Types of thing in the world

An “upper ontology” intended to help in conceptual modelling

By Simon Grant, mainly between 2009-10-03 and 2010-07-21; slightly revised 2012-07-17; extra section added 2018-08-04; revised 2018-10-11

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.


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 XAssertions and XValue 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 MSituations 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, imagination and private thought
PG: a Generic concept is an intensionally 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.
PK: a Kind is a Pattern defined ostensively or extensionally, implicitly the Pattern common to the defining reference set of Material examples, and open to extension. This makes sense primarily as a shorthand, prividing the common pattern is obvious.
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.
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 XAssertions, 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÷: 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.
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 of terms 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 Responsible 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 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 judgement. The focus is on the patterns, in the opinion of the agent.
XVL: a expression of Liking (or leaning) expresses that an animate Being or system likes, leans towards, prefers, chooses, or creates particular Patterns, in contexts where options are available. This could be seen as a complex XAssertion. A liking is sometimes the outcome of learning. The focus is on the animate MOBeing, 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 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 MO Beings may, as they perceive, sense and respond to Patterns.
  • MOBResponsible agents may, according to themselves, assert XAssertions and XValue expressions.
  • Material reality may embody eXpressions.
  • Animate MOBeings may utter Non-assertive eXpressions XN.
  • MOBResponsible agents attribute XVLikings to animate MOBeings
  • Names 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 include 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

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

Binary relationships between the same or different types

is about; refers to
eXpression → Holon, World, 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, World, 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, World, 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 & XVLiking
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 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.

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.

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 Episodes, 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 Episode.

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 MOInanimate objects in the world of learning:

Responsible agents

MOBResponsible 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 MOBResponsible 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, MOBResponsible 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 MOBResponsible 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.

Animate Beings

Animate MOBeings 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 MOBeings 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.


The word "unintelligent" is used here rather loosely. No claim is being made about the relative capabilities of humans and other animals, and in particular no claim is made here about whether or not particular animal behaviour counts, or not, as intelligent. In the context of this exposition, it is simply a word used to mark those animate Beings that we do not give any responsibility to. "Unintelligent" happens to be a convenient word starting with "U". Thus horses, dogs, corvids, octopuses, etc. are here classed as MOBUnintelligent, irrespective of the behaviours that we observe, simply because they are not accountable as agents. If there were a common word starting with "U" meaning "not responsible" I would use it.

Real situations

A material MSituation 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 MObjects as existing spatio-temporally. Dispute may focus around whether a particular MOBResponsible 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 MSituations that are perceived, but extended MEvents, 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 MSituation — a particular synchronous related set of material MObjects that are the parts of the MSituation — persists unchanged over time, we might be inclined to refer to an MObject rather than a persistent Situation. Where the boundary lies is not clear.

Episodes, or Extended Events

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

An event can be understood as a sequential set of MSituations, that fall into a temporal pattern that justifies it being thought of as a coherent event. However, as with MSituations, 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 MEvents.

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 MEvent.

Either a temporal pattern of MSituations, or a pattern of interaction between MObjects, could perhaps be described as a “process”, and conversely an MEvent can be seen as an instantiation of a process.

MEvents, like physical things, are not restricted to being described by any particular intellectual discipline or discourse. The collision between two atoms is an MEvent, as is my sleep last night, or the second world war. MEvents 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 MSituation, 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 MEvent.

Second, when we refer to “The 14th Century”, or even “the Middle Ages”, there is no specific and coherent MEvent 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 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 MEvents or animate MOBeings.

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 its meaning, 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.

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”.

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 XAssertions.

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.


Forecasts are similar in form to claims, but rather than relating present or past things to patterns, forecasts express 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.

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 a theory or an implication.

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.

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, 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.


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 of Kind. 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. Or perhaps, rather than avoiding that paradox, we might instead recognise that some patterns are incoherent.

A diversion into Theology

Several years after initially writing this, I was reflecting on Peter Abelard's

 “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.”

I realise that I disagree with Abelard, agreeing more with John (the Evangelist), for whom there seem to be three figures: the Word; God; and the Son.

For me, it is immediately clear that the Son, the incarnate, is part of Material reality (M). M is all about being embodied and incarnate, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

It makes sense to me, generally, that gods are personifications of Patterns (P) in the world. What (or indeed who) is the greatest pattern in the universe? To me: love – and this directly connects with John's letters where “God is love” is explicit. The greatest pattern in the universe is both personal, and beyond personification. Love is not itself an expression.

So, what is the divine expression (X)? Well, rather obviously, the “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 are the truth.

So many of the 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.

We hear testimony 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 commonality of all expression of truth, of love, of God. But the Holy Spirit, viewed as expression, has neither the qualities of pattern nor of material reality.

So, for me, there is:

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 speaks the expressions of God. The Gospel is a Claim – XAC.

That the expression varies with every one, compare the account in Acts, chapter 2, of the first 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 😉


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 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.