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After the referendum – competing views of Britain

Immediately after the shocking result of Britain’s ‘Brexit’ referendum, and the decision to leave the EU, many Britons, particularly those who had supported, or campaigned for, the ‘Remain’ cause were deeply depressed.  I myself was one of them; I had contributed to he ‘Remain’ campaign, and was shocked and distraught at Britain’s apparently perverse decision.

However, having had time to consider, and to see the astonishingly childish behaviour both of ‘Remain’ supporters on this side of the English Channel, and of political elites on the other side, I have come to realise that ‘Brexit’ was the right path for Britain to take.  A major part of this realisation came when I decided to reconsider the messages of the two camp, ignoring all of the emotive name-calling that bedevilled the campaign itself.  It turns out that they demonstrate two radically different visions for Britain and, once this is understood, ‘Brexit’s’ victory is clearly seen as inevitable.

‘Remain’ : a pessimistic view

Even ignoring the infamous ‘project fear’, the ‘remain’ campaign’s message was unremittingly negative.  Not on the surface, of course, but what did all of those warnings of inevitable disaster should Britain leave the EU tell us?

  1. Britain is useless: we, as a nation, have had our day, and we simply cannot survive in the modern world without the support of the continental powers.  Despite having the second largest economy in Europe, the largest military, highest rates of innovation, etc, Britain is basically a paper tiger.
  2. The only future lies with the project: there is a grand plan, run by the masters of the European Commission, and that is the answer.  Everything must be planned and follow the rules in as machine-like a way as possible, regardless of what elected governments or populations might think.
  3. We should obey our betters: we may think that the EU was imbalanced, and that a Union whose President had beggared the Greeks to prove the important of the rules, and then blithely allowed the French government to ignore the same rules because, well, they were French, was stupid.  But the wise people of Brussels and elsewhere told us otherwise, and President Obama even flew in to tell us how very, very unimportant we were, and how we must do as told.

Recall that Britons, especially the English (who, after all, voted overwhelmingly for ‘Brexit’) have a strongly anti-authoritarian streak, are naturally pragmatists rather than theorists, and are generally not enamoured of rhetoric.

‘Leave’: muddling through

Now look at the ‘Leave’ campaign’s underlying message, and we see something much more positive:

  1. Britain is not rubbish, in fact we’re pretty good.  So, yes, there may be some problems leaving, but the basic point remained that Britain’s economy is growing faster than most of the continental powers’, the continental EU seems to be sliding towards economic meltdown, and yet the differences in system that make Britain healthier are precisely those differences that are meant to be bad.  Saying that Britain can go it alone, and no, allies won’t dump us, is a much more positive thing to say.
  2. We don’t have a plan, we’ll wait and see.  One of the core characteristics of the English psyche is the preference for ‘muddling through’.  Not for Britons the grand theoretical frameworks of Descartes; our national philosophy is a proudly empirical Hobbesian pragmatism.  So openly saying there is no plan appeals directly to this: Britons have been muddling through for centuries, and probably will be for centuries after the EU has been forgotten.
  3. Who does that President Obama think he is then? Britons do not like being told what to think.  Faced with President Obama’s assurance that a Brexited Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ when it came to trade deals, most Britons, naturally, labelled him a liar.  Which, it proves, was quite correct, given that within hours of the result being announced, he was asserting that he had not really meant it, and Britain would be at the front of every queue he could think of.  Compared with ‘Remain’s cadres of authority figures, ‘Brexit’ had a bunch of bufferish upper-class types who admitted they had no idea what was going to happen, but thought we ought to all pull together, what?


‘All pull together’ is another key English characteristic, along with ‘Muddling Through’ and ‘Mustn’t grumble’.  And grumbling, it has to be said, is what the ‘Remain’ team have been doing a bit too much of since the result.  This, coupled with the childish behaviour of those EU governments that wish to see Britain ‘punished’ (or, rather, the EU government that does), the astonishing contempt for democracy and even the rule of law demonstrated by the Commission President, and the fact that all those big companies who said they would leave Britain have come back with huge new wodges of cash and apologetic expressions on their faces, does suggest that, when the British people reacted to all those dire threats with ‘you’re having us on’, they were not wrong.

So, I am afraid, it seems that Britons did not vote to leave the EU because we are (collectively) petty-minded racists who live in the past.  It was, I would suggest, because we detected the smell of death hanging over the EU, and being proud, unencumbered by theory or reverence for our betters, and willing to take a risk, responded to the campaign that actually allowed us the right to make our own future.


Why the state should not be a service provider

It is often observed that private enterprise must, inevitably provide higher qualities of service than the state.  It is also observed that for the private sector to provide basic services is somehow immoral, because to profit from serving people is wrong in some way.  It is also observed that, though all of this may be true in theory, in general public-private partnerships succeed no better than purely public-sector services.

It turns out that the problem lying behind all of these contradictory positions lies in the fact that they all miss the point.  What matters is not what is right or wrong, or whether or not the state is irredeemably inept: the underlying issue is a simple economic argument, which we outline below.

The argument

Any business is dependent, for its continued existence, on its paymaster, that is to say the individual(s) who provide the money that it needs to keep operating.  Therefore, the prime responsibility of any business is to guarantee that its paymaster will continue to give it money.  The success of a business therefore depends on the paymaster’s criteria for choosing to do so.

For a conventional business, existing in the private sector, the paymaster is, in effect, the consumers, that is to say the individual(s) who purchase products or services from the business.  Their criteria for continued consumption will, essentially be, that they like the services or products, and want to continue purchasing them.

For a state-financed business, on the other hand, the paymaster is the treasury.  Its criterion is very different and much simpler: it has no interest in the quality or otherwise of the business’ products, or of its consumer’s attitude towards it.  Rather, its sole criterion is this: has the business spent all of its allocated budget?

This means that, whereas a purely private-sector business has to do everything it can to make its consumers like it, all that a state-funded business has to do is to continue to spend at least as much money as it is allocated by the treasury.  Quality of performance, as measured by its consumers (if there are any) is if no importance.


Observe that this argument says nothing about the quality of civil servants as opposed to private-sector workers, their moral qualities or their competence.  It says nothing about the moral qualities of the state as an institution.  It is based purely on the observation that if a business’ paymaster is disconnected from its consumers, then it has no reason to concern itself with meeting its consumers’ expectations.

This means that any business which adopts this model is bound to provide poor consumer service, providing a neat explanation of the well-known effect that private businesses that are entirely capable of providing how quality services or products in the private sector, when co-opted into working on contract to the state, end up producing work of the same low quality as that done by civil servants.  The state funding mechanism acts as a weight that drags all engaged with it down to the same level.

On the other hand, it is notable that in situations where the state does not provide direct funding to institutions, but instead provides consumers with vouchers, or acts as their underwriter of last resort, then private enterprise is capable of providing services of the high level one would expect.  This is because the natural link between paymaster and consumer has been restored.


It turns out, interestingly, that the argument relating to the morality, or otherwise, of profiting from service provision comes closest to the truth, in observing that the issue is about how services are funded.  However, morality is not, and should not be an issue, save perhaps for the question (often ignored, for some reason) of the morality of choosing to place ideology above the quality of service provided to citizens of the country.

What do the protestors want?

I write a day after a massive protest in the Centre of London at which, in addition to causing considerable disruption and unpleasantness for those of us who merely live here, anything up to a quarter of a million people gathered to protest against – what?  And here we run into problems that are the cause of my deciding to write this piece.  Though I suspect the genuine motivation, as captured in the phrase ‘kick the Tories out’ that seemed to be making the rounds, is the dismay of those who had deluded themselves into to thinking themselves political leaders, at discovering, when the people of the UK spoke, that actually they were political irrelevances, it is still of interest, I think, to consider their ostensible cause.

What do they want?

Essentially, it would seem that they do not like a situation in which it is possible for some people to become much richer than others, in which business (which is always ‘big’, and therefore, apparently, bad) is free to exploit people by selling them products that they want (but that their self-appointed guardians assert are bad for them), or in which any form of private enterprise be permitted to provide any form of service to society.  This can be summed up, pretty well, by saying that they object to being expected to live in an open society with a free economy, whose composition is determined based supply on demand, as opposed to centralised planning.

What they would prefer instead is less clear, and many of them, and their leaders seem to find it hard to articulated with any degree of clarity what their idea society would look like (that this may be, at least partially, caused by the undoubted fact that many of their leaders are clearly not unduly blessed with intellect, is an interesting question).  However, one can deduce a certain amount, if only by contradiction with what they don’t want.  So, the economy must be regulated, with businesses only permitted to be active in areas deemed suitable by some authority.  Likewise, business profits must be regulated, so as to ensure that income, etc differences do not exceed some defined threshold.  Moreover, innovation must be constrained, due to the unfortunate fact that it tends to close down old economic sectors as it opens up new ones, and is clear that one thing the protestors do believe in very strongly is that no business should be allowed to fold simply because it is no longer profitable.  All services should be state-delivered, and no effort should be made to cater to the needs or desires of their consumers, for that way lies the crime of elitism.

