Fall 2004

Problems in Ontology


Lecturers: Barry Smith, Ingvar Johansson, Pierre Grenon.


All lectures will take place on Wednesday afternoons at 4 pm; there will be an informal discussion session on most Friday mornings.




1. Sept. 1         Introduction (BS)

2. Sept. 8         Realism with respect to universals (IJ)

3. Sept. 15       Realism and quantification (IJ)

4. Sept. 22       Ordinary shapes and four-dimensional shapes (IJ)

5. Sept. 29       A realist view of biological functions (IJ)

6. Oct. 6          Intentionality and biological functions (IJ)


Saturday, Oct. 9 Workshop

7. 10 am          Fantology, or: the Ontological Deceptions of the Language of Logic (BS)

8. 1 pm            Relations are not Sets of Ordered Pairs (IJ)

9. 2 pm            The Fantologist as Straw Man (PG)


10. Oct. 13      Spatio-temporal ontologies (PG)

11. Oct. 20      Persistence in time (PG)

12. Oct. 27      Relations between endurants and perdurants (PG)

13. Nov. 3       Realism about universals and spatiotemporality (PG)

14. Nov. 10     Ontology of Biology (BS)

15. Nov. 17     Reference Ontology and Applications Ontology (BS)


1. Introduction

The lecture will provide a brief introduction to ontology and an overview of the course.


2. Realism with respect to universals.

A universal is an entity, such as the property of being circular, that can have a spatiotemporally scattered existence. Realism is the view that there really are universals independently of language. Immanent realism adds the claim that universals exist only in the ordinary spatiotemporal world; Platonism is a transcendent realism. In this lecture, immanent realism will be presented and defended; in the lectures that follow, it will be taken for granted. However, it will be put in the center of interest again in lecture 13.


3. Realism and quantification.

One might say that numbers and quantities constitute “the hard problem of universals” for immanent realists. With the help of so-called internal relations (David Armstrong), it will be shown that orderings and quantifications of properties can be given a realist interpretation.


4. Ordinary shapes and four-dimensional shapes.

The ontology of time and different modes of being in time will be extensively discussed in lecture 11. In this lecture, the possibility of temporally extended universals will be taken for granted. It will be argued that there are four-dimensional shapes (universals) just as there are three-dimensional and two-dimensional ones. Furthermore, it will be shown that they can be given what might be called “prototypical orderings”.


5. A realist view of biological functions.

Function talk may easily be interpreted as anthropomorphizing purpose talk. If one says that the function of the heart is to pump blood, then it may sound as if one is imputing a purpose to a mere material structure. The mainstream view in philosophy of function is that such talk can be reduced to talk of “causality” and “natural selection”. It will be argued that the recognition of four-dimensional shapes creates the possibility of a naturalist and realist interpretation of function talk, which makes it completely independent of the Darwinian revolution. In order to make this possibility an actuality, constituent functions have to be distinguished both from intrinsic functions and from merely man-projected functions.


6. Intentional states and biological functions.

The outcome of the first four lectures is that biological functionality cannot be reduced to either pure causality, pure conceptual projection, or a combination of them (John Searle’s view). This anti-reductionist position gives rise to a new reductionist question of its own: Can then intentional states such as beliefs and plans be reduced to biological intentionality? It will briefly be argued that this is not possible, and that even though social reality is for its existence dependent on the existence of biological functions, it cannot be reduced to biological reality.


10. Spatio-temporal ontologies.

Zemach has put forward interesting criteria for distinguishing different kinds of spatio-temporality in terms of different modes of location of entities in the spatial and temporal dimensions. These modes of location yield the modes of being which characterize Zemach’s four ontologies. We will draw on Zemach in order to introduce tools for comparing spatio-temporal ontologies.


11. Persistence in time.

We will focus on temporal modes of being, retaining two main modes of being which we will use in order to characterize the ontologies of enduring and perduring entities. We will discuss the interrelation between these views and the metaphysical theories of time to which they broadly correspond (presentism and eternalism). This will give us the resources to characterize a number of alternative positions in the debate between three- and four-dimensionalism.


12. Relations between endurants and perdurants.

We assume a moderate position of non-eliminativism, which accepts the existence of both processes and the three-dimensional objects allegedly closer to common sense. In this context, we will work on explaining the notion of the participation of things in events and processes, a notion that is given a mereological interpretation in the four-dimensionalist framework. This will bring us to investigate further the roles and nature of processes in non-eliminativist three-dimensional ontologies.


13. Realism about universals and spatio-temporality.

There are two mainstream views about universals, conceptualism and Platonist realism, both of which deny spatio-temporality to universals. We will see that immanent realism about universals has interesting things to say here. We will probe issues relating to spatio-temporality in relation to the distinction between particulars and universals and the putative spatio-temporal modes of being of immanent universals.


14. Ontology of biology.

We shall provide a rigorous account of the logic of classification that underlies the Gene Ontology and similar biomedical ontologies. Drawing on the work of Aristotle, Cornelius Rosse, and Jan Berg, we shall develop a system of axioms and definitions for the treatment of biological classes, instances and differentia.


15. Reference ontology and applications ontology.

Two schools of thought are gradually beginning to crystallize in the domain of information systems ontology. On the one hand is the school which focuses primarily on the representational adequacy of an underlying ontological theory, leaving for others the task of transforming this theory into working applications. On the other hand is the (much larger) school which focuses primarily on the construction of ontologies as working applications at the expense of representational adequacy, and which is associated with current developments under the heading of the Semantic Web. The lecture aims to resolve the disputes between these two schools, and to give an outline of the role of ontology in information systems in the future.



Tentative Reading List

Ehring, D. Spatial Relations Between Universals, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 80:1, 17-23, 2002 (for lecture 13)

Ingarden, R. Time and Modes of Being, Charles C. Thomas, 1964

Johansson, I. Determinables as Universals, The Monist 83 (2000), 101-21 (for lectures 2 and 3)

Johansson, I. Functions, Function Concepts, and Scales, The Monist 86 (2004), 96-115 (for lectures 3 and 4)

Johansson, I. et al., Pure Functional Anatomy. A Taxonomic Proposal (forthcoming) (for lectures 5 and 6)

Johansson, I. Searle’s Monadological Construction of Social Reality, in D. Koepsell and L.S. Moss (eds.), John Searle’s Ideas About Social Reality, (Blackwell: Oxford 2003), 233-55 (for lecture 6)

Sider, T. Four-Dimensionalism. Oxford University Press, 2003 (for lecture 11)

Smith, B. The Logic of Biological Classification and the Foundations of Biomedical Ontology, forthcoming in Dag Westerstahl (ed.), Invited Papers from the 10th International Conference in Logic Methodology and Philosophy of Science, Oviedo, Spain, 2003 (for lecture 14)

Smith, B. Ontology, in Luciano Floridi (ed.), Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 155166 (for lecture 15)

Smith, B. Ontology and Information Science, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (draft) (for lecture 15)

Zemach, E. Four Ontologies. The Journal of Philosophy, 47: 231-247 (for lecture 10)