«1. Introduction Try Googling ‘applied metaphysics’: you’ll be led to a motley collection of new age healers, self-help tracts, and sacred ...»
http://geneontology.org/faq/what-go A gene product is a protein or RNA generated when a gene is expressed. Scientists all over the world are investigating a vast array of gene products, in a multitude of different biological species. The aim of the GO project is to standardise the ways in which scientists record the information they discover, so that it becomes easy to compare gene products from different species, or to search for gene products with specific functions.
What is the relationship between applied ontology in this sense, and philosophical ontology?
Let’s not get hung up on the distinction between ‘metaphysics’ and ‘ontology’: as we saw earlier, different philosophers use these terms in different ways, and it’s not always clear what’s at stake in the choice of words. The more important question here is what relationship there is between scientists’ work on something like the Gene Ontology, and metaphysical or ontological work traditionally done by philosophers.
Some information scientists take pains to distinguish a computer science sense of ‘ontology’ from the philosophical sense of ‘ontology’; the tone is not of distinguishing pure and applied ends of a single spectrum, but rather of disambiguation, separating two notions that have little to do with one another. For example, here is Tom Gruber, a major figure in the field of
ontological engineering and co-founder of the company which first developed Siri:
In philosophy, one can talk about an ontology as a theory of the nature of existence (e.g., Aristotle's ontology offers primitive categories, such as substance and quality, which were presumed to account for All That Is). In computer and information science, ontology is a technical term denoting an artifact that is designed for a purpose, which is to enable the modeling of knowledge about some domain, real or imagined. (Gruber 2009; note the sarcastic capital letters!)
In contrast, here are philosopher Barry Smith and biologist Bert Klagges:
Applied ontology is a branch of applied philosophy using philosophical ideas and methods from ontology in order to contribute to a more adequate presentation of the results of scientific research. (Smith and Klagges 2008: 21) This isn’t just boundary policing: the disagreement about whether applied ontology should be ‘philosophical’ involves a disagreement about what makes an ontology for a given domain correct. Roughly speaking, the philosophers understand their goal in terms of accurately representing the reality of the domain, whilst many information scientists understand their goal as accurately representing beliefs about the domain, in order to facilitate communication.
For a database of restaurants, different considerations seem to pull in each direction. On the one hand, the database should include the real locations of the restaurants, not where people often mistakenly remember them as located. This is because people searching the database will likely have the immediate goal of getting dinner, and need accurate information about where to find it. On the other hand, the database should reflect restaurant-goers’ perceptions of different cuisines, even if these perceptions are in fact mistaken. If the database is for east Scotland, and if people in that region think of deep-dish pizza as typically Italian, then deepdish pizza restaurants should be classified as ‘Italian’ in the database even though that style in fact originates in Chicago.
Why does this distinction between reality and beliefs about reality supposedly correspond to a distinction between philosophy and information/computer science? One reference work
The goal with a computer science ontology is to make knowledge of a domain computationally useful. [Compared to philosophy, t]here is less concern with a true account of reality as it is information that is being processed, not reality. The definition used here (and any other definition for that matter) is contentious and many will disagree with it. Within the bio-ontology community there are those that take a much more philosophical stance on ontology. (Stevens, Rector and Hull 2010) Putting weight on a distinction between information and reality can seem peculiar: after all, if ‘information’ doesn’t match reality, isn’t it just pseudo-information? And how can there be ‘knowledge of a domain’ which doesn’t correspond to reality? It may be OK to design a restaurant database around widespread inaccuracies about pizza, but surely we shouldn’t pander to misconceptions in developing biomedical ontologies.
The ‘computer science’ picture seems to be that a single, accurate set of information, which corresponds to reality, can be represented in more than one way. The choice between different systems of representation is seen as ultimately a pragmatic matter: in particular, the pragmatic value of mutual understanding is very high, and so standardising the system of representation is the most important goal. In contrast, the ‘philosophical’ picture is that there is an objective fact of the matter as to how to represent information in the way which best matches reality, by carving nature at its joints. Of course, not every philosopher takes such an objective view about the nature and structure of reality. But it is true that most philosophers working in ontology are likely to take this objectivist view, and to believe that, as philosophers, we can help establish how to carve nature at its joints; after all, the carving metaphor goes back to Plato (Phaedrus 265e).
Now, this picture is over-simplified, and, as Stevens, Rector, and Hull acknowledge, there are disagreements even within the information science community. But what’s striking is that the dispute about the relationship between philosophical ontology, applied ontology, and computer science ontology is itself a philosophical dispute, turning on deep issues about the nature of reality, representation and truth.
So there are at least three possible ways in which philosophy may be ‘applied’ in this area.
First, and most ambitious, there is the strategy of taking philosophical ‘discoveries’ about the deep structure of reality, and using these to help structure computer science ontologies (this is the option rejected by Gruber, and by Stevens, Rector and Hull). Second, there is the strategy of opening up the philosophical toolbox of conceptual resources, to see what works in the practical realm, without necessarily accepting any substantive claims by philosophers about the nature of actuality. Third, there is the strategy of thinking philosophically about the methodology and presuppositions of the discipline of applied ontology, looking more closely at claims such as ‘it is information which is being processed, not reality’. This third strategy might be regarded as a branch of the philosophy of science, rather than an application of ontology or metaphysics as such, just as there are philosophers of science who discuss the methodology and presuppositions of physics, biology, economics, and so on. The papers collected in (Kumm and Smith eds. 2008) explore many of these issues in detail, whilst the Buffalo Ontology Site (http://ontology.buffalo.edu/) provides lots of links and information.
