured in some systematic ways. KO in a
strict sense is usually interpreted as mostly affiliated with library and information science
(Hjørland, 2016, Section 1), in that many of its principles and techniques have developed in
the professional context of library and documentation services. However, in a broader sense,
KO also concerns the intellectual structure of knowledge in encyclopedic treatments, in
teaching, in organization departments, in philosophy of science and in culture in general;
LIS, on the other hand, focuses on information services and includes such practical aspects
as management of services and staff, library architecture, technologies for processing and
storing information, which are not central to KO. Therefore, it seems to be preferable to see
LIS and KO as intersecting fields.
The theory of LIS and KO involves both ontological and epistemological aspects.
Ontological aspects concern the place of the objects studied in LIS and KO within general
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 74 No. 6, 2018
pp. 1226-1242
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-04-2018-0054
Received 10 April 2018
Revised 14 June 2018
Accepted 21 June 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The author is grateful to Tom Dousa (The University of Chicago Library) for discussing the idea of
objectivated spirit and contributing the specific example of levels coexistence in Kunst der Fuge, and to
Roberto Poli (University of Trento) for further clarifications on Harmanns strata.
knowledge frameworks, that is, what these objects exactly are and which relationships they
have with other kinds of entities, such as materials or people. For example, one can claim
that the objects of LIS and KO are intellectual contents, works or documents, and then
discuss where these entities should be listed in a general system of knowledge.
LISKO epistemology discusses which are the best approaches to perform research and
gain understanding in these domains. This depends on methodological choices (e.g. user
studies, bibliometric approaches and abstract approaches) as well as on the ontological
conceptions themselves. For example, Floridi (2002) considered informationto be a
fundamental entity ontically involved in any material, living, psychic or social phenomenon,
and LIS as applied philosophy of information; consequently, the authors accepting his
view, like Bawden and Robinson (2018), can understand LIS as a widely encompassing
domain, which should be addressed by general principles covering several sciences, rather
than just by laws with an application limited to the technical procedures and praxis of
information services. That is, if everything is information, then information science can in
some way be relevant for studying everything. In this paper, the ontological status of the
objects of KO and LIS will be discussed, which will also have epistemological consequences.
In recent decades, two major paradigms have been competing in LIS and KO theory: the
cognitive approach and the sociological approach (Hjørland, 2002). The cognitive approach
emphasizes the personal experience of individual knowledge users, and has been applied
especially in computer science and in studies of information users: The cognitive view in
information science [] was based on the view that the study of how humans search and
index/classify information is based on universal rules inherent in the human mind (and
connected to human neurobiology). In other words, the principles of information science
can be uncovered by the study of the human mental system, considered to be universal
(as opposed to a culturally and socially shaped mind)(Hjørland, 2017, Section 3.4).
The sociological approach, instead, considers knowledge as an expression of discourse
communities in specific social contexts, and accordingly proposes domain analysis as a
basic method in LIS and KO. In this view, knowledge is basically produced by social
interactions among individuals through intersubjective processes (Berger and Luckmann,
1966). A sociological approach means that the focus is on knowledge/information/
document production, mediation and utilization, understood through social and cultural
perspectives. This perspective includes the analysis of the roles of all actors, institutions,
systems, media and documents. It also means that explanations for empirically observed
phenomena are sought in social conditions rather than in universal cognitive processes
(Hjørland, 2017, Section 3.6).
For example, Bawden (2016) reported from the COLIS 2016 conference in Uppsala that
[t]he debate between the cognitive and domain analytic approaches in information science
rumbles on #colis9,where the two perspectives were represented by Jeppe Nicolaisen and
Birger Hjørland, respectively.
The central thesis of this paper is that, despite having been characterized as alternative,
cognitive and sociological approaches can be viewed as complementary and are in need of
being completed with a third component. This third additional perspective involves a
greater consideration of certain kinds of entities that have been described by different
thinkers variously as objectivated spirit,”“World 3or artefacts and mentefacts.
In order to develop such an analysis, the first step consists in reconnecting both
individual minds, as considered in the cognitive approach, and social communities, as
considered in the sociological one, to the framework of the theory of levels of reality.
2. The methodological contribution of levels theory
The theory of levels of reality (Poli, 2001) provides an important intellectual tool to better
analyze the relationships holding between different principles of explanation. This theory
Theory of

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