Conceptualizing the World:
Lessons from History
Alexa T. McCray
Harvard Medical School
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Workshop on Ontology and Biomedical Informatics
Rome, April 29, 2005
Conceptualizing the World
• Throughout history there have been
many attempts by philosophers,
scientists, and other scholars to
- Identify and name salient items of the world
- Organize these salient items in a conceptual
structure that reflects the world as it is
understood at the time
• “An abstract, simplified view of the world that
we wish to represent for some purpose” (Gruber,
• World can be as
- Broad as the universe, or as
- Narrow as a highly restricted domain, e.g., world of
restaurant dining
• Purpose can be theoretical or practical, or both
• It is necessarily the case that every
conceptualization is biased
- This is because representing, or categorizing,
the world depends on two crucial factors
• Purpose for which the conceptualization is created
• World view of the designer
- Depends on the
state of general knowledge at the time
and personal knowledge of designer
• Bias is a predisposed tendency toward a
certain point of view
- Most often based on a particular system of
• Every conceptualization is biased in
- Choice of categories themselves
- Depth or level of granularity chosen
- Interrelationships that may or may not be
made explicit
• Bias is not necessarily bad, but it
- Needs to be recognized
- Needs to be made explicit
• “A correct pure philosophical ontology…must
aspire to objectivity while remaining openminded about the existence of subjective
“Conceptual analysis rarely succeeds in a
vacuum, and we must take our insights where
we can, often by addressing the practical
applied problems in which the concepts are
found working in their day jobs.”
Jacquette, 2002
Useful Fictions
• Since ultimate truth is not attainable, we
should proceed “as if” the constructs we are
creating are true, only in this way will science
“It must be remembered that the object of the
world of ideas as a whole is not the portrayal of
reality – this would be an utterly impossible
task – but rather to provide us with an
instrument for finding our way about more
easily in the world.”
Vaihinger, 1924
• Fundamental notions of existence or being
- Why there exists something, rather than nothing
- Attempt to prove existence of supernatural being
• Difficult enterprise
- “The problems of pure philosophical ontology
have seemed so deep or confused that
philosophers who concentrate primarily on the
concept of being as such have acquired an
occasionally deserved reputation for obscurity
and even incoherence” (Jacquette 2002)
Philosophy of Language
• Philosophers, linguists, computational linguists
- Debate over the nature and representation of
• Language
- Medium in which conceptualizations represented
- Closely tied to thought and human rationality
• For some, language and thought are
inextricably linked
• In quest to understand nature of cognition,
some psychologists
- Posit anatomical loci for certain semantic
domains in the brain
• High level distinction between
- Natural kinds, e.g., plants and animals
- Man-made objects, e.g., tools and vehicles
• Lesions, disease processes, imaging
techniques serve as evidence
Gainotti, 2004
NY Times, Medical Science, 1992
Topical Dictionaries
• Entries organized by their meanings,
rather than alphabetically by their form
• “…the order of a topical dictionary is
dependent on a certain philosophical
understanding of the world … such
dictionaries are liable to religious,
ideological, political, scientific, or
otherwise predetermined world views.”
Hüllen, 1999
• Taxonomies to represent biological
• Many areas of disagreement even
(especially) since the time of Linnaeus over
- Naming of biological entities
- Hierarchical arrangement
• Formal, regulated, coding systems exist,
e.g., International Code of Zoological
Coding Systems
• Prescriptive systems
• Regulate naming for some purpose, e.g.,
- Medicine
• Billing, data comparability, information retrieval
• Standards for thesaurus development
- Provide ‘conceptual’ access points for
- Rules for naming, for hierarchical
arrangement, for inter-concept relationships
Computer Science
• Artifical intelligence
- Attempts to model domain of interest
- Purpose
• Achieve human-like computational processing
• Build systems for, e.g., machine translation,
information extraction, question answering, text
- Resultant artifacts
• Frames, semantic networks, conceptual graphs,
Historical Perspective
• Conceptualizations have been created for:
- Philosophical and scientific purposes
Philosophy of existence
Catalogue all that is known universally or in a domain
Philosophy of language
- Practical purposes
• Resulting conceptualization depends on
- Purpose
- Training and occupation of individual
- Time in history
See last slide for photo attributions
Philosophy of Existence
• Aristotle (384-322, Greek scholar)
• Purpose
- Establish relationship between language, truth,
knowledge, and reality
- Serve as a guide for persuasive speech, rhetoric
• Categories
- Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time,
Position, State, Action, Affection
Universal Catalogue
• Amenopĕ
(~1200 BC, Egyptian scribe)
Onomasticon of Amenopĕ
• Purpose
- “Beginning
of the teaching for clearing the mind, for
instruction of the ignorant and for learning all
things that exist: what Ptah created, what Thoth
copied down, heaven with its affairs, earth and what
is in it, what the mountains belch forth…”
