Understanding, Building, And Using Ontologies

Nicola Guarino

LADSEB-CNR, National Research Council
Corso Stati Uniti 4, I-35127 Padova, Italy

Abstract: I defend in this paper the thesis of independence between domain knowledge and problem-solving knowledge, arguing that reusability across multiple tasks and methods can and should be sistematically pursued even when modelling knowledge related to a single task or method. Under this view, I discuss how the principles of ontological engineering can be used in the practice of knowledge engineering, focusing in particular on the interplay between general ontologies, method ontologies and application ontologies. I will then stress the role of domain analysis, often absent in current methodologies for the development of knowledge-based systems.


One of the main motivations of the recent emphasis on ontology building is the possibility of knowledge sharing and reuse across different applications: as soon as a particular domain (such as medicine or automotive manufacturing) is fixed, it seems reasonable to expect a large part of domain knowledge to be the same for a variety of applications, so that the high costs of knowledge acquisition can be better justified. In a recent paper on the role of ontologies in knowledge engineering, van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga (1996) point out however that the idea of having a single domain ontology shared by a number of different applications may be not so feasible, since domain knowledge does strongly depend on the particular task at hand. They report the following quotation from (Bylander and Chandrasekaran 1988), where this problem is mentioned as the so-called interaction problem:

Representing knowledge for the purpose of solving some problem is strongly affected by the nature of the problem and the inference strategy to be applied to the problem. (Bylander and Chandrasekaran 1988)

In the past, van Heijst and colleagues have been defending the separation between domain knowledge and problem-solving knowledge as a major assumption of their well-known KADS methodology (Schreiber, Wielinga and Breuker 1993), but - in the light of their experience - they appear now to be much less confident about the concrete applicability of this assumption. They report two reasons brought by Bylander and Chandrasekaran to support their hypothesis: "Firstly, the application task determines to a large extent which kinds of knowledge should be encoded. (...) Secondly, the knowledge must be encoded in such a way that the inference strategy used can reason efficiently".

In fact, at a closer inspection, the statement from Bylander and Chandrasekaran reported above mentions the problem of representing knowledge, and it is related therefore to the symbol level. Now, it is certainly true that the interaction problem exists at this level, but it seems plausible to assume that its importance decreases at the knowledge level, to which the whole issue of ontology belongs. Let us try for instance to re-state Bylander and Chandrasekaran's statement at the knowledge level: "the knowledge required to solve some problem is strongly affected by the nature of the problem...". Put in this way, this formulation doesn't refer to the way this knowledge is encoded, but simply to the relevance relationship between the knowledge and the problem. In other words, at the knowledge level the interaction problem reduces to the first of the two "reasons" reported above. Of course, a specific piece of domain knowledge may be more or less relevant for a particular task, but nothing tells us that this knowledge is peculiar, specific of such task.

I will defend here the thesis of the independence of domain knowledge. This thesis should not be intended in a rigid sense, since it is clear that - more or less - ontological commitments always reflect particular points of view (for instance, the same physical phenomenon may be described in different ways by an engineer, by a physicist or by a chemist); rather, what I would like to stress is the fact that reusability across multiple tasks or methods can and should be systematically pursued even when modeling knowledge related to a single task or method: the closer we get to the intrinsic, task-independent aspects of a given piece of reality (at least, in the commonsense perception of a human agent), the more this knowledge can be reused for different tasks.

In other words, what is dependent on the particular task at hand is the granularity of the domain knowledge used. Consider for example the case of tasks as different as car driving, car maintenance, car troubleshooting and car repairing: it is evident that, although some specialized bodies of knowledge (such as traffic regulation rules or good maintenance practices) are only relevant for a single task, all of the tasks above may make use of the same basic knowledge related to the car structure, provided its granularity is fine enough.

This means that, when modelling domain knowledge with a single task in mind, reusability may be pursued by paying the cost of higher granularity and generality. The whole business of ontologies is justified by the assumption that this higher cost will be compensated by the higher added value of the resulting knowledge base, which can become (part of) a shareable ontology.

