Digital Humanities Conference – Abstract

Introduction

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most prominent figures in the history of Western philosophy, left an enduring legacy behind. His challenging philosophical work had a profound impact on the thinking of twentieth century political leaders and intellectuals. For decades arduous scholars and interpreters (among them Michel Foucalt, George Bataille, Jacques Derrida and Leo Strauss) have been pondering over questions regarding Nietzsche’s extraordinary personality and grandiose controversial ideas.

The aim of our project is to convey a holistic view on Nietzsche’s life, which will help us understand better his elusive character and assist us in tracing the origin and influence of his ideas. To attain this ambitious goal we compiled reliable biographical information on the philosopher from a wide variety of sources and organized it in a structured/relational database. Moreover, we reconciled and extended the data with semantic repositories. After following analysis and assessment, we built a publicly-accessible website, incorporating rich visual and interactive presentations of people, events, places and objects, related to the life of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Data Model

A web application’s flexibility and its data reliability are closely dependent on its underlying data model. To ensure the quality of the data, we had to develop a structurally-sound model, which gives a real-world context, leverages generic structures and follows naming standards. In addition, it had to capture the considerable diversity of biographical information in its entirety, while avoiding inconsistencies and redundancy.

One of the most valuable instruments that we could use to fulfill the criteria was abstraction: “the ability to increase the types of information a design can accommodate using generic concepts” (Hoberman 2007). Fortunately, an abstract semantic model for describing biographical information about people already existed – the BIO RDF Schema (Davis and Galbraith 2010). Thus, we decided to adopt it and build on it.

According to the BIO vocabulary, a person’s life may be well depicted as a series of interconnected major events, to which additional details and relevant information can be attached. The model can be considered as person-centric rather than neutral. It defines and describes several core classes and properties that can be used to create a relatively complete story of a person’s life and his or her interactions with other individuals, organizations (institutions) and the surrounding environment.

We incorporated the underlying concepts of the BIO classes in the design of our database. For example, events limit intervals of time (timespans) that can be associated with particular long-term or short-term relationships between individuals and groups of people (or organizations). Distinct types of life events are available as the obvious Birth, Education, Marriage and Death. In addition, a number of obscure and subtle events such as Baptism, Naturalization, Imprisonment and Inauguration have been added. The included event types did not cover the whole spectrum of events associated with biographical material in its completeness, and they were further expanded during the data extraction and population process.

An “importance” attribute was added to Events. It is a positive integer in the interval between 1 and 10, which indicates the significance of individual events (10 – being the highest and 1 – the lowest), determined by the event type (“writing” is considered as more important than “reading”), and allows us to filter events more precisely.

As the semantic model did not provide a complete representation of the relationship segment of a biography, we developed a Relationship classification hierarchy, which unified several types of relationships such as family and marital relationships, and professional collaborations.

Moreover, we introduced Media Item, Citation, Participant and Location entities.

Information about text documents (books, articles, lectures) and music compositions is stored in a single table – Media Item. A media type property is assigned to each item. Collected works and music albums are treated as compounded media items (defined by “part of” relationships). Media Items are linked to Events (as objects).

The Citation entity holds excerpts from documents, as well as standalone quotes and references to multimedia objects. Citations can be linked to both Intervals and Events.

The Participant and Location entity hierarchies participate in single many-to-many relationships with Event. This help us define different thematic roles for all nouns, present in a sentence describing an event, and thus we can preserve more relevant and structured information. Typical thematic roles include: agent, patient, theme, recipient, beneficiary, location, origin, direction, instrument, and experiencer (Santorini and Kroch 2007).

The Data

One of the main objectives of our project was to present relatively rich and precise information about Friedrich Nietzsche, his interactions with the world and the literary and philosophical legacy he had left. Achieving high level of completeness and accuracy requires a combination of heterogeneous sources of data, thus introducing additional conceptual and analytical complexities. It was a challenge that we often faced.

Many of the resources brought valuable information that was incompatible with the database schema in use and changes to the data model immediately followed. In order to avoid those recurring modifications, we created a temporary database for storing and manipulating heterogeneous data. Thus, in the process of record refinement we were also adapting our data model. In addition, conflicts between facts from diverse sources occasionally arose and further research was necessary for their resolutions.

To facilitate the clean-up and transformation of data, we used the temporal database, spreadsheets, scripts, macros and Google Refine (a power tool for working with messy data, molding it from one format into another and extending it with web services).

Aside from the biographical information that we were extracting from books, articles and websites on Nietzsche, we also needed spatial information (about countries, cities and their coordinates). The primary geographic data that we had obtained was derived from Geobytes’s GeoWorldMap product.

