Task: Analyzing Essay Structure

(Thanks to @archurhh for the inspiration here.)

Let’s suppose that you have a hunk of writing: a John McPhee article perhaps, or something like Emerson’s The American Scholar.

Your task is to read through the text and to learn how it is put together — to understand and explain the structure. You might do this by building an outline or a map, as you prefer.

I think it might be interesting to discuss exactly how one might approach this, either for one’s own use or as a student assignment.


I think I’d start to read the table of contents — especially if it has been made with Latex and printed in a very good font, but it is off topic — and probably use the Outline View to mirror the outline of the book I read. I’d have as many containers as the book has parts, chapters, sections and I’d create a note everytime an idea would retain my attention. I’d use Tags and the Attribute Browser as a way to view my notes from different perspectives. Maybe would I create an agent to gather some specific notes about an important topic.

Fair enough for a conventional textbook. But that might not be what you have to work with.

Suppose, for example, you want to dissect “ L’existentialisme est un humanisme* Existentialism Is A Humanism — not just to read it for comprehension, but to look closely, to see how it’s put together. In school, they told me an essay looks like this:

  • Thesis
  • Objections
  • 3 Supporting Arguments
  • Conclusion

But Montaigne didn’t do that, and neither does Sartre, or at least not quite that. And even a superficial glance suggests some secondary structures — for example, provocations about Christian critique in one paragraph seem often to set up refections on Christianity a few paragraphs later.

But just mechanically, Sartre’s doesn’t give us a table of contents. We’re going to have to extract the framework ourselves.

OK. In fact, puzzling out a table of contents is a common exercise in philosophy. There is a reason why a student is encouraged to do it: the table of contents is in principle builded in a logical way, in a way that demonstrates a main thesis. That’s the reason why I’d try first to mirror the structure of a book in the Outline View, in order to see the logic behind the titles. But, you’re right: there are so many ways to defend a thesis. Reading Derrida’s works is enough to be convinced of this point. Therefore, maybe in a second phase, following your suggestions, I think I’d try to identify the underground strategies used to argue a thesis or to serve a demonstration: examples, thought experiments, hypothesis, controversies, and so on. Doing this, I’d have a lot of categories that the Attribute browser could easily display.

Personally, I woudl start with the “first principles”:

  1. The outcome, what outcome do I want to achieve? Is it a paper, presentation, talk, or simply> I’d want to have a loose idea on the output structure; I’d trust that I could produce any template want to get there, but I want a general guide. In addition to the primary objective, I’d keep in mind that I want to build atomic assets (i.e. standard alone notes) that will help me for future projects.
  2. The elements, what elements do I think I might need (e.g., people, terms, concepts, places, events, notes, media, entities, pages), I’ll turn these into attributes
  3. The attributes, what attributes do I thnk I’ll need, e.g., $Terms, $People, Concepts, $Places, $Events, $CitationKey; as well as, linktypes. I’d add these to the attributes
  4. Action Code and templates, I’d then set up my action code that will enable Tinderbox to automatically generate the element notes as I populate the various related attributes as I’m doing my reading. This will help me get the manual work out o the way. I’d pull form my existing files and efforts to do this.
  5. Execute and Incremental Formalization, I’d then start reading and following where the winds take me. Mostly I’d use an outline, but I’m right to pop into Map or the other views as the need arises. I’d start to explore and increment my elements, attributes, action code, and templates along the way. I would keep all media (images and video) external to TBX, as I can pull them in through attributes and value. If the visual in TBX is really necessary, I’d use $HoverImage and $Fill. I would heavily leverage linked notes and the tear-off window feature so that I can stay in context of whatever topic I’m writing about or taking notes on, rather than wasting time navigating all around the file. If I had original source text in Tinderbox, like @archurhh’s example, I would also use the .highlights operator to extract highlight text.
  6. Side trips, I’d expect to experience some side trips, and speedbumps, like the recent non-breaking experience issues that I raised. I’d look forward to these rather than seeing them as an issue. They are a health distraction and help me learn the fundamentals so computing and knowledge management in the modern age; I’d trust that the learning I gather, if not immediately useful, will be in the near future. When in doubt, I’d leverage my Sangha (i.e., the TBX Forum), my Buddhas (@eastgate, @mwra, forum, and backstage members, and others in the community), and my Dharma (aTbRef, TBX Forum, Backstage).

