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[ontolog] So what is an ontology?

To: ontolog@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: "Brian (Bo) Newman" <bonewman@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Fri, 11 Oct 2002 00:31:33 -0700
Message-id: <>
Esteemed Colleagues,

Thomas Lee asked if anyone could suggest some readings that go beyond the introductory level. While, due to its obscurity, it might not be of much help to Thomas, my favorite is a little known 1948 work by Paul Glenn titled "Ontology, A Class Manual in Fundamental Metaphysics."  One of the reasons I like this book, and the reason I mention it, is because, as it was written before the age of computers, it helps me focus on the foundational nature of this field of study.  Whereas epistemology is the "science of knowledge" -- and by-in-large a study of the abstract -- ontology on the other hand is the "science of being," and far more connected to the real world in which real people, organizations, and even computers (all forms of agents) communicate, collaborate, and attempt to work together to solve real problems. 

While this is clearly stating the obvious to this audience, I believe that agent's ontologies -- their 'world-views' -- lie at the heart of all interactions.  Only if the operative concepts and/or ideas have 'being' and some degree of consistency for the agents involved, can there be meaningful communication, iteration, or collaboration. The same is true for this group and what we might hope to accomplish together.

Individually we each have our own ontologies, and within our individual views of the world, as evident by the fact that we have chose to be a part of this group, we all seem to have this concept of something called "an ontology." However, I don't think it would come as a surprise to any of us that we probably don't all have the same understanding of that concept. I would think that developing a shared understanding of just what an ontology is, and is not, would be one of the first things we would want to address.

Having said that, I will share a few of the ways that I think of ontologies.

The relationship between epistemology, ontology, taxonomy, semantics, and meaning can be stated be saying that: Epistemology tells us what how ideas and concepts can exist. Ontology tells us what ideas and concepts do exist.  Taxonomy provides as with a means for developing classification schemes for elements of an ontology in its representational form. Semantics provide a means for resolving the ambiguities of meaning resulting from less than perfect representation.

Agents have ontologies and ontologies only exist within the "mind-space" of agents, be they individual agents (people), automated agents (technology), or collective agents (groups, organizations, businesses, etc).

Ontologies are more than a collective set of definitions. Ontologies are the synergistic nexus of previously retained knowledge (concepts and ideas), and the relationships between those concepts and ideas.

Ontologies deal with reality, but not with the material objects of reality (which is the subject of science). Instead the deal with the properties of being.  Ontologies define what that can exist (have being) within an agents world, the nature of those potential realities (abstracted characteristics), and the relationships between those things. 

Ontologies are held by agents as retained knowledge, and as such can be explicit, implicit, or tacit depending on the knowledge retention capabilities of the agent.  In those cases where the agent is capable of creating or assimilating "new" knowledge or "forgetting" previously retained knowledge, ontologies are subject to change.  Ontologies represent a part, but not all of an agents retained knowledge.

Ontologies are seldom if ever applied in their entirety, but rather as appropriate to a given situation (operative ontologies).

Of course, this is just a reflection of a portion of my personal ontology ... 

Who would like to go next?

- Bo Newman -
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