Additional information about individuals, and coordinates of populated places and addresses, were downloaded from open semantic databases like DBPedia and Freebase, after manual reconciliation of the records.

Currently, the database contains information about 2617 events (in 1010 of them, Nietzsche is a participant), 1354 citations, 990 media items (books, compositions, web sites), 695 individuals, 148 organizations and 293 relationships.

The Application

We chose Microsoft ASP.NET MVC as the back-end technology, which is based on Microsoft .NET Framework, an object oriented programming platform. Consequently, it was convenient for us to use ORM software as a data access layer in order to bring the relational and object-oriented worlds together. For this purpose, we chose Entity Framework v5.0, Microsoft’s official ORM technology, boasting of excellent tooling support.

The front-end is built with the Bootstrap (supporting HTML5 and CSS3) and jQuery (JavaScript) frameworks. The website is responsive to different screen resolutions and can be accessed via desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Main features: a dynamic timeline of Nietzsche’s life, which can be sorted by date and filtered by various criteria; an interactive map, plotting the places, which Nietzsche visited; the philosophical and musical work, he has authored; works, written on Nietzsche; graphs and lists on his family, friends, correspondents, influencers and influences. They all reveal parts of the puzzling Friedrich Nietzsche.

References

Books
  • Nietzsche’s Library, Rainer J. Hanshe (2007)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche. A Philosophical Biography, Julian Young, Cambridge University Press (2010)
  • Great Thinkers of the Western World, Annual 1999, HarperCollins Publishers (1999)
  • Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Alexander Nehamas, Harvard University Press (1985)
  • Nietzsche: A Critical Life, Ronald Hayman, Oxford University Press (1980)
  • Introductions to Nietzsche, Robert Pippin, Cambridge University Press (2012)
  • The Syntax of Natural Language: An Online Introduction Using the Trees Program, Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch (2007)
Websites

Friedrich Nietzsche (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (Britannica Online Encyclopedia)
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/414670
Friedrich Nietzsche (Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche Bibliography (Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche_bibliography
List of works about Friedrich Nietzsche (Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_about_Friedrich_Nietzsche
The Nietzsche Channel
http://www.thenietzschechannel.com
Nietzsche Circle
http://www.nietzschecircle.com
Nietzsche Chronicle
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~fnchron
Nietzsche.ru
http://nietzsche.ru
A Definition of Database Design Standards for Human Right Agencies
http://shr.aaas.org/DBStandards/contents.html
BIO: A Vocabulary for Biographical Information
http://vocab.org/bio/0.1/.html
Knowledge Representation, John F. Sowa
http://www.jfsowa.com/krbook
Freebase
http://www.freebase.com
DBpedia
http://dbpedia.org

Project Milestones

Deadline Milestone
 18.02.2013 Project Start
 24.02.2013 Data Collection — Complete Source Aggregation
 10.03.2013 Data Collection — Complete Database Model Design
 24.03.2013 Data Collection — Complete Data Extraction and Database Population
 07.04.2013 Complete Data Analysis
 14.04.2013 Complete Website Design
 15.04.2013 Website Development Start
 12.05.2013 Website Development End
 26.05.2013 Complete Result Summarization
 27.05.2013 Website Launch
 31.05.2013 Project End

Our Methodology

The project will be carried out in a traditional, sequential methodology on its highest level. The project plan will be split into 4 major stages succeeding one after another without any reiteration, which will allow us to better evaluate the degree of meeting the project goals and deadlines at any time. The following text describes methodologies of each of the major process stages.

Phase 1 – Data Collection

A biography incorporates a huge bundle of facts and a complex series of events comprising the life of a person. Biographical facts may be classified on two levels according to a hierarchy of relevance, described in details in Sergio Soares’s dissertation on “Extraction of Biographical Information from Wikipedia Texts”. Soares distinguishes immutable personal characteristics (e.g. date and place of birth/death, family information), mutable personal characteristics (education, occupation, residence, affiliation), relational personal characteristics (family and marital relationships, professional collaborations), individual events (professional activities, personal events) and others among biographical data, while excluding irrelevant (non-biographical) details on a zero level.

taxonomy_of_biographical_classes

During the Data Collection phase we will collect Nietzsche’s biographical data and store them in a structured database (a relational database management system). The phase may be divided to three distinct subphases: data source aggregation, data model design (incorporating the taxonomy of biographical classes, proposed by Soares) for storing and accessing them logically and efficiently and database population.

