Featured Abstract: Feb. 2

Each Monday and Thursday, an abstract from one of the symposium participants will be posted to facilitate discussion.  We welcome your comments!

Featured Abstract: “To use ontology, or not?”

Paul Caton, King’s College 

Should formal ontology always accompany data modelling? Both are very broad terms, but clearly the part of the former that Dale Jacquette calls “applied scientific ontology” (2002), ie. the categorisation and organisation of actually existent things, overlaps with the latter. There is plenty of room left, however, for a simple intuitive data modelling free of any rigorous logical constraints, and based instead on common sense and experience of the world. This approach has advantages of speed and familiarity to recommend it, and tools such as Entity Authority Transaction Service (EATS) to implement it. When a seemingly straightforward data modelling task becomes unexpectedly awkward because ‘intuitive’ entities and properties fail to elegantly capture a conjunction of particulars, an obvious step is to work back through the series of assumptions that led to those entities and properties. At this point formal ontology begins to exert it’s attractive force, and it is hard to avoid being drawn in, particularly because it seems as though all answers might be found there. But it is hard to introduce only a little formal ontology; recursive questioning inexorably pulls one beyond the relatively safe applied scientific fringes towards the core of fundamental categories, and that turns out to be a strange and disconcerting place for the philosophically-naïve digital humanist (and I am one such). User-friendly tools such as Protégé and widely available upper-level ontologies such as Cyc may give a comforting impression that every concept in one’s data set can securely grounded somewhere, but a trip into the deeper reaches of ontology quickly gives the lie to that.  Answers there are plenty, but few that agree with each other on even the most basic issues (see, for example, the first chapter of Westerhoff 2005). In this presentation I shall describe a case of unsatisfactory representation in the preparatory data modelling for the digital edition of the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, and consider whether the best response is to ‘fudge and forget’ – thereby staying in the open field of the informal, intuitive approach – or to follow the path into the ontological forest: a more honourable strategy, perhaps, but fraught with the risk of going too far in and becoming hopelessly lost.

Framing Questions

  1. What is the relation between the narrow focus of modelling for implementation and the broader view of modelling the nature of a domain?
  2. How do you model an historical happening?
  3. What is a document object (a string of characters, an XML element, a node in  a graph, …)?
  4. Which are the basic operations on marked up document objects (deletion, insertion, extraction, …), and how should they be defined?

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