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    A Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 1

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    • 06/10/2009

    By Brian Morton (2009)


    A colleague once asked if I could give him “a taxonomy of ‘forms of ontology’ and where properties fit within it.” This paper is a preliminary attempt at filling that tall order. Since the history of human thought about ontology is so greatly diverse, it is really beyond the scope of this paper to do anything more just sketch out the basics of over about a dozen forms of ontology in order to give a rough survey of philosophical reflection on ontology fundamentals. But, this is not just a history of ontologies paper, because, in some cases, I am trying to point to a way in which one could attempt to construct an ontology – especially when I am not entirely convinced that anyone has actually yet attempted to fully develop some particular form of ontology.

    The West’s traditional picture of the world imagines particular objects – things - to be the central reality of our world, and for these things to have properties - adjective-like modifiers of exactly how they are. Wittgenstein however disagrees. He begins his Tractatus:

    1. The world is all that is the case.

    1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

    For Wittgenstein, being at its most basic level is composed of facts not of things. He is advancing what I will call a fact-ontology, rather than a thing-ontology which itself, according to this preliminary taxonomy, is a sub-variety of a substance-ontology.

    According to some substance-ontologies, substances are all physical; according to others, substances are all mental; for still others, substances come in both kinds, or come in exactly four kinds, or an infinity of kinds, etc. But, for all substance-ontologies, being is noun-like at its most basic level, regardless of substances having properties of some kinds and perhaps other predicables, such as relations or locations or states. There are many good questions of ontology and metaphysics, besides the ones we are exploring here, but in this paper my goal is to explore the question “what grammatical categories is being most like at its most fundamental?”

    The thing-ontologist answers “nouns.” The fact-ontologist answers “complete sentences.” But what other answers have tempted people over the years? Not everyone is going to be happy with this analogy to grammar, but it will work well for many of the pictures. Personally, I suspect that much of ontology is merely unconscious following of the prejudices of the grammar of one’s native language, and much of the rest of ontology is conscious reflection on what the grammar of a more ideal language would be like.

    It currently looks to me like the rough history of fundamental ontology goes in three basic periods: classical development from ancient times to the 1800s; a period of transition in the late 19th and early 20th century; and a great rebirth of fundamental ontology in the 1920s leading to the contemporary situation.

    In the West, substance-ontologies of one variety or another have dominated from pre-Socratic days until now; so much so that Heidegger complained that the tradition covers over the very possibility of dispute on fundamental ontology. I disagree. It seems that Platonic form-theory, styles of Monism (especially Neo-Platonic ones), and aporetic approaches have been important competitors with the standard picture throughout Western history. The Islamic world seems to fit the European experience pretty closely on ontology.

    In India, both Monism and substance-ontologies have old roots, (as probably does the aporetic approach). The Buddhists also develop 3 newer positions, factor-ontology (circa 300 BCE), prajnaparamita-ontology (circa 0 BCE), and lattice-ontology (by circa 600 CE), all of which also find their way into China by the 700s.

    In ancient China, a type-ontology similar to Plato’s form theory seems to be the normal default position. However, it is arguable that the later Mohists advanced something quite like a substance-ontology, and Zhuangzi and Hui Shih advanced aporetic pictures. Sometimes Taoist philosophy is interpreted as advancing an adverbial picture and the Yin-Yang school is advancing either a process-ontology or the beginnings of one, or something like it. Medieval China perhaps sees hybrid fundamental ontologies trying to integrate type and process.

    In the West it is surprising that the revolutions of modern philosophy don’t shake up pictures of fundamental ontology much, but they don’t seem to. Descartes tries valiantly to doubt everything, but winds up importing medieval substance/property metaphysics pretty much wholesale, but fiddles with the boundaries of the mental and physical. Idealism, Empiricism, Romanticism and so on, challenge much of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, but leave the basic substance/property picture more or less untouched. Leibniz is trying to break out of the pattern here, and creates something much like Tu Shun’s picture (see section 2.7 in Part 2 of this essay). Maybe this is just a new wrinkle on substance-ontology, or maybe it is something more fundamental. Likewise, perhaps Hegel has something new to offer here too, maybe.

    But by the 1800s mathematicians are inventing all kinds of stunning new ontological entities: groups, fields, rings, functions, sets, non-standard geometries, matrices, etc. Of course, they aren’t (generally) claiming them to be fundamental constituents of being; that comes later. Hamiltonians in 1860s, argue that the discovery of quaternions are fundamental and that physics should be re-phrased in terms of them, and in the process of doing so give us early versions of modern notions of state and process. Likewise in the 1880s physicists rephrase everything again in terms of vectors and vector-fields. This seems to often be a shift in thinking about fundamental ontology rather than just a methodological issue to many of them. Discoveries about the behavior of electricity and magnetism have simply made fields more plausible as underlying beings, and shown how fields aren’t really that close to traditional substances. Neither Hamilton, nor the field and vector advocates are really setting out to alter fundamental ontology; they are setting out to try new mathematical formalisms. But they and later folk are slowly convinced of the deep reality of their formalisms.

    Things really heat up from 1887-1920s as the Michealson-Morley experiments, Einstein’s relativity theory and the quantum mechanics results start pouring in, making classical ontologies look inadequate. At the same time, more purely philosophical innovations from Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and Heidegger are re-opening the question of fundamental ontology directly, typically by explicitly disagreeing with the traditional ontology. In the 1920s it looks like ontology is a question that can be re-examined, and one that needs to be (although some conclude upon examination that the old ways are still best). Fact-ontologies, Process-ontologies, Trope-ontologies, and the Copenhagen ontology all emerge during the 1920s. These as well as many further variants of the “cope-with-quantum” strain have continued to develop over the 20th century, as (perhaps) have event-ontologies.

    Table of fundamental ontologies:


    Continued in "A Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 2"

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