Basic Ontology for Design

Two basic ontological understandings


According to Platon and Aristoteles, reality and existence are based on a number of general and eternal ideas. These ideas can only be found and articulated by philosophical work and postulated a priori. Aristoteles called this philosophical work metaphysics.

Both also argued that all other mechanisms could be derived logically from those ideas by deduction. Aristoteles, however, meant that the reality we can experience is built up by so many variations of the general mechanisms that we get confused. We have to focus on one part of reality at the time and use inductive work based on experiences that form hypotheses.

But it is important to note that the empirical work to confirm these hypotheses does not give the necessary evidence. We can only study the particularities and the patterns we discover by overlaying the experiences can change whenever. The final conclusions about the general have to be based on deduction.

As a follow-up Popper argued that it is necessary to distinguish the “context of discovery” from the “context of justification”. He also meant that the full justification of a hypothesis mostly is very difficult to achieve. Hypotheses can normally only be falsified. The practical conclusion of this is that scientists always have to be open for new ways of understanding.

Idealism is still an important ontological stance. The demand for conclusions based on deduction has however become more or less obsolete because of its lack of usefulness. The sliding towards a more pragmatic position already introduced by Aristoteles has continued. The result is that inductive methods have become accepted ways to the truth. The quality of science is instead secured by the collective and critical efforts within the community of scientists.

The postulation of eternal ideas behind everything in reality has also become more or less obsolete without at least the natural scientists bothering too much. In philosophy and other parts of the humanities a new emphasis on language has become the new coordinating base. Already Kant meant that our perception is totally dependent on language. We cannot distinguish objects and situations that we are not able to represent by concepts and words.

This idea has been further developed during the last decades by introduction of a more or less constructivist perspective. The world we are able to catch is only the one we can conceptualize. And this conceptualization is dependent on both the culture and the history of the individual. It is basically subjective. If there after all exists a real world that are independent of our way to understand it becomes less interesting. By that metaphysics has more or less disappeared from the philosophical discussion.

A more fundamental crisis for the idealistic stance has however come up by the results of the scientific work itself. The genuine stability of reality and existence that Platon and Aristoteles based all of their thinking on is since Darwin and many other scientists no longer a realistic point of departure. There is a new need for an ontology that is able to make change and dynamics understandable and manageable.


The new realism - Deleuze

A few philosophers have taken the lack of discussion and the new challenges seriously and started to re-think the established understandings. Deleuze is probably the most important in that he both criticized the dominating basic ideas and developed a new, holistic and coherent position.

He could not find any solid arguments against the existence of an autonomous world that is independent of what happens in our mind. He described his ontological stance as materialistic and realistic. He also meant that science had clearly shown that the main characteristic of this reality is the dynamics. The question is not what is but what is becoming.

Already in his first book he also rejected the supreme and coordinating role of language. It was an analysis of the ideas of Hume. In difference to Kant, Hume meant that experiences are stored in our memory as they are. We get reminded of them when something happens that corresponds to the most intensive parts. At that moment we re-live the earlier experience but mostly at a lower intensity. Successively these recurrent experiences become a set of ideas that guide us in reality. Nothing outside, besides that the experiences are repeated affects this. Language comes later to be able to communicate with other people.   

Later on he wrote a number of books that go through the ideas of other prominent thinkers as Leibniz,, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Foucault. He was not trying to write new biographies but to find how they related to his own developing ideas of a dynamic world. He wanted to understand the on-going morphogenesis (the upcoming of new forms), what kinds of changes that took place, the character of them and how they were initiated, developed and ended. He also read a lot of books within the natural sciences to understand the state of the art in physics, biology, chemistry etc. Beside that he wrote books about single artists and art forms, as cinema.

As his ideas move over such large fields of knowledge they are not easy to grasp. There are also a lot of books written that try to interpret and summarize his position. Most of those go into specific parts of his reasoning and try to relate them to established understandings. Only a few have had the ambition to keep the holistic perspective. One of the best, also from a pedagogic perspective is Manuel de Landa and for my own understanding of the work of Deleuze I have made extensive use of his guiding.

Deleuze´s most fundamental ontological standpoint is the rejection of all kinds of essence beside the mystery of the driving-forces of life itself. We just have to accept that as a given that however can be studied and described. By this statement this he relates to the thinking of Nietzsche that struggled with the question of a life without God.