In this systematic quest for reusability, the potential role of a discipline like formal ontology appears evident. I have explored elsewhere (Guarino 1995) how a strong connection between formal ontology, conceptual analysis and knowledge engineering can contribute to establish the foundations of the emerging field of "ontological engineering". Following the lines of the paper by van Heijst and colleagues, I shall discuss here how the principles of ontological engineering can be used in the practice of knowledge-based systems building, focusing in particular on the interplay between ontologies and problem-solving knowledge and on the ways to build and update ontologies. I will first analyze in section 2 the various definitions of the term "ontology" proposed by the authors, trying to make clear the problems bound to the formal relationships between ontologies and conceptualizations. Then, in section 3, I will address the role of ontologies in the knowledge engineering process. A crucial issue in this respect is the relationship between a general ontology library and an application ontology, and the role played by the latter in the update of the former. The vision I will defend is that of application ontologies as specializations of a more general library, which includes task and method ontologies (Falasconi and Stefanelli 1994; Gennari, Tu, Rothenfluh and Musen 1994) as well as domain ontologies. Finally, I will stress in the conclusions the role of domain analysis, often absent in current methodological proposals where the task analysis is strongly privileged.


2.1 Ontologies and Conceptualizations

Before discussing the principles for ontology libraries construction, in (van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga 1996) the authors report various definitions of the term "ontology" appeared in the literature, trying to establish a comprehensive definition. Together with Pierdaniele Giaretta, I have analyzed this terminological problem in detail in (Guarino and Giaretta 1995), focusing in particular on the possibility of giving a formal interpretation to the most cited definition of an ontology in the knowledge sharing community, i.e. Gruber's definition:

(1) An ontology is an explicit specification of a conceptualization. (Gruber 1995)

The main problem of this definition is that it is claimed to be based on the formal notion of "conceptualization" introduced in , (Genesereth and Nilsson 1987) while it can only be accepted in terms of an intuitive understanding of that term. The origin of this problem, in my opinion, lies in the bad use of the term "conceptualization" made by Genesereth and Nilsson.

It may be useful here to report some of the discussion appeared in (Guarino and Giaretta 1995). Let us consider the example given by Genesereth and Nilsson. They take into account a situation where two piles of blocks are resting on a table (Fig. 1a). According to them, a possible conceptualization of this scene is given by the following structure:

<{a, b, c, d, e}, {on, above, clear, table}>

where {a, b, c, d, e} is the universe of discourse, consisting of the five blocks we are interested in, and {on, above, clear, table } is the set of the relevant relations among this blocks, of which the first two, on and above, are binary and the other two, clear and table, are unary[1]. The authors make clear that objects and relations are extensional entities. For instance, the table relation, which is understood as holding of a block if and only if that block is resting on the table, is just equal to the set {c, e}. It is exactly such an extensional interpretation that originates our troubles.

Let us notice first that Genesereth and Nilsson used natural language terms (like on, above) in the metalanguage chosen to describe a conceptualization. This could perhaps be seen as nothing more than a didactical device. However, these linguistic terms do convey essential information in order to understand the criteria used to consider some sets of tuples as the relevant relations. Such an extra information cannot be accounted for by the conceptualization itself.

Fig. 1. Blocks on a table (from Guarino and Giaretta 1995).

(a) A possible arrangement of blocks.

(b) A different arrangement. Also a different conceptualization?

Referring to the example given, consider a different arrangement of blocks, where c is on the top of d and a and b form a separate stack standing on the table (Fig. 1b). The corresponding structure would be different from the previous one, generating therefore a different conceptualization. Of course there is nothing wrong in such a view, if one is only interested in isolated snapshots of the block world. But the meanings of the terms used to denote the relevant relations are still the same, since they are invariant with respect to the possible configurations of blocks. In fact, in the metalanguage adopted in their book, Genesereth and Nilsson would adopt the same symbols (on, above, clear, table) to denote the new conceptualization. We prefer to say in this case that the states of affairs are different, but the conceptualization is the same. The structure proposed by Genesereth and Nilsson seems to be more apt to represent a state of affairs rather than a conceptualization.