Most of all, I’d go in with a beginner’s mind and remind myself to have fun!

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Breakdown of Draft No4 - ver01.tbx (522.2 KB)


The structure of any single piece of writing might look quite different to different specialists. A philosopher’s perception of an article on philosophy is likely to be different from that of a social psychologist with an interest in social constructionism, for example.

When I did some textual analysis years ago, it was all about pencil and paper. Software (such as Nvivo) was far too laborious and not flexible enough for my needs. Even with other tools available nowadays, I think I’d still be using pencil and paper for much of the work. But I’m glad to say that I’m no longer doing such work. :grinning:

Great! In the thread that inspired this thread, you described a mechanic in some other outliner — Obsidian? — where you could refactor a stream of text into an outline by dragging elements upward.

Is that what you did here?

Not exactly; for the example file here I worked somewhat reverse from the process I was describing, as it’s more of a breakdown/analysis of someone else’s work. Tinderbox really excels at this - my breakdown was limited only by the extent of my Tbx knowledge and the time I spent on breaking down the article.

In contrast, for ‘upward outlining’ - taking the case of the outline I demonstrated in this other post - the raw text block that originated that outline might’ve started out something like this, a stream-of-thought musing:

I have some clarity in how I think about the moon, and how it relates to planets in general. I sense a metaphor in here that I’d like to flush out. Hmm, let me think about whether and how the potential metaphor might scale. Is there a correlation to our solar system vis-a-vis the galaxy? Are we (as in the earth and other planets) simply circling some other larger planetary body? Is that larger body itself simply circling something bigger, and so on ad infinitum? And then everything circling a black hole, that swallows and digests us and centuries later, spits us out as just that much planetary graffiti?
And how does this thought scale downward? Do we - individuals, communities - tend to circle other more prominent individuals, shadowing/eclipsing/swallowing others in our zeal? Do those prominent individuals themselves, seeking a greater significance, circle more prominent individuals who in turn orbit black holes (myths, legends, beliefs)? What does it all mean? Am I just sleep-deprived tonight? Or hungry?

From this musing, I might then extract a variety of metaphors and analogies; as well, I might do a bit of web-browsing and/or scanning my existing Tinderbox data set for other bits and pieces I might want to glom on to the initial thought. Therefore, it would be a process of adding clay as I intuit exactly what will go into the final design. Along the way, I will naturally generate excess - which itself may be useful in a different project; this excess is squirrelled away in Tbx Notes and suitably annotated for future access and deployment. The process of ‘outlining upward’ is that effort; it’s a sort of incremental formalization, but also incremental chaos creation to some extent.

Hope this clarifies.


Asked of that particular McPhee essay, this becomes a trick question.


I see what you did there

Zounds! Detected!

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Hello; I am new to Tinderbox, having just happened upon this software. I am considering incorporating Tinderbox into my ongoing research, which would in a best-case scenario for me require integrating this software with Scrivener and DevonThink. I have noticed in the limited online information I have come upon, mentions of Tinderbox alongside Scrivener and DevonThink so I am hoping that this software will allow me to integrate those two together in a way which facilitates using Tinderbox for mind-mapping the material I’ve already compiled in each of the above. I have been considering using Obsidian but haven’t yet committed to investing a lot of time in that software; Tinderbox caught my attention with the “Agents” approach it utilizes in organizing data searches (my thoughts immediately turned to ‘conceptual personae’ as described by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari; and so, when I saw Sartre and Derrida mentioned above, I thought I’d post here to introduce myself).
My question, then, as a potential new user: How well does Tinderbox handle very long text sections originally created in Scrivener and DevonThink? Can I bring in extended sections of text into Tinderbox and then use this software to link together relevant sections, instead of reading and re-reading everything over and over to find work I’ve already completed from disparate sources that should be placed together?
I am seeing problems with Obsidian’s use of Markdown rather that Rich Text Files and while I think I can work round that I’d rather not have that to deal with this along with learning new software at the same time!

What for you is a “very long” text section?

Certainly there’s not much technical limitation in play here; individual notes can handle texts as long a you like. But much of the power of Tinderbox lies in its ability to link and visualize shorter, more focused notes. So, after you bring extended sections of a work into Tinderbox, you may find you want to break it up into a sequence of separate (but connected) notes.

