Integrative Levels Classification project scheme monograph references

« History and people

Ontological approach

In modeling knowledge, several dimensions are brought into play at the same time. To begin with, one can consider the relevance of knowledge to the specific local context where it is applied. She can also consider how knowledge is recorded and represented in the documents conveying it, eg their internal structure, layout, and material carrier. Or, she can consider how authors treat a subject under their own philosophical and social perspectives, using certain theories and methods to investigate it. Finally, she can consider which phenomena of the world are described and discussed. [Hjø03; Vic07; Szo07-08]

These approaches can be described respectively as pragmatic, documental, epistemological, and ontological. Someway, they all coexist and should be accounted in the organization of knowledge: in this sense, Ranganathan wrote that each book has a body, a language, and a mind, meaning the documental, epistemological, and ontological dimensions respectively [Ran67]. However, information organizers often pay more attention to one or another of them. For example, the structure of the Dewey Decimal Classification rests on Baconian epistemological principles, grouping disciplines according to the human faculties which produce them, while the Bliss Bibliographic Classification rests on an ontological attempt to list disciplines according to "the order of nature".

The assumption of the ILC project is that the ontological approach deserves priority, as knowledge ultimately derives from the existence of real phenomena in the world:

Reality is the basis for the texts of documents; that is what authors try to describe, and what searchers are investigating. Classification, the investigation of structure, is the foundation of all our knowledge, and therefore should be the foundation of all our systems for controlling information. [Fos70a, p. 45]

Direct reference to reality is also supported by famous computer ontologist Barry Smith, observing that

the modelers in question are in fact concerned with building models of entities in reality, thus for example with building models of the organization of the genome and not just of information contained in this or that database. [Smi04]

We thus assume that knowledge reflects an external reality, which is prior and independent from the fact of being known. Knowledge reflects reality imperfectly, as it necessarily comes through the limitations and the intermediation of the human perceiving and intellectual apparatus. Still, the correspondence between knowledge and reality can be taken basically as reliable.

Indeed, completely misleading knowledge means would lead organisms bearing them to behave in uneffective ways, which would result in disadvantages for their survival and reproduction. Primitive humans who saw three bears going into their cave, and then two bears coming out, had to be able to count correctly in order to survive. Natural selection thus penalizes organisms with less reliable knowledge, and in time organisms with more accurate cognitive abilities prevail and become more spread, while others disappear. By this kind of process, better knowledge abilities tend to evolve. This model is labeled hypothetical realism, as any knowledge is initially just a hypothesis about the external world, but evolution makes it more and more realistic (corroborates the hypothesis, in Karl Popper's terms). In light of evolutionary biology, knowledge categories that are a-priori for the individual, as described by Kant for time, space and causation, are now viewed as a-posteriori for the species [Lor73]: probably our mind has an a-priori notion of causation because in the real world some kind of constant relationships between phenomena actually exist. The number two also exists in the real world in very concrete ways, being the difference between three bears and one bear.

Knowledge organization thus should reflect the structure of the real world, at least as far as humans know it. The branch of philosophy dealing with the existence of things and the basic structures of reality is ontology. Hence the findings of ontology are especially relevant to the development of a knowledge organization system.

Ontological problems were investigated extensively by Aristotle, then were variously forgotten or reconsidered through the history of philosophy. The 20th century has been mostly epistemological, emphasizing the relativity of knowledge rather than its objective bases; however, ontological research has been given new impulse by Nicolai Hartmann [Har40-42], and recently has become unexpectedly fashionable for its application to the storage and sharing of digital information [Pol96; Pol08a].

General ontological notions under which phenomena can be grouped and organized are called categories. Space, time, causation, process, property, quantity are some basic categories. Not only they have philosophical relevance, but can be used as basic structuring principles of KOSs: eg, the technique of facet analysis makes use of fundamental categories to which facets can be reduced, like Object, Kind, Part, Property, Material, Process, Action, Agent, Space, Time... (conventionally written with a capital letter). Another ontological notion with a big potential for knowledge organization is that of levels of reality, which will be treated in a later section. A crossing of categories and levels will provide the basic structure of ILC.

Concepts »

References cited in this section

Hjø03: Ontological, epistemological and sociological dimensions of domains / Birger Hjørland, Jenna Hartel = Knowledge organization. 30: 2003. 3-4. p 239-245

Ran67: Prolegomena to library classification # ed 3 / SR Ranganathan ; MA Gopinath : assistance – SRELS : Bangalore : 1967 » (DLIST) – University of Arizona <> : 2007-

Smi04: Beyond concepts: ontology as reality representation / Barry Smith = Formal ontologies in information systems : proceedings of the Third international conference `(FOIS 2004). P 73-84 / Achille C Varzi, Laure Vieu : ed' = (Frontiers in artificial intelligence and applications) – IOS : Amsterdam : 2004

Vic07: The structure of subject classifications for document retrieval / Brian Vickery – <> : 2007-2008-


Integrative Levels Classification. The ILC project. Ontological approach / Claudio Gnoli – ISKO Italy : <> : 2008.09.05 - 2011.07.29 -

  Integrative Levels Classification project scheme monograph references