Monday, September 3, 2012

The History of Outlining

It is often forgotten that outlines are not "natural" in the sense that they indicate a natural way of thinking about matters. They are a highly refined kind of instrument, and just as refined sugar does not occur naturally, so outlines do not occur without refined thinking. Table sugar made from sugar beets has undergone the following process: "the crop is washed and sliced and the sugar extracted by diffusion. The raw juice is then treated with lime and carbonated in a number of stages in order to purify it. Water is evaporated by boiling the syrup under a vacuum. The syrup is then cooled and seeded with sugar crystals. The white sugar which crystallizes out can be separated in a centrifuge and dried" (Wikipedia). Outlines are conventions that are just as artificial.

Outlines seem to presuppose techniques that became popular only when paper and printing became a main staple in Western culture. It is sometimes claimed that Ramon Llull (1232-1316) "invented" outlines. I doubt this is true, but his writings certainly popularized this way of organizing materials and it was around his life time that outlines first appeared.
Essentially, outlines are a typographical means of presenting hierarchical information that evolved to the highly elaborate convention we know over a long period. This, does not mean, of course, that what is nowadays represented in outlines was not possible before. Systematic or hierarchical thinking was possible before (just as honey and other substances could be used for sweetening, so hierarchical thinking was possible before outlines). Rhetoricians have always given advice on how to present things in speech. Cicero advised, for instance, that speeches should contain a section, called partitio in his De Partitione Oratoria Dialogus, also called Partitiones Oratoriae and De Partitionbus Oratoriae, translated as "On the Subdivisions of Oratory," and other ancient writings show that they have a systematic structure. But the convention that we call "outline" was not available to him. by the eighteenth century, outlining in the modern sense was well established, and during the nineteenth century it became a standard way of working. But the history of outlining has not yet been written.

It might be argued that outlines are making systematic thinking easier and that the kind of systematic classification you find in someone like Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné) would have been difficult without them. Perhaps it is even closer to calculus, which was invented or discovered by Newton and Leibniz, that allows us to do things that were not possible before. But, just as the mastery of calculus does not make anyone into a Newton or Leibniz, so the mastery of outlining does not turn someone magically into a systematic thinker.

Software programs that mimic and improve on written outlining also help, but they do not come with guarantees either. Nor is any style of outliner that is inherently better or worse than any other.[1]

1. The last claim should not be taken to mean either that there are not some outliners that are better than others. I prefer one-pane outliners for outlining, but two-pane outliners are good for fleshing out one's ideas. To overwork the analogy with sugar. Sometimes brown sugar is better than table sugar, and, for breakfast, nothing beats honey (unless you are diabetic, of course).

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