The ontological commitments embedded in a representation language

Just like programming language preferences generate heated debates, this happens every now and then with languages to represent ontologies as well. Passionate dislikes for description logics or limitations of OWL are not unheard of, in favour of, say, Common Logic for more expressiveness and a different notation style, or of OBO because of its graph-based fundamentals, or that abuse of UML Class Diagram syntax  won’t do as approximation of an OWL file. But what is really going on here? Are they practically all just the same anyway and modellers merely stick with, and defend, what they know? If you could design your pet language, what would it look like?

The short answer is: they are not all the same and interchangeable. There are actually ontological commitments baked into the language, even though in most cases this is not explicitly stated as such. The ‘things’ one has in the language indicate what the fundamental building blocks are in the world (also called “epistemological primitives” [1]) and therewith assume some philosophical stance. For instance, a crisp vs vague world (say, plain OWL or a fuzzy variant thereof) or whether parthood is such a special relation that it deserves its own primitive next to class subsumption (alike UML’s aggregation). Or maybe you want one type of class for things indicated with count nouns and another type of element for stuffs (substances generally denoted with mass nouns). This then raises the question as to what the sort of commitments are that are embedded in, or can go into, a language specification and that have an underlying philosophical point of view. This, in turn, raises the question about which philosophical stances actually can have a knock-on effect on the specification or selection of an ontology language.

My collaborator, Pablo Fillottrani, and I tried to answer these questions in the paper entitled An Analysis of Commitments in Ontology Language Design that was published late last year as part of the proceedings of the 11th Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems 2020 that was supposed to have been held in September 2020 in Bolzano, Italy. In the paper, we identified and analysed ontological commitments that are, or could have been, embedded in logics, and we showed how they have been taken for well-known languages for representing ontologies and similar artefacts, such as OBO, SKOS, OWL 2DL, DLRifd, and FOL. We organised them in four main categories: what the very fundamental furniture is (e.g., including roles or not, time), acknowledging refinements thereof (e.g., types of relations, types of classes), the logic’s interaction with natural language, and crisp vs various vagueness options. They are discussed over about 1/3 of the paper.

Obviously, engineering considerations can interfere in the design of the logic as well. They concern issues such as how the syntax should look like and whether scalability is an issue, but this is not the focus of the paper.

We did spend some time contextualising the language specification in an overall systematic engineering process of language design, which is summarised in the figure below (the paper focuses on the highlighted step).

(source: [2])

While such a process can be used for the design of a new logic, it also can be used for post hoc reconstructions of past design processes of extant logics and conceptual data modelling languages, and for choosing which one you want to use. At present, the documentation of the vast majority of published languages do not describe much of the ‘softer’ design rationales, though.  

We played with the design process to illustrate how it can work out, availing also of our requirements catalogue for ontology languages and we analysed several popular ontology languages on their commitments, which can be summed up as in the table shown below, also taken from the paper:

(source: [2])

In a roundabout way, it also suggests some explanations as to why some of those transformation algorithms aren’t always working well; e.g., any UML-to-OWL or OBO-to-OWL transformation algorithm is trying to shoe-horn one ontological commitment into another, and that can only be approximated, at best. Things have to be dropped (e.g., roles, due to standard view vs positionalism) or cannot be enforced (e.g., labels, due to natural language layer vs embedding of it in the logic), and that’ll cause some hick-ups here and there. Now you know why, and that won’t ever work well.

Hopefully, all this will feed into a way to help choosing a suitable language for the ontology one may want to develop, or assist with understanding better the language that you may be using, or perhaps gain new ideas for designing a new ontology language.


[1] Brachman R, Schmolze J. An overview of the KL-ONE Knowledge Representation System. Cognitive Science. 1985, 9:171–216.

[2] Fillottrani, P.R., Keet, C.M. An Analysis of Commitments in Ontology Language Design. Proc. of FOIS 2020. Brodaric, B. and Neuhaus, F. (Eds.). IOS Press. FAIA vol. 330, 46-60.