In order to capture such intuitions, the linguistic terms we have used to denote the relevant relations cannot be thought of as mere comments, informal extra-information. Rather, the formal structure used for a conceptualization should somehow account for their meaning. As the logico-philosophical literature teaches us, such a meaning cannot coincide with an extensional relation. In (Guarino and Giaretta 1995) we have presented a way to represent this meaning in terms of an intensional structure inspired to Montague's semantics. According to this intensional interpretation, a conceptualization accounts for the intended meanings of the terms used to denote the relevant relations. These meanings are supposed to remain the same if the actual extensions of the relations change due to different states of affairs. This means that, for instance, the actual extensions of the relation on in the two examples of Fig. 1a and 1b belong to the same conceptualization. Intuitively, we can see a conceptualization as a set of informal rules that constrain the structure of a piece of reality, which an agent uses in order to isolate and organize relevant objects and relevant relations: the rules which tell us whether a certain block is on another one remain the same, independently of the particular arrangement of the blocks.

2.2 What are ontologies: a still debated issue

Hoping to have clarified the sense of the term "conceptualization", let us now analyze the various definitions of "ontology" appearing in (van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga 1996). Besides Gruber's definition, they report two more definitions taken from the literature:

(2) An (AI-) ontology is a theory of what entities can exist in the mind of a knowledgeable agent. (Wielinga and Schreiber 1993)

(3) An ontology for a body of knowledge concerning a particular task or domain describes a taxonomy of concepts for that task or domain that define the semantic interpretation of the knowledge. (Alberts 1993)

The definition (2) is similar to the classical notion of ontological commitment introduced by Quine (Quine 1961) [2]. According to him, a logical theory is ontologically committed to the entities it quantifies over. As discussed in (Guarino, Carrara and Giaretta 1994), such a notion however is too weak for our purposes, since we want not only an account of what exists, but also an account of the structure of what exists. This structure is implied in the language we use: this is the reason why, as noticed by the authors, the term "ontology" is often used as a synonym of "terminology" in the AI community.

The definition (3) is more problematic. Although Van Heijst and colleagues correctly observe that it is the semantic interpretation of the terms of a domain that constitutes an ontology, the formulation reported is misleading, since "the semantic interpretation of the knowledge ... concerning a particular task or domain" doesn't regard the taxonomy only, but it also involves the factual situations holding in that domain. The distinction between domain knowledge and domain ontology made by the authors is therefore not caputred by this definition. Moreover, according to definitions (1) and (2), an ontology can be much more than a taxonomy of concepts, involving in particular constraints and interrelations among concepts. Hopefully, it should also concern more than one particular task or domain. Alberts' definition seems therefore both partial and inaccurate, and I cannot see how the authors consider it as "not contradictory" with (1) and (2), coming up with the following "unifying" definition:

(4) An ontology is a explicit knowledge level specification of a conceptualization, (...) which may be affected by the particular domain and task it is intended for. (van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga 1996)

Despite the difficulties of recognizing definitions (2) and especially (3) as present in (4), this new formulation clarifies a little bit Gruber's definition (under the assumption of the correct interpretation of "conceptualization" discussed above), stressing that ontologies belong to the knowledge level and that they may depend on particular points of view. We must observe however that it is exacly the degree of such dependence which determines the reusability and therefore the value of an ontology.

There is another, nicer and more recent definition of ontologies proposed by Tom Gruber in a message to the SRKB (Shared Reusable Knowledge Bases) mailing list, reported in a recent work by Uschold and Gruninger (Uschold and Gruninger 1996):

(5) Ontologies are agreements about shared conceptualizations. Shared conceptualizations include conceptual frameworks for modelling domain knowledge; content-specific protocols for communication among inter-operating agents; and agreements about the representation of particular domain theories. In the knowledge sharing context, ontologies are specified in the form of definitions of representational vocabulary. A very simple case would be a type hierarchy, specifying classes and their subsumption relationships. Relational database schemata also serve as ontologies by specifying the relations that can exist in some shared database and the integrity constraints that must hold for them. (Tom Gruber, 1994, SRKB Mailing list)

