Interesting, Useful, or Amusing Quotations from Philosophy and Related Fields

The quotations here (taken from a number of philosophers and scientists) pertain largely to the nature and role of ontology and, more broadly, metaphysics -- and the relations of these to empirical science.  While they are often reflective of my own views, and while some of them provide some insight into the relations of philosophy to scientific and engineering disciplines, I offer them here largely as food for thought.  Taken by themselves and in the aggregate they may seem to imply something of an anti-philosophical stance, but do not be deceived.  Although in certain respects the stance may be anti-metaphysical, it is not anti-philosophical -- and this is in a strong historical tradition going back at least through the middle ages prior to the divergence of science and philosphy.  Indeed, I would argue that that tradition goes back at least as far as Aristotle and perhaps even to Thales, but I normally don't encounter very congenial audiences when I make such suggestions.

-- Gary Merrill



"If one is interested in the relations between fields which, according to customary academic divisions, belong to different departments, then he will not be welcomed as a builder of bridges, as he might have expected, but will rather be regarded by both sides as an outsider and troublesome intruder."
(Rudolf Carnap, "Intellectual Autobiography" in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap)

"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."
(Bertrand Russell, Logical Atomism)

"If, therefore, I have failed to make Aristotle's theory of universals clear, that is (I maintain) because it is not clear."
(Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy)

"The advent of model-driven architectures in software engineering, of model-based approaches for information integration, and of terminological standards for the annotation of experimental data in the sciences has brought the notion of ontology to the center of attention in a range of disciplines. ...  We find it remarkable that an activity that traces its origins to the work of philosophers who lived more than two millennia ago has become central to the development of modern information technology.  We find it exciting to be able to articulate broadly applicable principles for ontological analysis and to see how to apply them in new domains.  We believe it is essential to look at the details of how modeling may have been done in particular domains and in particular situations in order to extract those generalizable principles."
(Nicola Guarino and Mark Musen, in "Applied Ontology: Focusing on Content")

"... developing philosophical foundations is a necessary step to be taken if conceptual modeling, in general, and domain ontology engineering, in particular, are to become mature disciplines with sound principles and practices. 'Every science presupposes some metaphysics', hence, a scientific field can either choose to develop and make explicit its philosophical foundations or to remain oblivious to its inevitable and often ad hoc ontological and epistemological commitments. Or, as nicely put by [Recker and Nieves], 'the alternative to philosophy is not no philosophy, but bad philosophy'".
(Giancarlo Guizzardi and Terry Halpin in "Ontological Foundations for Conceptual Modelling", quoting Mario Bunge as well as Jan Recker and Bjorn Nieves from "Epistemological Perspective on Ontology-based Theories for Conceptual Modelling")

"And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling."
 (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).

"Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge.... But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions....  It is true that this is partly accounted for by the fact that as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science....
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good."
(Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy)

"To these two kinds of arrangement [synthetic and analytic] we must add a third.   It is classification by terms, and really all it produces is a kind of Inventory.  The latter could be systematic, with the terms being ordered according to certain categories shared by all peoples, or it could have an alphabetical order within the accepted language of the learned world. ...  And there is even more reason why these inventories should be more useful in the other sciences, where the art of reasoning has less power, and they are utterly necessary in medicine above all."
(Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, New Essays in Human Understanding)

"The task of classifying all the words of language, or what's the same thing, all the ideas that seek expression, is the most stupendous of logical tasks. Anybody but the most accomplished logician must break down in it utterly; and even for the strongest man, it is the severest possible tax on the logical equipment and faculty."
(Charles Sanders Peirce, in a letter to B. E. Smith)

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?  If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abastract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames:  for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
(David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

"In the domain of metaphysics, including all philosophy of value and normative theory, logical analysis yields the negative result that the alleged statements in this domain are entirely meaningless."
(Rudolf Carnap.  "The Elimination of Metaphysics Through the Logical Analysis of Language")

"The acceptance or rejection of abstract linguistic forms, just as the acceptance or rejection of any other linguistic forms in any branch of science, will finally be decided by their efficiency as instruments, the ratio of the results achieved to the amount and complexity of the efforts required. To decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use, is worse than futile; it is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress. The history of science shows examples of such prohibitions based on prejudices deriving from religious, mythological, metaphysical, or other irrational sources, which slowed up the developments for shorter or longer periods of time. Let us learn from the lessons of history. Let us grant to those who work in any special field of investigation the freedom to use any form of expression which seems useful to them; the work in the field will sooner or later lead to the elimination of those forms which have no useful function. Let us be cautious in making assertions and critical in examining them, but tolerant in permitting linguistic forms."
(Rudolf Carnap -- his "principle of tolerance" -- in "Empircism, Semantics, and Ontology")

"Metaphysical theories purport to interpret what we already understand to be the case.  But to interpret is to interpret into something, something granted as already understood.    Paradoxically, metaphysicians interpret what we initially understand into something hardly anyone understands, and then insist that we cannot do without that.    To any incredulous listener they'll say:  Construct a better alternative!    But that just signals their invincible presumption that metaphysics is the sine qua non of understanding."
(Bas van Fraassen,  The Empirical Stance)

"The attitude that marks NOA [the Natural Ontological Attitude] is just this:  try to take science on its own terms, and try not to read things into science.  If one adopts this attitude, then the global interpretations, the 'isms' of scientific philosophies, appear as idle overlays to science:  not necessary, not warranted, and in the end, probably not even intelligible.
(Arthur Fine, "And Not Antirealism Either", in The Shaky Game)

"The best is the enemy of the good enough."
(Old Russian proverb -- it also seems to be a proverb in a number of other cultures as well.)

"All that is useful is simple."
(Mikail Kalashnikov.  A good guiding principle for engineering, and from someone with substantial authority.  But probably a bit too general to be followed without significant thought.)