Formal Ontology & Metaphysics of Science Workshop

Formal Ontology and Metaphysics of Science Workshop

University of Bristol

February 14th & 15th, 2020

Friday: 1.14 Canynge Hall

Saturday: G2 Cotham House

‘Formal Ontology’ is a term of art of Husserlian origins. It does not refer to ontology conducted with formal methods (although it could involve formal methods). Rather, it refers to the study of ontological form: the structures and relations in which ontological elements (such as objects) stand. More generally, ontology understood in this fashion involves an examination of the categorical structure of reality – a task which goes back to Aristotle’s Categories. This workshop brings together philosophers working on formal ontology and metaphysics of science. The goal is to find new ways to apply work on ontological categories and formal ontological relations to case studies from the metaphysics of science.

Friday 14th 

10.00 – 11.00 Jani Hakkarainen (Tampere)

11.30 – 12.30 Francesca Bellazzi (Bristol)

13.30 – 14.30 Sanna Mattila (Helsinki)

15.00 – 16.00 Tuomas Tahko (Bristol)

Saturday 15th 

10.00 – 11.00 Samuel Kimpton-Nye (Bristol)

11.30 – 12.30 Markku Keinänen (Tampere)

13.30 – 14.30 Naomi Thompson (Southampton)

15:00 – 16.00 Donnchadh O’Conaill (Fribourg)

Please email our Project Coordinator, Elle, to register your interest: 


The general in the particular

Francesca Bellazzi (Bristol)


In this paper, I aim to elucidate the relationship between kinds and essences, that is far from being clear. Here, I will propose a view inspired by Aquinas' De ente et essentia that aims to solve this issue thanks to a form of realism on essences and nominalism on kinds. 

First, I will consider constituent ontologies (often referred as Neo-Aristotelians). They have a commitment on the existence of substantial universals, i.e. kinds, as entities that play a crucial role in constituting particular substances. In these frameworks, kinds respect the Principle of Instantiation: kinds or universal properties cannot exist un-instantiated, i.e. all universals exist in space and time, or wherever and whenever their particular instances are. However, I argue that a serious commitment on kinds and on the Principle of Instantiation may face a dilemma: either kinds are Platonic universals and they respect the requirements of uniqueness and oneness required by being an entity, or they become particularised universals because they are instantiated. I will then propose a view on essences inspired by Aquinas in order to solve the dilemma. I will assume a constituent ontology framework, where essences are the structures for which something is a “such” and they depend for their existence on the particular: they exist only as the structure of something. Kinds are conceptual abstractions of essences and they are universal, in the sense that kind terms can be predicated of more than one entity. Essences are particularised, but they can be held in common among different objects. This derives from the counterfactual identity of essence and from the commonality: if it were possible for an essence to exist without depending on the particulars, it would be one and universal. Thus, essences can be held in common among different objects, but always with a particularised existence.

In conclusion, there remains no room for ontological kinds: the world becomes a world of particulars provided with an essence.

What Do We Study When We Study Metaphysics? - A Formal Ontological Account

Jani Hakkarainen (Tampere)

I argue for the metametaphysical view that general metaphysics studies ontological categories and forms in addition to highly general questions of existence, grounding and fundamentality of entities. General metaphysics can be divided into ontology and formal ontology. Ontology studies the questions of existence, grounding and fundamentality and character of entities. These include specific ontological questions like the existence of space-time, the formulation of which allegedly involves the categories of substance and relation. In my view, ontological problems are studied from the point of view of ontological categories. Following the formal ontological tradition (Husserl, Barry Smith, Simons, Lowe), I call metaphysics focusing on ontological categories and forms ”formal ontology”, which is presupposed by ontology and indeed science. Ontological forms are ways of existence of entities.

Tropes and causal processes – an alternative to dispositional essentialism

Markku Keinänen (Tampere)

Trope theories eschew objects and properties as fundamental categories. At the fundamental level, there are only tropes, which are thin particular natures in some definite locations. The best examples of tropes are determinate quantities such as electric charges in certain locations. In this talk, I take up two reasons of why qualitatively economical trope theories are incompatible with a currently popular view of basic quantitative properties, dispositional essentialism. Moreover, I outline an alternative view based on Deborah Smith’s (2016) non-recombinational quidditism. According to it, tropes as determinate particular natures necessarily play certain nomological roles. I argue that this should be combined with a new conception of tropes as parts of causal processes, which further clarifies the necessary connection between tropes and certain nomological roles. Because of being generically existentially dependent on certain kinds of processes, tropes contribute to determining the truth of certain law statements.

