Classification of the sciences

The classification of the sciences is an interdisciplinary field related to the construction of library classification systems such as Dewey Decimal Classification (which is primarily a classification of disciplines) as well as the mapping of science in scientometrics (cf., atlas of science). It should not be confused with classification in the sciences: how scientists classify their objects, for example, how plants are classified in botany (cf., scientific classification and taxonomy), although these issues are related at a deeper level because the sciences are partly organized by the structures they uncover in the objects they investigate (cf., social organization of knowledge).


Miksa (1998) writes that a movement to classify the universe of knowledge in a new way first arose in the seventeenth century and became an activity of enormous proportions among a wide number of participants during the nineteenth century, but that this movement ended just after the beginning of the twentieth century. He also writes that the relation between the older movement to classify knowledge and the sciences, and the movement to classify libraries that arose during the late nineteenth century—is not a strong relation. These two questions: why research into the classification of the sciences declined and why classification research in Library and Information Science (LIS) remained rather unrelated to this field is important to consider because a proper foundation for LIS should probably be related to these questions. 


Questions about the unity or disunity of the sciences, kinds of mutual relations and their organization are classical philosophical problems. Existing LIS classifications, e.g. Dewey Decimal Classification may be traced to philosophical systems developed by Francis Bacon and others. (Andersen et al., 1983). 


Historical outlines of developments in the classification of the sciences are rare and often found in quite unexpected places. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy in 10 volumes (1998) has, for example, no entry on this issue. The task to review this scattered literature is thus a difficult one. Speziali (1973-74) is one example of such a review.

Francis Bacon published in 1605 "The Advancement of Learning". He described the purpose of this book as demonstrating the need for more knowledge as well as the defects in existing sciences and the possibility to improve some sciences, if not all of them. In this work Bacon introduced his classification, his "chart of learning" (later termed "chart of human learning") on which he comments:


"THUS have I made as it were a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover: with a note and description of those parts which seem to me not constantly occupate, or not well converted by the labour of man. " (Bacon, 1605, Vol. 2, conclusion/postscript)


Bacon's overriding principle of division of human knowledge is based on a psychological model. He finds that al human knowledge may be traced back to three "human faculties": Memory, imagination and reason. These faculties produces respectively the historical sciences, the poetical sciences and philosophy (with natural philosophy, applied philosophy and psychology).

Bacon's classification was used by the French encyclopedists. Later on Melvin Dewey (1876) uses this system in the opposite order (philosophy, literature, history).

By the end of 1800s and the beginning of 1900s one of the most important work on the classification of the sciences was done by C. S. Peirce (cf., Kent, 1987, Nubiola, 1998, 2005 and Vehkavaara, 2000).

The 20th century has been much dominated by logical positivism although this program was criticized and given up by many of its proponents. The logical positivists worked in the 1920s and 1930s on a reductionist program in which all sciences should speak the language of physics and be organized on a physicalist basis. In other words: Logical positivism had a (metaphysical!) view with clear implications for the classification of the sciences, a view, that was much criticized and did not provide a classification, although it had implications for the systems of science by introducing "the behavioral sciences" as a new ad hoc category. (There are indications that positivism itself is harmful to classificatory endeavors, cf. Kuiken et al., 1992).


In the Soviet Union was the study of classification based on Marxist principles. Kedrow (1976) is a main work in this tradition. In Germany argued Jürgen Habermas (1972) from a neo-Marxist point of view that all forms of knowledge are rooted in fundamental human interests. He identifies three anthropologically deep-seated cognitive interests with reference to which distinct forms of knowledge can be delineated: the natural sciences correspond to a technical interest; the historical-hermeneutic sciences, to a practical interest; and the critical sciences (for example, Marxism and psychoanalysis when each is freed from its own ‘scientistic self-misunderstanding’), to an emancipatory interest.


There have been some special contributions such as Whitley (1984/2000) work on the social and intellectual organization of the sciences from a sociological perspective and works on specialties (such as Dogan, 2001) and interdisciplinarity such as Klein (1990). There have also been some works about parts of knowledge, such as Wallerstein (1996) on the organization of the social sciences. Library and Information Science (LIS) has contributed developing bibliometric maps of science (See Atlas of Science) and with some analytical classifications such as Bliss.


Basic assumptions concerning the classification of sciences have been problematized by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Michel Foucault as well as by postmodern philosophers. (There are, however, also strong counterarguments, such as Sutcliffe, 1993). Hjørland & Nissen Pedersen (2005) argues that a theory of classification must be based on a consequent pragmatic philosophy.

There is not today (2005), to my knowledge, any organized research program about the classification of the sciences in any discipline or in any country. As Miksa (1998) writes, the interest for this question largely died in the beginning of the 20th century. For the further development of LIS is seems important that this situation is changed.

The overall classification of science (and scholarship and technology) is often categorized according to administrative divisions in Universities and related institutions into Sciences, Technology, Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences.





