Episemantics: Aboutness as Aroundness


  • Elliott Hauser University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Joseph Tennis University of Washington




Aboutness ranks amongst our field’s greatest bugbears. What is a work about? How can this be known? This mirrors debates within the philosophy of language, where the concept of representation has similarly evaded satisfactory definition. This paper proposes that we abandon the strong sense of the word aboutness, which seems to promise some inherent relationship between work and subject, or between word and world. Instead, we seek an etymological reset to the sense of aboutness of “in the vicinity, nearby; in some place or various places nearby; all over a surface.” To distinguish this sense, we introduce the term episemantics. The authors have each independently applied this term in slightly different contexts and scales (Hauser 2018a; J. T. Tennis 2016), and this article presents a unified definition of the term and guidelines for applying it at the scale of both words and works. The resulting weak concept of aboutness is pragmatic, in Star’s sense of a focus on consequences over antecedents, while reserving space for the critique and improvement of aboutness determinations within various contexts and research programs. The paper finishes with a discussion of the implication of the concept of episemantics and methodological possibilities it offers for knowledge organization research and practice.