Simultaneously with this apparent embrace of the state, however, is a strand of strong distrust of the state.  Thus, any form of surveillance is unacceptable, police are always heavy-handed, justice is always biased and so on and so forth.  To mention how this impacts attitudes on international relations would take us too far afield: the spectacle of hordes of more-liberal-than-thou ‘peace’ activists howling down the oppressed while cheering on their oppressors is only one of the more puzzling aspects of modern-living.

Where does this lead?

There is a curious contradiction at the heart of all this.  Let us start from the demand for what is, essentially, a command economy, where freedom to produce and consume is replaced with strict regulation of what may be consumed, what may be produced and how it may be produced.  Now, it is common to argue that this is doomed to fail for any number of sound economic reasons, but I want to take a different tack.

A command economy is dependent on being a closed cycle.  As wealth generation has been deliberately prevented, producers produce what they are permitted to, and consumers consume what they are permitted to.  Therefore money simply circulates through the system and becomes essentially irrelevant.  Therefore a truly closed command economy could become the nirvana of the more idealistic protestor, a moneyless society.  Unfortunately, for this to work the system has to be static.  Any imbalance, any change in means or production or the profile of demand, any change in employment, or productivity or profitability, throws the equilibrium of the closed cycle out.  Before you know it, either wealth generation starts happening, or else your economy crashes, or else you have to open to the outside world, to rectify the imbalance.

What this means is that therefore the state must act to completely ban the black market, or private transactions, or private business of any kind, and this ban needs to extend to ongoing detection and prevention.  Moreover, innovation must be prevented, because innovation brings new ideas, new products and changes the nature of supply and demand in unpredictable ways.  Finally, fashion, or any kind of personal taste or preference must be banned and controlled, so consumers only want that which the state sanctions the supply of.  Otherwise, consumer discontent with what is on offer will breed either innovation, or black market activity, or political unrest, with all the dangers that implies.

So what, as Lenin asked, is to be done?  The answer is very simple.  As Orwell predicted, and as the great totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th and 21st centuries have shown, a command economy can only exist if it has Thought Police.  Without total penetration into and control of every individual’s activities and thoughts, the state cannot guarantee the economic stability that is so important to its survival.  Therefore it must be a surveillance state, dedicated to removing any hint of individuality from its citizens.

In conclusion

This, then, is the paradox, the protestors in London talk constantly about liberty, and the need to end state intrusion into their private lives, and yet their ideals can only be achieved by a totalitarian police state.  I suspect that many of them would be absolutely in favour of such a thing, on the understanding that they were part of the Central Committee that told everyone else what to do, but it is in the nature of true totalitarianism that there is no Central Committee, and that everyone oppresses everyone else.  Therefore, let us hope that some effort is made to help them learn that libertarianism is not love of the state.

More on objectification


As I fear was to be expected, my recent piece The New Objectification has received criticism to the effect that I am wrong in asserting that some (at least) women willingly embrace objectification, and seek to maximise their adherence to misogynistic models of woman.  The criticism is that in saying that a socially excluded group will connive in its own exclusion I am attacking the innocent victims rather than than their vicious oppressors.

That this criticism is fallacious hardly needs be said.  It is an observable fact that many women do embrace objectification.  It is also the case that the willing adoption of the stigmata of exclusion by the excluded is a well-known phenomenon in sociology.  However, it occurred to me that there is yet another argument against this accusation that is based in the development of social groups as driven by Darwinian processes.  That is to say, a completely abstract Darwinian argument can show that it is, in some sense, optimal for members of an excluded group to define themselves in terms of those characteristics that led to their exclusion.  In this essay I present this argument which I believe is rather powerful, because, first, it is entirely value free, so the question of the morality or otherwise of the original exclusion plays no part in it, and second it is a nice demonstration of the power of the Darwinian argument as applied to a system developing without overall control or direction.

Darwinian processes

Before I provide the main argument, it is worth giving a brief overview of the general Darwinian process.  We are accustomed to its use in formulating arguments about biological evolution, but much of its power comes from the fact that it is, in fact, not a statement about biology or evolution, but a statement about change over time in populations of similar but not identical individuals, where there is no overall plan or control directing change.  Once we have realised that then we can apply it to any system having these properties.

At its simplest, say we have a population in a changing environment.  The principle of the Darwinian process is simply in the absence of any ‘grand plan’ or controlling force, individuals will adapt so as to maximise benefit in response to changes in the environment, and these adaptations are passed on through time.  Individuals whose adaptation gives greater benefit are favoured in that those adaptations are more likely to continue, while individuals whose adaptation gives reduced or negative benefit are disfavoured.  Thus in time the whole population will tend towards becoming optimally adapted to its environment.  More succinctly: adaptations that benefit their adopters survive better and eventually dominate the population.

A couple of points are worth noting.  First, it is absolutely important that there be no ‘grand plan’ or collusion between the individuals in the population.  If there was, then individuals might actively choose non-beneficial adaptations because though they may not be beneficial, they are congruent with the ‘bigger picture’.  Second, it is important that the individuals vary, as this is what allows sufficient variation in approach to adapting to the environment to guarantee that an optimum will be achieved.  If they all react in the same way then there is no winnowing process by which different approaches are compared and evaluated.  So if a population consists of individuals constrained only by their environment (over which they have little or no control) but otherwise free to act, then the Darwinian process will favour eventual adoption by the population of an approach that maximises adaptation to living within the environment.

Application to social exclusion

Let us say that in the wider population some one group has been socially excluded, or otherwise set apart.  This is tantamount to saying that the remainder of the population has imposed a particular environment on the excluded group, consisting of expectations as to its place in society, how it should behave, what it should be permitted to do, etc.  Assume also that the exclusion is artificial that is to say it is not based on any real difference, but is purely a result of ideology or prejudice.  This now meets the criteria of a Darwinian process: the environment cannot be controlled by the excluded group, and they form a diverse collection with no real commonalty.  Therefore over time the members of the excluded group will adapt to a maximally beneficial accommodation with the facts of their exclusion.

What form will this adaptation take?  A simple answer is impossible, as contingency can lead to many possible outcomes, but we can say what form it will not take.  Any activity that challenges the basis of the group’s exclusion will be maladaptive, because by challenging the exclusion it involves behaviour that does not make best use of the environment as it is.  This is where the fact that there is no grand plan in place is so important.  If the group could band together and set about following  plan to challenge their exclusion through coordinated action, then they could potentially mount a successful campaign to change the environment.  But so long as they act as uncoordinated individuals, there is nothing they can do to change the environment as defined by the excluders, and so long as the environment is a given, then the only option available is to accomodate to it.  Behaviour that does not accomodate to it, such as by challenging the basis for the exclusion, will, if effected on an individual basis, only result in individuals who challenge the status quo benefiting less than those quietists who comply with it, and so such behaviour will be maladaptive and be strongly selected against.

Therefore, socially excluded groups will, in the absence of concerted action against their excluders, tend to adapt themselves as far as possible to live within the bounds of their exclusion.  Not only does this mean that they will tend to adopt the stigmata of exclusion, but moreover the group will act to penalise individuals who do challenge the status quo.  Any such challenge will be a threat precisely in so far as any challenge must bring with it a non-zero probability of reprisals, and a worsening of the terms of the exclusion.  Thus, in time, the excluded group will actively select for stereotypical behaviour as defined by its oppressors, and against independent behaviour (this is, of course, no more than a special case of the well understood dynamics of group formation).

This brings me back to my original contention.  Out groups, be they women who appear to aspire to the status of a sex-toy, or minority groups who have allowed themselves to become convinced that they cannot succeed in academic studies, will always converge on a majoritarian behaviour which lives out the myths promulgated by the in groups that excluded them.  It is only by means of concerted action that any change can be effected.

The new objectification


It is scarcely news that objectification is rampant in our culture.  The treatment of women as sexual objects has become so commonplace that it is now scarcely even worth noting any more when yet another ’empowering’ film or book or TV show turns out to just be an excuse for wall to wall tits and ass.  This piece by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times manages to be both hilarious and depressing at the same time in that it shows that the (generally male) creators of these shows tend to claim that they are depicting strong female characters, and yet what those female characters spend their time doing is, well, giving us as much jiggle and joggle as possible.  And though it is mildly comforting to learn that the proposed Wonder Woman show never actually got aired, because it was too bosom-fixated even for TV executives, it is not at all comforting that now an empowered woman is defined as being one who goes out of her way to become a sexual object.

Now, I could go on about what this says about male attitudes to women, and male attitudes to sex, but I have covered those subjects before, and at some length, most recently and comprehensively in my piece Rita Hayworth, the Male Gaze and the Unconscious Mind.  What I propose to do here is to discuss the more complex question of women’s attitudes to this objectification.  This is a complex topic, as the standard myth of our time is that men sexually objectify women, while women object like anything, but cannot do anything about it due to the dead weight of the patriarchy.  This is, in bare bones, the base of Laura Mulvey‘s ‘male gaze‘ theory, that is to say, that men objectify women and women suffer objectification.  The reality is more complex.  First of all, to say that women do not sexually objectify men is nonsense.  However, there are a number of pointers to something deeper and more disturbing.

