Types of thing in the world

An “upper ontology” intended to help in conceptual modelling

By Simon Grant, mainly between 2009-10 and 2010-07; slightly revised 2012-07; extra section on theology added 2018-08; revised 2020-06 and 2021-08; reference to Popper added 2020-09. eXpression structure revised 2020-12. Edited treatment of creative works, 2021-09 to 2021-11. Added reference to Kelly, 2023-08. 2024-05: changed U to Z and introduced “?” for questions.

Types of thing

The number of types of thing seemed to fit neatly enough with the letters of the English alphabet, so I've attempted to do some poetry in matching the letters to the types of thing, to give an easily writable code (a “Quotable pattern”). I've capitalised the terms where they appear in other descriptions.

Holon; many things have M, P and X facets.
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 – like Popper's World 1.
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 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 XAssertions and XNon-assertive expressions.
MOBZ: a Zoological being here is meant in the sense of alive but not responsible, in that it just lives and responds according to its nature; e.g. a bacterium; a tree; a snake; a dog; a city. It may make XNon-assertive expressions, but not XAssertions.
MOI: an Inanimate object, either designed (a Work) or a natural object. MOIW: an instance of a Work: that is, a single specified object, designed or created with intent: e.g. a chair; a banknote; a national border; a copy of a book; a print of a photograph; a CD or DVD. Copies of digital works could be seen as physically existing in a piece of digital storage, though that might be better seen as a Situation or State, as that storage can be reused for other purposes. See also PKW for the patterns in a work.
MOI*: a specific instance of an object that is naturally occuring – that is, not a Work, e.g. a star, planet, asteroid (etc), a geographical island. Rivers, lakes, stones, etc. can be borderline cases: if they are designed and created with intent then they would count as Works.
MS: a real Situation or State is a related set of Material Objects, extended through space, but at a particular present or past time, rather than being conceived of as durably extended over time.
ME: an Episode or Extended Event is a sequence of two or more real MSituations over a particular time interval, e.g. a meeting; a holiday; a performance; a battle. There are no limits to the duration. The Material aspect of an utterance is either a State or an Episode.
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, imagination and private thought – like Popper's World 2.
PG: a Generic concept is an explicitly defined pattern, concept, type, or class, including
  • a form perceived in any MObject or MSituation, including hypothetical ones,
  • a form perceived in any MEvent, including in the future,
  • numbers, shapes, tunes, tones, colours, etc.
Generic patterns inherent to a Work have often been claimed and treated as intellectual property – in this case, either by patent, trademark or design rights.
PK: a Kind is a set of Patterns defined ostensively or extensionally, implicitly pointing to the Patterns that are common to the defining reference set of examples. This is particularly useful where it is simpler to define a reference set than to detail the explicit patterns shared by the set of examples. PKW: an abstract (creative or created) Work can be seen as a complex set of patterns, where all the manifestations of a Work define the peculiar combination of patterns that define that Work. The patterns inherent in a work can be of any type. Very many (but not all) Works contain linguistic expressions, and therefore include Quotable patterns. See also MOIW for the material instances of a work.
PK* We observe many natural kinds of things, including types of living organisms, which share patterns resulting from their genetic material and environment. As we perceive more complexity in animate Beings than in Inanimate objects, often animate Beings are classified as Kinds, while Inanimate objects are classified according to explicit criteria. But this is not always the case.
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. This ontology is intended to be non-specialist, so does not explicitly treat linguistic concepts. Substantial quotable patterns may be subject to copyright.
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. XAValue expressions can be seen as a subset of more general XAssertions.
eXpressions are, in essence, information formulated for communication, where information is interpreted in its broadest sense.
(There is a section below elaborating expressions)
The world of communication – perhaps related to Popper's World 3.
XA: an Assertion communicates meaning that can potentially be shared with and reused by others. XAC: a Claim asserts that a pattern applies, or does not apply, to a particular part of material reality, and abstracts the role of the agent to claming its truth or falsehood, independently of how easy or hard it may be to verify. XAC+: a fact is a claim that is held to be true by the agent asserting it.
XAC%: an uncertainty is one that is not seen as true or false by the agent asserting it as uncertain.
XAC-: a fallacy is one that is false in the view of the agent asserting it as false.
XAT: a Theory, implication, conditional expression, or definition, is an Assertion relating a Pattern to another Pattern, rather than to Material reality. (See below for more detail.)
XAF: a Forecast (i.e. a prediction, but P has been used elsewhere) combines features of a Claim and a Theory. An agent may Claim that a particular Pattern is currently instantiated, and that as a result, another Pattern will be instantiated in the future. However, there may not be an explicit Claim; and the 'theory' may be simply an implicit connection created from patterns in experience, rather than anything explicit.
XAV: a Value expression expresses a value aspect to particular patterns, related to Responsible agents, animate Beings or systems. Something being a Value expression depends on there being some sense of value, either inherent, or in comparison, that is neither the pattern of the Beings themselves, nor a pattern referred to. XAVD: 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. "This is different from that, according to this criterion." See also George Kelly's Personal Construct theory.
XAVJ: a value Judgement expresses that, perhaps for certain sorts of animate MOBeing, 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 Responsible agent expressing the XAVJudgement. The focus is on the patterns, in the opinion of the agent. "This Being values / prefers this over that."
XAVL: a expression of Liking (or leaning) expresses that an animate Being or system tends to like, lean towards, prefer, choose, or create particular Patterns. A liking is sometimes the outcome of learning. The focus is on the animate MOBeing: "this Being likes this kind of thing / situation." It differs from a XAVJudgement just in that there is no specific comparison of patterns, so it refers to just one 'liked' pattern, with no explicit comparison criterion.
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. Commands act in this way.
X?: a questioning expression, or just “question” for short, clearly does not fit neatly into any of the other subcategories of expression; though to me a question clearly is a kind of expression, in that it is not primarily a pattern or an aspect of material reality. A questioning expression can be about anything that an expression can be about, or can question any kind of expression, including questions.