The nice thing of this formulation is that ontologies and conceptualizations are kept clearly distinct. An ontology in this sense is not a specification of a conceptualization, but a (possibly incomplete) agreement about a conceptualization. Therefore, as suggested in (Guarino and Giaretta 1995), we can have different degrees of detail in this agreement depending on the purpose of the ontology (see SS 2.3). Formulation (5) agrees very well with our refined version of (1):

(6) An ontology is an explicit, partial account of a conceptualization. (Guarino and Giaretta 1995)

I consider this definition as quite satisfactory from my point of view. Since it relies however on the revised notion of conceptualization discussed above, it may result obscure for somebody. Hoping to clarify things more, I would like to suggest the following further definition:

(7) An ontology is a logical theory that constrains the indended models of a logical language.

To be precise, I refer here to the set of non-logical symbols (predicates and functions) of a logical language (what is usally called the signature of the language), used as "primitives" for a particular representation purpose. An example of this signature is the set of symbols used by Genesereth and Nilsson to denote what they call a conceptualization: {on, above, clear, table}. An ontology in this case would provide the axioms which constrain the meaning of these predicates, like, for example, on(X,X).

Finally, there is still a last definition of ontology that the authors consider as compatible with Gruber's (and our) one:

(8) An ontology is an explicit, partial specification of a conceptualization that is expressible as a meta-level viewpoint on a set of possible domain theories for the purpose of modular design, redesign and reuse of knowledge-intensive system components. (Schreiber, Wielinga and Jansweijer 1995)

In short, an ontology is considered in this case as "a meta-level description of a knowledge representation". In my opinion, this definition introduces a source of confusion, due to the fact that the "meta-level view" is considered by the authors as intrinsic to their notion ontology. Indeed, the ontologies they have used in their work on KAKTUS (Wielinga et al. 1994) and on the VT-domain (Schreiber and Terpstra 1996) are meta-level ontologies, since their domain is the meta-level domain of representation primitives. However, the ontologies present in the core library built by Falasconi and Stefanelli (Falasconi and Stefanelli 1994) can hardly be seen as "meta-level".

In other words, ontologies can be either "meta-level" or not, depending on the nature of their domain. In their experience on KAKTUS and the VT domain, Schreiber, Wielinga and colleagues have brilliantly shown how to use meta-level ontologies for knowledge reuse purposes, exploiting mapping rules between an ontology and another (Schreiber, Wielinga and Jansweijer 1995); what they call "representational meta-models" in (van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga 1996) are again ontologies, developed for the particularpurpose of knowledge transformation: their domain is constituted by the "types of expressions allowed in a knowledge representation formalism". It is important to remark here that these meta-level theories can be still regarded as logical theories (see remark at the end of section 3.2).

2.3 Ontology kinds

I will now briefly comment the classification of ontology proposed (van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga 1996). They distinguish two dimensions, "the amount and type of structure of the conceptualization and the subject of the conceptualization" .

The first dimension is far from being clear. First of all, it is hard to see how what they call "information ontologies" can be considered as ontologies at all. A "specification of the record structure" of a database cannot be considered as an ontology according to the definition given by the authors, since it belongs to the symbol level. A database schema can be seen as an ontology as long as it is a conceptual database schema, while a logical database schema belongs again to the symbol level. Level 1 of the PEN&PAD model (Rector et al. 1993) can't be seen as an ontology since it describes factual knowledge (medical records report "Observations - What the agents have heard, seen and done"). Considering this as an ontology would violate the distinction made by the authors between domain knowledge and domain ontology. Rather, what consitutes an ontology is the vocabulary used to describe medical records, but this collapses into what have been called "terminological ontologies".

In turn, the distinction between terminological and knowledge-modelling ontologies is also not clear. Due to the problems of the information ontologies, the contrast between them and knowledge-modelling ontologies is misleading, and the meaning of the "richer internal structure" of the latter remains vague. The reference to the level 2 of the PEN&PAD model increases the confusion, since this seems to refer only to meta-level knowledge related to the ways of observing and relating medical facts.