First look at the strange world of the modern romantic comedy.  As I noted in a piece I wrote some time ago, the standard current romantic movie portrays women as helpless things who are basically miserable until they find a good manly man who will make them his sex-toy and absolve them from having to think, ever, ever again.  This might be taken as being pure male chauvinistic fantasy about what unrepentantly sexist men would like women to be, only these films depend on a largely female audience, and surely if they didn’t like the message they wouldn’t go to see them?  In answer one only has to cross media and look at the amazing success of the Twilight franchise, which proposes that the correct role for a modern woman is gazing adoringly at her perfect man, while doing whatever he says and showing no independence of spirit or mind.  Again, it is women who consume (and produce) this pabulum, so it can scarcely be the case that they object to being objectified.

Therefore the Mulvey theory, and the myth are false: at least some women seem to embrace being treated as sexual playthings.  This seems inherently wrong: why would any woman want to be reduced to a mere breast-transportation device when she has the chance to go out there and have a life not at all dependent on her sexual attractiveness?  The rather frightening conclusion that I work out over the remainder of this piece is that any marginalised group is likely to end up embracing precisely the stigmata of its marginalisation as a part of its identity, and this positively welcome and encourage its marginal status, leading to an unholy feedback loop.  Thus Christina Hendricks turns herself into little better than a walking bosom, Amanda Conner cheerfully produces quantities of grossly objectifying comic book art, and Stephenie Meyer tells young women that they just want to be door-mats.  They would all be interpreted, according to the myth, as being dupes or agents of the patriarchy, but the awful truth is that they are not, and probably seriously believe that they are doing their bit for women everywhere.  For by the lights of the group of women who have come to identify with that which is used to marginalise them, they are.

About objectification

Though is common currency to use the words ‘objectification’ and ‘objectify’ as meaning ‘bad’, in fact objectification is not only a very natural thing to do, it is a very necessary part of human intercourse.  When you or I interact with anything – your computer, a pet or another person – the interaction is mediated by a mental model that we have of that thing.  That is to say, when I interact with someone I know, I do not approach the interaction as if it were our first.  Instead I bring with my my mental model of that person based on all our previous interactions, and I am liable to interpret everything they say and do in terms of that model.  So if someone has a particular verbal tick, or has a tendency to express themselves somewhat gloomily, then I will respond to their statements differently than I would to someone who could announce their impending demise as if it were good news.  This model is therefore an extremely valuable thing, as it allows me to take short-cuts, and use previously acquired knowledge to gain a better understanding of what is going on than I would if I were to be ‘unprejudiced’.  But this means that in fact I am interacting with the model rather than the person, because I say what the model tells me I should say in order to make my point, and interpret what they say based on the model.  In other words, I interact directly with the model and only indirectly with the person, so I have objectified them, in that I am replacing them with my model.

Now it could be argued that this is not quite the same kind of objectification as is treating a woman as nothing but a sex object, but a little thought shows that in fact they are exactly the same thing.  If I treat a woman in a way that represents her purely as an object of sexual desire, then that means that the model which intermediates all of my interactions with her is based purely on her sexual allure and my reaction to it.  So when I turn a woman into a sexual object I am merely applying the same mechanism whereby in all interactions we represent people as private models which become, for us, those people, and taking an extreme approach in terms of those of her characteristics that I consider memorable.  Viewing a woman as nothing but a mind, and ignoring her sexual nature would be just as much a distortion.  So objectification itself is not a bad thing.  Problems arise only when we do not allow our model to reflect all the information we have about the person, but choose only to represent certain characteristics.  Again, we all do this to some extent, but the greater the mismatch between our representation of the person and the actual person, the larger the problem, and the greater the extent to which we do indeed negate their personhood and make them into an object purely of our own construction.

The problem we face then is this: many men, for one reason or another, find it hard to treat women as their coequals, and prefer to model them purely as sex on legs.  The curious thing is this: we would always expect a small number of women to play along with this (there have been gold-diggers down the ages), but we seem to find large numbers of women who enthusiastically embrace the role of man’s brainless sexual object.  Simple logic says that this should not be so, but it manifestly is so, and the reason why is my next topic.

Embracing the oppressor

As I said above, one only has to look at the utterly mystifying enthusiasm with which large numbers of women of all ages have embraced the Twilight phenomenon to see that the role of being an object of the male gaze and no more is actually quite attractive to women.  It is worth observing that the reasons aficionados give for this (in so far as they do articulate them) appear to be something along the lines that it would be so wonderful to be so desired, to be loved by so wonderful a man, and that that is enough.  In other words, becoming a sexual object is not a problem so long as one receives the tribute of the whole-hearted adoration of a good, or exemplary, man.  That this is wish fulfilment is obvious, but it is a very strange kind of wish to have.  Obviously being in a position to have somebody else take over managing all of life’s little inconveniences for one is superficially attractive, for who has not felt the urge to just let go and have everything done for one, but to extend this from a passing hankering into a permanent end state of pure passivity, in which one only has to be in such a way as to satisfy the male gaze’s requirement for sexual excitement, is not so obvious a goal.

Moving on, the modern movie romantic comedy preaches a basically anti-feminist message, telling us that what women really want, if only they can be honest with themselves, is to forget career self and any form of ambition other than the ambition to find a real manly man who will give them so many orgasms that they need never care for anything again.  It is fashionable to explain this as the back-lash of the misogynists who run movie studios against uppity women, but this explanation forgets one basic fact: if the men who run movie studios go so far as to have an agenda, it is that making money is good.  If there was a market for intelligent films about women, then Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have been one of the biggest grossing films of 2011, whereas in fact it failed to recoup its extremely modest production expenses.  The simple truth is that many women choose of their own free will to go and watch sexist drivel for the same reason that they choose of their own free will to read Twilight.  Clearly the idea of being a woman who has nothing to do but be a sexual object is attractive.

As evidence for this hypothesis that the attraction lies in being able to merely be, that being a sexual object is better than being an active agent, here are some examples from the world of comics.  Now, comics are generally a male preserve, but there are a few characters and comic series that have appealed to women.  Let us start with Harley Quinn, about whom I have written in this piece.  All that we need to know is that Miss Quinn started out as a villain’s girlfriend, in a highly abusive relationship, but eventually she went independent.  Now I observed in the referenced piece that there are essentially two versions of Miss Quinn: the utterly dependent girlfriend who sticks by her man no matter how much he abuses her, and the forceful (if deranged) woman who runs her own life.  What I found strange was that observation of comments by woman fans showed that they largely preferred the abused girlfriend version, the reason given (indeed, given in some comments on my essay) being that that relationship involves a great love, and that being with such a great man she had to expect that her ego would be destroyed and that she would be dependent, and that his trying to kill her from time to time was just something she should tolerate, because she had found true love.  So, once again, but now in even more extreme form, we find women actively preferring what they should recoil from, because a great love, and becoming the lover’s object of affection, is the best thing a woman can have, and compensates for all else.

Objects by their own will

We see a theme emerging here.  It is that there is a clear belief among a large number of women that being a man’s sexual object, and being utterly dependent on him, is life’s only legitimate career goal.  Now, we could see this as a form of Stockholm syndrome, with the oppressed woman identifying with her oppressor’s view of her, much in the way that (say) many Saudi women seem to have convinced themselves that the fact that their lives are utterly circumscribed shows how special they are, because they have to be looked after at all times.  However, Stockholm syndrome only works as an explanation if the sufferer has no option but to go along with an imposed reality.  In spite of the dire warnings of those feminist critics who see oppositionism as an end in itself (which is, dare I suggest, just as much a distortion and a form of objectification as is seeing being a man’s sex toy as an end in itself), the cultures of Western Europe and North America do not on the whole prevent women from exercising basic freedoms.  What we see here is not conditioned adoption of an enforce abnormality, but deliberate retreat from reality into the self-created abnormality of desiring to become a sexual object.

To see why this might be the case, let us look at one last example.  The character of Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, needs no introduction.  From 1958 to 1974 she had her own comic, titled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (note that her name comes second).  The stories are largely light froth, but, as I discussed in this piece, they are notable for their extremely misogynistic tone.  They read as if they were written by a typical chauvinistic 1950s man, which was in fact the case.  And yet women bought the comics in sufficient numbers for the series to last sixteen years.  What I concluded was happening was that women were saying to themselves: ‘Look at that, Lois Lane has everything, but even she has to put up with stuff from men that I do; obviously my life isn’t that bad after all.’  Now, that might sound just like a natural precondition for Stockholm syndrome, but what comes next is the distinguishing factor.  If a group has been socially excluded on some grounds or other, then the only way its members can achieve any form of social stability is for the group itself to cohere.  But now, the only factor that its members have in common, the only thing that makes the group make any sense, is precisely the factor that led to its exclusion.  So, American women in the late 1950s were a hugely diverse lot: scientists, secretaries, housewives, actors, writers, academics, politicians, musicians, etc.  The only things they had in common were the stigmata of misogyny: the idea that women were silly, childish and frivolous, and obsessed with getting their man.  And so, the one factor promoting cohesion, the cause of the exclusion, becomes not just a factor imposed from outside, but a way of defining the group.  Women, in order to define their own in-group ended up embracing the 1950s male idea of women as their banner, and could then look down on those women who refused to play with any categorisation and insisted on being themselves.

