Why Ontology?

“If we only knew what we know, namely, in the use of certain words and concepts that are so subtle in application, we would be astonished at the treasures contained in our knowledge.”                  Immanuel Kant, Vienna Logic.

My interest in Ontology might be traverse to that of other people, being mainly motivated by psychology: the question I ask is – might the idea that the mind operates with an ontology help us to understand how the mind does the sorts of things that we know it does do? Other people come to Ontology from Philosophy, asking something like – what are the basic categories of reality? – or from Computer Science, asking something like – what is the best way to organize information?

To steal from Giuseppina D’Oro’s book on Collingwood, my approach is “Kantian … in so far as it seeks to uncover not the ultimate structure of reality but the presuppositions which govern our experience of the world.”

Ontology can mean many things – sometimes it seems almost synonymous with metaphysics. Here, my main interest in ontology is focused on the viability of the categories, sometimes called top-level categories, or ontological categories.

I will sketch my route via concerns with psychology to an interest in ontology.

The mind accomplishes remarkable things, and it seems to do this with recourse to generalization. A way of looking at this, is that it identifies patterns. At least one of the jobs of the mind is pattern identification.

Generalization and the identification of patterns – The mind sees similarities between different things, and then, either implicitly or explicitly, identifies certain sections of its sensory flux as being the same, and being a concept. (or, if you like, the identification of regularities IS conceptualization.)

We now have the idea that “concepts” might help us to understand the mind. It might next be useful to see whether concepts could be differentiated from each other by whether they fall into different broad categories.

It seems that they might – language often treats object concepts, e.g. “cow”, differently from property concepts, e.g. “brown”, so language might indicate a way of breaking down concepts into different categories; objects correspond to nouns, and properties correspond to adjectives. Other categories, for example relation, state, process and event, can fall under consideration in the same way.

Another approach is to analyse, logically, the different categories of concept that there may be. Aristotle and Kant are the foremost traditional thinkers on this, and contemporary thinkers such as Barry Smith and John Sowa are taking the field forward today. It may look a bit too a priori for some, but if held to account by real-world knowledge engineering, it might provide us with useful insights.

Included in this, it might give me and people with similar interests an insight into how the brain does the mind. None of this proves that the mind has an ontology, but indicates that ontology might help us to understand how the mind does its job.

It is possible that Ontology is a wild goose chase for understanding the higher levels of the organization of the mind, but I’m yet to read anything which convincingly argues that it is likely to be so; it seems best to pursue all avenues of inquiry into the nature of our minds.

To put the argument presented here assertively –

1) The mind uses concepts.

2) Concepts can be differentiated from each other, and articulated with each other, by the use of something like the Categories.


NOTE: The linguistic approach is fraught with dangers – for example, it is all too easy to think of noun phrases as corresponding to concrete objects, but this is often not the case. It is salutary in this regard to look down a list of most-used words in English, and to note how far down that list you have to go before you reach a genuinely concrete common noun. Similar considerations apply to other parts of speech – not all verbs are really actions, and so on. Nevertheless, the syntax / semantics interface affords insights if properly checked and treated with due caution.

Upper-Level Ontology

The above diagram (click on it for higher resolution) is my own interpretation of the Basic Formal Ontology, developed by Barry Smith et al. The website of the project is at –


Of the upper-level ontologies on offer, it’s the one which, for me, so far, makes the most sense. I recommend a glance, as it shows what contemporary work on Ontology looks like. Note, however, that Smith et al do not regard their project as psychologistic, so do not present their categories as pointing to concepts, but rather directly realist, referring to reality.

UPDATE: I was advised by Barry Smith to use singular terms for entities, so I have updated the diagram accordingly.

About David Ruaune

My main interests are philosophy, psychology and semiotics.
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