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Masters of Outlines

There are outlines. There are simple bullet-point lists (technically, one-level outlines). There are proper two-level outlines, the first to distinguish logical relation between items, and perhaps the mostly widely used. Count a man happy if he spent his days being able to distinguish something from its parts. Edward Tufte, the world-renowned expert on data visualization and book design, has repeatedly claimed that a two-level hierarchical structure should suffice to organized anything, and as an example he mentions the 3-volume Feyman lectures, a grand sum of physics in 1800 pages. “Undergraduate Caltech physics is very complicated material, he wrote, but it didn’t require an elaborate hierarchy to organize.”1


Despite Tufte’s advice, there are and have been three-level outlines. Almost anything could be made to fit within such structure, the first to acknowledges that parts, while integrating larger units, might also be composed of parts. Picking some examples at random, a three-level structure has been sufficient to hold the universal history of the Nahua people of pre-Columbian Mexico, comprising their customs, religious beliefs, political institutions and natural history;2 the entirety of human knowledge in the form of the Propædia, the first volume of the 15th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica,3 Spinoza’s Ethics, which sought to demonstrate through the geometrical method the truth about God, nature, mankind and civic society.4

Contrary to popular opinion, the Holy Spirit was not particularly inclined to speak by means of cumbersome paratexts or typographical aids: the Hebrew and the Babylonian Talmud were organized in a one-level structure of sections. Editorial outlining seized the Scripture only at the time of Eusebius of Caesarea. The famed Biblical scholar divided the Gospels in thematic sections, but the current chapter structure was created much later: in 13th-century Paris, by Hugh of Saint-Cher. Compared to these age-old traditions, the numbering of versicles is a recent fad—the mid-16th-century— and it’s hard to known whether it will stick. At least two contemporary editions do without them. The Summa Theologica shows that a four-level structure can already contain the whole of Medieval Theology and Philosophy, detailed objections to it, and even more detailed refutations of those objections.5 The four-level structure also survives in old-school, lengthy doctoral dissertations —a sign of hubris or mere boredom. To write a five-level outline you must be either obsessive compulsive, a German theologian or the author of a poorly-edited science textbook. I can’t recall ever encountering a six-level structure or outline. Playing with the automated indented-list function in my word processor, the deepest I was able to reach without breathing was a dizzying ninth level. After the seventh level, the standard Harvard Outline notation starts to repeat, as in the further reaches of Pi.6

These are all outlines. Even absurdly cumbersome outlines. But there are outlines and there are Tibetan outlines, sa-bcad (ས་བཅད).

Consider, for instance Tsong-Khapa’s Illumination of the Thought, his commentary on Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara. The structure of this commentary would drive Edward Tufte mad: it spans into a gloriously detailed 20-level outline. See Christian Steinert’s recent visualization of this outline to get a sense of its maddening complexity.

(To be continued…)

  1. This claim, however, flies in the face of actual books written and typeset by Edward Tufte, which as a rule distinguish between Parts, Chapters, Sections, Subsections and Paragraphs: 5 levels! See for instance Edward R. Tufte. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut, 2001. 

  2. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, ca. 1580, divided in 12 Books, Chapters and Paragraphs. 

  3. The Outline of Knowledge, the core of the Propædia created by the Thomist philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, organizes the whole content of the 15th Edition in 10 Parts, 41 Divisions and 167 Sections. 

  4. As everyone knows, Spinoza follows Euclid’s more geometrico. It could be argued, however, that Definitions, Axioms and Propositions cannot belong to the same level, in so far as each one presupposes and is founded on the previous one, and also that a Proof cannot stand in the same structural level as that which it is a proof of (i.e. a Proposition). Fortunately, however, modern editions of the Ethics have stuck to a manageable three-level structure. 

  5. The Summa is divided in Parts, Questions, Articles, Objections and Responses. While Objections and Responses tend to be placed on the same level, it makes more sense that Thomas’s Respondeo be organized one level deeper that the adversus

  6. A malevolent reader of Borges would retort than in fact, the whole of human knowledge, the universe, God and everything that can be named could be organized in the simple one-level alphabetic list: an infite dictionary.