Since we’ve been talking about naming, and Glenn Mehltretter posted such a great example in his comment, it’s a good time to consider Ontologies. Since Kinston’s Taxonomy is what the knowledge management people would call an ontology, I’ve been looking at them.
Barry Smith of the Basic Formal Ontology project at Institute for Formal Ontology and Medical Information Science (IFOMIS) has a some strong thoughts against the linguistic turn in most ontological development. Linguistics doesn’t really care if a statement maps to something in the real world, or something that is provable or repeatable. It only cares about the structure of the statement. From their point of view, statements about the imaginary world of my fantasy series (the novels have been on hold for long enough to say that they will never, ever be completed) are the same as statements about high-energy physics.
Smith thinks this is all so much idiocy where ontologies are concerned. He writes:
Bad ontologies are (inter alia) those whose general terms lack the relation to corresponding universals in reality, and thereby also to corresponding instances.
Good ontologies are reality representations, and the fact that such representations are possible is shown by the fact that, as is documented in our scientific textbooks, very many of them have already been achieved, though of course always only at some specific level of granularity and to some specific degree of precision, detail and completeness.[Thomas Bittner and Barry Smith, “A Theory of Granular Partitions”, in: M. Duckham, et al. (eds.), Foundations of Geographic Information Science, Taylor & Francis, London, 117-151, 2003; quoted in Barry Smith, “Beyond Concepts: Ontology as Reality Representation“. (PDF)]
The article this was quoted in, also by Smith, is pretty good at describing why our work is so important. All models are false: that is, the map is not the territory. All maps make choices in what to ignore and what to focus on. A map made for demonstrating demographical variance in Siberia will not be that useful to me when I am lost in the Siberian winter. But that doesn’t mean that all maps are equal. Some maps represent nothing in the physical world: Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, for example. Other maps, such as the early cartographers’ attempts at defining the land masses of the world — or the map of Belgrade that NATO used and “inadvertently” bombed the Chinese embassy — are not false so much as incomplete. They do not as accurately achieve their goal as do other maps that more accurately represent the current configuration of streets and land borders.
The “map” created by Elliott Jaques and Wilfred Brown (and those who followed on) is a symbolic representation, and like all symbolic references it is not the thing itself but removed conceptually from it. It is not that it is fully accurate in representing all reality but that it provides a more accurate and complete representation of that than other models, and it maps certain areas that had previously not been mapped successfully.
Image Credit: Advertisment design study for Pierce Arrow automobiles (1915). By Edward Penfield. Via Library of Congress collection.