In conclusion, I believe that there is no reason to hypothesize a distinction among ontologies on the basis of "the amount and type of structure of their conceptualization". Maybe, as suggested above, a distinction can be made among different ontologies on the basis of the degree of detail used to characterize a conceptualization. A very detailed ontology gets closer to specifying the intended conceptualization (and therefore may be used to establish consensus about the utility of sharing a particular knowledge base which commits to that ontology), but it pays the price of a richer language. A very simple ontology, on the other hand, may be developed with particular inferences in mind, in order to be shared among users which already agree on the underlying conceptualization. We may distinguish therefore between reference ontologies and implemented (shareable) ontologies, or maybe off-line and on-line ontologies. Very simple ontologies like lexicons can be kept on-line, while sophisticated theories accounting for the meaning of the terms used in a lexicon can be kept off-line.

The second dimension is much clearer: depending on the subject of the conceptualization, the authors distinguish between application ontologies, domain ontologies, generic ontologies and representation ontologies. Before discussing in detail the relationships between the former three kinds in the next section, I would like to comment here briefly on the notion of representation ontology. In this case, the underlying conceptualization addresses representation primitives, like those defined in Ontolingua's Frame Ontology (Gruber 1993). According to the discussion made in the previous section, a representation ontology is therefore an example of meta-level ontology. I must remark however that the citation to the work done together with Luca Boldrin (Guarino and Boldrin 1993) about the supposed ontological neutrality of such primitives is incorrect, since in that paper we argued against this neutrality, "which makes possible, for instance, to interpret arbitray unary predicates either as classes or properties, and arbitrary binary predicates either as slots or relations" (p. 2). In short, it is perfectly valid to adopt ontologically neutral representation primitives to build a particular knowledge base, but to build a reusable ontology it may be necessary to assign a more restricted semantics to the representation primitives, taking into account the ontological distinctions that can be made within unary and binary relations. This position has been further discussed in (Guarino 1994; Guarino 1995), where I distinguished between a neutral epistemological level and a non-neutral ontological level; ontological distinctions between unary primitives have been discussed in (Guarino, Carrara and Giaretta 1994).


3.1 The interaction problem

As mentioned in the introduction, van Heijst and colleagues postulate a strong influence, in the ontology development process, of the particular application at hand. However, the interaction problem does not hold to the same extent for all concepts; they suggest therefore to distinguish between an ontology library, that contains more or less reusable knowledge across different applications, and an application ontology, containing the definitions specific to a particular application.

Surprisingly, they don't introduce a method ontology, as done in (Falasconi and Stefanelli 1994; Gennari, Tu, Rothenfluh and Musen 1994). Rather, they propose to introduce two attributes, domain-specificity and method-specificity, "to determine to what extent and under which circumstances a concept can be reused". Once a large ontology library has been built, this indexing scheme can surely simplify the construction of application ontologies; the key issue however regards the methodology used to update an incomplete ontology library while building a particular application ontology.

The risk is to give too much importance to the interaction problem, considering a new concept introduced in the application ontology to be specific of a certain domain and a certain method (i.e., of the application ontology at hand), without making any attempt to generalize it in such a way to be reused for more general tasks and domains. As mentioned in the introduction, in fact, a concept may be relevant for a particular task whithout being necessarily specific of that task.

3.2 Using application ontologies to update the ontology library

The risk mentioned above is especially evident when considering the methodology suggested by van Heijst and colleagues for building and updating the ontology library. The key role in this process appears to be played by the application ontology. The notion of application ontologies has been introduced in (Gennari, Tu, Rothenfluh and Musen 1994), for the purpose of i) reducing the gaps between domain and method ontologies, and ii) allowing the domain expert to use the same language adopted in the application at hand, which may be different from the language used in the ontology library. In the work made by the PROTéGé group, the application ontology is mainly used to produce a tool used to "populate" the application knowledge base, while in the paper by van Heijst and colleagues the authors propose to exploit application ontologies also for the task of updating the ontology library. In both cases, the construction of the application ontology is mainly a "creative process", with a very limited support for what concern the content of the ontology itself. What distinguishes the two groups is the kind of link established between the application ontology and the ontology library: in the PROTéGé group, a method ontology is intended to be part of the ontology library besides the domain ontology, and the link with the application ontology is handled by explicit mapping rules acting as "mediators"; in the KADS group this link is handled by an indexing mechanism.

