“So Yahoo hired a professional ontologist…”

This article by Clay Shirky is a good encapsulation of the computer/GIScientist understanding of ontology that is rapidly entering geography and especially mapping and GIS:

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.

Shirky is right that ontology has many definitions, though he then confuses this statement by offering only one as the definition: in his words ontology is “essence, “Is-ness.”” Of course, philosophers will recognise this definition, and a classic one at that: objects with properties ie., Arisotelian substance or predicate ontology. This tradition had already been challenged in the 1920s by Martin Heidegger who replaced ontology as “is” with “being” and essence with existence. Today we would see Shirky’s definition of ontology as rather covering the “ontic” rather than the ontological.

Nevertheless, it’s important to get to grips with this kind of ontology-speak, because as the rest of Shirky’s article discusses it is being applied to some really interesting problems, namely how we sort information, and by extension how we access and use information.

One fascinating aspect of this problem has emerged over the course of the development of the more interactive web, or web 2.0, that changes the game from just downloading information (web 1.0) to contributing to it. In geography this is playing out as various forms of participatory geography: volunteered geographic information (VGI), geolocated pictures, tracks and locations, geotagging, and what is sometimes called the semantic web.

The journal I edit, Cartographica, has a special section in its latest issue of how ontologists are approaching the problem of redoing the US National Atlas (or any other large scale mapping project), many of whom draw on this tradition of ontology for their schemas. To me, the most interesting aspect of this are bottom-up categories, which need not be commensurable or static, are deeply meaningful to individuals and yet sharable.

As this fascinating article points out though, the problem of the “universal book” and data organization, access, retrieval and interrelationships long predates the internet. There was for example Paul Otlet:

In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext,” Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.

Having just come back from the National Archives, where information discovery and retrieval are often dodgy at best (print-only finding aids, stapled “cheatsheets” for use by the archivists with different but similar dates lying around on battered ring binders, frank admissions by the staff that the online catalog covers only as small fraction of even the top-level categories–and this for a reasonably popular “record group” the OSS), well, I can certainly relate.

The quote in the post title comes from Shirky’s description of Yahoo’s attempt at classifying the web back in the “earlies.” He goes on to pull this system, which the “professional ontologist” had devised, apart. With a powerful search engine like Google, you don’t need categories just good tagging (metadata).

“Ontology” may (or may not) be good for small technical domains (and even then bottom-up looks more useful) but for getting at lived human existence, it seems hopeless. Here in contrast is Jeremy Wood’s lived map of Warwick campus, which he made by walking it with a GPS and then making a map form the traces:

The Warwick campus, produced through GPS traces by Jeremy Wood. A map traversed at 1:1 scale, the scale of lived human experience.

Philosophers have a lot to contribute to these issues, not just formal philosophers such as Heidegger but (obFoucault) people who talk about archives, genealogy and epistemology, and the production of knowledge.

(Thanks to John Krygier for the Paul Otlet link.)

Object-oriented ontology

I wouldn’t mind getting a perspective on computer/GI Science “ontologies” from some of the OOO people. Maybe I’m being distracted by the word ontology in there, but at the least there is potential overlap and room for confusion as this word is thrown around. Especially as the GIScience people see themselves creating ontologies of objects.

Larval subjects has some key sketches of the OOO position here, while Stuart continues to engage, following the ontology sessions at AAG in April.

New paper: “Foucault’s ‘Metabody’” on Psychiatric Power lectures

Mary Beth Mader, Department of Philosophy, 327 Clement Hall, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN 38152, USA.

Foucault’s Metabody,” Journal of Bioethical Enquiry (forthcoming).


The paper treats several ontological questions about certain nineteenth-century and contemporary medical and scientific conceptualizations of hereditary relation. In particular, it considers the account of mid-nineteenth century psychiatric thought given by Foucault in Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973–1974 and Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975. There, Foucault argues that a fantastical conceptual prop, the ‘metabody,’ as he terms it, was implicitly supposed by that period’s psychiatric medicine as a putative ground for psychiatric pathology. After presenting the heart of Foucault’s thought on the ‘metabody,’ the paper investigates the possibility that a contemporary version of a ‘metabody’ may operate today as a conceptual analog of the nineteenth-century psychiatric theory and practice that Foucault began to expose in the texts examined here. It speculates that we might identify a contemporary genetic version of a ‘metabody’ in a particular current conception of the gene as replicator, an item marked by an ambiguous temporal ontology.

Keywords  Philosophy – Ethics – Ontology – Etiology – Heredity – Genetics – Somatization – Metasomatization

Foucault, critical realist?

I would have my doubts about this on first blush, but I suppose you never know. If these “pitfalls” have been assigned to Foucault’s work, perhaps they are just off the mark on the face of it? But perhaps anything that helps repel them is worth checking out. (Whole article not yet read.)

Redrawing Foucault’s Social Ontology
Ismael Al-Amoudi University of Reading, Reading, UK

I propose that Foucault’s works, since he wrote Discipline and Punish rely on an implicit meta-theory that is compatible with the fundamentals of critical realism. To this end I examine the status of truth, methodology and social ontology used by Foucault. If this thesis is correct, then a critical realist reading of Michel Foucault would avoid some of the pitfalls that have been attributed to his works—such as constructivism, determinism, localism, and reductionism. Moreover, this understanding of Foucault’s works would also offer novel and challenging perspectives for researchers adopting a Foucauldian and/or critical realist study of organizations.

Key Words: Bhaskar • critical realism • epistemology • Foucault • knowledge • methodology • ontology • post-structuralism • power • social reality


Just read the novel The Interpretation of Murder, which is set in New York 1909 and centers on Freud and Jung’s visit to America (in Freud’s case, his only visit).

There is some discussion in the book about Hamlet, mostly because of the Oedipal aspects, but also the scene where Hamlet responds to his father’s death.

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