A Remarkable Group Ontology Paper

28 August 2020

I’ve stumbled upon a remarkable group ontology paper (Fox et al. 1995) that I have not yet seen cited in any of the recent literature. This blogpost will discuss why this paper and similar one have received relatively attention from philosophers and why I believe to be a mistake. I will start by discussing the disciplinary background of the paper and then turn to why I believe that the difference between the disciplines should not have such weight.

The lack of philosophical interest is easily understood if one knows about the insularity of academic disciplines. The paper is a computer science paper and therefore it hardly ever had chance to attract much philosophical attention, not that it tried very hard. Neither the title of the paper – “An Organisation Ontology for Enterprise Modelling: Preliminary Concepts for Linking Structure and Behaviour” – nor the venue in which it appeared – “Proceedings of the 4th IEEE Workshop on Enabling Technologies: Infrastructure for Collaborative Enterprises” – invite philosophical interest. The paper was not directed at philosophers, but computer scientists, engineers, and perhaps company managers. It presents an applied representation of organisations using formal methods from computer science, such as the situation calculus. Using these methods it describes how group members can empowered and what kind of communication links can exist between them. These descriptions are supposed to serve applied purposes, i.e. usage in real companies.

At this point I have to address the difference between ontology in computer science and philosophy. Developing a formal representation of an organisation using situation calculus is considered ontology in the computer science sense but not necessarily the philosophical sense.[0] As I understand, the deepest difference lies in whether the representation is taken to describe the way things really are or whether it is just taken to be a useful description for an applied purpose.[1] The authors of the paper are quite explicit, singling out competency, that is questions about problem solving, as a benchmark for their ontology (p. 72).

If the focus on application as problem solving is the most fundamental difference, I don’t consider it to justify philosophical neglect, because philosophical ontology relies on an inference to the best explanation where we take the representation that is most useful for certain purposes to reflect actuality.[2] Application, therefore, becomes the arbiter for (much of) philosophical ontology. Accordingly, competency is also a benchmark of philosophical interest.

The paper’s value lies in showing the results of an attempt to apply group ontology practically. If nothing else, these results provides much food for philosophical thought. For example, the paper makes an unusual distinction between roles and positions, where roles are the functions of a group members while positions unify multiple roles. While functional roles have also received attention in philosophical group ontology (e.g. Ritchie 2020), I have not seen anyone draw a distinction quite like that. Philosophers – myself included – should ask themselves whether the applied ontology is onto something there. If not, would our models perform better when applied? And if the answer is again negative, why should we still prefer our models as a description of reality?

To put my cards on the table, I have doubts that philosophical group ontology can make much progress without being applied to problems, i.e. without addressing the competency question head on. At the moment, philosophers instead refer to considerations of simplicity while confronting a handful of examples – such as the US Supreme Court. These papers can be extremely sophisticated (e.g. Wilhelm 2020; Horden & Lopez de Sa forthcoming), but I question whether such considerations can help us advance beyond the current point in group ontology. So far at least, they have not led to an agreement. Putting our theories to test in applications offers a way forward. Reading work in computer science that has attempted such applications is an important step on that way.


Footnotes

[0] There are of course examples of overlap, such as Ferrario, Masolo, Porello 2018.

[1] Compare with this quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The use of the formal ontology here [in computer science] is representational. It is a framework to represent information, and as such it can be representationally successful whether or not the formal theory used in fact truly describes a domain of entities.”

[2] Here I am being rather unspecific. Are all purposes and applications relevant? Do they need to be explanatory or predictive? For now, I leave these questions open.


References

Ferrario, R., Masolo, C., & Porello, D. (2018). Organisations and Variable Embodiments. In S. Borgo, P. Hitzler, & O. Kutz (Eds.), Formal Ontology in Information Systems—Proceedings of the 10th International Conference, FOIS 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, 19-21 September 2018 (pp. 127–140).

Fox, M. S., Barbuceanu, M., & Gruninger, M. (1995). An Organisation Ontology for Enterprise Modelling: Preliminary Concepts for Linking Structure and Behaviour. Proceedings 4th IEEE Workshop on Enabling Technologies: Infrastructure for Collaborative Enterprises (WET ICE ’95), 71–81. https://doi.org/10.1109/ENABL.1995.484550

Horden, J., & Lopez de Sa, D. (forthcoming). Groups as Pluralities. Synthese, 1–35. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02715-y

Ritchie, K. (2020). Social Structures and the Ontology of Social Groups. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 100(2), 402–424. https://doi.org/10.1111/phpr.12555

Wilhelm, I. (2020). The Stage Theory of Groups. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/00048402.2019.1699587