My thesis is, then, that what we are seeing in the curious embrace of sexual objecthood is simply the definition of an in-group of women who obtain social cohesion from maintaining and emphasising outmoded traditions, and who look on those who do not play along as being some kind of enemy of stability.  For being a sexual object is the great leveller: anyone can do it.  All one needs to be a sexual object is to have a body and to be prepared to allow men to use it.  Making ones own path is much harder and requires work and talent.  So young women queue up to prostitute themselves to unpleasant young men on television programmes, and others flock to absorb regressive piffle, not because of a conspiracy of men, but because of a conspiracy of women.

The illiberal nature of modern liberalism


My title seems nonsensical; surely liberals must be liberal?  Is that not a tautology?  And yet modern self-described liberals seem to be moving further away from what we might expect to be liberal positions such as respect for the rule of law, the concept that human rights are indeed universal, and the championing of those, at home or abroad, whose rights are under attack.  One can more or less guarantee that in recent years, whenever action is taken to curtail repressive acts by a dictatorial regime, liberal intellectuals have lined up to condemn it. So Robert Fisk writes a piece in which he seems to argue that it would have been much better to leave Colonel Qaddafi to get on with massacring the Libyan people, irrespective of their request for help.  Similarly, liberal luminaries have argued that Slobodan Milosevich et al should have been left to do their thing, in spite of the fact that evidence suggested that their regimes were not very nice, and as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole sorry story, in 1990 Margaret Drabble announced that she could not possibly support action to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because – wait for it – Baroness Thatcher was in favour of it, so it must be wrong.

One would expect such a position of libertarians: libertarianism as it is currently expressed, with its insistence that the sole organising principle of society is the liberty of the individual, is fundamentally selfish.  But liberals are meant to care about things like human rights, and to get distressed if people of any nation are not given the chance to exercise them.  So why this strange convergence of attitude between liberals and a political group with which one would expect them to be at variance?   Why it is that  action has become so utterly unacceptable in liberal opinion that literally anything is preferable.  And before I am called on this, let me point out that I have seen one ‘liberal’ writer claim that it would have been better if the Allies had not fought the Second World War, because the Nazi regime would probably only have lasted a century or so, and obviously a Europe (or possibly a world) under the Nazi yoke for a century was preferable to the unspeakable moral stain of going to war.  So when did liberals become so selfish?

This mystery is the subject of this essay.  I will start, as one should, by very carefully defining liberalism and associated concepts.  I will turn to the central question of what ideas turned the liberalism of Hume and Gladstone into the bastard child of corporatism and libertarianism that is called liberalism today, or, more exactly, social liberalism.  I had originally intended to discuss such canards as the claims that Christ would have been a pacifist; that his followers should reject any exercise of force that is not purely defensive (the Archbishop of Canterbury says so!); that in order for any action, no matter how trivial, to be morally justified, those undertaking the action must themselves be of absolute moral purity (this relates to the first point, as it seems to derive at least partially from a radical misreading of the incident of the woman taken in adultery); or that a liberal society can be entirely inward-looking, and not concern itself with injustice elsewhere.  However, fascinating though this may be, it would take me too far afield, and so I dangle before you the hopeful idea of a sequel in which I ask ‘Was Christ a pacifist?’.

What is liberalism?

In order to define liberalism properly I will set about characterising a number of political philosophies, both those similar to liberalism and those antithetical to it.  The reason for this is that we will see that what is called liberalism today is generally not liberalism at all, but rather a mixture of libertarianism and corporatism.

Existing political philosophies

Fascism / corporatism

Before it became a term of general abuse meaning ‘anyone who disagrees with my political views or thwarts me in any way’, fascist meant something very specific.  In general a fascist state is one that is totalitarian and corporatist.  As totalitarianism is essentially a strengthening of corporatist ideas which emphasises the state as the sole source of authority, I shall concentrate mostly on the corporatist aspects.

The essence of corporatism is that the basic unit in society is the society as a whole, and it is treated as (appropriately) a single body, in which individuals are organs who act in ways specified by the brain that is the leadership, the intent being that these actions will benefit the social body as a whole, even if they do not necessarily benefit the individual.  Therefore such concepts as individual freedom are meaningless, as what matters is the state and its survival, not the individual, who is impermanent.  The surprising thing about corporatism is that it is not the preserve of any one part of the social spectrum, as this system of thought is as characteristic of the extreme left as it is of the extreme right.  We can even see it in moderate form in the protestations of those who decry the involvement of the private sector in activities that are ‘naturally’ the preserve of the state, such as health-care and education.  It is, in fact, a terribly seductive idea that can, to a greater or lesser extent, take root whenever we debate the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state.

How do we escape from this conundrum?  My solution, which I will describe in detail in the section about liberalism below, is that in a liberal society we should never, ever justify any proposal in terms of the needs of or the good of the state; every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom.  That sounds paradoxical, but it turns out that it is not.  It also sounds rather libertarian, but it is not, for reasons I will now discuss.


Libertarianism stands at the other pole from corporatism, in that it argues that the sole organising principle for society should be personal liberty.  That is to say, society should do nothing that infringes the freedom of the individual, which is taken as paramount.  A very important point to note here is that this is freedom construed as freedom to and not freedom from, that is to say, it is about my freedom to do that which I will, and it is not at all about my freedom from your interference in my freedom.  Possibly the reason for this is that freedom from is only properly expressible in terms of rights, but libertarianism does not know of the concept of rights.  Rights flow from law and law constraints natural liberty and hence is the enemy in the libertarian model.  With its emphasis on the innate liberty of the individual, libertarianism is, in fact, surprisingly close to Nietzsche’s concept of the  übermensch:  the higher person who knows no external law or morality.

It need not be said that libertarianism begs any number of questions, such as exactly how a large-scale libertarian society could  function with no state to, where necessary, compel individuals to do that which they do not wish to do.  The answer, if it comes, always seems to be that somehow people will solve their problems together in a sensible way with no need for compulsion, but such an optimistic view of the essential goodness of humanity, laudable though it may be, fails to take into account the fact that even if people are on the whole good, they are easily led into bad, and far too many individuals exist who are not motivated by good will, and who are not susceptible to reason.  Thus, libertarianism seems to be doomed to be, beyond the very small scale, doomed to be at best a theoretical model.  It is, however, an interesting theoretical model for it shows how a purely ‘liberal’ society, where we trust to the good will of the individual, is bound to fail.  We need some additional mechanism: the freedom from as well as the freedom to, and that is what we will discuss next.

Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism is concerned with the freedom of the individual.  Therefore it espouses limited state intervention in individuals’ affairs, the rule of law and the principles that all are equal before the law and the state’s actions are predictable and transparent.   This is the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Hayek and Popper and also, surprisingly in view of the way they have been co-opted of late by libertarians, the Founding Fathers of the United States.  However, what is not clear is exactly how this differs from libertarianism.

Let me explain.  I said earlier that in a liberal society every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom, which sounds nonsensical.  But consider the following.  Say we decide that such and such a freedom should be guaranteed to individuals.  This is freedom to: the freedom to exercise guaranteed freedoms.  But now, others may try to impede my freedom to; as the state has guaranteed this freedom, therefore the rights of those others must be limited so as to prevent this.  But now, all things being equal, as all are equal before the law, my freedom must be limited in the same way, so that I cannot impede others’ freedom to.  This is freedom from: the freedom from interference in the exercise of guaranteed freedoms.  So the state intervenes to limit the freedom of individuals precisely when their freedom, unlimited, would impede the freedoms of others.

In this model, therefore the state acts as the guarantor of individual freedoms.  This there is fundamentally different from libertarianism in which the individuals are guarantors of their own freedoms.  Whereas the libertarian believes that individuals are basically good and capable of living together peacefully without coercion, the classical liberal agrees with Hobbes that the state is required to protect individuals from themselves and one another.  In other words, it takes a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature and adopts the minimal approach required to rectify that fact.  Corporatism, which also takes a pessimistic view adopts, instead, the maximal approach of dictating what each individual shall do, while optimistic libertarianism presumes that everything will work out in the end.

Modern day liberalism

Most self-proclaimed modern liberals are social liberals, their primary concern being not the freedom of the individual but the rather ill-defined concept of social justice.  I say ill-defined because this is not any form of justice defined in its usual sense of being the machinery of law and its application, which is clearly defined and known to all.  Rather it is a set of beliefs about the way that society ought to be structured.  Consequently, social liberalism extends the role of the state from being the guarantor of freedom to  managing economic and social issues so as to realise these ideas, so it intervenes in individuals’ lives in order to promote an idea of the way society ought to be.  So what is good for society is good for the individual.

Now this can be said to be a non-minimalist version of classical liberalism, but there is a crucial difference.  In classical liberalism the freedom of the individual is only limited in so far as it is necessary to do so in order to guarantee the free exercise of guaranteed rights.  Thus the state may define laws and may define standards for those offering services to others (if I set up as a water supplier and elected to use only lead pipes then I would be limiting my customers’ right to good health).  However, in social liberalism things go further.  In social liberalism the freedom of the individual may be limited even if it does no actual harm to any other individual, but because it does perceived harm in causing the structure of society to deviate from the preferred model.  In other words, social liberalism indulges in social engineering, the shaping of society to meet an idea.  And where does the idea come from?  The idea comes from the state.

