Ontology is (not) Overrated

A few weeks ago, one gentle reader was kind enough to respond to a post of mine. I reproduce in full said response:

 “Speaking of things ontological: this, from Clay Shirky’s monumental “Ontology is Overrated.”


“It comes down ultimately to a question of philosophy. Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world? If you believe the world makes sense, then anyone who tries to make sense of the world differently than you is presenting you with a situation that needs to be reconciled formally, because if you get it wrong, you’re getting it wrong about the real world.

If, on the other hand, you believe that we make sense of the world, if we are, from a bunch of different points of view, applying some kind of sense to the world, then you don’t privilege one top level of sense-making over the other. What you do instead is you try to find ways that the individual sense-making can roll up to something which is of value in aggregate, but you do it without an ontological goal. You do it without a goal of explicitly getting to or even closely matching some theoretically perfect view of the world.””

Okay. I finally read the essay. Very cool stuff. From Shirky, again:

“It is a rich irony that the word “ontology”, which has to do with making clear and explicit statements about entities in a particular domain, has so many conflicting definitions. I’ll offer two general ones.

The main thread of ontology in the philosophical sense is the study of entities and their relations. The question ontology asks is: What kinds of things exist or can exist in the world, and what manner of relations can those things have to each other? Ontology is less concerned with what is than with what is possible.

The knowledge management and AI communities have a related definition — they’ve taken the word “ontology” and applied it more directly to their problem. The sense of ontology there is something like “an explicit specification of a conceptualization.”

The common thread between the two definitions is essence, “Is-ness.” In a particular domain, what kinds of things can we say exist in that domain, and how can we say those things relate to each other?”

Shirky then discusses the ways that the second definition of “ontology”–the one used by the “knowledge management”–bumps up against the first definition of ontology (the one that is “less concerned with what is than with what is possible”). I don’t really think Shirky is anti-ontology, I just think he sees a problematized, ironic “ontology.” In a sense, Shirky uses a deconstructionist approach, destabilizing the hierarchies enforced by the second definition of ontology (notably, the term “metaphysical” is absent from Shirky’s defs of “ontology,” another move we could link to a deconstructionist mindset which strikes at the foundations of Platonic ideals). Shirky again:

“But this is the ontological dilemma. Consider the following statements:

A: "This is a book about Dresden."
B: "This is a book about Dresden, 
 and it goes in the category 'East Germany'."

That second sentence seems so obvious, but East Germany actually turned out to be an unstable category. Cities are real. They are real, physical facts. Countries are social fictions. It is much easier for a country to disappear than for a city to disappear, so when you’re saying that the small thing is contained by the large thing, you’re actually mixing radically different kinds of entities. We pretend that ‘country’ refers to a physical area the same way ‘city’ does, but it’s not true, as we know from places like the former Yugoslavia.”

Throughout “Ontology is Overrated,” Shirky is specifically working out ontological quandaries as they relate to the ever-expanding world of internet technology, but he’s also concious of the underpinnings of the first definition of ontology–of the possibilities of “isness” and being and the relational (infinite multiplicity) of meanings this entails (Shirky’s discussion of Yahoo and Google sheds light on this somewhat abstract problematic. Shirky privileges Google as the company who, rather than reinforcing (false) hierarchies in their ontological method, take a more deconstructive approach–meanings are relational, and exist in a fluid, transformative space).

I think that Shirky’s essay works in the same spirit that I would like to believe I’m working in: a playful, disruptive mode that pokes, prods, and jabs at the foundational traditions of hierarchies that (we allow to) resist examination, traditions that are explained away as simply being “natural.”

Finally, Shirky proposes this approach to knowledge:
“[Y]ou try to find ways that the individual sense-making can roll up to something which is of value in aggregate, but you do it without an ontological goal. You do it without a goal of explicitly getting to or even closely matching some theoretically perfect view of the world.”

There is a paradox here, one which I’m sure Shirky is aware of, yet nonetheless it’s a problematic one: Shirky wants to do away with “ontology,” or “ontological goals,” yet he wants “individual sense-making” (and value-based sense-making at that) to somehow remain. If Shirky’s problem is with the word “ontology” (a word he qualifies as “ironic”), that’s a separate issue: however, following from Shirky’s own first-definition of “ontology”–a definition that I think gets to the spirit of ontology, the spirit of possibility–ontology is simply a tool, a way of seeing, an approach, a method. Calling ontology “overrated” seems like a cynical solution; one doesn’t have to hold a metaphysical (Platonic) viewpoint which privileges “perfect” ideals and truths in order to practice ontology. Rather, ontological questioning–questioning “isness” and the possiblities of “isness,” how that “isness” finds meaning in language and representation (or how language and representation create that “isness”)–is the root of philosophical inquiry.

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