Depending on the level taken, this can distinguish between 3 top-level categories (the basic minimum) and 19 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 MO, states MS, or events ME may be part of a larger instance of the same type of thing.
  • Material objects MO may participate in states MS or events ME.
  • 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 MOBeing, instantiate Patterns.
  • A particular part of Material reality may exemplify a PKind.
  • Animate MOBeings may, as they perceive, sense and respond to Patterns.
  • MOBResponsible agents may, according to themselves, assert XAssertions.
  • Material reality may embody eXpressions.
  • Animate MOBeings may utter Non-assertive eXpressions XN.
  • MOBResponsible agents attribute XAVLikings to animate MOBeings
  • Names (which are PQuotable patterns) properly signify, or stand for, distinguishable parts of Material reality
  • PKinds are based on sets of similar distinguishable parts of Material reality that define the kind.
  • PGeneric concepts may be instantiated in Material reality.
  • PGeneric concepts may include other simpler PGeneric concepts.
  • Terms signify, or stand for, PGeneric concepts or PKinds.
  • PQuotable 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 MOBeings.
  • XAssertions are asserted by MOBResponsible agents.
  • XAClaims may state that Patterns are instantiated in Material reality.
  • eXpressions have instances of PQuotable patterns.
  • XAForecasts predict that Patterns will be instantiated.
  • XATheories relate Patterns with other Patterns in just some ways.
  • eXpressions may instantiate Patterns of communication.
  • 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

based on
PKind → Material reality
embodies – is embodied by
Material reality ↔ eXpression, Holon
exemplifies – is exemplified by
Material reality ↔ Pattern
expresses (utters) – is expressed by
MOBeing ↔ eXpression
participates in – has participant
MObject ↔ MState, MEpisode
predicts – is predicted by
XAForecast ↔ Pattern
signifies – is signified by
PQuotable pattern ↔ PGeneric pattern, PKind, Material reality

Binary relationships between the same or different types

is about; refers to
eXpression → Holon, Material reality, Pattern, eXpression
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.
applies to
Pattern → Holon, Material reality, Pattern, eXpression
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.
Holon, Material reality, Pattern, eXpression → Pattern
Something instantiates a pattern that applies to it — this is the inverse of applying to.

