Types of thing in the world

A "top ontology" intended to help in conceptual modelling

By Simon Grant, mainly between 2009-10-03 and 2010-07-21; slightly revised 2012-07-17

Types of thing


W: the
as a
M: Material reality consists of the particular things of the present and past material world. Material reality is only known through patterns, and the instantiation of patterns in reality is the subject of expressions.
The embodied world
MO: a material Object is locatable at a definite place in space and endures with its own identity across some time. MOB: an animate Being (or sentient Being, or the material aspect of a viable system) senses and responds to patterns, has preferences, may learn, and some may communicate with some expressions. MOBR: a Responsible agent, e.g. a particular person or company, can make assertions and value expressions.
MOBU: an Unintelligent being cannot be responsible, e.g. a bacterium; a tree; a snake; a city.
MOI: an Inanimate object, e.g. a star; a chair; a banknote; a national border.
MS: a real Situation or State is a related set of material objects at particular present or past times.
ME: an Episode or Extended Event is a sequence of two or more real situations over a particular time interval, e.g. a meeting; a holiday; a performance; a battle. There are no limits to the duration.
P: a Pattern can in principle be applied to more than one thing. Understanding the linkage between terms and names, and the individuals and concepts they signify, underlies communication.
The world of perception and private thought
PG: a Generic concept is an intensionally defined pattern, concept, type, or class, including
  • a form perceived in any object, including hypothetical ones,
  • a form perceived in any event, including in the future,
  • numbers, shapes, tunes, tones, colours, etc.
PK: a Kind is a pattern defined extensionally, implicitly the pattern common to the defining reference set of material examples, which must be open to extension.
PQ: a Quotable pattern is a pattern of expression, including terms and names. Terms and names are relatively simple patterns, suitable for expression because they are clearly distinguishable. Individual parts of material reality may be distinguished by a name, while terms stand for other patterns and concepts. Morphemes and lexemes in particular can both be thought of as quotable patterns; however this ontology is intended to be non-specialist, so does not explicitly treat linguistic concepts.
X: an eXpression may refer to
  • nothing in particular,
  • patterns,
  • material reality,
  • other expressions.
The types of expression, to the right, are not necessarily expressed separately. Many expressions combine these categories. Though value expressions could be seen as a subset of more general assertions, it seems to make sense to separate them.
Expressions are, in essence, information formulated for communication, where information is interpreted in its broadest sense.
The world of communication
XA: an Assertion communicates reusable, potentially public meaning. XAC: a Claim asserts that a pattern applies, or does not apply, to a part of material reality, and may be true or false, easy or hard to verify. XAC+: a fact is a claim that is held to be true by the agent asserting it.
XAC÷: a disputed claim is one that is not acknowledged as true or false by the agent asserting it as disputed.
XAC−: a false claim is one that is false in the view of the agent asserting it as false.
XAF: a Forecast has similar form to a claim, but relates patterns not to material reality as such but to the future instantiation of patterns related to material reality.
XAT: a Theory, implication, conditional expression, or definition, relates patterns to patterns, but has no immediate claim on material reality. Theory and forecast (or prediction) may be closely related. Definitions relate quotable patterns to any other patterns.
XN: a Non-assertive expression performs other communicative functions. "Speech acts", "illocutionary acts", "performative utterances" are some of the various attempts to label these. Their use is functionally dependent on their immediate context, and so tend to be recorded, if at all, just as utterances. Perhaps animals communicate in this sort of way.
XV: a Value expression expresses a value aspect to particular patterns, related to agents, animate beings or systems. XVD: a Discrimination in its most basic form expresses that one part of material reality (perhaps embodying an expression) is more in accord with some generic concept criterion than another. This is perhaps the most abstract form of value expression.
XVJ: a value Judgement expresses that, perhaps for certain sorts of animate being, one pattern is better than another. The pattern may be of behaviour or circumstance. This is likely to have non-assertive aspects. A personal preference is where the being is just the agent expressing the judgement. The focus is on the patterns, in the opinion of the agent.
XVL: a expression of Leaning expresses that an animate being or system has a leaning, likes, prefers, chooses, or creates particular patterns, in contexts where options are available. This could be seen as a complex assertion. A leaning is sometimes the outcome of learning. The focus is on the animate being, implying that the animate being makes discriminations.

Depending on the level taken, this can distinguish between 3 top-level categories (the basic minimum) and 17 lower-level categories.

Relationships between the things, properties, predicates

I might try also to put this in a concept map sometime.

What relationships are possible between different kinds of thing?

If a subtype is specified, any supertype does not apply.

