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Fall Semester, 2020
Fall Semester 2020, Mondat 1-3:40pm,
Venue: Capen 240
'''Registration''': Class#: [http://www.buffalo.edu/class-schedule?switch=showclass&semester=fall&division=GRAD&dept=PHI&regnum=xxxxx xxxxx]  
'''Registration''': Class#: [http://www.buffalo.edu/class-schedule?switch=showclass&semester=fall&division=GRAD&dept=PHI&regnum=xxxxx xxxxx]  

Revision as of 15:50, 15 July 2020

Philosophy on Rails: An Introduction to Ontology

Special Topic PHI 579


Fall Semester 2020, Mondat 1-3:40pm,

Venue: Capen 240

Registration: Class#: xxxxx

Instructors: Barry Smith

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

Office hours: By appointment via email at phismith@buffalo.edu or dglimbau@buffalo.edu

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. Even mundane terms like ‘world’, ‘fact’, and ‘harm’ have such a variety of meanings that when competing theories use such terms their defenders can often be accused of talking past one another and of engaging in merely verbal disputes. This is in contrast to what is the case in the natural sciences, where consistent terminology – as codified for example in the Periodic Table and the International Standard System of Units – is recognized as indispensable. To put it bluntly, because of the use of standards, the natural sciences are collectively more successful than philosophers at resolving divergent points-of-view in their respective fields. Of course, the idea of developing a shared system of philosophical terms and definitions has been advanced in different forms already, for example by Aristotle in the Categories, by Leibniz in De Arte Combinatoria, by the early Wittgenstein, and by Carnap in his Logical Structure of the World. Similar methods are nowadays being successfully applied, but this is occurring primarily outside philosophy, in areas such as biomedical informatics and industrial engineering.

This course will address three goals:

First, it will explore how to create and use a standard philosophical vocabulary. This will include exploiting modern developments in computational ontology, including the world’s first international standard ontology.
Second, it will explore the ways in which building a restricted philosophical vocabulary can help to arbitrate philosophical disputes in areas such as time, mental content, modality, and obligation.
Third, it will provide an introduction to the methods of contemporary applied ontological methods that are being used both inside and outside philosophy.

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

Preamble: What's wrong with analytic philosophy?

We will outline the philosophical methodology that produced Basic Formal Ontology (BFO), which was approved by the International Standards Organization in 2019 as standard ISO/IED 21838-2. 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
  • tracing back means: following paths of dependence (as a velocity, for instance, is dependent on some process of motion)

We will collect examples of possible ways 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 so-called possible worlds?

We will explore one way in which using BFO and ontologies conformant to BFO can already be of benefit to philosophers, namely 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? How does the categorization strategy used by PhilPapers measure up to the standards of what would be needed by an ontology-grounded tagging system?

Philosophy on Rails Slides
Philosophy on Rails Video (28 minutes)
Driverless Philosophy Slides
Driverless Philosophy Video (73 minutes)


Amanda Bryant, "Keep the chickens cooped: the epistemic inadequacy of free range metaphysics", Synthese 197 (5): 1867-1887. 2020.


Armstrong, D. M. Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics, Oxford University Press, 2010.
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.
Ontology of Philosophy Video 40 minutes
Ontology of Philosophy Slides
History of Philosophy Video 98 minutes
History of Philosophy Slides
The Philosophome
List of philpapers.org Categories
Dimitris Gakis (2016) "Philosophy as Paradigms: An Account of a Contextual Metaphilosophical Perspective", Philosophical Papers, 45:1-2, 209-239.
Eva Seidlmayer, An ontology of digital objects in philosophy

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: Modes of Philosophical Derailment

"... philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §38
"... a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not a part of the mechanism." Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §271
Karl Bühler on logical vs. material derailment (Entgleisung). See Mulligan here.
Nosology of Continental Philosophy. See Mulligan here.

Making the Content of Philosophy Accessible Systematically

Advancing beyond the PhilPapers Table of Categories
The Philosophome
Linking with DBPedia
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


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: Social Ontology, Norms and Values

Deontic Entities in Basic Formal Ontology

Social Ontology and Social Normativity

November 16: Capabilities

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

November 23: Philosophy of Information

The Information Ontology
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).

November 30: Philosophy of Action

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 ontology, and an insight into the philosophical methods and theories relevant thereto. The student will also acquire a familiarity with research in formal philosophy and analytic metaphysics. Lectures and class discussions Review of reading matter and associated online content and participation in class discussions
The student will acquire experience in using the methods employed in applied ontology, including use of editing software such as Protége. Participation in practical experiments Review of results
The student will acquire experience in communicating the results of work using ontologies and in the potential of modern applied ontology as a tool to aid 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 27 - submit penultimate draft of essay and powerpoint
Dec7 - class presentation
Dec 11 - 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 http://grad.buffalo.edu/Academics/Policies-Procedures/Academic-Integrity.html.

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