The data source aggregation subphase will consist of identifying various reliable data sources, selecting the relevant data to be stored, verifying and merging them with the data present in the database. The types of sources we are going to use are the following (sorted in descending order of priority):

  1. Web content created by acclaimed universities
  2. Web content created by reliable encyclopedias (e.g. Britannica)
  3. Printed biographies written by established authors
  4. Web content created by other reputable institutions
  5. Other sources

To store, analyze, process and update the data in the RDBMS quickly and correctly, an appropriate data model has to be designed. A data model defines the types and relationships of data to be stored and is the basis for any further work. Our goal will be to decompose the collected data into as small pieces of information as possible, in order to leverage the advantages of a structured database the most. During the data collection we will find various types of data and it will happen incrementally, hence the data model must also change in time accordingly.

Furthermore, additional entities and relations, which will represent the taxonomy of the biographical classses, will be created. They will facilitate the classification of biographical facts and provide information about their origin.

The process of data extraction and database population is described as follows:

  1. Assemble a list of online resources identified by unique URLs
  2. Create a local repository of the digitized texts to be mined
  3. Download a recent version of the specified web pages and save the HTML content in the repository by using a website crawler
  4. Add biographical data from digitized books in plain text format to the repository manually
  5. Parse the repository data, scrape names of people and places, and store them in an entity table
  6. Build Wikipedia resource locators from the named entities, fetch and extract infobox information and save it to the database
  7. Strip HTML tags and irrelevant data
  8. Delimit individual tokens over the text, segment the documents into sentences and classify them into the biographical classes, discussed above, manually or with the assistance of appropriate data mining software
  9. Import images and multimedia, related to Nietzsche

Phase 2 – Data Analysis

After we create a large enough structured database with Nietzsche’s biographical data, we will try to analyse it by using text mining tools, compile descriptive statistics and draw conclusions on it. The following domains of Nietzsche’s biography will be explored:

  • Circles of friends and acquaintances
  • Public events and social interactions
  • Journeys and places of residence
  • Literary work
  • Aspirations and external drivers

All statistics will be based on the data stored in the biographical database and the applications that will produce them (and eventually visualize them in graphs, diagrams, maps, etc.) will be reusable on the website that we will create in the following phase. The compiled statistical data will be preserved in database tables or made accessible via database views.

Phase 3 – Website Development

In the third phase of our project we will design and develop a dedicated website where a subset of the collected data about Nietzsche and all the derived statistics will be published. The content will be presented very cleanly, but attractively and, if possible, graphically.

The website will be highly interactive (via the use of AJAX, partial rendering and dynamic filters). Events plotted on a timeline, spatial distribution of people and places, a network of Nietzsche’s friends and acquaintances are exemplary applications suited for the interative presentation of the data.

Moreover, the website will be very well interlinked and contextual so that the reader will never have hard time finding needed or related information.

Phase 4 – Results Summarization

In the last phase of the project we are going to summarize the results in a final document, which will also be published in a section of the project website.

The State of Art

There are currently many sources that may be used as data providers – paper, electronic and even audiovisual. Hundreds of printed books, encyclopedias and articles that deal exclusively with Nietzsche’s biography (or incorporate it in some of their chapters/sections [1—7]) were published. The Internet is also full of webpages and websites dedicated to the philosopher and his work. They may be divided into several categories: university articles [8—10], encyclopedic articles [11—14], articles of servers specialized in biographies [15—16] and complementary fan websites [17—18]. Numerous documentaries on Nietzsche’s life have been presented by broadcasting television stations and online video channels, which may also provide us with important and useful information [19—20].

There are no websites, however, which offer complete biographical information about the philosopher, presented in a creative and visually appealing way, as we would like to deliver with our project. The website that briefly meets our ideas in relation to uniformity and completeness of information is “The Nietzsche Channel” [18], a website that contains one of the most extensive biographies (and comprehensive bibliographies) of Nietzsche. The information provided, however, is not well-structured, interlinked or interactive and does not offer any visualization. The desired presentation complexity may be closer to the website “Biography.com” [15], which offers better data structuring and interconnection, but the information is quite basic and elementary and no grasping visualizations or true interactivity have been implemented.

Likewise, we have not found any other websites that display biographical information following the structure and presentation we would like to embody in this project. Nonetheless we found an effort in Digital Humanities by Stanford University that works with and presents comparable data in a similar way as we would like to — in a project called “Mapping the Republic of Letters” [11]. The authors of this project worked with large data sets of letters sent or received by selected historical figures. They processed these letters and visualized the extracted information in different ways — e.g. interactive maps displaying the people’s communication over time or charts and graphs that clearly summarized key statistics about their communication. Our project’s web presentation should use similar visualization techniques, telling the story of Nietzsche in a new interactive way.