Ternary relationships

MOBResponsible agent & MOBeing & XAVLiking
perception sensation response
MOBeing & Material reality & Pattern
All these are relationships between three things: The relationships all have a lot in common.
XAssertion & Pattern & Pattern or Material reality
XAClaim & Pattern & Material reality
XATheory & PQuotable pattern & PGeneric pattern or PKind

Diagnostic guide and more examples


The term “holon” is taken from Koestler, e.g. 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.

There are many examples of Holons – viable systems – in education. An educational system as a whole could be seen as a Holon, as could any institution: as an institution has a material basis, has to conform to certain patterns to be seen as an educational institution, and has many eXpressions that are integral to its constitution.

The point here is that we talk about many things in ways that include, or may variably be intended to refer to, material reality, patterns or expressions. Sometimes, however, it may be just loose thinking, and what is referred to may belong to just one of the main categories. Even when the three aspects are tightly bound together, it may be helpful to look at these complex things through the lenses of their material reality, their patterns, and their associated expressions.

Material reality

If it 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 or a border; 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 us) 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 at any particular time, but not necessarily definite in temporal extent. (Of course, a particular object may happen to have very clearly defined limits in time, but that is secondary to its essence.) All kinds of real-world objects fit into this, whether they are part of the natural, artificial or social worlds. An edge 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.

On the surface, waves look different from particles. And to some extent waves could be seen as MEpisodes, as and alternative to seeing them as Objects. These two ways of seeing a wave are alternatives, but do not contradict each other. If you are considering, for example, the interactions of light waves with matter, the Object view is more helpful. If, rather, you want to consider the material constituents of e.g. a sound wave, then it makes more sense to see it as an Episode. The bobbing up and down of a buoy in a wave is fairly obviously most usefully treated as an MEpisode.

While the concept of a territory is a Pattern, particular geographical countries are parts of Material reality. It is natural to define them in terms of social concepts, as well as in terms of, say, their constituent atoms. 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.

Inanimate objects

There are plenty of Inanimate objects in the world of learning:

Animate Beings

Animate Beings other than people 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.

The presence and status of animate beings in education is an interesting topic. Clearly, a horse riding school must have horses; a dog training class required dogs. But whether a biology lab should have live specimens raises other questions.

Responsible agents

Responsible agents exist as Material things, but because they are defined socially, it is particularly clear that their identity is not fixed in terms of their constituent physical matter, which may change. People are commonly assumed to be Responsible agents, and companies and legal entities have also long been recognised as responsible 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 meaningful expressions.

In the world of education, responsible agents are particularly significant, as education is something that only happens to agents, and is managed by other Responsible agents.

As clarified above, a building is not a responsible agent. The Responsible agent in an institution or other corporate body could be seen as the executive part of the institution that has agency – that is, presumably, composed of people playing roles.


Initially I was trying to find a suitable word that begins with 'U' as that seemed to be a letter that didn't need to go elsewhere. The word "unintelligent" was my first choice for several years. But the problem here is that there are many aspects of animate life that can be seen as intelligent in some way – particularly horses, dogs, corvids, octopuses. The word "unconcerned" popped up in my mind, associated with the idea that these beings don't worry about things like people do. But we can see any parent mammal as displaying concern for their young ones. Trying to find a word that captures the sense of what is not a responsible agent, I then came up with the word “unblameable”. But I still found that a rather awkward term, so in 2024 I decided to move this to Zoological, in the sense that zoology as a discipline traditionally does not specifically look at humans. Of course, we humans can be seen in a zoological perspective, but this is a perspective that does not deal with responsibility.

