[Humanist] 30.489 ontology and Ontology

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Nov 14 07:36:35 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 489.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 13 Nov 2016 13:29:21 +0100
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  30.486 ontology to ontologies?
        In-Reply-To: <20161112094806.CA1F38216 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

I would be careful not to confuse ontology and Ontology.

Philosophers work on ontology (lower-case 'o'): the
metaphysics of being; the study of ontic (of that which is)
choices and decisions and their implications and consequences.

An Ontology (with capital 'O'--the convention used to make the
distinction) is a set of concepts or classes, used in some
domain of knowledge, that attempts to capture and specify
their properties and the relations between them.  Or, as
Gruber put it,

  An ontology defines a set of representational primitives
  with which to model a domain of knowledge or discourse.

Ontologies, sometimes (and perhaps better) called
Terminologies, have become an important part of the practices
of Knowledge Representation and Knowledge Modelling, Knowledge
Engineering, and (certain kinds of) Knowledge Management.

Yes, the term "ontology" did find its way out of philosophy
into Computer Science and Engineering (via AI, I would say),
but it did not retain its meaning in the crossing.  It was
given a different meaning upon its arrival in AI, most often
remembered with the Gruber definition.

The (unconfirmed) story of what happened (attributed to
someone described as being a philosopher) is that one day some
lost Knowledge Representation-alists happened upon a
Philosophy Shop.  Through the window, the the KR-alists saw
some Philosophers doing ontology.  Excited at seeing some
serious scholars hard at work, and a little envious, the
KR-alists smashed the window, grabbed what the Philosophers
were working on, and ran off as fast as their computational
legs could carry them, never to be seen near a Philosophy Shop
again.  Not understanding what they had stolen, but having
heard the Philosophers talking of "ontology," the KR-alists
decided to call what they had, an Ontology, and discovered
that they could use it to do better some of the knowledge
representation jobs they had been stuck on, before they
dropped their work to go wandering.

(A story I was told a long time ago by someone I don't

There's not a complete dislocation between ontology and
Ontology, as we can see.  They sort of join back-to-back, but
face in opposite directions: ontology looks into what can be
said to exist, and the consequences that derive from this;
Ontology building takes it that knowledge about things exists,
and looks at how this can be categorised and related.

Nicolai Hartmann, a philosopher, and proponent of Critical
Realism, but largely unknown in AI, developed a position that
can be seen as bridging ontology and Ontologies.  For Hartmann

 ontics was about pre-categorical and pre-objectual
 connections expressed as relations to transcendent acts,

 ontology was about the categorical analysis of entities by
 means of the knowledge categories able to classify them, and

 metaphysics was (the part of ontics and ontology) concerned
 with the residue of being that cannot be rationalised further
 according to categories.

But Hartmann's philosophy is not "main stream" ontology, and,
as I say, little known and understood by KR-lists: they remain
wary of Philosophy Shops.

Best regards,


...  who now uses Ontology building tools to build models of
States of the Art for research and for preparing Critical
State of the Art reviews.

> On 12 Nov 2016, at 10:48, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 486.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Sat, 12 Nov 2016 09:07:59 +0000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: ontology to ontologies
> I'm looking within the long moment of transition from 'ontology' to
> 'ontologies' for it to be noticed and discussed within computer science 
> & engineering -- or for a suitable retrospective account. It's clear from 
> articles by Stephen Michael Kosslyn ("On the ontological status of 
> visual mental images", 1978), Arne Sølvberg ("Software requirement 
> definition and data models", 1979) and John McCarthy ("Circumscription: 
> A form of non-monotonic reasoning", 1980) that by then the singular noun 
> was crossing from philosophy into computer science. People in the trade 
> will know that Thomas Gruber defined the term for computer science in 
> 1993 and 1995. McCarthy, for one, was familiar with the work of the 
> philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, who wrote "On what there is" (1948) 
> and "On ontologies" (1949). But as far as I can tell philosophers were 
> not and are not interested in what happened to the word in computer 
> science. Too bad.
> The big problem I am considering is the relation between the digital 
> modelling machine, which in effect demands pluralisation of 'ontology', 
> and the widespread, in some places very deep, attention to different 
> ways of thinking and being in the world, or to put the matter another 
> way, the great difficulty of positing cognitive universals. Alan 
> Turing's invention of a 'universal' machine became a step in this 
> direction. But as a good friend said to me awhile ago, there's a great 
> difference between a few dozen people talking about something and tens 
> of thousands of people talking about it.
> Any clues? Discussion?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
> University

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