4. Case Study II: Social Ontology Like ‘applied ontology’, ‘social ontology’ is the name of a recognised area of study which reaches beyond philosophy. The Cambridge Social Ontology Group has its centre of gravity within Economics. The Centre for Social Ontology is based in Sociology at Warwick. The Journal of Social Ontology – affiliated with the International Social Ontology Society – published its first issue in 2014. The JSO is edited from the University of Vienna by philosopher Hans Bernhard Schmid; the editorial board includes non-philosophers alongside many philosophers, including Barry Smith, leading light of applied ontology. (Intriguingly, Judith Butler, distinguished scholar of gender, critical theory, and more, is also a member of the board, suggesting an openness to ‘continental’ philosophical approaches to social ontology; here I must acknowledge that this chapter explores applied metaphysics only within the ‘analytic’ tradition.) Social ontologists study the nature of social reality, for example social groups, institutions, markets, rules, collective actions, and a myriad other social phenomena. What is the relationship between a group’s action and structure, and the individual actions of group members? What is it for individuals to act jointly? What is it for an institution to structure behaviour? Must institutions involve potential sanctions or punishments? What is the difference between a worthless piece of paper and a dollar bill? What are we to make of Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘…there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’?
Philosophers working on these topics typically draw on resources from philosophy more generally; this is of course unsurprising given their training, their colleagues, and their teaching responsibilities within philosophy departments. In order to understand collective action, it helps to understand individual action, intention, and commitment. To understand social conventions or norms, it helps to understand dispositions, patterns and regularities more generally. To understand whether there is such a thing as society, or merely individuals and families, it should be helpful to understand the ways in which parts relate to wholes, and the ways in which ‘holistic’ facts relate to more piecemeal facts: it should be helpful to think about philosophical notions such as existence, reduction, and supervenience.
Indeed, one of the most eminent philosophers of social ontology, John Searle, explicitly bases his thinking on his influential earlier work Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969), thus marking a point at which applied metaphysics meets applied philosophy of language. He writes: ‘With the exception of language itself, all of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilisation, is created by speech acts that have the same logical form as Declarations’ (2010: 12–13).
For Searle, a declaration involves a phrase like ‘I resign’, ‘I excommunicate you’, or ‘War is hereby declared’: when someone successfully uses a phrase like this, the very saying makes it true. If you are my boss, and I say to you ‘I resign!’, then it becomes true that I have resigned. Now, this doesn’t always work: if you have already fired me, then I can’t resign no matter what I say, and if I say ‘I resign!’ to my dog, then I haven’t resigned. But nevertheless, in the right circumstances, I alter social reality (i.e. my employment status) by what I say (Searle 1979: 16-17). Searle develops a complex story about the conditions under which declarations are successful, and the role of mutual acceptance in enabling this; he extends this to encompass institutional facts of all sorts, though, inevitably, it is controversial how far he succeeds.
Likewise, another prominent philosopher of social ontology, Margaret Gilbert, builds a farreaching account of political obligation, law, shared languages and social groups on the basis of what she calls ‘plural subjects’ constituted by ‘joint commitments’ (e.g. Gilbert 1989, 2013). Setting aside important details, roughly speaking a joint commitment is made by two or more people when they undertake together to do or believe something together; each can hold the others accountable for any failure to meet this commitment.
Whilst Gilbert’s work is richly philosophical, it is hard to read her as drawing distinctively upon metaphysics, as opposed to other areas of philosophy such as the philosophy of mind and action, ethics, and to some extent the philosophy of language. Likewise, many or most of the philosophers working in the area of social ontology have backgrounds in the philosophy of mind, political philosophy, or ethics, rather than in metaphysics. This remark isn’t intended as criticism; moreover, I don’t claim that such work is entirely unmetaphysical.
After all, as I showed in section 2, metaphysical issues crop up in many areas of philosophy, from the ontology of artworks to the nature of values, so the fact that a philosopher is not explicitly drawing on ‘core’ metaphysics does not mean that metaphysics plays no role in her thinking.
Nevertheless, the apparent absence of ‘core’ metaphysics in much social ontology prompts a couple of reflections. The first is that it would be worthwhile taking a closer look at the resources of contemporary metaphysics, to see whether there is potential for fruitful interactions with social ontology. The second is that this situation provides an interesting twist on the notion of ‘applied philosophy’ or ‘applied metaphysics’. We find plenty of philosophy applied to issues in social ontology, and social ontology clearly involves metaphysical-ontological questions in a broad sense, but the philosophy which is applied is not usually metaphysics. So these are metaphysical questions within applied philosophy, but they are not typically addressed by applying metaphysics.
What is the relationship between social ontology as pursued by philosophers (metaphysical or not), and social ontology as pursued by economists, sociologists and others? There are no sharp boundaries here, and less rhetorical resistance to philosophy than we found in some information scientists’ discussion of applied ontology. The Cambridge Social Ontology Group makes a distinction between …philosophical ontology, the study of features common to all phenomena of any domain of reality, and scientific ontology, interpreted as the study of specific phenomena of a domain.
Thus for the social realm, philosophical ontology is concerned with investigating the manner in which social phenomena depend necessarily on human interactions [e.g. the claim that] that social reality is an emergent realm that is everywhere open, structured, processual and highly internally related.…Scientific ontology oriented to the social domain is concerned with the nature of such existents as money, gender, markets, technology, social relations, the corporation, care, regions, community, power, authority, trust, cooperation, testimony, institutions, norms, rules, custom, convention, collective practice, profit, output, income, wealth, identity, individual, social evolution, development, human flourishing, probability, society, economy, and so forth.