We can also look at this from a point of view of the extent to which the state intervenes in individuals’ lives and the message that it sends to them.  In classical liberalism we say that so long as individuals do not interfere with one another’s rights then they are free to be themselves.  In social liberalism that is not enough: people must aspire to a higher standard.  We want to make people better, and so the state intervenes in their lives so as to bring them in line with the desired goal.  Now again, this could be viewed as a difference of degree, but there is also a fundamental difference of attitude.  Classical liberalism’s attitude is summed up best in Crowley’s famous maxim: ‘do what thou will shall be the whole of the law provided it cause no harm.’  Social liberalism, on the other hand says ‘be what I want’.  Bluntly, classical liberalism is about what you do while social liberalism is about what you are.  To that extent, it is almost a religious position, with social justice replacing God as the object of veneration.  Indeed, if one examines recent pronouncements by senior clerics one might be forgiven for thinking that this substitution had been formalised.

All of this means that social liberalism is very far from being anything that a classical liberal might recognise as liberalism.  In fact, it appears to be a form of corporatism with a left-leaning veneer.  However, things are more complex, because though an enthusiasm for state control of education, culture and the microeconomy is characteristic of modern liberals, this is generally combined with a belief, again almost religious in its fervour, that the state is the enemy and is basically up to no good Paranoia about ‘the man’ or what ‘they’ might be doing and an absolute conviction, worthy of a libertarian, that those organs of the state that carry out such basic functions as managing the rule of law are acting against the common good is therefore combined with a belief that the state should be the sole supplier of any number of services.  Interestingly, it seems that modern liberals insist that it is wrong for the state to undertake any of the functions that a classical liberal would expect of it, and yet consider it only right and proper that it should intervene in any number of areas that in classical liberalism are none of its business.  Thus modern liberalism is in fact not just different to classical liberalism, it is antithetical to it.

Whence liberalism?

Compassionate liberalism

Let me start by dealing with some possible criticism of classical liberalism.  It is argued that it is very rule-based and not sufficiently compassionate.  Social liberalism likes to claim that it, on the other hand, cares for people rather than abstract notions such as ‘justice’.  This is both true and not true.  An approach to running society based on emotion rather than reason might be very satisfying for those exercising the emotion, but it is scarcely the way to guarantee that the state is genuinely impartial.  But this is, we are told, also a bad thing.  Rather than ensuring that none have privilege in their access to law, it is argued that societal circumstances should be taken into account and that the ‘disadvantaged’ be given special treatment, thereby making them the advantaged, and creating a new privileged group.  Thus egalitarians end up, in the name of equality, creating precisely the kind of bias they claim to decry, only as it is their bias it is apparently different.  Classical liberalism, of course, knows no concept of egalitarianism.  All are equal in the eyes of the state, but as the state is not concerned with what they do, save it cause no harm, that does not mean they are equal in any other sense.  Social liberalism’s great fallacy is the attempt to shift this equality from being an aspect of how one deals with the state to being an aspect of what one is.

To return to compassion, some critics appear to believe that classical liberalism is compatible only with robber baron capitalism, and hence has no concern for people.  And yet, under robber baron capitalism it is actually quite hard for individuals who are not robber barons to exercise their rights with any degree of vigour.  The critical difference between a classical liberal and a social liberal is that a social liberal would tend to view success in a capitalist economy as being not very nice, whereas a classical liberal would wish that everyone could achieve it.  Thus a social liberal indulges in dangerous tinkering with the economy (such as the Clinton administration’s downright reckless interference in the mortgage markets) while a classical liberal regulates it.  Again, this distinction may seem small, but it is the difference between telling individuals what are acceptable economic activities and trying to push individuals in particular directions, and indicating to individuals how they should comport their economic activities so as to do no harm to others.  This extends to other areas.  The social liberal asserts that any private education or medicine is an affront to the dignity of man and offers instead a mediocre state-controlled egalitarian approach.  The classical liberal does not care how either is obtained provided that education or health-care of a defined standard is available to all.  Regulation – the setting of standards – is strangely anathema to social liberals, who appear to think that there is more to health-care than making people well and more to education than giving people useful skills, but who do not appear able to define precisely what this more is.  And yet, for example, actually guaranteeing that all schools met the same standard of education, coupled with regulation of university selection, would surely be a far more effective way of ending educational privilege than abstruse schemes to bias the system in favour of the ‘disadvantaged’?  Better by far, one would have thought, to ensure that they were not disadvantaged in the first place.

This, I think, underlines a key shift in ideas from classical to social liberalism.  Classical liberalism contains a very clear set of ideas that one can act on to build whatever kind of state the people happen to want.  This is its strength: provided the state is fair and impartial and just, the individuals who make up its people can make of it whatever they want.  This is also a potential weakness, of course, as without sufficiently strong institutions it is not hard to turn a classically liberal state into a corporatist state, as happened in Germany at the end of the 1920s; the remedy for this is to ensure that the people want to live in a liberal state.  In social liberalism, on the other hand, there is a well-defined ideology of what the state ought to look like and what kind of thing the people ought to want (or be allowed to have), but it is generally expressed so vaguely that it is not at all clear how this ideology is to be realised other than by faith or compulsion.  There is no need to worry about whether a socially liberal state will become repressive, because it already is.  Indeed, some social liberals even question the value of abstract justice, in the sense of an abstract impartial system of law, on the grounds that it does not care about the underlying problem, whatever that means (generally whatever the social liberal in question happens to be upset about today) but is only concerned with preserving order.  So this is a shift from precision to vagueness, from the machinery of government to quasi-religious ideology, from treating individuals as adults free to make their own lives to treating them as children needing to be led.  In fact, in the transition from ideas to faith and partnership to direction one might as well drop the ‘quasi’ and say that we have seen a shift from the world-view of the Enlightenment to that of authoritarian religion.

This is where social liberalism wants it both ways.  While claiming to be permissive and compassionate, it wants to be didactic and prescribe everyone’s behaviour, but it does not consider those  in power as being fit to be so.  One might be cynical and argue that their lack of suitability is based not in the fact that they are provably bad but rather in the fact that they are provably not the sort of people social liberals invite to their dinner parties.  In other words, we have the classic cultist’s belief system: things would be so much better if only I were in charge, and none but I has a legitimate right to rule.    Hence the apparent paradoxical combination of opposition to established power and an extremely repressive ideology, and once again the threat of religious extremism.

Social liberalism as cult

Examining the thesis of social liberalism as a quasi-religious cult, it is clear that there is considerable evidence in its favour.  To start at the beginning, the ideology is founded on assertions that are claimed to be self-evidently true, but which turn out to be muddy, ill-defined and most-likely mutually contradictory.  As I have said, the concept of ‘social justice’ is more or less impossible to define, but it generally seems to come down to some vision of the way society ought to be and the way it ought not to be.  This vision itself generally derives from a number of more basic ideas, like radical egalitarianism, redistribution, social engineering, pacifism and libertarianism.  Now, none of these is self-evident, and it is indeed very far from self-evident how egalitarianism can be reconciled with (say)  a redistributionism which requires the existence of a super-class to make decisions about who is and is not deserving.  Therefore, the ideology is founded on a collection of assumptions which are themselves complex, in that they are not at all well-defined, and which are insusceptible to argument; they can only be asserted.  Contrast this with the situation in classical liberalism, where the basis is the idea that for every right granted, certain rights must be rescinded in order to protect the ability to exercise that right.  This is simple and susceptible to logical analysis; once one accepts the concept of granted rights, it follows more or less as a logical truism.

What we see here is a clear example of the difference between religion and science.  Science is based on well-defined premises that are subject to verification.  Religion is based on dogmatic assertion that must be accepted in an act of faith.  In view of this, clearly classical liberalism is scientific in its approach, while social liberalism, with its motley collection of vague but unquestionable beliefs, is religious.  So, for example, we recently saw in the UK an argument put forward by  economists that the highest tax-band was economically harmful.  A leading ‘liberal’ politician rebutted their argument not on economic grounds, but because removing said tax-band would be ‘morally repugnant’.  He did not argue that their proposal was economically harmful, but that somehow social justice demanded that it be ignored.  In other words, he took a technical proposition based in the language of economics and attempted to rubbish it using a quasi-religious appeal to a woolly concept that has nothing at all to do with economics, and he clearly saw no need to make an economic argument.  In religious terms, he used the familiar get-out-of-jail-free card of declaring the idea anathema: if one can say that an idea is heretical there is no need to understand it or answer its questions, it is just wrong and it should not be posed.