Young human beings are understood to belong to this category, in certain contexts for certain times, as do people who are asleep, or who have lost their agency for any other reason.

Real situations

A material 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 responsible 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 material 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 MObjects 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.

Episodes, or Extended Events

In contrast to Objects and Situations, MEpisodes have a relatively definite temporal extent. Anything that happens over time is an Event. What is involved in that happening are material MObjects and Situations.

An event can be understood as a sequential set of 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 MObjects. The MObjects (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 MObjects, could perhaps be described as a “process”, and conversely an 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 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 Event.

Second, when we refer to “The 14th Century”, or even “the Middle Ages”, there is no specific and coherent 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:


Generic concepts

Patterns as generic concepts belong to the world of perception, thought and imagination. 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 necessarily imply particular material realities:

In each case, one can of course see these things as eXpressions, or indeed as the Material embodiment of those expressions, as in a particular paper copy of a lesson plan. But the Pattern is about actual or possible material Events or animate Beings.

An ability is an interested case of a Pattern in the world of learning, education and training. We are thinking of abilities of people, potentially useful in some way in the world. The pattern of an ability is about the potential responses of the person to situations in the future, and whether they can (given reasonable conditions) reliably cause certain outcomes, using the required underpinning knowledge.

There are very many ways in which Patterns are used by, as well as instantiated in, animate MOBeings. 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, communication and behaviour, which is instantiated (or not) in the Holons of particular monastic communities. 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 connections between the associated 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. In some situations, it may be very helpful to clarify these distinctions.

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. Somewhat relatedly, there are two contrasting aspects of definition. The one that takes a term, and specifies it refers to, fits in as a non-refutable XATheory as above. However, often when people say they are defining something, they are making some kind of existential claim, perhaps that a Pattern is instantiated in a particular part of Material reality, and this is the "PQuotable" name 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 XAssertions. (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. This is all rather tentative.

First order patterns

These are patterns which can be expressed without reference to other patterns. There are many simple concepts which seem to fit in here. Note that a first order pattern may appear to be expressed in terms of other patterns, while in fact not actually needing them.

Second order patterns

These would be patterns which can only be expressed by referring to first order patterns, but not needing other second-order patterns. These would typically be “patterns of patterns”.

Higher order patterns

A pattern at any particular order is able to be expressed using only patterns of lower orders. Art is a great place to look for higher order patterns. Look at a good song: the way in which the word sound patterns, the poetic patterns (themselves at least second order), and the musical patterns, all fit together in pleasing higher patterns is what we might say distinguishes better art. Where the different aspects jar, it could be seen as lower art; except, of course, if that jarring itself is seen as a higher order pattern. Thus arises the material for endless art criticism. It is clear that some people may not appreciate the higher order patterns, and to them art that uses these unnoticed patterns might look poor. Are such patterns really there? Back to education, or to Plato's cave…

Patterns defined as a Kind

The term Kind is not a very accurate term, but I'm using it as it fits in with the alphabetic scheme of terms. By Kind, I mean here a concept that is defined ostensively, or extensionally. An extensional definition usually is taken to list all the examples of that concept, while an ostensive definition lists examples. I treat them the same, because it makes little sense to me to define a concept that can only apply to a specified set of objects. The example given in Wikipedia of nations of the world doesn't make sense to me, because we can so easily imagine the set of nations changing, without any change in what we mean by nation. So I'm saying that to make sense, the Kind has to be shorthand for a Generic concept.

If the Pattern as Generic concept isn't clear, then the supposed “set” might better be regarded as a mere aggregate. This space may include enumerative definitions.

More information


eXpressions are the things of the world of communication. Not all communications are about truth or falsehood, or are XAClaims about the world. But for many purposes to do with information systems, including learning technology, XAssertions 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 XAssertions. 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”.

Poetry, literature, etc. may have enduring value, perhaps in virtue of the patterns of patterns that they express, or the questions they raise, often implicitly, often dependent on the reader.

