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Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009

NEH awards $400,000 for IU digital philosophy project

March 9, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded $400,000 over two years to the Indiana Philosophy Ontology project -- InPhO for short -- which is creating interactive, digital tools to help students and scholars explore the discipline of philosophy.

Colin Allen

Colin Allen

Colin Allen, professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, is project director for InPhO, a unique project that uses computer data-mining and human experts to search, map and classify information.

Allen said the NEH grant will enable the Indiana Philosophy Ontology project to expand its work and to develop more attractive and effective ways of presenting data and letting users interact with the system. Funding is from the NEH Office of Digital Humanities and Division of Preservation and Access.

"The Indiana Philosophy Ontology project promises to break new ground in humanities research," said Bennett I. Bertenthal, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "By exploiting data mining and categorization procedures to connect users with diverse sources of knowledge, the InPhO project provides a prototype for making similar digital tools for other liberal-arts disciplines. The College looks forward to viewing the results of the work by Dr. Allen and his students, as well as the benefits of bringing together scholars and research in the innovative and uniquely collaborative manner of InPhO."

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced the grant today. It is part of $20 million awarded to 197 projects that enrich humanities research, education, access, and public programming.

Allen and IU doctoral students Cameron Buckner and Mathias Niepert developed InPhO to serve the metadata needs of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer-managed, open-access online reference work, of which Allen is associate editor. It may have a wide array of other uses, however, and could serve as a model for digital tools in other humanities disciplines.

"We think it's a discovery tool," Allen said, pointing out that InPhO can prove useful for scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, and lay people wanting to learn about philosophy.

The NEH award includes a subcontract with the Noesis project, an online philosophical research resource based at the University of Evansville and directed by Anthony Beavers, a philosophy professor and director of the Cognitive Science Program at Evansville. The arrangement provides InPhO with a wider selection of philosophical materials from which to derive data and a test bed for applications, in particular by helping Noesis users construct focused online searches.

The Indiana Philosophy Ontology project was begun in the 2005-06 academic year with a New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grant from the IU Bloomington Office of the Vice Provost for Research. It received additional start-up funding from the NEH Digital Humanities Initiative.

"Colin Allen is one of IU Bloomington's remarkable young scholars, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research is proud to have supported his work in the last several years through the Lilly-funded New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grants program," said Sarita Soni, IU vice provost for research. "In this time of economic decline, the relevance of humanities disciplines such as philosophy is under intense scrutiny. I am pleased the National Endowment of the Humanities sees fit to support Colin Allen's innovative creation of dynamic digital tools to enhance and expand the ideas of humanities scholars."

Allen noted that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a dynamic reference work, with new peer-reviewed articles and updates to existing parts of the reference work constantly being added. That creates a challenge for editors and users -- how to accurately and efficiently update SEP metadata, including cross references, tables of contents and search keywords.

InPhO addresses the challenge with an approach that uses both computation and human insight to make connections and order information. Computer software generates initial data about how to classify philosophical ideas and information. Authors of encyclopedia articles are asked to evaluate the machine-generated data. The system will also rely on an online "community of experts," with users contributing input according to their levels of expertise and reliability.

For more information about Indiana Philosophy Ontology, see