• Categories
- Sky,
water, earth; Persons, court, offices,
occupations; Classes, tribes, types of human beings;
Towns of Egypt; Buildings, their parts, and types of
land; Agricultural land, cereals and their products;
Beverages; Parts of an ox and kinds of meat
Universal Catalogue
• Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636 AD, Bishop)
Etymologiae sive Origines
• Purpose
- Bishop of Sargossa commissioned the work to contain “all that
ought to be known”
- Establish etymology of each word for its “true” meaning
• Categories
- Grammar (literature); rhetoric & dialectic; Four mathematical
sciences (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy); Medicine:
Law & chronology; Theology; Languages; Alphabetical list of
words; Man and monsters; Animals; Universe; Earth;
Buildings & fields; Stones & metals; Agriculture; War &
amusements; Ships, buildings, garments; Utensils
Philosophy of Language
• Nicodemus
Frischlin (1547-1590, Educator)
Nomenclator Trilinguis
• Purpose
- Teach people to think logically
- Improve stylistic quality of language use
• Categories
- God
- Nature:
1) universe, space, time, elements, 2)
kingdoms of nature
- Man:
1) rationality, 2) knowledge and labor, 3)
Philosophy of Language
• Jan Comenius (1592-1670, Educator)
Janua linguarum reserata
• Purpose
- Theory of communication and thought
- Learning
a language means causing one’s mind to operate
according to the structure of reality
• Categories
- Naturalia, the world as created by God
- Artificialia, the world as created by man
- Moralia,
the way man treats the world with which he is
- Spiritualia, everything concerned with religion
Philosophy of Language
• John Wilkins (1614-1672, Bishop)
An Essay toward a Real Character and a philosophical
- Establishment of a universal language
- “That
the reducing of all things and notions, to such kinds of
Tables, as are here proposed (were it as completely done as it
might be) would prove the shortest and plainest way for the
attainment of real Knowledge, that hath been yet offered to the
• Categories
- God and the universe
- Substance - the four elements, the kingdoms of nature
- Accident – quantity, quality, action, relation
• William
Caxton (c. 1420-1491, Entrepreneur, Printer)
Dialogues in French and English
• Purpose
- Foreign language learning for European commerce
- “Corner the market” with translations
• Categories
- Invocation of Holy Trinity
- Formulae for greetings
- Objects – house & furniture, food, commerce
- Offices, social ranks, names of professions, trades, crafts
- Pilgrimage
- Counting, money
- Invocation of Holy Trinity
• Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869, Doctor, Intellectual)
Thesaurus of English words and phrases
• Purpose
- Prescribe and regulate use of language
Some modern writers…have indulged in a habit of arbitrarily fabricating
new words and a new-fangled phraseology, without any necessity, and with
manifest injury to the purity of language.”
- Aid to writing and speaking
“We seek in vain the words we need, and strive ineffectually to devise forms
of expression which shall faithfully portray our thoughts and sentiments”
• Categories
- Abstract
relations (existence, quantity, time…); Space (dimensions,
motion…) ; Matter (inorganic, organic); Intellect (formation of ideas,
communication of ideas); Volition (individual, intersocial); Affections
(personal, moral, religious…)
• Melvil Dewey (1851-1931, Librarian, Entrepreneur)
Decimal Classification
• Purpose
- Subject access
Hierarchical relationships among categories of knowledge are
‘natural’, and reflect way the human mind produces and uses
- Prescribe and regulate library cataloguing systems
• Categories
- 0 General; 100 Philosophy; 200 Theology; 300 Sociology; 400
Philology; 500 Natural Science; 600 Useful Arts; 700 Fine Arts;
800 Literature; 900 History
Case Study:
Biological Taxonomy
• Linnaean system
- Major writings
Systema Naturae (1735, 1758), Fundamenta Botanica (1736), Classes
Plantarum (1738)
- Purpose
Name and classify all living things, thereby gaining access to God’s
- Method
Establish taxonomic ranks, or levels, i.e., Kingdom, Class, Order,
Genus, Species
Binomial naming system
Once a taxon is created, all members share same essential properties
The number of genera is set once and for all in God’s original creation
- Assumptions
Taxonomic Change
• Influence of Darwin
- On
the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural
Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in
the Struggle for Life (1859)
“All true classification is genealogical”
• Taxonomies
are constantly being revised as new
knowledge comes to light
- Ingenus
some cases, species need to be moved from one
to another
- Because
of binomial system, this means that names
need to be changed, too
Taxonomic Debates
• “The debate among biologists concerning
general schools and species concepts has been
extensive and at times rancorous.” (Ereshefsky,
“The …controversy over the new naming
system, known as ‘PhyloCode’, has pitted
colleague against colleague, office mate against
office mate … You’ve got people willing to
throw down their lives on both sides.” (Science,
• Throughout history there have been
many attempts to conceptualize the
world, or some part of it
Every conceptualization is biased by
virtue of its purpose and the world view
of its designer
This bias needs to be recognized, and
may even be a “useful fiction”
Photo Attributions
Egyptian scribe:

BoSC97 - Buffalo Ontology Site