Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ontological Cognition, a Working Paper

Abstract: Ontological cognition is about the cognitive apparatus we use to organize the world into different kinds of things according to their powers and capacities: animal, vegetable, mineral; living, non-living; human, non-human; etc. As such it differs from the philosophical discipline of ontology, which is about the world itself, not our thoughts about the world. As ontological cognition snakes through many disciplines these reflections run from Wittgenstein through literature and the Great Chain of Being to computation and knowledge representation (KR).

The complete working paper is available in PDF form on my SSRN page ( and the blog posts are tagged ontological cognition.
Introduction: Ontological Cognition in the Study of Ontology

The study of ontological cognition is not, of course, the same as the philosophical study of ontology. It is merely (merely, ha!) about how WE conceptualize the world. By contrast, the philosophical discourse is about how the world is, REALLY. Keeping the two pursuits distinct and non-interfering is a tricky business.

Different though the two disciplines are, my background in ontological cognition has been very important in my recent forays into object-oriented ontology (OOO), which is about the world, not about thought. Without it I would not have decided to take OOO, Graham Harman’s version in particular, and treat it as a foundation on which to build a provisional pluralist ontology based on Realms of Being.

System and Computation

The study of ontological cognition has been at the core of my intellectual life since I encountered David G. Hays in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. I was a student in the English Department and he was a professor in the Linguistics Department. I first met him near the end of my first year at Buffalo. I became one of his students, if not that summer, then certainly in the Fall of that year. From him I learned semantics and cognition of a computational kind, for that was Hays’s core discipline at the time, computational linguistics.

Hays taught me a system, his computational semantics, and then I began to make contributions to it. In teaching me that system he also taught me a certain style to systematic thinking, that is, how to construct a complex (quasi-formal) system, one with many tightly-connected parts.

Without experience in that intellectual craft I doubt that it would have occurred to me that one could construct a meshwork of Realms of Being. And that's certainly very important to my version of pluralist metaphysics. Without the training I got from Hays the project of a(potentially large) meshwork of Realms would not have been thinkable.

Realms of Cultural Being

And then we have the Realms of Cultural Being that I have posited in my discussion of literature and its study: Common Sense Realm, Literary Realm, Hermeneutic Engine, and so forth. Ontological cognition is central to those Realms, for that is how we humans construct them, at least in part. Without explicit conceptual tools for thinking about cognition such discussion is just another discourse about, well, discourse.

That work, ontological cognition, emerged in pieces.

Back in 1974-75 Hays was writing an essay on the conceptual structure of the notion of alienation as it is variously used in the social sciences.* He started with Marx’s notion “that man is the creature that makes himself” (I’m quoting from Hays’s essay). This, so Hays suggests, calls for abstract definition in which ‘man’ is defined as the “animal tht fuses with its own creations.” He goes on to say: “I use the concept ‘assign’ for this fusion; whenever two unlike categories combine, as color and shape combine to yield visual form, ‘assign’ is the fusing concept.” And so Hays proposed that Marx’s definition of man is one where an abstract episode, using the verb ‘assign’ links the realm of the animal with the realm of creations. And he goes on from the to add other clauses into the mix.

The important point is simply that Hays introduces this notion of assignment as a verb in a abstract episodes. I read a draft of that paper and thought to myself: Aristotle. Aristotle conceived of objects as consisting of a substance and a form. How about thinking of objects, I thought, as an assignment between a substance and a form? That is, I took Aristotle’s ontology of the object and crossed it with Hays’s account of alienation and argued that ontological cognition was a fundamental aspect of human cognition, a notion that Frank Keil was to pursue independently beginning with his book, Semantic and Conceptual Development: An Ontological Perspective (Harvard 1979).

* * * * *

To sum up, Hays taught me how to think about complex systems structured of many tightly coupled parts and he gave me the tools I needed for thinking about ontological cognition. The former made a pluralist structure of Realms thinkable while the latter is central to constructing some of those realms.

About the Order

Given the somewhat miscellaneous nature of these pieces the easiest ordering would have been chronological. I chose, instead, an order that emphasizes these connections and those.

Harman and Wittgenstein, a Quickie
Harman, Wittgenstein, Math&Logic, Compositionism, Biology

I begin with two pieces on Harman and Wittgenstein because Wittgenstein was a major philosopher of the previous century, working in a mode quite different from Harman’s, and who was also a major influence on me in my early years. When I dipped into the Tractatus after having started reading Harman’s The Quadruple Object I was quite struck with Wittgenstein’s talk of objects as fundamental. Those first pieces address that, and a few other things.

Being in Crisis and the Ontological Text
Ontology, Woven in the Text Of Lists and Litanies

The next two pieces are about literature, the study of which has more or less served as my intellectual home base since my late undergraduate years. And then we move to lists, which are fundamental to a certain kind of computing, the kind you need to deal with language; the Latour litany is a kind of list that has become a stylistic feature of object-oriented ontology.

“Is-A” Sentences, Clues about the Mind
Ontology in Perception and Thought The Great Chain of Being as Conceptual Structure

From lists we move to sentences, sentences of a certain kind, e.g.: Fido is a dog, dogs are beasts. But they are also basic to philosophy, and thus to ontology. As such they give us clues to how the mind thinks ontology. Now that we’re in mental territory the next two pieces get at the core of that territory. Here I’m concerned with ontology as a class of cognitive structures we use in negotiating the world. While it is thus a discourse very different from the philosophical, it is, as I’ve already indicated, my familiarity with that discourse that gave me the tools to develop my philosophical discourse into a pluralist one.

OOO is Very Abstract, but so is KR
Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum Fecundity and Implementation in a Complex Universe

Now we have three pieces which, in one way or another, dealing with computing. The last of these, Fecundity and Implementation, is perhaps the deepest and most obscure.

An Ontological Moment in Human Thought?

The final piece ponders the question of whether or not we are, indeed, at a hinge point in human thought, one where collective ontologies get revised across the board, top to bottom, inside out. Of course, we can’t stand outside that question and merely ponder it. The act of posing and considering it will itself change the answer and, indeed, the question itself.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it!

* David G. Hays (1976). On "Alienation": An Essay in the Psycholinguistics of Science. In (R.R. Geyer & D. R. Schietzer, Eds.) Theories of Alienation. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, pp. 169-187.

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