Well, by way of illustration: At the moment I am assessing a paper, “Two Visual Pathways in Primates Based on Sampling of Space: Exploitation and Exploration of Visual Information”. The PDF for that, along with a separate compilation of annotations (collected in a Scrivener file) will go into DevonThink. I will want to cross reference my notes on this with those I have taken on “The Plane of Immanence”, Chapter Two in “What Is Philosophy?” by Deleuze and Guattari. I will be extracting observations relevant to grammatology, as envisioned by Jacques Derrida in the essay “Semiology and Grammatology” (as it appears in the collection “Positions”) and wherein he references the spatial aspects of writing (in contrast to the phonetic aspects of speech). That’s just for starters (before I even start into cross referencing the copious notes I have from Sartre’s text “The Imaginary”), with lots more clinical research papers to compile; and this is where I am looking for a program that will allow me to map across a large number of source texts by way of common concepts I would like to aggregate and analyze together.
Ideally, it would be nice to be able to have linkages between ideas like “scale” or “phase” or “rotation” show up in a way that I can see the source references as co-extended, and then from there work to articulate those instances together into a coherent exposition that describes how neural processes can be mapped into grammatological functions through an analysis of ways in which the spatial relationships of visual elements inform consciousness through the formation of conceptual structures (in effect, this would entail describing the transitions holding between path integration and narrative structure).

So I guess what I am most interested in hearing about is, how well Tinderbox integrates with Scrivener (where most of my writing s placed) and DevonThink (where I have started to collect the research papers I have been working with).

You can do this!

Just to keep things real, what you’re describing is a substantial amount of intellectual work! It’s a book — maybe more. And you’re studying some particularly thorny texts. This map isn’t going to make itself! And it’s possible that the size of the map you imagine will be too big — either for Tinderbox or for your patience. Yet that might not come to pass, and even if it did, you’d learn lots first.

Thank you for the encouragement. I am reconstructing a previously undocumented form of image writing used by the First Nations (Native Peoples) of North America prior to European contact. I started working on this back in 1991, when I found the first example I have come across (in a place called Bute Inlet, British Columbia where I was mountain climbing with a friend) but it’s just in the past decade or so that neural imaging has advanced to the point where I can use my background in photography, and utilize Fast Fourier Transforms to isolate spatial frequencies in mages which allows me to correlate the organizational patterns I extract from the images with neural parameters for processes (such as grid cell modules) which inform consciousness of spatial organization. Luckily, when I was in university during hte early 1990s, I had professors such as Constantine Boundas (an early translator of Deleuze into English) and William Newton-Smith (who sadly passed away last year), a noted authority on metalinguistics. So I suppose I have enough patience to continue as needed.

Hey there, welcome to the community. The short answer is Yes, but. What I mean by this is you can integrate both software in your workflow, as many of us do, but you won’t necessarily have seamless sync, or at least not in the direct plug-and-play way. NOTE: I have completely moved away from Scrivener and do all of my research and writing about Tinderbox. I still use DEVONThink.

Incredibly well. A single note can hold as much text as you want. A better strategy, however, is to atomize your notes and to write into smaller pieces and then stitch them together (think Scrivener cards).

You certainly can use Rich Tech in Tinderbox, but personally, I find this gets in my way. I prefer to use Markdown when I need to add “rich” formatting in my notes, as these patterns are much easier to transform and transclude on the fly than rich text (I can explain this later if you’d like).

Question and Comment

I’m curious: what kind of research are you doing?

I’m hosting an open Tinderbox workshop for my Patreon channel on Friday the 19th at 9:00 PST. DM me with your email at @satikusala if you’re interested in joining.

Also, I’d encourage you to join our weekly meetups.

Thanks for your reply, I am giving Tinderbox some serious consideration and have just installed Hook, which would appear to greatly facilitate working between Scrivener, DevonThink, and Tinderbox. I note in the above discussions that Tinderbox is adept at working with concept mapping, and this is exactly what I need (I work with post-structural philosophy which, by definition, is all about creating concepts). I’ve used “The Brain” sporadically for a couple of decades now but always find the hierarchical organization inadequate for the tasks I would have it assisting with; so, seeing the multitude of backlinks from any note that Tinderbox supports has immediately pretty much sold me on the software. I will try to attend a Meetup; as for my research, I post this at (https://originofwriting.com). I have quite a bit of material in Scrivener, so I won’t be abandoning that program! Years ago, on a PC platform, I used a program called Liquid Story Binder but switched from that when I changed to a Mac environment upon moving from Canada to New York City.

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