The former solution appears to me more powerful, since it makes explicit the way the application ontology is related to the method ontology: a simple indexing mechanism may be unsatisfactory for this purpose, since the choice of the particular specificity index for a given concept remains obscure. The two solutions may be considered as roughly equivalent (as noticed indeed in Gennari, Tu, Rothenfluh and Musen 1994) if the purpose is to build an application ontology by exploiting an existing ontology library, or to facilitate integration of different representation formalisms; the matter is however completely different if we want to update the ontology library while building the application ontology. This latter goal is of course highly desirable, as underlined by van Heijst and colleagues, but it has been not addressed until now due to its difficulty.

The hard issue is to limit the effects of the interaction problem, separating the domain knowledge from the method knowledge. To this purpose, the relevance relationship between domain concepts and methods must be captured. With the explicit introduction of a method ontology, this relevance relationship can be represented by means of a "mapping relation" between the application ontology and the method ontology, where the role played by each single concept within a particular method is made explicit. In this way, the effects of the interaction problem can be limited by representing the nature of the interaction, rather than assuming its effects as intrinsic to the concepts being modeled.

However, the technique based on mapping relations developed by the PROTéGé group is still limited for ontology building purposes, since it is mainly based on a syntactic mapping. I believe that we can push further this approach, seeing an application ontology as a specialization of both the domain and the method ontology.

Consider for example the concept cost appearing in the CASNET application ontology reported in (van Heijst, Schreiber and Wielinga 1996). It is not clear why it gets the method-specificity "CASNET ranking", and not the more general "ranking by weight to cost ratio" reported in the method ontology shown in the same paper. Presumably, the authors think it may be "dangerous" to assign a more general meaning to such a concept, which is assumed to be dependent on the particular application. No attempt to generalize is foreseen by the proposed methodology in this phase, and the reusability of cost remains restricted to the CASNET application.

A different conception of the application ontology is reported in Fig. 2. The application ontology is built by specializing both the domain and the method ontology. The concept CASNET-cost is the cost of an observation leading to a pathophysiological state, which plays the role of the cost of an hypothesis within the method "ranking by weight-to-cost-ratio". What motivates its presence in the application ontology is the fact that it plays a specific role in CASNET's ranking procedure. The ontological requirements of this procedure are represented explicitly in the method ontology, and the CASNET-specific cost satisfies the range restriction of the attribute has-cost of the concept hypothesis belonging to the method ontology.

According to this view, all concepts appearing in the application ontology reported by the authors are specializations of both the domain ontology and the method ontology[3], and the "mapping rules" between the two ontologies would be extremely simple. Focusing on the application ontology amounts to highlighting those concepts which are relevant for a particular application, being specializations of its method(s) and its domain: the application ontology is just a view of the more general ontology.

Notice that, while the left part of Fig. 2 (the domain ontology) can be considered as relatively static, the bottom and right parts change when the problem solving strategy changes. In this way, the ISA arcs linking the application ontology to the task ontology "can be seen as attributing context-specific semantics to domain knowledge elements" (Schreiber, Wielinga and Jansweijer 1995). However, once the application ontology is fixed, it has a rigorous model-theoretic semantics, in contrast with the approach based on syntactical mapping relations discussed in (Schreiber, Wielinga and Jansweijer 1995).

Fig. 2. Application ontology as a specialization of the ontology library. Thick arrows represents subsumption links.

In sum, I believe that the specific role played by single items of domain knowledge into the decision-making process should be made explicit in the application ontology. The indexing mechanism proposed by the authors appears to be to coarse for this purpose. As admitted by the authors, it makes the task of populating a largely incomplete ontology library by scoring the newly defined concepts in the application ontology particulary difficult, or almost impossible in presence of strong interaction problems.


