Socrates in the Labyrinth
David Kolb
Eastgate Systems, 1994

Socrates in the Labyrinth is the most exciting piece of non-fiction hypertext that I´ve read so far. Not only because of its novelty (it´s the first serious philosophical essay dealing with hypertext), but also because it successfully uses the hypertextual form to illustrate its theoretical points. David Kolb shows here his mastery of the philosopher´s main task: asking questions.

The main question David Kolb poses is if hypertext could be something else than an efficient tool for editing philosophical works, that is, if philosophy is so inextricably linked to linear argument that it couldn´t exist in a non-linear medium such as hypertext. The best way to answer this question is not only writing about it, but actually trying to do it.

Socrates in the Labyrinth is made of five separate essays varying in length and purpose. The essay called "Socrates in the Labyrinth" carries the weight of Kolb´s arguments and answers directly to the question we asked above. The other four essays: "Habermas Pyramid", "Earth Orbit", "Cleavings" and "Aristotle Essay" "explore -and embody- different hypertextual forms that argumentative or philosophical writing might take".

Organizing "Socrates in the Labyrinth" wasn´t easy, according to the chaotic image displayed in the text space that shows most of its writing spaces in a flat map. Losing the line could be seen by purists as turning philosophy into idle chat or rhetoric. Kolb wants to avoid simple juxtaposition or disorder, so he questions himself what "non-linear control" could mean, letting other authors´ voices be heard as he goes on. He seeks dialogue with these other authors, and let them contradict his points or illuminate them in the best classical tradition of philosophy.

"No, hypertext is not about lack of linearity. For me, hypertext is about the necessary combination of non sequential and linear. There is never a lack or complete absence of linearity." (Carolyn Guyer)

The combination of non-sequential and linear means is for Kolb "an intermediate form" able to create landscape-writings to be explored, different from the linear writings that always imply a "position to be defended or attacked".

"If this essay you´re reading has a thesis, it concerns the need for intermediate form."

The key to this new form would be the structure brought to the arguments by the movement and the links, going beyond the "topic and comment" unproductive connection.

"Let single writing spaces present passages of argument, diagrammed or analyzed however is convenient. Let hypertext links take the reader to the arguments that support the parts of the argument presented on the page. Don´t try to show all the structure either on the page or in the hypertext links. The single writing space would show fine structure where individual propositions relate to one another over a relatively small span that does not tax the reader´s short-term memory. The hypertext links would show how larger blocks of argument relate to one another."

In a space called "phil. HT organization", Kolb lists some "ways of organizing philosophical hypertexts" in "mostly linear ways", "less linear ways" and "much less linear ways". Some of them are exemplified in the remaining four essays of Socrates in the Labyrinth.

But he is also critical about hypertext, conscious about its economical, political and philosophical negative implications. He jests about the enthusiasm of some critics who speak about the infinite possibilities of hypertext, not realizing that they can only show finite structures. Another risk of hypertext fiction and non-fiction is excessive expansion that "can dilute the text´s effect". There may be some operations that can only be done in linear form.

"In some ways hypertext does not question the unity of the text deeply enough. The very endlessness of possible links means that none of them needs question the integrity of the individual lexia in the way that deconstructive operations conducted on site can do. Links lack the contingent fecundity of immediate juxtapositions and the self-referentiality of complexly clever textual turns. Hypertext links can change a lexia´s relations and its role within a whole or context, but they cannot easily make it reflect on or exceed its own unity."

A good solution would be again the "intermediate form", which is also not without risks, for example the risk "of re-use dominating use, of covering over and of dispersion".

Kolb discusses also some of Landow´s assumptions about the new form and makes useful warnings:

"We may say that nonlinear text is postmodern, for the achievement of greater textual self-conciousness arrives at neither a fixed structure of nature (traditional) nor a dominating subjective act (modern). But this means that when we talk about hypertext we must ve wary of the simple stories about steps toward some goal of final illumination."

However important these cautions might be, "Socrates in the Labyrinth" leaves no doubt about the positive effects that hypertext could have on philosophical writing. Argument can coexist with non-linearity and hypertext embodies new forms of thinking and writing that are not only creative but may be the ideal way for contemporary philosophy.

"There are now philosophies set against completion. Not denying it but reinscribing both the ideal and the achievement. Hypertext philosophical writing may have some advantages in this regard."

"Life isn´t linear", and hypertext leaves the readers to choose their own line while they pick up their bits and pieces. As we said above, the four other essays of Socrates in the Labyrinth exploit the hypertextual medium in different ways. They are each an example of how philosophical hypertext can be (treating different philosophical subjects) and they are each a success on their own.

"Habermas Pyramid is a linear essay that has been equipped with a multi-level pyramidal hypertext outline.

Earth Orbit presents a more real-life, less purified, structure of argument or conversation. Statements of linear argument proceed from each other and disagree with each other. The overall structure is not linear, from premises to conclusion, but ordered in multiple cycles and epicycles, and includes a discordant voice.

explores a philosophical theme by weaving together four classic but very diverse texts. This is the only one of the smaller essays to include a section commenting on hypertext form; it includes comparisons with linear presentations of the same material.

Aristotle Essay
presents a complex argument from Aristotle, ordered in the "mixed form" described in the main essay. Some writing spaces contain entire short logical arguments, from premises to conclusions. Other spaces expand on individual statements, providing backing, illustration, or alternate perspectives -sometimes with logical structures of their own."

My favourite is "Aristotle Essay" because of its innovative and inspired structure; the form of "Cleavings" is very appropiate to contrast different texts; "Earth Orbit" is the platonic dialogue incarnated; and "Habermas Pyramid" would be specially useful for students to prepare an examination or a paper.

Thus, Socrates in the Labyrinth is not just a must for philosophers, but for all those interested in hypertext, language or rhetoric. It is equally stimulating for hypertext defenders and detractors alike.