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We can never know reality in its purest form; we can only interpret it through our senses and experiences. Therefore, everyone has their own perspective of reality. An ontology is a formal specification of a perspective.
If two people agree to use the same ontology when communicating, then there should be no ambiguity in the communication. To enable this, an ontology codifies the semantics used to represent and reason with a body of knowledge.
Ontologies can be written in various forms or languages (e.g. OWL, which is the lingua franca of the Semantic Web).
In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence. It seeks to describe or posit the basic categories and relationships of being or existence to define entities and types of entities within its framework. Ontology can be said to study conceptions of reality.
Some philosophers, notably of the Platonic school, contend that all nouns refer to entities. Other philosophers contend that some nouns do not name entities but provide a kind of shorthand way of referring to a collection (of either objects or events). In this latter view, mind, instead of referring to an entity, refers to a collection of mental events experienced by a person; society refers to a collection of persons with some shared interactions, and geometry refers to a collection of a specific kind of intellectual activity.
Any ontology must give an account of which words refer to entities, which do not, why, and what categories result. When one applies this process to nouns such as electrons, energy, contract, happiness, time, truth, causality, and God, ontology becomes fundamental to many branches of philosophy.
In both computer science and information science, an ontology is a data model that represents a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. It is used to reason about the objects within that domain.
Ontologies are used in artificial intelligence, the semantic web, software engineering and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it. Ontologies generally describe:
The concept of ontology is generally thought to have originated in early Greece and occupied Plato and Aristotle. While the etymology is Greek, the oldest extant record of the word itself is the Latin form ontologia, which appeared in 1606, in the work Ogdoas Scholastica by Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and in 1613 in the Lexicon philosophicum by Rudolph Göckel (Goclenius). The first occurrence in English of "ontology" as recorded by the OED appears in Baileys dictionary of 1721, which defines ontology as an Account of being in the Abstract. However its appearance in a dictionary indicates it was in use already at that time. It is likely the word was first used in its Latin form by philosophers based on the Latin roots, which themselves are based on the Greek.
Students of Aristotle first used the word 'metaphysica' (literally "after the physics" because these works were placed after his works on physics) to refer to the work their teacher described as "the science of being qua being". The word 'qua' means 'in the capacity of'. According to this theory, then, ontology is the science of being inasmuch as it is being, or the study of beings insofar as they exist. Take anything you can find in the world, and look at it, not as a puppy or a slice of pizza or a folding chair or a president, but just as something that is. More precisely, ontology concerns determining what categories of being are fundamental and asks whether, and in what sense, the items in those categories can be said to "be".
Ontological questions have also been raised and debated by thinkers in the ancient civilizations of India and China, in some cases perhaps predating the Greek thinkers who have become associated with the concept.
Difference and similarity with respect to philosophical ontology
The term ontology has its origin in philosophy, where it is the name of one fundamental branch of metaphysics, concerned with analyzing various types or modes of existence, often with special attention to the relations between particulars and universals, between intrinsic and extrinsic properties, and between essence and existence. According to Tom Gruber at Stanford University, the meaning of ontology in the context of computer science is a description of the concepts and relationships that can exist for an agent or a community of agents. He goes on to specify that an ontology is generally written, as a set of definitions of formal vocabulary.
What ontology has in common in both computer science and philosophy is the representation of entities, ideas, and events, along with their properties and relations, according to a system of categories. In both fields, one finds considerable work on problems of ontological relativity (e.g. Quine and Kripke in philosophy, Sowa and Guarino in computer science), and debates concerning whether a normative ontology is viable (e.g. debates over foundationalism in philosophy, debates over the Cyc project in AI).
Differences between the two are largely matters of focus. Philosophers are less concerned with establishing fixed, controlled vocabularies than are researchers in computer science, while computer scientists are less involved in discussions of first principles (such as debating whether there are such things as fixed essences, or whether entities must be ontologically more primary than processes). During the second half of the 20th century, philosophers extensively debated the possible methods or approaches to building ontologies, without actually building any very elaborate ontologies themselves. By contrast, computer scientists were building some large and robust ontologies(such as WordNet and Cyc) with comparatively little debate over how they were built.
In the early years of the 21st century, the interdisciplinary project of cognitive science has been bringing the two circles of scholars closer together. For example, there is talk of a "computational turn in philosophy" which includes philosophers analyzing the formal ontologies of computer science (sometimes even working directly with the software), while researchers in computer science have been making more references to those philosophers who work on ontology (sometimes with direct consequences for their methods). Still, many scholars in both fields are uninvolved in this trend of cognitive science, and continue to work independently of one another, pursuing separately their different concerns.
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