  Material reality Pattern eXpression
  • Material reality exists or did exist.
  • Material reality is perceived or conceived of in terms of patterns.
  • Patterns may apply to any sort of thing.
  • Expressions may refer to anything.
  • Material objects, states, or events may be part of a larger instance of the same type of thing.
  • Material objects may participate in states or events.
  • Material reality described in one way can be coextensive with, overlapping, or distinct from, material reality described differently.
  • Material reality may, according to an animate being, instantiate patterns.
  • A particular part of material reality may exemplify a kind.
  • Animate beings may, as they perceive, sense and respond to patterns.
  • Responsible agents may, according to themselves, assert assertions and value expressions.
  • Material reality may embody expressions.
  • Animate beings may utter non-assertive expressions.
  • Responsible agents attribute dispositions to animate beings
  • Names properly signify, or stand for, distinguishable parts of material reality
  • Kinds are based on sets of similar distinguishable parts of material reality that define the kind.
  • Generic concepts may be instantiated in material reality.
  • Generic concepts may include other simpler generic concepts.
  • Terms signify, or stand for, generic concepts or kinds.
  • Quotable patterns may be instantiated in expressions, appearing in small elements of the expressions (words, phrases).
  • Other communication patterns may be instantiated in expressions.
  • Expressions are realised in material reality.
  • Expressions are expressed by animate beings.
  • Assertions are asserted by responsible agents.
  • Claims may state that patterns are instantiated in material reality.
  • Expressions include instances of quotable patterns.
  • Forecasts predict that patterns will be instantiated.
  • Theories relate patterns with other patterns in just some ways.
  • Expressions may instantiate communication patterns.
  • Expressions may include other expressions.
  • Expressions may refer to other expressions.

Holons somewhat cut across this table, as holon relationships typically involve all three areas. Rather than seeing their interactions as simply interactions between material objects, it is fundamental to seeing things as holons (or viable systems) that they input, process, and output information as expressions. The idea of "order" has a place in systems theory, and though order is inevitably expressed in terms of patterns, it is not necessarily expressed in terms of any given set of predefined patterns. Hence, perhaps older people may be more prone to seeing the world as degenerating — that is, slipping away from the patterns in which they perceive the world — while perhaps younger people may be more likely to see the world as evolving — generating and conforming to new patterns.

List of generic relationships

Binary relationships between things of the same type

is part of -- has part (includes)
coextend with
be distinct from
interact with

Binary relationships between things of different types

expresses (utters) -- expressed by
predicts -- predicted by
participate in
M → P
embodies -- embodied by
M → X, H
PQ → PG, PK, M
based on
PK → M
realised in
X → M

Binary relationships between the same or different types

X → H, W, M, P, X
Expressions can be about anything. When an expression is about something, it must use patterns that apply to that sort of thing. Neither material reality nor holons are about anything. Patterns in themselves are not really about anything, but are better seen as applying to certain sorts of things.
The term refers to is closely linked with being about
apply to
P → H, W, M, P, X
Patterns can apply to anything. Because a pattern, by nature, can apply to more than one instance, patterns naturally apply to sorts of thing, not particular things. Expressions that use patterns that apply to certain sorts of things may be about those whole sorts, subsets of them, or individual instances of that sort. Neither material reality nor holons nor expressions apply to anything.
Something instantiates a pattern that applies to it — this is the inverse of applying to

Ternary relationships

perception sensation response
MOB & M & P
All these are relationships between three things: The relationships all have a lot in common.
XA & P & P or M
XAC & P & M

Diagnostic guide and more examples

As at 2010-07-02, needing to be revised to take into account developments above.


The term is taken from Koestler, as described in Wikipedia. Essentially it means something quite similar to Beer's Viable System concept. A real holon or viable system is embodied in material reality, but to understand its function or operation you need to see the patterns and expressions associated with the material. In effect, if you want to describe or refer to a real system as a whole, explicitly not just the material reality, patterns or expressions, you will be talking about a holon.

Material reality

If is makes sense to talk about the actual, rather than just possible, location of a particular or specific thing in space and time, then it is taken as part of material reality — part of the embodied world.

Some things relate well to the disciplines of physics or engineering — say a brick or an atom; some things to the discipline of politics — say a nation; but this should not distract us from recognising that whichever kinds of things we are talking about exist in time and space. Yes, a national border could correspond to a particular wall or fence, but that does not mean that one of those is more part of material reality than the other. It is commonplace that the same "thing" can be described in different words, and be indicated with different terms, depending on the sort of communication about it. Thus, everything particular, everything material, every specific thing that exists or existed in space and time, is taken as part of material reality.