The reality we live in has no starting-point, no end and no aim at least not one that we are able to agree on by relating to something outside ourselves. It is built up of a number of entities that have appeared as a result of historical processes that we only can see the results of. All we have access to are a state and a number of on-going processes. Active in these processes are different kinds of singularities, entities that cannot be divided into their parts without losing their identity.

Those entities are related to each other forming different kinds of assemblages. The assemblages are built up by joint capacities from their components. Deleuze describes a typical assemblage as a unit consisting of a warrior, a horse and a weapon. The whole of this is something much more than the sum of the parts.

But even if the assemblage has a decisive capacity, the components do not get absorbed (as Hegel thought in his dialectics). They are still there and have capacities that can be linked to other singularities and form new alliances. There are many more possible assemblages than the ones realized. Deleuze talks about these as virtual. They are real in the meaning that they are fully available. When such a potential is used an actualization takes place.

Everything in this reality is on move even if the rate of the change processes differs. Some rates are extremely slow so that we easily take the actual condition as static. Examples are the existence of many animals and plants that is the result of very long development processes and where fundamental changes are very rare. Unique reproduction processes secure their specific properties. They do not mix up with other species. We get very confused when for example radical mutations appear or when a species get extinguished.

Driving forces in this historical process are however not just mutations and other genetic changes. Animals and humans also change their behaviour and relations to the context by imitation. A successful way of handling situations that one individual has developed can be taken over by many other individuals and make a constant change for that kind of species. Norms can play a correspondent role.  

What does this ontological stance mean for research? The genuine problem is that we have difficulties to follow processes over a sufficient long time so that the mapping can say something about the tendencies and the future. If not, the studied conditions may have changed even before the results of the research work is published and made available for practice. By data from a large number of different contexts the risk can be further reduced.

Even if the problems with long-term studies can be solved there is however a need for a rethinking of the whole practice of research. Instead of looking for structures the focus should be on deviations and differences in relation to what could be expected out of the state-of-art. This kind of change of focus is of course especially important in the social sciences, e.g. in Economics.

Deleuze is however not the only one to have noticed the risk for defusing dynamics. For example, the father of case study methodology, Robert Yin emphasizes the necessity for researchers to be aware of the influence of presuppositions. He gives the advice to articulate the pre-understanding of the studied situation and to actively look for deviations from the expected. He also means that a developed theory mostly is a more important result than the worked-up concrete data.    

But according to Deleuze there may be even more radical possibilities for future research. Many kinds of systems do not just develop accidentally to adapt to uncontrollable contextual changes. As some renowned mathematicians (Poincare and Thom) have shown systems often have an inherent logic that make them move towards a specific balance. The two mathematicians called these conditions attractors.

A simple example is the pendulum that after having been set in motion always returns to the same position. De Landa uses the soap bubble to show how specific and remarkable this kind of balance condition could be. Other striking examples are fractals and the Fibonacci growth pattern. This means that the virtual is not a totally open possibility space. Some points or areas within these spaces are more vital than others. But to find them it is at first necessary to identify the relevant and decisive kinds of changes. This can only be done by experiments. Poincare talked about those special conditions for systems as phase space and developed methods to locate them mathematically in the space of possibilities in an exact way.

Another possibly productive approach could be to focus on the energy flows behind the changes. The most fundamental one in nature is the photosynthesis that takes pace in the plants to transform solar energy to sugar that can be stored. Next to that come the different food chains. All of these drive changes to optimize the exchange or to adapt to new conditions. The weather with its high and low-pressure areas and ridges is another illustration.

But there are also many energy flows in artificial and social systems. Deleuze showed that such flows generally are based in, what he called, intensive differences (to separate from extensive ones regarding different measures). Cities is a good example of systems that mostly include differences that may result in processes and change. An example is that in cities over a certain size, some kind of subway system becomes necessary to prevent chaos Social differences often release actions that can be constructive or destructive. By focusing on these intensive differences it could be easier to see what kind of change strategies that could be successful.

Peter Ullmark


Dela/spara Dela eller tipsa

Designfakulteten grundades i december 2007 med finansiering från Vetenskapsrådet och KTH. Dess främsta verksamhet är att driva en nationell forskarskola i design i samarbete med ett 20-tal institutioner runt om i Sverige.

Institutionen för maskinkonstruktion
Brinellvägen 83-85
100 44 Stockholm


Föreståndare maria [dot] hellstrom [dot] reimer [at] mah [dot] se (Maria Hellström)
Informationsansvarig sushel [at] kth [dot] se (Susanne Helgeson)

Webb av Happiness