2015-11-12

Mountains as states of affairs

Trying to make sense of the deep work of Jan Christoph Westerhoff about ontological categories, reality and everything, along with a slow but steady learning of Chinese language and ancient philosophy, leads you to consider as ontological primitive the states of affairs, instead of good old semantic web things and properties, the latter being derived artefacts of the former, not the other way round. Let's try to illustrate this as simply as possible.
Consider a mountain. On the semantic web you represent a mountain as an instance of owl:Thing or one of its specific subclasses such as schema:Mountain. You claim to have defined a non-ambiguous individual identified by a URI and described by an open set of property-value pairs, such as http://dbpedia.org/resource/Mount_Everest.

But in the view of the world proposed by both Westerhoff philosophy and the Chinese language (insofar as I understand them properly), the above are just abstractions derived from some state of affairs. The chinese 山(shān) we translate in English as mountain(s) is a sign associated with certain aspects of things, or states of the world. We have to be very cautious on terms here, and not take for granted that existence of "things" and "the world" are preconditions to the states of affairs we associate with the sign 山. In ancient Chinese culture where this sign first emerged about three thousands years ago, the world is not divided into things before we name them. Certain states of affairs, patterns we recognize again and again, lead us to associate a sign to them. 山 is just an abstract visual representation of those states of affairs presenting peaks rising upward, a main central one and another one of each side, slightly asymmetrical. A mountain is indeed generally mountains, bearing in mind "three" has to be understood as a shortcut for "many".

The difference between considering there are such things in the world as individual mountains and we just give them individual names and put them in a category, and considering mountains as states of affairs we associate using a common sign or name, might appear subtle or moot. But it is indeed a fundamental shift of our view of the world. States of affairs are not neat individuals defined by properties, they are not separated from each other, they have neither precise limits in space and time, nor definite components and properties. Of course we can try to agree and generally agree to disagree upon such limits and components, and argue forever on what is or is not a mountain in general or this mountain in particular. And we actually argue upon what is a human being, or a book, or a Web resource, or democracy ... This kind of argument is interestingly called in Chinese 是非 (shì fēi), literally meaning "being - not being", hence "right - wrong" and in common language dispute, argument. There is much food for thought in this word. Dispute arises when the language gets out of its original role of simply putting signs on state of affairs, going down to argue on what there is and is not behind signs, in other words, when the language mingles into ontology and meaning instead of sticking to what it's really made for - poetry.

I wish you to stay away from dispute, walk up and listen to the mountain songs.