Another aspect of religious thinking is the establishment of an elite or priestly caste whose function is to interpret dogma for the masses and to provide leadership and direction in establishing the way that society responds to the dogma.  Now, again, if the dogma consisted of self-evident, or at least simple and arguable, principles there would be no need for such a caste, as one could be reasonably certain that all individuals would be able to interpret the principles in a consistent way, and so such enforcement mechanisms as are required would be those required by the principles themselves.  So in classical liberalism, once the granted rights and the penalties for interfering with those rights are defined, there is no need for further discussion or interpretation: an individual knows that if they interfere with others’ exercise of their granted rights they will be subject to a defined penalty, and that otherwise they are free to act.  In a system based on dogma, however, even if everyone knows what the principles are, as they are unclear or ill-defined, they need to be told what they mean, resulting either in an ever-expanding commentary on the law or in case-by-case special pleading.  We know that social liberals, with their notion that abstract justice must be modified to consider individual circumstances, would support the special pleading.

As evidence of priestly thinking it is worth noting the often rather condescending attitude of professional social liberals to the people as a whole.  They are not content to accept that if people want something and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone then they should be allowed to do it, for it may be ideologically wrong.  Hence the rather regrettable fact that modern action movies appear to be no more than cinematic noise and fury is generally condemned as a bad thing, with little attention being paid to the fact that these films are incredibly popular.  The people who flock to see them are clearly misled, and so not to be trusted to have the right taste; such decisions should be made by an elite (people like us).  The same attitude is to be seen throughout coverage of culture and even politics where, for example, many social liberal thinkers appear to have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that though they despise Tony Blair, polls made it clear that had he still been leading the Labour Party, it would have won the 2010 general election.

If the people cannot be trusted, then clearly their ideas on what society should do cannot be trusted, and so there is the need for a caste of thinkers and commentators to make decisions for them.  This might well go some way to explaining the social liberal’s loathing of the state’s machinery: politicians have the inestimable disadvantage, as compared to journalists, academics and think tank members, of having to mix with the people and pay attention to what they say.  Thus they can claim greater legitimacy than the social liberal luminaries, but they are infected with the heresy of pragmatism, and so hostility is inevitable, reminiscent of the hostility between King and Pope.  Thus, just as the Popes did in the past, social liberalism insist that they have the sole legitimacy, setting themselves up as a unique source of untainted truth.  The fact that they cannot justify any of their beliefs (including this one) only makes their legitimacy the greater.

Returning to the example of the movies, we see an interesting fact.  It is not enough to say that tastes change and that people really like mindless violence, so what are you going to do about it.  That would be akin to accepting Hobbesian pessimism about human nature rather than Rousseau’s optimism.  If people are basically bad and stupid then anything is possible and one and the same person can be a great writer and a moral pygmy.  However, if one has it as an article of faith that people are basically good, then there must be something more sinister at work: the temptation of the world.  And so we see that far too many critics insist that modern movies are pretty dumb because studio bosses are deliberately ‘dumbing down the medium, which is ridiculous, because studio bosses are interested in one thing: making money.  If there was as much money to be made with movies like Last Year at Marienbad as there is with Transformers 4: Here we go Again then Hollywood would be churning out complex, ambiguous, stylised art movies by the ton.  But this argument does not work for the critics, because instead of accepting that nearly everyone is pretty dumb but only a very few people are really bad, they prefer to see movie-goers as sheep to be led, and the studios as demonic tempters who are leading them into sin.  This attitude, again, generalises.  In political debate their opponents cannot be mistaken, they have to be wrong, almost morally wrong.  Pragmatism (allowing the sinful world to enter into the paradise garden) is the ultimate evil: it is not sufficient that something work; sooner it fail entirely than it work but be impure.

This disdain for the practical has another effect.  The dogmatic beliefs making up social liberalism must be absolute; if they admit any restraint, moderation or regulation, then they are rendered impure.  Now, in classical liberalism, everything is subject to regulation, from individual rights to the system of justice itself, as it is accepted that everything needs oversight and that any absolute can in itself be harmful.  In the Manichean world of the social liberal this is no longer true: rights or facts can be established as being unquestionable.  And as such one ends up creating an über-class which has rights not available to others.  For example, social liberals (probably because many of them are journalists) are adamant that journalistic protection of sources must be an absolute right.  Now, it is a quite reasonable right, but why should it be absolute?  And, more to the point, should we not be concerned that, by making it an absolute, we have now created an über-class of journalists who are accountable to none, who basically have the right to dictate to the justice system what it may or may not know, and who therefore stand above the law?  This looks very much like authoritarianism under another name.

A liberalism for the selfish

Of course, one characteristic of the more cultic kind of religion is that it tends to distinguish very clearly between the esoteric and the exoteric, between true believers and outsiders, and, on the whole, is largely uninterested in the welfare of those outsiders.  They are also generally strongly hierarchical, with obedience to the leaders emphasised.  As we have seen, social liberalism strongly manifests this latter tendency, so the obvious question is whether it also manifests the former.

As a starting point, it is easy to see that the prominent social liberal are themselves selfish in their application of social liberalism.  The most egregious evidence of this is the apparent belief that use of force is such a moral stain on the character that one should tolerate anything in order to avoid it, including ignoring actual requests to exercise it by those who are being deprived of many of the more basic rights (such as to live) that we tend to take for granted.  Indeed, we see the somewhat comical spectacle of a current Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Pope flatly contradicting Jesus Christ on the the subject of intervening in others’ affairs.  So it seems that what matters is that I and my friends be okay, and ‘other’ people can suffer deprivation of all those social benefits I claim to be in favour of, because, well, I don’t know them, and I might have to get my hands dirty in the process.  That this is selfishness goes without saying: what matters is me and my moral state, and when I claim to be interested in social justice I define society in the narrowest possible sense so as to exclude, strangely enough, often those in most need it.  We also saw this in reaction of to the recent English rioting.  In order to promote their own agenda, they made a case that the rioters were those of the dispossessed working class made desperate by the evils of the police, the free market and so on and so forth.  In the process, they privileged the rioters, who actually turned out to be anything but dispossessed workers, and themselves dispossessed the large numbers of genuinely working class individuals who stood with the police against the rioters, and argued that the well-being of the rioters counted for more than that of the genuine workers whose livelihoods they destroyed.  Thus they created a deserving and undeserving poor based not on any true concept of social justice, but rather entirely on which group it most suited them to appear to side with in order to achieve their own ends.  This is selfishness again, in that the rioters and their victims become playing-pieces in a game between social liberals and their enemies.

Now, it is a truism that the selfishness of individual social liberals does not make social liberalism selfish, and yet it is very uncommon to find a social liberal who does not subscribe to the kind of error I described above.  Abstracting, we see that two points emerge.  First, in Manichean fashion, the world is divided into those who count and those who do not, so society is not totality, rather those whom one wishes to benefit with social justice are a distinct subgroup.  Second, what really matters is the promotion of an agenda, whether it be personal moral purity or state ownership of public services, that has little real basis in any benefit to society, even that part of it that one cares about.  It is clear that if one subscribes to these points then one will inevitably be selfish, because the people who do not count do not concern one, and the people who do exist only to serve one’s will.  But, once again, we are in the world of cultic religion.  Let the liberal elite be the priesthood, those who count be the believers and those who do not the pagans, and the agenda (whatever it may be) the dogma.  With those definitions, my two points become inevitable: cultic religions define a very clear division of humanity into us and them in which the out-group is of little of no significance and all that matters is the benefit of the in-group;  moreover they have ineffable and inviolable commandments that the in-group must obey; and, most important, the priesthood get to define us and them and what the commandments are.  We concluded above that social liberalism is, in fact, a cultic religion, and so the two points apply automatically.  Therefore social liberalism is selfish.

 This goes a long way towards explaining some of the more mysterious features of social liberalism.  Given that so many of its proponents claim to take inspiration from the grand universalist philosophies of Marx, their cheerful tendency to ignore entirely the well-being of anyone it suits them to seems somewhat mysterious, as Marx was quite clear that he was talking about the World, not one group in one country.  And yet, if social liberalism is a cultic religion which uses the language but not the ideas of Marxism, such anomalies as Sartre (rightly) condemning atrocities committed by the French in Algeria while (wrongly) cheering on even worse atrocities in the USSR become at least comprehensible.  Sartre was not a Marxist; he was a priest of a religious cult that co-opted Marxism for its own ends.  Classical liberalism, such as in the abolitionist campaign, is universalist.  If social liberals had been around at the time they would probably have found a reason why only some slaves were men and brothers.

Types and ontologies


An ontology is essentially a systematic model for how we break up the world around us into things. This clearly plays a role in perception, as it is the ontology that lets us construct mappings that say that to such and such a collection of qualia I will assign such and such a thing, hence allowing me to build a model of the world I inhabit. Ontology also plays a major role in language, in that language is itself an abstract formal means of communicating information, but that information more often than not consists of statements referring to objects, and it is an ontology that lets me translate these referring statements into things. So if you ask me to get you some strawberries, I use my ontology to translate the term ‘strawberry’ into something that I can recognise (red, small pips on surface, etc). Thus when one individual communicates to another, it is by using an ontology that they both connect referring terms in statements to referents in the world.