A very important thing to recognise about material reality is that it is only knowable (by people) through the patterns that it instantiates. There is no "absolute" or pattern-free knowledge of material reality. Perhaps this issue underlies both the historical philosophical debate between "realists" and "idealists", and the way in which ideas about material reality can be "deconstructed".

Material objects

Material objects, or physical things, are those things in material reality that have definite spatial extent, but indefinite (or at least, less definite) temporal extent. All kinds of real-world objects fit into this, whether they are part of the natural, artificial or social worlds. A boundary case would be short-lived sub-atomic particles, which exist for such short times that it is unclear whether they are best considered as particles or "resonances". But all ordinary physical things have a history, and that history can be traced through events in which the physical thing was a participant. Waves are just as much physical things as particles are, even though the wave moves through different atoms. The bobbing up and down of a buoy in a wave, though, is an event.

While the concept of a country is a pattern, particular countries are physical things, though best defined in terms of social concepts, and not in terms of, say, their constituent atoms. Thus, to be part of material reality, it is not necessary to use the language of a particular discipline to name something. It is important to clarify this, to escape from reductionist philosophical approaches, which are largely alien to common sense.

From this standpoint, many types of examples can be drawn from the world of learning:

In each case, of course, a material object has to be a particular identified thing. The forms of words used in the list above serve in themselves only to express concepts, or patterns, that are readily assigned to particular things.


Agents are physical things, but because they are defined socially, it is particularly clear that they are not identified in terms of their constituent physical matter, which may change. People are commonly assumed to be agents, and companies and legal entities have also long been recognised as agents in a legal sense – it makes sense to talk of companies, as well as people, as creating things, owning things, disposing of things, etc., and more importantly here, as uttering expressions.

In the world of education, agents are particularly significant, as education is something that only happens to agents, and is managed (at some level) by other agents.

Animate beings

These may have preferences, in the sense of seeking out some stimuli and avoiding others, or thriving in some environments and languishing in others. They communicate in some ways: however it is always worth carefully considering other options than saying that non-agents make statements. Bees manage to communicate where other bees should go, but the meaning involved is not reusable.

Real situations

A real situation is perceived in terms of the synchronous pattern that real things instantiate at a particular present or past time. The "real situation" refers to the elements of material reality that are involved in the pattern. Those same elements, or some of them, may also be perceived as falling into different patterns, and therefore the "same situation" may be perceived differently by different people, particularly when some of the patterns are dependent on context or interpretation. Thus, in the end, agreement on what the "real situation" is or was will inevitably refer to the objects as existing spatio-temporally. Dispute may focus around whether a particular agent perceives things in particular ways, as that aspect of reality is particularly hard to perceive objectively. This may well be material to the situation instantiating a given pattern, and thus to the situation being understood as an instance of a pattern.

Quite often, then, it will not be particular real situations that are perceived, but extended events, as the psychological and social realities of a situation may only become clear through a sequence of situations. Situations remain, however, essential building blocks in the shared construction of reality, even when events are the objects of discussion rather than situations.

On the other hand, if a particular situation — a particular synchronous related set of material objects that are the parts of the situation — persists unchanged over time, we might be inclined to refer to an object rather than a persistent situation. Where the boundary lies is not clear.

Extended events

In contrast to material objects and real situations, events have a relatively definite temporal extent. Anything that happens over time is an event. What is involved in that happening are material objects and situations.

An event can be understood as a sequential set of real situations, that fall into a temporal pattern that justifies it being thought of as a coherent event. However, as with situations, it is not the temporal pattern that is the event, but the material reality that is the event, as the same elements of material reality can be seen as different events.

An event can also be understood as the interaction between the participating material objects. The material objects (often including agents, of course) fall into particular patterns of interaction across the event.

Either a temporal pattern of situations, or a pattern of interaction between material objects, could perhaps be described as a "process", and conversely an extended event can be seen as an instantiation of a process.

Events, like physical things, are not restricted to being described by any particular intellectual discipline or discourse. The collision between two atoms is an event, as is my sleep last night, or the second world war. Events do not have to be precisely and unambiguously defined, but they have to be instantiated, not just patterns or concepts.

We can distinguish two kinds of boundary cases. First, a collision may look like a real situation, but its interpretation as a collision, rather than just a juxtaposition, depends on the concept of the previous pattern of not being juxtaposed. Thus it is really an extended event.

Second, when we refer to "The 14th Century", or even "the Middle Ages", there is no specific and coherent extended event that this term represents. What we are left with is, probably, more like the set of patterns that we associate with, or that typify, that epoch.

