August 4, 2009

Ontology (authentic) vs. “ontologies” (GIScience)

Filed under: Uncategorized — ubikcan @ 4:15 pm

In an early lecture course (from 1923!) Martin Heidegger had already nailed the difference between ontology in an authentic sense and what passes for ontology today in GIScience, ie “ontologies” as I call them.

Here are two extracts, concerning a table.

The purest everydayness can be called on: tarrying for a while at home, being-in-a-room, where eventually “a table” is encountered! As what is it being encountered? A thing In space—as a spatial thing, it is also a material thing. It has such and such a weight, such and such a color, such and such a shape, with a rectangular or round top—so high, so wide, with a smooth or rough surface. The thing can be dismantled, burned, or dissolved in some other way. This material thing in space which offers itself to possible sensation from different directions always shows itself as being-there only from a certain side and indeed in such a way that the aspect seen from one side flows over in a continuous manner into other aspects sketched out in advance in the spatial gestalt of the thing, and the same holds for these ones. Aspects show themselves and open up in ever new ways as we walk around the thing-and still others when we look down on it from above or perceive it from below. The aspects themselves change according to lighting, distance, and similar factors bound up with the position of the perceiver.

The being-there-in-such-a-manner of this thing which is given in the flesh provides the possibility of determining something about the meaning of the being of such objects and their being-real In the proper sense, such objects are stones and other similar things in nature. However, when seen more closely, the table is also something more – it is not only a material thing in space, but in addition is furnished with definite valuative predicates: beautifully made, useful – it is a piece of equipment, furniture, a part of the room’s decor. The total domain of what is real can accordingly be divided into two realms: things in nature and things of value – and the latter always contain the being of a natural thing as the basic stratum of their being. The authentic being of the table is: material thing in space. (Heidegger, Ontology–the Hermeneutics of Facticity, p. 68).

This description of a table would “happily” pass muster with everyone today (ie 1923 but no doubt also 2009) he says as “the most unbiased and straightforward description.” Look at all the properties the table has! We can even add that depending on your perspective the table may appear different or present different sides of itself (“valuative predicates”). Who can deny that a table is a material thing in space? So let us deploy our “ontologies” to capture all these properties!

Do you like this description? Hard luck; Heidegger says it is “inaccurate.” It’s not false, and at least it’s better than all those descriptions of “transcendent” objects. But what we need, says Heidegger, is a different kind of phenomenology. Try this:

What is there in the room there at home is the table (not a table among many other tables in other rooms and houses) at which one sits in order to write, have a meal, sew, play. Everyone sees this right away, e.g., during a visit: it is a writing table, a dining table, a sewing table – such is the primary way in which it is being encountered in itself. This characteristic of “in order to do something” is not merely imposed on the table by relating and assimilating it to something else which it is not.

Its standing-there in the room means: Playing this role in such and such characteristic use. This and that about it is “impractical,” unsuitable. That part is damaged. It now stands in a better spot In the room than before — there’s better lighting, for example. Where it stood before was not at all good (for…). Here and there it shows lines — the boys like to busy themselves at the table. These lines are not just interruptions in the paint, but rather: it was the boys and it still is. This side is not the east side, and this narrow side so many cm. shorter than the other, but rather the one at which my wife sits in the evening when she wants to stay up and read, there at the table we had such and such a discussion that time, there that decision was made with a friend that time, there that work written that time, there that holiday celebrated that time.

That is the table – as such is it there in the temporality of everydayness, and as such will it perhaps happen to be encountered again after many years when, having been taken apart and now unusable, it is found lying on the floor somewhere, just like other “things,” e.g., a plaything, worn out and almost unrecognizable – it is my youth. In a corner of the basement stands an old pair of skis, the one is broken in half — what stands there are not material things of different lengths, but rather the skis from that time, from that daredevil trip with so and so. That book over there was a gift from X, that one there was bound by such and such a bookbinder, this other one needs to be taken to him soon, with that one I have been wrestling for a long time, that one there was an unnecessary buy, a flop, I still need to read this one for the first time. My library is not as good as A’s but far better than B’s, this matter is not something one would be able to derive pleasure from, what will the other say about this way of doing it, and the like. These are characteristics of the world’s being-encountered. What now needs to be inquired into is how they constitute the being-there of the world.

Of the two descriptions, the first was characterized as an inaccurate description, i.e., with respect to the basic task posed: ontologically and categorially grasping the immediate givens closest to us in the beings-which-are-there. This does not mean it is “false,” as if it had no basis in the subject matter. It is possible for the essential content of its results to prove itself vis-à-vis a specific domain of being-there to be objectively there for a theoretical observing which has a definite direction and focus. (pp. 69-70).

So is there a difference? The first one talks about objects in space and their properties, or predicates. We could make our triples: “the table” “is” “tall.” Maybe this is OK for the material or natural world, I don’t know. But as far as we go, we for whom our being is an issue, it is insufficient. Ontology should not try to get at what something “has” because you can’t have being. GIScience ontologies map out in often excruciating detail what properties objects have and then think that they have got at ontology. But they haven’t.

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