What this means is that if communication is to be unambiguous, the parties involved in the communication must share an ontology. Now, for the parties to completely share an ontology is in principle impossible, as demonstrated in our essay Against Standard Ontologies, but we can, by deliberately limiting the scope of our communication, limiting the complexity of our language and formalising the ways in which we refer to things, do something to minimise the risk of systemic confusion.  Therefore this paper attempts to understand what formal structures are required to provide a sufficiently rich world-picture to enable useful communication, while keeping the level of formality sufficiently high that we can avoid systemic misunderstanding, and also while acknowledging that the robot’s world-view will be radically different to ours. This last point is crucial, in that it means that our ontology must exist at a sufficiently high level that none of the referring terms we wish to use in communication actually refer to sensory percepts. Rather there must be several levels of abstraction between any referring term and the qualia we expect to perceive when we recognise the referred thing.


Before we get on to types, it is worth saying a little about what we expect of languages, because that will inevitably influence the way that we express a type system, and maybe even the kind of type system we use. I keep the discussion at the level of syntax and structural semantics rather than content.

Basic structures

So, a language is a formal system with a vocabulary of symbols which can be combined in various ways to produce sentences. We posit the basic rules:

  • Symbols in the language are functional or non-functional.
  • Functional symbols can belong to two classes, that of referring terms and that of properties

So we have the beginnings of an ontology. Here non-functional symbols are connectives, such as ‘and’, ‘or’, etc. Symbols that are functional can refer to objects, or they can describe objects, and hence be properties. Note the crucial fact that I have not said that the division into referring terms and properties is exclusive: a symbol can be both a reference to a thing and a way of describing something else (e.g. ‘red’ is both a noun and an adjective).

In terms of an ontology, we have here defined two top-level and potentially overlapping kinds (that is to say concepts at a higher level than type): Referring and Property, so there are two top-level properties with these names that provide a basic classification. The next key step is the following:

  • Given any referring symbol x and description P then I can ascribe the property P to x, so I can form the sentence ‘x is P’.

And now I finally need:

  • All sentences have a truth value.

Truth values

Even the statement that sentences have a truth value is mired in controversy, because what do we mean by a truth value? Do we mean standard Boolean True and False, or do we include intermediate values like Unknown and Undefined, or do we go even further any allow a continuous-valued logic where the truth value is a probability? All of these choices are possible and have persuasive arguments in their favour: intermediate truth values are useful when knowledge is incomplete and probabilities are useful when it is uncertain. But suppose I am using probabilistic truth-values and I have a property P and I say ‘x is P’; do I mean by this that x is P with probability 0.3? It might mean that I am uncertain about what properties x has, and I am certain with probability 0.3 that it is has P, or it might mean that x is some mixture, a proportion of which, given by 0.3, is P. The first of these applications of probabilistic logic is uncontroversial; the second is problematic, for not all types can be mixed. Therefore we conclude that there are two kinds of probabilistic thinking:

  • Truth values dealing with probability arising from uncertainty. A typical sentence is ‘x is P’ which is true with probability p. This means that we are uncertain of the truth of sentence but believe that it is true with probability p.
  • Truth values dealing with mixing. A typical sentence is ‘q% of x is P which, if it is true, means that we believe that x is a mixture, q% of which is P.

Note that the two kinds of probability may be combined, e.g. ‘q% of x is P’ with probability q.

Properties and referring symbols

We can now consider a quite important question, which is whether types are always properties or whether it is possible to have a type that is not a property. Saul Kripke (in Naming and Necessity) argues that proper names are such types. That is to say, that ‘Julius Caesar’ is not a property, or even shorthand for a property, but is an unanalysed label picking out that one individual. This is, to say the least problematic. First, each of us may know what ‘Julian Caesar’ means to us, and we may be able to communicate about him, but it would be a very brave person to say that my idea of Caesar is the same as yours. Second, how does this picking out work in the absence of a property-based description? Surely ‘Julius Caesar’ is just a meaningless jingle to which we have assigned meaning by associating it with a number of properties.  Now let us look at things the other way: is it possible to have a property that does not refer? The answer to this depends largely on whether or not we ascribe only extensional properties to a property.  That is to say, if a property is defined only in terms of the set of objects of which it is true, then there is no need for it to refer. However, such an approach is extremely limiting because unless we have all properties of all objects pre-programmed into us, then we cannot use properties to describe an object we have not previously encountered. We do not have such pre-programming and neither will a useful robot; we have to be able to generalise. Therefore properties require a means of connecting them to the world of things, that is to say a way of referring to them.

If we take this thought to its furthest extent, it seems that the only real distinction between properties and referring symbols is that properties will in general refer to more than one thing. But even here the distinction is minimal, in that any collective symbol, e.g. ‘robot’ turns out on inspection to be nothing more than a description in disguise. It seems then that, if we follow Kripke:

  • Property x implies Referring x.
  • There is a kind ProperName such that ProperName x implies Referring x.
  • Referring x and not Property x implies ProperName x.

It is worth making a quick observation about free variables, that is to say symbols like ‘it’ or ‘the thing’ that allow one to substitute an desired entity in place of the symbol. These symbols are at first sight neither referring nor properties, and yet they can be either, e.g. ‘It is my head’ or ‘it is my favourite colour’, where in the latter ‘colour’ is object to the property ‘my favourite’ and yet is itself a class of property.

Analysed and unanalysed symbols

Kripke also insisted that his proper names be unanalysed. There is considerable value in the concept of unanalysed symbols. At least one unanalysed proper name exists, that is to say ‘me’ (whether the ‘me’ be a human or a robot). Others exist in the form of objects that are self-evident, manifest facts in the universe of the speaker. So a robot may have a number of sensors which are, to it, things whose nature is fixed, whose identity is self-evident, and which have no properties other than existence. However, there are
two points here. First, the information produced by those sensors need not be unanalysed or undescribed.  Second, to a human observing the robot, each sensor on the robot will belong to a particular type, which may itself be defined in terms of another type, and so on. Thus we see that ontologies are indeed relative.


  • There is a kind Unanalysed which consists of symbols that are atomic, and are not defined in terms of other terms.
  • ProperName x implies Unanalysed x.
  • There are a number of unanalysed properties.

Unanalysed symbols refer to the things that we do not need to have defined because they are manifest and obvious (and hence they are very slippery, e.g. I know that ‘me’ is well-defined, but ‘you’ is hugely uncertain). There are also descriptions that are unanalysed, so a robot does not need to analyse ‘sensor’ any further.  We can build a hierarchy of symbols using the relation ‘is defined in terms of’, so when trying to define a symbol we analyse the way we describe it and then we define those descriptions by seeing how they are described, and so on until we reach unanalysed terms. Sufficient unanalysed terms must exist
that this hierarchy is finite. Therefore:

  • The property symbols of the language form a finite hierarchy with relationships based on ‘is defined in terms of’. There are no a priori constraints on the structure of the resulting directed graph save that it must contain no cycles.
  • The resulting directed graph is rooted in symbols x such that ‘Unanalysed x’ is true.

Note that this hierarchy is not a hierarchy in the usual ontological sense, because it is not based on the property that a description expresses. The hierarchy tell us how symbols are defined, not what they mean.


Now we have the basics and the top-level kinds settled, we can begin to consider what kind of model we should use for types. To start, let us see what we need to do with types.


First, given any entity we need to be able to ascribe a type to it. As noted above, this applies equally to things and properties: a thing can be of one or many types, and a property can also be of one or many types. Therefore:

  • There should be a way to ascribe a type to a symbol in a language.

Before we go any further with this we need to ask is a type part of our language or not? All of the kinds I introduced above were metalinguistic and it may seem reasonable for types to follow that model, and so to inhabit a metalanguage rather than the language proper. This view therefore assumes that types cannot be reified, or at least cannot be described within the language, for they exist without it. But now consider a type like ‘mammal’; that this is a type might be disputed, but it is certainly treated as one in common usage. This type is clearly not metalinguistic as it can be defined in terms of other properties within the language, and so it seems that types must themselves be symbols within the language unless we want to limit quite severely the expressiveness of the type system. This proves to be quite a constraint, as most formal type systems rely on metalinguistic type labels. Once types become symbols within the language then one can have types of types and so on and so forth, as well as interaction between types and unanalysed terms. In particular, it means that the type system can evolve with the language, which is clearly a good thing. Therefore it is clear that considerable restraint is needed to ensure that whatever type system is used does not become over-complex. The constraint, to make up for this profusion of riches, is that we are now severely limited as to how the types are expressed and ascribed. Mechanisms such as the type-labels of the typed lambda calculus, though usable, become extremely limiting because now we have symbols acting in two roles depending on whether they are a referring symbol or an ascribed type. A much simpler, and more natural, approach is to treat types as predicates or properties within the language, so a referring symbol x is of type T if ‘x is a T’ evaluates to True.

  • There is a kind Type such that Type x implies Description x and all types have kind Type.
  • Type ascription is effected by predication, so ‘x is a T’ is a model sentence.

One may think that as a corollary of this, no unanalysed symbol may belong to any type within the language. But consider, ‘me’ is an unanalysed symbol, being a proper name, and yet it carries the description of ‘person’ or ‘robot’ or whatever. Therefore in fact any referring symbol can be ascribed a type.

