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[ontolog-forum] Just What Is an Ontology, Anyway?

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 22 Oct 2009 15:07:51 -0400
Message-id: <4AE0AD87.1030101@xxxxxxxxxxx>
I received an offline note that pointed to an article with that title.
In my response, I suggested that any subject that generates articles
with titles like that is probably misnamed.    (01)

John Sowa    (02)

-------- Original Message --------    (03)

> Perhaps of interest.
> Just What Is an Ontology, Anyway?
> By Thomas C. Jepsen    (04)

http://www.computer.org/cms/Computer.org/ComputingNow/homepage/2009/1009/rW_IT_JustWhatIsanOntology.pdf    (05)

That's a reasonable summary of current applications.
But I'd like to answer the question that Jepsen raises
in his concluding paragraph:    (06)

TCJ> Ontologies, as I pointed out earlier, have become an important tool
> in the knowledge managerís toolkit.  Their ability to find needles
> of pertinent relationships in haystacks of data is particularly
> critical in an age when we're all being inundated with a firehose
> of information on a daily basis.  You have to wonder what the
> medieval philosophers would say if they could see what their
> ruminations on existence have evolved into.    (07)

The first point is that the medieval Scholastics weren't treating
ontology as an abstract philosophical exercise.  They considered
philosophy the "handmaiden of theology" -- in other words, a tool
to be used in applications.  That view is consistent with Aristotle,
whose first book, _Categories_, is part of the _Organon_ or
instrument for doing science.  In short, they would have considered
an application of their methodology to analyzing any subject as
an obvious extension of their work.    (08)

The second point is that they didn't call it *ontology*.  That
term is based on Greek roots, but it was first used by German
philosophers in the 17th century.    (09)

Modern philosophers use ontology in conjunction with logic and
a methodology they call 'conceptual analysis'.  That approach
is very similar to the applications in artificial intelligence.
In my book, _Conceptual Structures_ (copyright 1984 and appearing
in print in August 1983), I was one of the "early adopters" in AI,
but I only used the term a half dozen times in the whole book.    (010)

I put more emphasis on conceptual analysis, which is the title
of Section 6.3 of that book.  Following is an excerpt from the
beginning of that section:    (011)

JFS> Conceptual analysis is the work of philosophers, lawyers,
> lexicographers systems analysts, and database administrators.
> Philosophers have been doing conceptual analysis ever since
> Socrates taught Plato how to analyze Justice.  Lawyers do it
> whenever they draw fine distinctions in arguing a point of law.
> Lexicographers do it in bulk quantities when they compile
> dictionaries.  And systems analysts and database administrators
> do it when they translate English specifications into a system
> design.  Conceptual analysis is essential for giving content
> to the empty boxes and circles of conceptual graphs.
> Every discipline that uses conceptual analysis gives it
> a different name.  In the computer field, the most common
> names are _systems analysis_, _enterprise analysis_, and
> _knowledge engineering_.  Whatever the name, the ultimate
> goal is a precise, formalizable catalog of concepts,
> relations, facts, and principles.    (012)

I'm actually sorry that the word 'ontology' has become so
widely used.  My preferred term is 'conceptual analysis'
for the methodology, and I used the term 'conceptual
catalog' for the sample ontology at the end of that book.    (013)

My major objections to using the word 'ontology' are that
(1) it's pretentious, (2) it's hard to explain to people
who never heard the word, (3) it's confusing for those who
have learned it in philosophy, and (4) the term 'conceptual
analysis', which is widely used in philosophy, is a more
accurate term for the kind of work that people are actually
doing when they create their axioms and definitions.    (014)

John    (015)

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