Philosophy on Rails

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Philosophy on Rails: An Introduction to Ontology

Special Topic PHI 579

Registration: Class#: xxxxx

Instructors: Barry Smith, David Limbaugh

Prerequisites: Open to all persons with an undergraduate degree and some knowledge of philosophy.

Office hours: By appointment via email at or

The Course

Course Description: Progress in philosophy has been hampered by the fact that philosophers have no shared, controlled vocabulary which they can use as a common starting point when defining their terms. This is in contrast to what is the case in the natural sciences, where consistent terminology -- as exemplifed by the Periodic Table and the International Standard System of Units -- is generally recognized as indispensable. The idea of developing a shared system of philosophical terms and definitions has of course been advanced in different forms already, for example by the early Wittgenstein and by Carnap in his Logical Structure of the World. We will see, however, that with modern developments in computational ontology, however, including the world's first international standard ontology as a framework for definitions, the idea can be addressed in new ways.

Ontological methods are of course nowadays being applied primarily outside philosophy, in areas such as biomedical informatics and industrial engineering. This course will provide an introduction to these methods and show how they can be applied in philosophy to enable comparison of different theories and arguments.

Course Structure: This is a three credit hour graduate seminar, with a practical exercise forming part of each class. The final session will be structured around youtube videos created by the students in the class. Students will be trained in the basic tools and methods of ontology, and become involved in the attempt to use BFO to capture data about philosophical methods, hypotheses and results.

Target Audience: The course is open to all interested students with an undergraduate degree and some knowledge of philosophy.


August 31: Introduction: Philosophy on Rails

This course is about constraining philosophy in the spirit of (for example) Wittgenstein's Tractatus, the Vienna Circle's project of a unified science, of Carnap's Aufbau, and Roman Ingarden's The Problem of the Existence of the World. It will be divided into three tracks, as follows:

1) The philosophical methodology that produced Basic Formal Ontology (BFO), which was approved as International Standards Organization standard ISO/IED 21838-2 in 2019. This methodology includes principles such as: the referent of every term should be traceable back to some portion of reality that is perceivable or physically identifiable.

2) Collecting examples of doing philosophy constrained by BFO. For example, what do we do with information, given that there is no coverage of propositions in BFO? What do we do with modality given that BFO has no coverage of merely possible worlds?

3) Exploring the idea of using BFO and ontologies conformant to BFO in tagging philosophical literature. How would one build out an ontology used to tag philosophical literature, since that literature is full of non-referring terms?



BFO 2.0

September 7: Labor Day (no class)

September 14: The Ontology of Philosophy

Pierre Grenon and Barry Smith, “Foundations of an Ontology of Philosophy”, Synthese, 2011, 182 (2), 185-204.
Abstract: We describe an ontology of philosophy that is designed to help navigation through philosophical literature, including literature in the form of encyclopedia articles and textbooks and in both printed and digital forms. The ontology is designed also to serve integration and structuring of data pertaining to the philosophical literature, and in the long term also to support reasoning about the provenance and contents of such literature, by providing a representation of the philosophical domain that is orientated around what philosophical literature is about.
The Philosophome
List of Categories
Dimitris Gakis (2016) "Philosophy as Paradigms: An Account of a Contextual Metaphilosophical Perspective", Philosophical Papers, 45:1-2, 209-239.

September 21: An Introduction to Basic Formal Ontology

Robert Arp, Barry Smith and Andrew Spear, Building Ontologies with Basic Formal Ontology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, August 2015.

September 28: Methods

All editions of TopBraid (including the free edition) allow editors to establish links using the GUI to dbpedia resources, and to download resources and their annotations from dbpedia as part of their local knowledge base. Despite DBpedia being a hot mess, there is a lot of interesting content therein. It would be very easy to build an exercise around this for students, who could use it for exploratory purposes, enrichment, testing, pointing out errors, etc…


October 5: Philosophy of Science

Models and simulations
A. Bandrowski, et al., "The Ontology for Biomedical Investigations", PLoS ONE, 2016

October 12: Philosophical Logic

Werner Ceusters and Barry Smith, "Aboutness: Towards Foundations for the Information Artifact Ontology", Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Biomedical Ontology (ICBO). CEUR vol. 1515. pp. 1-5 (2015).