In summary, no other (or only a few similar) projects revealing Nietzsche’s life in a modern way currently exist. Much information traditionally stored in biographic books and encyclopedias is now available online, but it does not fully leverage the possibilities offered by the technology of digitalization. Web technologies enable interactivity, interconnectivity and visualizations that are impossible to be applied on content in static form. Yet, they are still used only partially when it comes to websites dedicated on philosophers or other influential historic figures, and our goal is to demonstrate the possibilities through this project.

References

[1]
C. Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2005.
[2]
J. Young, Friedrich Nietzsche : a philosophical biography. Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
[3]
R. Safranski a S. L. Frisch, Nietzsche : a philosophical biography. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
[4]
R. J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche : the man and his philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
[5]
P. Strathern, Nietzsche in 90 minutes. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1996.
[6]
L. Chamberlain, Nietzsche in Turin : an intimate biography. New York: Picador USA, 1998.
[7]
W. A. Kaufmann, Nietzsche, philosopher, psychologist, antichrist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
[8]
„Friedrich Nietzsche – German Philosopher – Biography“. [Online]. Available: http://www.egs.edu/library/friedrich-nietzsche/biography/. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[9]
„Friedrich Nietzsche (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)“. [Online]. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[10]
„Nietzsche Biography – OpenLearn – Open University“. [Online]. Available: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/philosophy/thinkers/nietzsche-biography. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[11]
„Friedrich Nietzsche – New World Encyclopedia“. [Online]. Available: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Friedrich_Nietzsche. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[12]
„Friedrich Nietzsche – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia“. [Online]. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[13]
„Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher) — Britannica Online Encyclopedia“. [Online]. Available: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/414670/Friedrich-Nietzsche. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[14]
„Nietzsche, Friedrich [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]“. [Online]. Available: http://www.iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[15]
„Friedrich Nietzsche Biography – Facts, Birthday, Life Story – Biography.com“. [Online]. Available: http://www.biography.com/people/friedrich-nietzsche-9423452. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[16]
„Friedrich Nietzsche Biography – Friedrich Nietzsche Childhood, Life & Timeline“. [Online]. Available: http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/friedrich-nietzsche-128.php. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[17]
„[Nietzsche Circle][The Life of Nietzsche]“. [Online]. Available: http://www.nietzschecircle.com/nietzsche_work.html. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[18]
„The Nietzsche Channel: Biography.“ [Online]. Available: http://www.thenietzschechannel.com/bio/bio.htm. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[19]
„Films for the Humanities and Sciences – Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil“. [Online]. Available: http://ffh.films.com/id/86/Friedrich_Nietzsche_Beyond_Good_and_Evil.htm. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[20]
„Films for the Humanities and Sciences – Nietzsche“. [Online]. Available: http://ffh.films.com/id/9332/Nietzsche.htm. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].
[21]
„Mapping the Republic of Letters“. [Online]. Available: http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/. [Accessed: 26-11-2012].

About the Project

The philosophical work of Friedrich Nietzsche had a significant impact on the thinking of twentieth century leaders and intellectuals. For decades philosophy scholars and curious individuals have been pondering over questions regarding Nietzsche’s extraordinary personality and grandiose controversial ideas. What were the reasons behind his thoughts? How did Nietzsche’s personal life influence his work? How did his believes evolve and why? Which contemporaries inspired Nietzsche or who conversely fell under his influence?

The aim of our upcoming project will be to answer these questions by collecting Nietzsche’s biographical data; organizing them in a structured database using modern digital technologies, analyzing and putting this information into context; providing rich visual and interactive presentations of relations between people, events and ideas. The fruits of our endeavour will be publicly available on a dedicated project website.

The main difference between our project and the other websites containing philosopher biographies and bibliographies is that our goal is to create a full-length digital biography by utilizing all possibilities of cutting-edge technologies that can assist us in copying with the challenging task of displaying less cluttered, better organized, readable and more capturing relevant content. To do this, the database model in which the data is stored should be deeply interlinked and the presentation layer should make use of these relationships as much as possible. The content should be clear, easily searchable, navigable and highly semantic, leveraging technologies like XML, HTML5, CSS3 or microformats. It should also be visually engaging — diagrams, maps and graphs would make it more appealing and demonstrative. Most of these visualizations should be “live” — based on the data sets stored in the database. Finally, the website should contain interactive elements, allowing the user to explore the content quickly and effectively. An example of that could be an interactive map (or a timeline) and dynamically loaded content, which can be accomplished with the use of JavaScript.

Authors

  • Orlin Topalov
  • Vojtěch Vít