In conclusion, I would say that ontologies will play a crucial role in future knowledge-based systems if they will be designed in such a way as to minimize the effects of the interaction problem. Fortunately, as I have argued in the introduction, this problem mainly regards the symbol level, and does not affect the knowledge level too much. Ontologies, on the other hand, need to be described at the knowledge level, and sometime their full translation to the symbol level is not even necessary: their purpose is to characterize a conceptualization, limiting the possible interpretations of the non-logical symbols of a logical language in order to establish consensus about the knowledge described by that language. I hope to have contributed to a clarification of the related meanings of "ontology" and "conceptualization" in section 2.

In order to avoid the effects of the interaction problem, a greater emphasis to domain analysis should be given. In my opinion, the attention deserved to domain analysis, conceived as an independent activity, should be greater or equal to that devoted to task analysis. Confirming a tendence largely present in the KA literature, the paper by van Heijst and colleagues gives in my opinion too much importance to task analysis, avoiding however at the same time to introduce an explicit task and method ontology. As shown with the simple example reported in Fig. 2, an explicit representation of task and method knowledge, along the lines of (Gennari, Tu, Rothenfluh and Musen 1994) and (Falasconi and Stefanelli 1994) can help to systematically analyze the knowledge roles (McDermott 1988) played by the domain knowledge within a particular problem solving strategy, resulting in a very simple link between the application ontology and the ontology library, aimed to maximize abstraction,reusability and semantic coherence.

Suitable tools and techniques need still to be developed for domain analysis, and for ontology building in general. Van Heijst and colleagues admit that "the creative aspect of ontology construction" (i.e., that related to the content of ontology itself) "remains a task for the user", and assume that a "largely complete" ontology library already exists. This assumption however is far from being satisfied in many cases, and the crucial task is exactly to build the ontology library. It is clear that in this case the vision of "Model-Based KA" proposed by Van Heijst and colleagues must be abandoned in favour of "KA as Modeling": we cannot insist too much on model instantiation as a good strategy when we don't have good enough models.

Under this vision of "KA as Modeling", domain-modeling tools need to address content-related issues. This can be done by exploiting: i) linguistic resources such as thesauri, and ii) analysis techniques based on formal ontological principles.

I don't understand why linguistic analysis is almost absent in the literature related to ontology building for knowledge-based applications (besides the ontologies built for specific NL purposes, like PENMAN (Bateman, Kasper, Moore and Whitney 1990), PANGLOSS (Knight and Luk 1994) or Mikrokosmos (Mahesh 1996)). If not a linguistic ontology, at least some on-line thesaurus like Wordnet would be of great help for an ontology building tool, allowing at the same time to i) pursue generality; ii) identify ambiguities and subtle differences in meaning; iii) enforce readability and consistency by means of linguistic discipline.

These NL-based analysis techniques should be integrated by formal ontological principles. For example, questions related to the mereo-topological structure and the dependence relationships holding for a particular concept or individual should be systematically asked; I have shown elsewhere (Guarino 1992; Guarino, Carrara and Giaretta 1994; Guarino, Carrara and Giaretta 1994) how formal properties like rigidity, countability, dependence can help a lot to clarify the ontological nature of a concept.

In conclusion, the elicitation of the intrinsic structure of domain-knowledge should be the main task of ontology-building tools. The goal of so-called ontological engineering is to develop theories, methodologies and tools suitable to elicit and organize domain knowledge in a reusable and "transparent" way. This cognitive transparency is in my opinion the main "added value" of an ontology.


This work has been done in the framework of a Special CNR Project on ontological and linguistic tools for conceptual modelling (Progetto Coordinato "Strumenti Ontologico-Linguistici per la Modellazione Concettuale"). I am grateful to Pierdaniele Giaretta and Massimiliano Carrara for their precious comments.


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[1] In the original example also a function is considered, but we omit it here for the sake of simplicity.

[2] At least, in the sense that the ontological commitment of a logical theory is intended as a set of individuals. Expressions like "can exist in the mind" are however extraneous to Quine.

[1 ]More in general, any concept of the application ontology would be either a specialization or an instance of a (meta)concept in the ontology library. Of course, this choice would imply a richer structure both in the application ontology and the ontology library.

Edited by Nicola Guarino, 5 Oct 1996

LADSEB-CNR ontology page