October 19: Cognitive Science

Mental Functioning Ontology
Emotion Ontology
Cognitive Process Ontology

October 26: Metaphysics

Barry Smith and Werner Ceusters, "Ontological realism: A methodology for coordinated evolution of scientific ontologies", Applied Ontology, 2010 Nov 15; 5(3-4): 139–188.

November 2: Philosophy of Language

From Speech Acts to Document Acts


November 9: Norms and Values

Deontic Entities in Basic Formal Ontology


November 16: Capabilities

Eric Merrell, et al., "Mental Capabilities", ICBO, 2019

November 23: Philosophy of Information

The Information Ontology

November 30: Social Ontology

December 7: Student Projects



Student Learning Outcomes

Program Outcomes/Competencies Instructional Method(s) Assessment Method(s)
The student will acquire a knowledge of the principles and procedures of intelligence analysis, and an insight into the philosophical methods and theories relevant thereto. The student will also acquire a familiarity with current theoretical research in areas relating to intelligence analysis. Lectures and class discussions Review of reading matter and associated online content and participation in class discussions
The student will acquire experience in practical tasks involved in intelligence analysis Participation in practical experiments Review of results
The student will acquire experience in communicating the results of work on intelligence analysis and its philosophical understanding Creation of youtube presentation and of associated documentation Review of results

How to Write an Essay

Jordan Peterson's Essay Writing Guide

Important Dates

Sep 20 - about now start to discuss by email the content of your video and essay with Drs Smith and Limbaugh
Sep 28 - submit a proposed title and abstract
Oct 31 - submit a table of contents and 300 word summary plus draft of associated ppt slides
Nov 20 - submit penultimate draft of essay and powerpoint
Dec2 - class presentation
Dec 4 - submit final version of essay and powerpoint and upload final version of video to youtube


Grading will be based on two factors:

I: understanding and criticism of the material presented in classes 1-13

All students are required to take an active part in class (and where relevant on-line) discussions throughout the semester.

II: preparation of a youtube video and associated documentation (including powerpoint slides and essay).

Content and structure of the essay should be discussed with Drs Smith or Limbaugh. Where the essay takes the form of the documentation of a specific ontology developed by the student it should include:

Statement of scope of the ontology
Summary of existing ontologies in the relevant domain
Explanation of how your ontology differs from (or incorporates) these ontologies
Screenshots of parts of the ontology with some examples of important terms and definitions
Summaries of potential applications of the ontology

Grading Policy: Grading follows standard Graduate School policies. Grades will be weighted according to the following breakdown:

Weighting Assignment

40% - class discussions
20% - youtube video presentation
20% - powerpoint slides
20% - essay / ontology content

Final Grades

Percentages refer to sum of assignment grades as listed above

Grade Quality Percentage

A 4.0 90.0% -100.00%
A- 3.67 87.0% - 89.9%
B+ 3.33 84.0% - 86.9%
B 3.00 80.0% - 83.9%
B- 2.67 77.0% - 79.9%
C+ 2.33 74.0% - 76.9%
C 2.00 71.0% - 73.9%
C- 1.67 68.0% - 70.9%
D+ 1.33 65.0% - 67.9%
D 1.00 62.0% - 64.9%
F 0 61.9% or below

An interim grade of Incomplete (I) may be assigned if the student has not completed all requirements for the course. An interim grade of 'I' shall not be assigned to a student who did not attend the course. The default grade accompanying an interim grade of 'I' shall be 'U' and will be displayed on the UB record as 'IU.' The default Unsatisfactory (U) grade shall become the permanent course grade of record if the 'IU' is not changed through formal notice by the instructor upon the student's completion of the course.

Assignment of an interim 'IU' is at the discretion of the instructor. A grade of 'IU' can be assigned only if successful completion of unfulfilled course requirements can result in a final grade better than the default 'U' grade. The student should have a passing average in the requirements already completed. The instructor shall provide the student specification, in writing, of the requirements to be fulfilled.

The university’s Graduate Incomplete Policy can be found here.

Related Policies and Services

Academic integrity is a fundamental university value. Through the honest completion of academic work, students sustain the integrity of the university while facilitating the university's imperative for the transmission of knowledge and culture based upon the generation of new and innovative ideas. See

Accessibility resources: If you have any disability which requires reasonable accommodations to enable you to participate in this course, please contact the Office of Accessibility Resources in 60 Capen Hall, 645-2608 and also the instructor of this course during the first week of class. The office will provide you with information and review appropriate arrangements for reasonable accommodations, which can be found on the web here.

Background Reading and Video Materials