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
(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
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")
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.)