The world of learning again offers many examples, in each case, of particular events that have happened, as opposed to things only planned, or their patterns:


Patterns belong to the world of perception and thought. They typically do not involve restrictions on time and space as such. (Inasmuch as an expression refers to time or space, it could be a combination of an expression and a pattern.) The future can only be planned, and is not yet part of material reality, so everything that is planned is a pattern. When something is scheduled, that is a forecast – an expression that this pattern will be instantiated at a specific time in the future. But it is normally of the nature of plans that they are not inextricably tied to particular times. They may be tied to other patterns as circumstances, and perhaps those circumstantial patterns may occur only once (or not at all). Carpe diem!

In the planned world of organised education, patterns abound. To list but a few kinds of things that have associated patterns, but do not imply particular material realities:

There are very many ways in which patterns are used by, as well as instantiated in, living things. But the sort of thinking that is characteristically human is that which expresses or uses, not simple patterns, but patterns of patterns.

However, while patterns may be perceived by people by themselves, they are only communicated by being expressed in expressions. Expressions just expressing patterns can never be tied down to one particular time, place or form. There are many expressions that can express the same pattern. Inasmuch as two expressions do not mean the same thing, even when referring to the same material realities, they must be expressing different patterns.

A "rule" as in the idea of the "Rule of St Benedict" could be taken as a complex pattern of organisation and behaviour, which is instantiated (or not) in particular monastic communities, which are parts of the material world. But equally, the Rule of St Benedict is the expression, in words, of a sort of constitution and rules for monastic communities. It expresses the connection between patterns. Particularly when we deal with patterns of patterns, we may feel some ambiguity between the pattern of patterns as a perceived concept, and the expression of the pattern of patterns that communicates it.

If we focus on the "letter of the law", we are treating such a thing as an expression. If we focus, instead, on the "spirit of the law", we are trying to talk about the higher-order pattern, independently of any particular expression of it.

Adding to this confusion, which seems genuine and unresolvable, any pattern can be expressed or asserted, as well as perceived, and patterns can only be communicated through expressions. "This pattern is true" is a pattern for many possible assertions. (But my writing that sentence constitutes an assertion of that pattern.)

Patterns may thus be distinguished in terms of what they are patterns of, and code letters may be used appropriately.

Patterns may also be distinguished in terms of their complexity, or order. To do this, we need to distinguish between the terms contained in a pattern, and the pattern as a whole.

First order patterns

Second order patterns

Higher order patterns


Expressions are the things of the world of communication. Not all communication is about truth or falsehood, or about facts or claims about the world. But for many purposes to do with information systems, including learning technology, assertions have a special place, because they convey information, reduce uncertainly, reduce information entropy, if you like.

Consider poetry, for instance. Poetry is not mainly about assertions. and there is a long strand of academic work, stretching before and after J L Austin, through John R Searle and others, trying to explore and explain how people "do things with words".

Whereas poetry, literature, etc. may have enduring value, perhaps in virtue of the patterns of patterns that they express, performative or illocutionary language tends to be tied to the time and place of expression – the context of utterance. It is less likely to be reusable in a meaningful way, and so less likely to be the subject matter of records. That is why no further analysis is given here of expressions that are not assertions.

Expressions can only be expressed in virtue of the patterns they use. The patterns of expression that we think of and use most in intellectual discussion are linguistic ones, but there are also non-verbal patterns of expression that may not be considered linguistic.

Furthermore, we assume that expressions are only communicated through physical reality (discounting the possibility of being "psychic", a "mind-reader", etc.) The physical reality that embodies an expression instantiates the communicative patterns that are characteristic of the expression.


What are here called assertions, are essentially expressions that communicate some sort of meaning, which is potentially able to be reused in different contexts. We here distinguish three clearly distinct kinds of assertions: claims, forecasts, and theories; and one complex type that is important: value assertions.


Claims relate actual embodied material reality to patterns. "The cat sat on the mat" would be a perfectly good claim, if it is expressed about a particular cat, a particular mat and a particular time. That sort of claim would probably be seen as a "fact" – something that is either undisputed or easily verifiable. More tenuous claims could be heard, typically, in a court of law. The verification of claims may not be so straightforward, or their veracity is not generally accepted. But there is no clear distinction between a "fact" and just a claim.


Forecasts are similar in form to claims, but rather than relating present or past things to patterns, forecasts express something that will, in the future, be able to be verified – something that will become a fact, or possibly an untrue claim.

If it is asserted that a pattern that exists over a period of time has started, it is equivalent to claiming that the former parts of the pattern are instantiated in material reality, and the latter parts are predicted to be instantiated.