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 Material reality (discounting the possibility of being “psychic”, a “mind-reader”, etc.) The Material reality that embodies an eXpression instantiates the communicative Patterns (Quotable) that are characteristic of the eXpression.


What are here called XAssertions, 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: XAClaims, 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.

Claims, here, are subdivided according to the beliefs of the Responsible agent eXpressing the Claim. If the agent considers the Claim to be true, it is characterised as a “fact”; if the agent considers the Claim to be false, it is characterised as a “fallacy”; while if the agent considers the Claim to be uncertain, it is characterised as an “uncertainty”. This avoids all questions about whether it is "true" or not in any absolute sense. A legal position on some claims could be determined in a court of law. The verification of claims may or may not be straightforward, and their veracity may be generally accepted or not.


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 a theory or an implication. An implication might say that if Pattern 1 exists, then Pattern 2 exists. A definition might say that Quotable pattern 1 simply means Pattern 2, where Pattern 2 is pointing to patterns in Material reality, rather than words. A theory is often predictive, like "if Pattern 1 is materially realised at a particular time, then Pattern 2 will be realised at a later time", so could turn into a Prediction if Pattern 1 is realised. In a Popperian sense at least, a useful Theory is one from which Forecasts or predictions can be derived, and thus tested (in a sense).
In a magic spell, or maybe superstition, the first pattern could be a quotable pattern: when some specific words are uttered, something predictable will happen. The boundary with psychology here is unclear.

In one way, 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. A rule in this sense is slightly different from a forecast. If a child is told that if they do this, they will not get any pocket money next week, that would be seen as a rule; if on the other hand, they were told that if they didn't fasten their shoes they would likely trip up, that is more of a forecast.

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.


Forecasts are similar in form to claims, but rather than relating present or past things to patterns, predicting that a Pattern will apply to some specific Material reality in the future; something that may, in the future, be able to be verified – something that will become a fact, or an untrue claim. Or, if it cannot be verified, it might turn into an uncertainty. Predictions are always based on some Theory, implicit or explicit, formal or informal, which could be as simple as a guess based on past experience. If I claimed that Pattern 1 is instantiated at present, and believe a relevant theory, then I could believe Pattern 2 will be instantiated in the future. Agents may make their own assessments of the probability, or likelihood, of the forecast or prediction turning out to be true or not, and may argue for or against their own or others' assessments of that probability.

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.

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.

Creative Works

What, then, is a creative work – a work of art, literature, science, blog post, even web page? What is this, within the ontology it describes? And, increasingly accessible for the general public, both to enjoy and create in digital form, what about photographs, graphical works, and film?

Taking the easiest first, there are creative works that exist as discrete objects. A painting or scupture in an art gallery; a building; a garden; anything that is designed or constructed in the material world, is clearly a piece of material reality. And if we can still rely on the idea that humans don't create animate beings, in terms of this ontology, it is generally an inanimate object. Of course, any creative work embodies many patterns that are mediated through the design or execution of the work. Equally, a creative work could embody many expressions, which takes us onto a different ontological category.

We don't think of any piece of writing, from a tweet to a set of novels, primarily in terms of one material object. And this is one way of separating traditional art from photography, at least digital photography – in terms of its inherent reproduceability. The discipline of librarianship, then information science, has been grappling with this at least for decades.

One outcome of this deliberation, in 1998, was the report, Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR), which has concepts that I shall attempt to match up with the above.

Hence, we start to see some the complexity of representing writings in terms of my ontology above. We could go on, for example with scientific publications, to note that scientific works contain many expressions as component parts, particularly Assertions of various kinds. Less clear, and thus perhaps even more interesting, is to look at works of fiction and poetry.

Works of fiction and poetry

Fictional and poetic works 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, seen just as 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 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 Liking attributions to people. And so on.

Some notes, to chew on. Creative works of folk culture have existed for thousands of years as stories, perhaps without any specific material embodiment, or perhaps as dramatic performances. Performances can naturally be seen as MEpisodes or Events, and what makes performances recognisably performances of a particular work is that they share the expressions, and at least many of the patterns of expression.

