Aristotle: Systems Thinking and Psychology

Aristotle: Systems Thinking and Psychology

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), "master of those who knew," as later philosophers would call him, single-handedly laid the foundations for modern systems thinking—the practice of analyzing the world in terms of object assemblages united by an interaction of parts. He also invented the discipline of psychology, and continued the lifelong learning mission of Socrates and Plato.

Systems Design: Aristotle and the Art of Chunking

First, divide the sciences into the theoretical and the applied. Then see if you can find a joint or parting in each of these subclasses, and so on.

—Plato, Statesman, 400 B.C.

True to his fascination with systems and classifying, Aristotle's life and works were a constant quest to collect, categorize, and catalogue knowledge. Characteristically, he owned the first private library (of scrolls), and he turned systems thinking into a fine art. (For a description of his ideas of decomposition, chunking, and hierarchical classification, see the section "Content Design: Chunking and Sequencing.")

Psychology: The Three Domains

"The psyche," Aristotle writes, "is characterized by three basic functions:

  • Knowing

  • Feeling

  • Will-to-Action"

Astonishingly, this triadic structure of consciousness would hold sway right down to the present day, a period of more than 2,300 years. In the 1950s, behaviorists such as Benjamin Bloom would take this tripartite structure of consciousness and transform it into a taxonomy of training, with its three domains of knowing, feeling, and doing. From Plato to Aristotle, the structure looks like this:



Knowledge (learning)


Feeling (emotions)


Desires (physical)

Will-to-Do (physical)

From Aristotle to Bloom, it looks like this:



Knowledge (head)

Knowledge (cognitive realm, thinking)

Feeling (heart)

Attitude (emotional realm, feeling)

Will-to-Do (hands)

Skills (physical realm, doing)

Aristotle on Lifelong Learning

Aristotle, apart from inventing systems thinking and psychology, was also a firm believer in lifelong learning. Like Socrates and Plato before him, he insists that "the activity of learning occupies a lifetime," for "all men by nature desire to know."


350 B.C.

Aristotle: On Psychology ("On the Soul") and On Memory.


Thomas Davidson: Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals.


Robert Ulich: History of Educational Thought.


Wade Baskin (ed.): Classics in Education.

Dante: Curriculum as Memory Theatre

When one thinks of the drawers in a Memory Theatre, they begin to look like one vast filing system.

—Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, 1966

Dante's Divine Comedy (A.D. 1300), with its fantastic hells, vast purgatories, and backlit heavens, is, in a very real sense, a precursor of the World Wide Web. In fact Dante, as Frances Yates has pointed out, architected one of the most spectacular knowledge bases that the medieval world had ever seen. In her brilliant study, The Art of Memory, Yates describes Dante's creation as a virtual world or memory theater. Memory theaters, Yates explains, were those early mental database systems that ancient classical orators invented in order to aid them in memorizing long speeches. By visualizing key points as small rooms inside a "theater," orators could memorize enormous amounts of material for presentation. Lodged like "learning objects" in their heads, information and phrases could be retrieved on a random access basis.

Dante's poem, through its structure and iconic imagery, functioned in a similar way—much like a curriculum housing a database filled with information on medieval history, politics, literature, and theology. Each point was "chunked" and visualized with an icon, using three major design strategies, all three of which are still at the heart of information design today: architecture, iconic tagging, and (by subsequent scholars) indexing.

Architecting a Data Space: The Information Terrace

Dante actually designed his narrative as a series of landscapes: a vast nine-level pit (learning about hell), a nine-story mountain (learning about purgatory), and nine ascending concentric spheres in the sky (learning about heaven). Each of these twenty-seven hierarchical information spaces is then subdivided into circular stair steps or "terraces" so that the reader can more easily recall the individual learning points in the didactic narrative.

Tagging a Knowledge Object: The Mnemonic Icon

Dante's real brilliance comes into play, however, with his iconic visualization of the individual learning points. In each case he uses a vivid visual image (icon) for a concept, so that it could be retrieved in the individual memory more easily. On the Mountain of Purgatory, for example, he embeds the moral point that "envy is sinful." Instead of leaving the point as an abstract commandment ("thou shalt not be envious"), he describes a dramatic scene on that particular information terrace (database cell), in which the characters have their eyes glued permanently shut, so that they can't be envious any more. This vividly grotesque image is one the reader will undoubtedly long remember, and be able to retrieve in their personal memory bank. Where concept is wedded to visual image, no long sermons and explanations are necessary.

Indexing the Content: Search Engines for Dante's Curriculum

Soon after The Divine Comedy appeared, scholars set about indexing and footnoting the work (by canto and verse), in order to make its contents more accessible to medieval and renaissance learners. Explanatory links were added, for instance, to points on Florentine geography, Italian history, church politics, and Catholic theology. The work became, in effect, one of the first real knowledge bases in existence before the age of printing.



Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy.


Frances Yates: The Art of Memory.