Theories – or implications – do not directly relate to the material world. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to see any way in which, for example, mathematical theorems relate to the material world at all. But theories are very common indeed. Any expression that can be expressed in the form "if ... then ..." is probably an implication.

Rules are a bit like theories, as they often have a sense of implication about them: if you do this, here are the consequences (and they might not be nice...) As parents, we all try to provide both good patterns for our children, and effective rules to provide the needed boundaries.

What I call theories here are very close to the patterns themselves. The only distinction seems to be that theories are the assertion of particular patterns. Remove the expression and authorship from a theory, and what is left is just a pattern, as it has no direct claim on material reality. Thus, in discussion, it may not be clear whether to treat something as a pattern or as a theory – indeed, it may not be important.

Value expressions

This is perhaps the least easy category to discern, though one of great significance. These assertions seem to have aspects of claims, forecasts, theories, and functional utterances, while not necessarily being clearly distinguishable into these separate parts.

Other ways of classifying expressions

Works of fiction and poetry

This is a large category in the world of communication, and as it does not appear directly in the ontology, deserves some discussion.

Fiction and poetry are clearly full of recognisable patterns, many intended by the authors, and others unintended. These patterns may be more or less easy to see. Some patterns are poetic or literary, but what are the other patterns about?

Fiction, qua fiction, does not express assertions about material reality. But the patterns used may be very similar to assertions about material reality. In essence, it seems reasonable to conceive of fiction as containing expressions that are of a similar form to assertions, but instead of relating to material objects, relates to imaginary objects. However, that does not even start to explain the power, force or appeal of fiction.

The power of fiction may derive from its usage of patterns that are generally popular. This is perhaps easiest to see in simple genres, like the "rom com" of film, or the "Mills and Boon" of writing. But perhaps the functional aspect is easier to see in children's fiction. There, very often there are "good" and "bad" characters, and the "good" characters win, of course. This presumably acts as a reassurance to an otherwise potentially insecure child by providing, not evidence exactly, but expression instances that conform to the pattern that we want to reinforce in our children. Moral tales, fairy tales, generally do exactly the same thing. "This is how things are," suggests the fictional work, "and if you follow the patterns expressed in the good or bad characters, good things or bad things will respectively happen to you as they did to the characters in the story."

Imagination generates fiction. An imaginative child will take the patterns that are given by us, by other people, by any media like television or games, and imagine and play out stories that fit into those patterns, at least for the simpler patterns.

It is fairly easy from this analysis to see many ways in which fiction can fail. The good or bad characters may not be recognisable in our experience, or the consequences described may not be credible, in that we may never have experienced the consequential patterns described. And fiction can fail at different levels. While a story may be engaging for a child, who is able to entertain the idea that the story patterns correspond to reality, it may be boring or irritating to those older and wiser.

Also interesting is that it is easy to identify genres of fiction in terms of how they correspond, or not, with the patterns we observe in material reality. Science fiction, for example could be identified as that branch of fiction that assumes certain kinds of theory or implication that are systematically different from the ones we normally experience. Utopian, or dystopian, literature may be about changing the assumptions about disposition attributions to people. And so on.


A set is a well-recognised mathematical concept, but seems to be incoherent in terms of this ontology. Mathematical sets defined in different ways, or comprising different kinds of things, seem to behave rather differently. A set of material objects defined extensionally may be seen as simply another material object that happens to be a collection of material objects. In contrast, a set may be defined intensionally, in which case it is equivalent to a pattern. Concepts – patterns – may be defined in terms of what is common to a set of things. In this case, the exact set of things is not the essence of the definition, but rather any set of things that all instantiate the concept in some aspect could be used.

The difficulty of relating the mathematical concept of a set means that this ontology could be used as one basis for avoiding Russell's paradox.


Here I intend to put in links to relevant presentations, and refer to my book where these ideas were first brought out, in the context of helping to classify information relevant to e-portfolios.

Other ontology sites for comparison

Other discussions worthy of consideration


This is intended to develop and change over time, and will be all the better if it is able to take into account your comments, views and criticism. Please send these!

When imagining, constructing or agreeing conceptual models, it can often be unclear what type of things the concepts refer to. This brief position paper describes what is intended to be a useful set of distinctions between different types of thing in the world – not only the embodied world, but also the worlds of thought and of communication.

This is neither intended to be a philosophically complete or detailed classification, nor intended to represent everyone's point of view. Indeed, it seems to bear very little resemblance to any of many other expressions labelled "top ontology" or "upper ontology". Rather, it is designed:

I invite people to use it freely, and to see if it is helpful in clarifying conceptual models.

To do

Include mapping onto linguistic concepts such as morphemes, lexemes, etc.