Inherent reproducibility

In an important sense, one cannot reproduce a piece of material reality. One cannot reproduce the Mona Lisa in a way that the copy is indistiguishable in principle from the original. However, the artist may have made several copies, which may not be identical, but share all the same essential artistic patterns. One step beyond this can be seen in Rodin's Penseur. Here, the single ‘original’ is not a finished bronze casting, but a prototype from which castings can be made.

But when we move to written works, what is the original material object? In days gone by, it might have been the actual piece of paper with words actually written by the author. But this is not a book, as such, it is a manuscript, and only the words themselves are shared with the copies of the book. What I'm saying here is that there is something about written works that are more inherently reproducible, in their essence, than paintings, which brings us back to the FRBR concept of a ‘work’, as above. And as I suggested there, I see the written ‘work’ not as the manuscript, indeed not as any particular piece of material reality, but as the many many complex interwoven patterns which characterise the work, naturally including the sequence of words.

Intellectual property considerations

Personally I'm a critic of much of IP thinking, but nevertheless I think that what people do with IP can help us see more clearly what a work is, in terms of how people handle it.

You can own an original painting, or a manuscript, or an original negative, as ordinary property, but intellectual property relates to copying it, not owning the original. Thus, from the perspective of this analysis, IP is not primarily about material reality, but about patterns. Copyrights are restrictions on reproducing the patterns of the original work.


A set is a well-recognised mathematical concept, but seems to be less straightforward 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 Kind pattern. Sets conforming to a Generic concept may be defined in terms of what is common to an indefinite 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. Or perhaps, rather than avoiding that paradox, we might instead recognise that some Generic concepts are incoherent.

A section relating to theology

Several years after initially writing this, I was reflecting (because we used to sing it at school) on the verse from Peter Abelard's O Quanta Qualia

Perenni Domino perpes sit gloria,
ex quo sunt, per quem sunt, in quo sunt omnia;
ex quo sunt, Pater est, per quem sunt, Filius,
in quo sunt, Patris et Filii Spiritus.

which Mark Walker translates as

Let there be glory everlasting for the eternal Lord,
from whom there are, through whom there are, in whom there are all things;
he is the Father from whom there are, the Son through whom there are,
the Spirit of the Father and the Son in which there are all things.

But on reflection, I disagree with Abelard here, and rather, I agree with John (the Evangelist), for whom there seem to be three figures: the Word; God; and the Son. (One can start with the first chapter of John's gospel, for instance.)

In my reading of John's theology, it is immediately clear, in the first place, that the Son – the incarnate – is (in the terms I set out above) part of Material reality (M). M is all about being embodied and incarnate, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

Second, it makes sense to me, generally, that gods are personifications of significant Patterns (P) in the world. What (or indeed who) is the greatest pattern in the universe? To me, that is love – and this directly connects with John's letters where “God is love” is made explicit. The greatest pattern in the universe is both personal, and beyond personification. Love may be expressed; but love, in its essence, does not have the nature of an expression.

This seems to me to be reflected in the Gospel – in Matthew 7:21 I read “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” To me, that implies that the expression is not the pattern. What matters, first and foremost, is that we pattern ourselves according to the pattern of God. Words can point to patterns; words can also be the stimulus for changing patterns. However, we can belong to the “kingdom of heaven” intuitively, without the need for hearing or speaking explicit words. This is reflected in the phrase of George Fox, “…be patterns, be examples…

There may be no explicit words, or the ‘words’ may be experienced as coming from no human source – and the awareness of this possibility extends back to the Old Testament. Recall what Elijah heard as recounted in 1 Kings 19:12, which now has many translations: NRSV “a sound of sheer silence”; NIV “a gentle whisper”; traditionally “a still, small voice”. Or, recall the story of Samuel's calling in 1 Samuel, chapter 3, where Samuel is called by a voice that is not human.