Reconsidering the Dispositional Essentialist Canon

Samuel Kimpton-Nye (Bristol)

Dispositional Essentialism is a package-deal account of low-level physical properties and laws of nature. The view is typically motivated by what its proponents see as problems for neo-Humean accounts of the metaphysics of properties and laws. In this talk, I’ll articulate the view that I label Canonical Dispositional Essentialism (CDE), which comprises a structuralist metaphysics of properties and an account of laws as relations in the property structure. I’ll then present an alternative account of properties and laws (still somewhat in the dispositional essentialist spirit). My account rejects CDE’s structuralist metaphysics of properties in favour of the view that properties are qualitative grounds of certain metaphysical possibilities and it rejects CDE’s view of laws as relations in favour of a view of laws as linguistic entities that efficiently describe actual and possible property distributions. I’ll then defend my view over CDE by showing how it can overcome a family of explanatory problems for CDE and by arguing that it captures, where CDE fails to capture, the fact that there is a pragmatic dimension to our elevating some proposition to the status of law of nature

Possibility precedes actuality? The role of essentialist knowledge in metaphysics and science

Sanna Mattila (Helsinki) 

E. J. Lowe famously claims that possibility precedes actuality both metaphysically and epistemically. His epistemic claim is more precisely that we need knowledge of essences in order to know whether something is actual. The scope of the thesis is very wide: Lowe’s central work concerns the role of essentialist knowledge in metaphysics (1998), but he also suggests that essentialist knowledge is not only relevant but also necessary in the realm of theoretical sciences (2008, 2014) as well as in our everyday cognition (2013). In this talk I will focus on the role essentialist knowledges plays in theoretical sciences and in metaphysics, and the main question is whether Lowe’s claim is tenable. 

I will first show that Lowe’s straightforward argument for his epistemological claim (2014) is not successful, and I will proceed to consider some example cases that support his claim. Transuranic elements, for example, provide a case where the scientists needed to know the essence of such elements in order to synthesize them. The central question, then, is whether the examples Lowe gives support his claim that knowledge of essences is prior to knowledge of actuality. I will claim that a closer look to Lowe’s own examples will also help to clarify what his main claim is precisely: that there needs to be purely a priori knowledge of essences or that there is an a priori element needed in addition to the empirical knowledge. The latter claim is significantly weaker than the former, and the worry is that such a weak position will make knowledge of actuality prior to knowledge of possibility – contrary to what Lowe wants to claim. 

On What it is for a Fact to be Grounded

Donnchadh O’Conaill (Fribourg) 

Grounding is a widely discussed metaphysical notion, often characterised in terms of a certain type of non-causal, ‘in virtue of’ explanation. A great deal of work on grounding has considered questions such as its logic, formal features, and questions such as what (if anything) grounds the grounding facts. There has been comparatively little work on what it is for an entity to be grounded. Furthermore, there has been comparatively little detailed work on the relata of grounding, and how one’s choice of relata might be relevant to one’s conception of what grounding is.

I shall assume that grounding relates facts, understood as worldly entities, complexes made up of constituents such as properties, relations and property-bearers. Using this conception of the relata of grounding, I shall outline a non-reductive account of what it is for a fact to be grounded: it is for that fact to be made to obtain by its constituents being appropriately unified by the obtaining of its grounds. To develop this conception, I explore the hypothesis that when a fact is grounded, its constituents stand in specific ontological relations (e.g., determinate-determinable, composition, realisation) to the constituents of its grounds. This hypothesis allows us to understand how there can be different kinds of grounding (since facts can be grounded in different ways) and also why grounding is fundamentally unified. 

Natural Kinds and Their Properties

Tuomas Tahko (Bristol)

Some group of entities may share a number of properties without being a natural kind (say, all green and round things). Indeed, it’s often enough for our scientific goals of explanation and prediction that there are one or more shared (natural) properties among a given sample set. Yet, there is more to being a member of natural kind than sharing properties with other members of the kind. There have been many attempts to determine what makes a natural kind genuine or real, often in terms of some further unifying factor, such as causal mechanisms or laws of nature. Instead, I wish to defend an account whereby the kind is prior to its properties. In other words, what explains that members of a natural kind generally share many of their properties is that the kind unifies these properties. It may do so in terms of causal mechanisms or by other means, but the reality of a natural kind is not derived from the method of unification. Rather, it is something about the nature of the kind itself that explains why and how it unifies certain properties. The upshot of this account is that natural kinds should be understood as substantial kind universals – a fundamental category in their own right.

Realism and Metaphysical Structure

Naomi Thompson (Southampton)

In this paper I consider the role of a notion of metaphysical structure in different conceptions of realism. I argue that articulating an account of full-blooded realism requires an appeal to metaphysical structure. However, the ways in which we might hope to have epistemic access to any such structure threaten to undermine the realist’s project. The upshot is that we should endorse, at best, a limited kind of realism.