Signs, Processes, and Language Games

Foundations for Ontology

John F. Sowa

Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go. Each method of limited understanding is at length exhausted. In its prime each system is a triumphant success:  in its decay it is an obstructive nuisance.

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas


Questions to Consider


Large Hand-Coded Ontologies

Three large ontologies:

Building these things requires a great deal of time and money.


Small Hand-Coded Ontologies

Can such simple systems coexist peacefully with the grand ontologies?


Purpose of This Talk


Basic Assumptions


Foundations of Ontology

Semiotics by Charles Sanders Peirce:

Process philosophy by Alfred North Whitehead:

Language games by Ludwig Wittgenstein:


Language games for support

Consider the verb support in the following sentences:
Tom supported the tomato plant with a stick.

Tom supported his daughter with $10,000 per year.

Tom supported his father with a decisive argument.

Tom supported his partner with a bid of 3 spades.

These sentences all use the verb support in the same syntactic pattern:
A person supported NP1 with NP2.
Each use of support can only be understood with respect to a particular subject matter:


Different Games with the Same Pieces

Games of go and gomoku use identical pieces

Same syntax, but different scoring rules


How Language Games Work

The mapping from language to reality varies with each language game:


2N+2 Hierarchies

Two hierarchies for each natural language:

Two language-independent hierarchies:


Accommodating Polysemy

Every new language game makes a word more ambiguous:


A Narrow Type Broadens

The many subtypes of the word che


Navigating the Lattice of Theories

Example:  earth and sun map to the hydrogen atom.


Special-Purpose Theories

Belief-revision operators can accommodate such theories



Copyright ©2001, John F. Sowa