So, thirdly, I easily identify the divine expression (X) with John's “Word”. In 1 John 5 “the Spirit is the one that testifies”. Testimony is, very obviously, expression. “The spirit of truth” seems to refer to all expressions that express truth. Other characteristics attributed to the Spirit fit well. John 3:8, particularly, where the spirit and wind are mentioned together. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Hebrew word usually transliterated as “ruach” means breath, wind.

There is one thing that puzzles me about John, and that is the very start of his Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word …” Why is the Word placed at the very beginning? Clearly, it cannot be a human word. Could it be, metaphorically, because expressions in the sense we are thinking of here are linked with the origin of human consciousness? This would be backwards from our (and Popper's) historical sense, where the material universe came first, it took sentient beings for patterns to become a reality, and humans for meaningful expressions. Or is it pointing to a belief that ‘God’, in John's sense, is a responsible, material being, capable of expression? Could it be that creation as a whole is also a sentient being, able to respond to God's Word, and so become what it has become? I can't quite make sense of this. However, neither can I really make any deep sense of the view I express here. How on earth could a pattern of love come into being from a world that was purely material? But, if a pattern of love pre-existed, then why not an expression of that Love? I am in over my theological head here …

But coming back to divine expression, we hear ‘ministry’ in Quaker Meeting for Worship, but no one knows where it comes from, or where it goes. Thus, the Holy Spirit is conceived of as the origin, or common ground, of all expression of truth, of love, of God. But the Holy Spirit, viewed as expression, has neither the attributes nor the qualities, either of pattern, or of material reality.

To sum up my insights here, the three aspects of the divine are:

The person of God instantiates the pattern of God, and expresses the expression of God. That person is both Jesus, and any one who acts to instantiate the same pattern, and who communicates the expressions of God.

The Gospel can be see as a Claim – XAC. What is that claim? I'd like to look into this more deeply, but initially I see it possibly as something like this — that there is a pattern (it has been called “redemption”, but I would prefer other names) which applies to all responsible agents. The pattern called redemption is this: that when confronted by a suitable expression – and what might make an expression suitable would be a topic to address at great length – all responsible agents have the capacity to make discriminations between what is good and what is not good, and to change their life patterns to be in conformity with the pattern of ‘God’ – the pattern of love – which is of infinite variety, infinite diversity, and is all-inclusive and unconditional. Good evangelism is, exactly, to express those expressions that open the way for a responsible agent to change in that way; to change their judgements of value, and to change their likings. One traditional word for this response is ‘repentance’, though I find the original New Testament word ‘metanoia’ more helpful.

Thus, it is up to us, individually and collectively, to listen openly to others, to ourselves, to what speaks to us from ‘from the middle’ of our loving collective, and to open ourselves to being led to take those actions, and speak those words, that open the way both for ourselves and others to live in that spirit, led and guided by those expressions that we continually strive to be open to, whether we see them as coming from an inner light, an inner voice, or from others, or from elsewhere in the universe.

The expressions naturally vary between different individuals: both in what comes through each person, and what speaks to each person. Compare the account in Acts, chapter 2, of the original Pentecost. It fits, marvellously.

Trinitarian or unitarian?

You can have it either way. Seen as above, the important thing is that God is not “just” a material object, nor just a pattern, nor just an expression, but each one of these has its own character: I wouldn't personally say “person”.

But, equally, God is the Holon of Holons; indivisible in that sense; just able to be seen in these three aspects of M, P and X.

I hope that works for everyone 😉

Other related work

Popper's three worlds

The basic threefold division here looks remarkably close to Popper's three worlds. (I only recognised this in 2020.) Looking more into the lecture referred to in the Wikipedia article, it would seem that my analysis does differ in some details.

More links for comparison


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 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

In the spirit of the analysis of FRBR above, tackle some more ontological schemes that don't seem to be easily and intuitively understandable. Maybe include linguistic concepts such as morphemes, lexemes, phonemes, etc. Suggestions welcome.