Andersen, N. O.; Arnberg, J.; Thoring Hansen, J. & Marcussen. L. (1983). Erkendelsesteori og vidensklassifikation. København: Danmarks Biblioteksskole. (Danmarks Biblioteksskoles A4-serie nr. 23).


Bacon, F. (1605). The Proficience and Advancement of Learning. London: Printed for Henrie Tomes. Available at:

Balaban, A. T. & Klein, D. J. (2006). Is chemistry 'The Central Science'? How are different sciences related? Co-citations, reductionism, emergence, and posets. Scientometrics, 69(3), 615-637.

Braun, C. M. J. & Baribeau, J. M. C. (1984). The Classification of Psychology among the Sciences from Francis Bacon to Boniface Kedrov. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 5(3), 245-260.

The divisions of philosophy:

Dogan, M. (2001). Specialization and Recombination of Specialties (pp. 14851-14855). International Enclyclopaedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. London, Pergamon-Elsevier Science.


Dolby, R. G. A. (1979). Classification of the sciences: The Nineteenth Century Tradition. IN: Classifications in their social contexts. Ed. by R. F. Ellen & D. Reason. (Pp. 167-193). New York: Academic Press.


Dupré, J. (2006). Scientific classification. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3), 30-32.


Fiedler, F. (1990). Klassifikation der Wissenschaften. IN: Europäische Enzyklopädie zu Philosophie und Wissenschaften. Band 2. Herausgegeben von Hans Jörg Sandkühler u.a. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Habermas, J. (1968/1987). Erkenntniss und Interesse. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (English translation: Knowledge & Human Interest. Polity Press, 1987).


Hjørland, B. & Nissen Pedersen, K. (2005). A substantive theory of classification for information retrieval. Journal of Documentation, 61(5), 582-597. Click for full-text pdf Click for summary of arguments.

Kedrow, B. M. (1976). Klassifizierung der Wissenschaften. Band 1-2, Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein. (Translated from Russian). [A third volume is mentioned in vol. 2; It is not known whether it has been published].


Kent, B. (1987). Charles S. Peirce: Logic and the Classification of the Sciences.  Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Klein, J. T. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.


Kuiken, D.; Cameron Wild, T. & Schopflocher, D. (1992): Positivist Conceptions of Induction and the Rejection of Classificatory Methods in Psychological Research. (Pp. 47-56 In: Tolman, C. W. (ed.): Positivism in Psychology. Historical and Contemporary Problems. New York & Berlin: Springer-Verlag).


Laudan, R. (2003). Classification of the sciences. IN: The Oxford companion to the history of modern science. Ed. by J. L. Heilbron et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Pp. 154-155).

Miksa, F. L. (1998). The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Albany, NY: Forest Press.


Nubiola, J. (1998). The branching of science according to C. S. Peirce. Originally presented at the 10th International Congress of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science August 22, 1995, Florence, Italy. Available at:


Nubiola, J. (2005). The Classification of the Sciences and Cross-disciplinarity. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XLI/2,


Pape, H. (1993), "Final Causality in Peirce's Semiotics and His Classification of the Sciences", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society XXIX, 581-607.


Parker, K. (1998). The Continuity of Peirce's Thought. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. 


Peirce, C. S. (1889).


Peirce, C. S. (1898). EP2.35-37


Peirce, C. S. (1903).EP 2:458-462


Pietarinen, A.-V. (2006). Interdisciplinarity and Peirce's classification of the Sciences: A Centennial Reassessment. Perspectives on Science-Historical Philosophical and Social, 14(2), 127-152.


Shields, C. W. (1882). The order of the sciences. An essay on the philosophical classification and organization of human knowledge. New York: C. Scribner's sons.

Speziali, P. (1973-74). Classification of the Sciences. IN: Wiener, P. P.: The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Available (without illustrations):


Sutcliffe, J. P. (1993). Concept, class, and category in the tradition of Aristotle. In: van Mechelen, I.; Hampton, J.; Michalski, R. S. & Theuns, P. (eds.): Categories and Concepts. Academic Press, London, pp. 35-65.


Szostak, R. (2004). Classifying science. Phenomena, data, theory, method, practice. Dordrecht: Springer.


Tatarkiewicz, W. (1973-74). Classification of the arts. IN: Wiener, P. P.: The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Available (without illustrations):


Vehkavaara, T. (2000). Charles Peirce's outline classification of sciences ('final vesion' 1902-1911, compiled by TV 2000).

with a URL of

Wallerstein, I. (1996). Open the Social Sciences, report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


Whitley, R. D. (1984/2000). Intellectual and social organisation of the sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2nd ed. 2000). 


Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia. Classification of the sciences (Peirce). (Retrieved 2007-10-14).


Yeo, R. (2003). Classifying the sciences. In R. Porter (Ed.), The Cambridge History of Science (Vol. 4, pp. 241-267). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

See also: Atlas of Science; Science (Epistemological Lifeboat); Classification (Lifeboat for KO);  Scientific classification and taxonomy (Epistemological lifeboat), Tree of Knowledge






Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 02-12-2008