B. The type system

So we are now at the position that a type is a description of kind Type and we assert that a thing x has type T by saying ‘x is a T’. Now we need to discuss relations between types. A common model for ontologies is to use types that are formed into a hierarchy, so each object lies in a particular place on a tree of types, and so is a member of one type, which is itself a member of another and so on up to the root. We saw in Against Standard Ontologies that this model is untenable so something more complex is required. In order to clarify a possible confusion, note that types, being descriptions, are indeed hierarchical, but the hierarchy involves their definition and not their membership, that is to say type T1 being defined in terms of type T2 does not imply that everything that is a T1 is also a T2. Therefore there is no inconsistency in our model.

So how are types organised? It makes immediate sense to introduce a relation along the lines of ‘is a’, on types which in fact generalises the predication relation that ascribes a type to an entity in a way consistent with our contention that types are referring symbols. Thus I can say ‘T1 is a T2’ which implies
that if any x obeys ‘x is a T1’ then in addition ‘x is a T2’. Therefore:

  • The relation ‘x is a T’, where x is any referring object and T is a type or kind, is transitive, so ‘x is a T1’ and‘T1 is a T2’ imply ‘x is a T2’.

Note that this means that the relation ‘is a’ is not that between class and superclass or between object and class, but is rather a more complex relation that comprises both of these. However it can be useful to think of a type as a class and a referring term as an object (recalling that classes themselves are objects), and I shall refer to this analogy with object-orientation repeatedly below.

So we can model types as a graph. There is no obvious a priori structure to this graph, in particular, any one entity may belong to more than one type, for example ‘sonar sensor’ is a ‘distance sensor’ and an ‘imaging sensor’, and though ‘sonar sensor’ and ‘imaging sensor’ both have type ‘sensor’ they are themselves distinct types. Therefore, in object oriented terms, we are dealing with a type system that allows multiple inheritance.

More intriguingly, we have noted above that even unanalysable descriptions may themselves have types. Therefore the unanalysable symbols are not themselves the roots of the directed graph constructed by the relation ‘is a’. We must, however, ensure that the graph of types is finite by avoiding cycles. There is a subtle point here. Consider the recursively defined binary tree type:

  • If Type A then a Tree A is either:
    • A Leaf , which is a value of type A
    • A Node, which is two Tree A one for each of the left-hand and right-hand sub-trees

Here, though the definition is infinite, the recursion is functional rather than one based on typology; that is to say, the type itself creates no recursion within the graph of types.

  • Types form a directed graph based on ‘is a’ which is finite and contains no cycles.

However there is another point here, which argues against a purely graph-theoretic view of types, which is that a recursive type such as Tree is not well-described within such a hierarchy. In particular it is an example of the critical concept of a parameterised type, which leads us into the next section.


Say I have a predicate P in my language, so I can apply it to any term x to create a new term Px.  Say x has type T1 and P has type T2, what type does Px have? Clearly it can depend only on T2 or only on T1, and in some complex cases it can depend on the precise values of P and x. The obvious way of handling this is with generalised arrow types. Recall that a basic arrow type is a type

T = T1 > T2

such that if P has type T and x has type T1 then Px must have type T2. I want to generalise this a little. What we need of a predication type is first a guard expression which states that I can only compose P with x if the type of x obeys some condition, and second a rule which states that there is some function such that the type of Px is the result of applying this function to x.

  • The most general form of type we need takes the form ‘Px is a Tx provided Gx’, where G is a Boolean predicate and T  is a predicate that maps referring objects to types.

Using this model I can describe the binary tree type above by saying that it takes any type A and returns, based on it, a type Tree A as defined above. This kind of parameterisation is absolutely crucial, for example, in data analysis and artificial intelligence, where I want to take streams of data from any number of sources, which might therefore have different types, but to apply standardised processing to them regardless of the underlying type. And, more to the point, this is something I cannot necessarily do with a standard object oriented inheritance paradigm, because the range of types I want to work with might be so disparate that in fact they share no meaningful common ancestor.


In conclusion our need is for something quite subtle that involves a number of different structures, some based on object orientation, some closer to functional programming. We have to effect a difficult balancing act so as to keep them all in play and not allow any of the different paradigms to take over or become too complex.

Ontological relativity without the rabbit


In his essay (appropriately) titled ‘Ontological Relativity’, Willard Quine introduced the notion that there is no such thing as a fixed, standard ontology, but instead ontology must be relativised, so each individual has one or more ontologies unique to them, and that we use language as a means to (where possible) translate between them.  The key point in his argument was that it is impossible, purely by means of language for me to determine whether you and I ontologise concepts for which we have a common term in the same way.  That means that we cannot, as one may have thought, use language to establish a consensus ontology, as we cannot, purely based on language, derive a unique meaning for common terms.  To use Quine’s example, we may have an agreed term ‘rabbit’, and we may even agree on what it denotes, but we have no way of determining whether it should ontologise as ‘an animal of such and such a shape’ or as ‘a collection of such and such kinds of body parts’.  In the absence of a consensus ontology, we must therefore conclude that there is complete ontological relativity, a fact which is one of the starting points for my essay Against Standard Ontologies.

Now, Quine’s argument is very persuasive, but it depends largely on rather tendentious thought experiments, such as the infamous case of the rabbit Gavagai.  This is not to say that these thought experiments are invalid, but as they depend on somewhat unusual special circumstances to acquire their force, they inevitably lead to the question of whether ontological relativity is truly endemic, or whether it is purely a feature of extreme cases within the realm of possible ontologies, and that most of the time we can actually establish a consensus ontology.  Therefore, in this essay I shall present a formal argument based in the structure of language, that does not depend in any way on special examples, which shows that any reasonably complex language can and must exhibit ontological relativity.


I am going to walk through the structure of language stage by stage, starting from the individual units of language and building up via grammatically correct sentences to sentences with truth value, sentences with reference to a model of the world and finally sentences that refer to the world as we perceive it.  In the process we will see precisely where ontology enters and why it must be relativised.

About language and ontology

So we start from the basic units of language.  In English these are words, but in other languages (especially agglutinating languages) these might be lexemes that glue together to form words.  Therefore I will us the abstract term ‘element’ to refer to the basic atomic unit of language, that is to say the collection of basic units that can be combined and recombined to form utterances.


It seems to be a general fact that in all natural languages (at least all the ones we know about) elements combine to form utterances.  Utterances themselves generally consist of one or more segments, each of which is capable of standing on its own as a complete, formally correct unit of speech.  That is to say, these segments can be uttered on their own and be assigned a ‘meaning’ (more on that anon).  To see my meaning more precisely consider the sequences of English words:

  1. The cat sat on the mat
  2. He ate them because he

Here 1 can stand on its own.  It does not beg any questions.  However, 2 is incomplete, as we do not know what it was that he ate them because of.  I will call these basic segments sentences.   Thus 1 is a sentence and 2 is not.  The rules specifying whether a sequence of elements is or is not a sentence constitute the grammar or syntax of a language.  So syntax tells us how to build sentences from elements.


A grammatically correct sentence is all very well, but if we want to do anything with it we need to be able to tell its truth value.  That is to say, if a sentence can be seen as an observation about the way the world is, we want, given a source of information about the world to plug into it, to be able to tell whether that observation is accurate.  The next step gives us part of this information, in that given a grammatically correct sentence, the semantics of the language tell us how to derive the truth value of a sentence from information about a class of special elements within it: its predicates.

A predicate is a unit that predicates a property of an object (the thing can be pretty well anything, from a referenced thing in the world, to another predicate to a complete sentence) in such a way that the result of doing so is a truth value.  For example consider the following:

  1. The grass is green
  2. ‘All your base are belong to us’ is a grammatically correct sentence

Here 1 applies the predicate ‘is green’ to the object ‘the grass’, giving the truth value ‘true’, while 2 applies the predicate ‘is a grammatically correct sentence’ to the object ‘all your base are belong to us’, giving the truth value ‘false’.  Given a predicate one can, in principle, define its extension and antiextension, which are respectively the collection of objects of which it is true / false.

My assertion, which appears to be true of all known natural languages, and which goes back in philosophy to Alfred Tarski, is that once I know the extension and antiextension of all predicates in a sentence, and know which of these all objects in a sentence belong to, then the semantics of a language tell me how to derive the truth value of a sentence from that information and the structure of sentence.  Consider the examples:

  1. The grass is green
  2. The dog, which had long hair, was rolling in something that smelled horrible

1 is obvious: as noted above, we just check whether the object ‘the grass’ is in the extension of the predicate ‘is green’.  If it is then the sentence is true.  2 is more interesting; to see how it works, let me recast it:

  1. There was a thing x such that x smelled horrible and the dog was rolling in x and the dog had long hair

So the sentence is true precisely when (a) the dog had long hair, and there is some thing x such that (b) x smelled horrible and (c) there is a relation of ‘was rolling in’ between the dog and x.  So the truth value of the sentence reduces to evaluation of three predicates.


Now we have our predicates with their extensions and antiextensions.  At the moment we have a purely formal system of symbols that bears no relation to the world as we perceive it.  How do we know how to relate the objects in a sentence to objects in the world?  In other words, how do we know what ‘the dog’ in the sentence above refers to?  This actually turns out to involve three steps.  First we have to identify what the things are that our world consists of, then we have to describe each type of thing, so we can recognise it when we see it, then we have to identify which of the things we discriminate within the world is the thing referenced in our sentence.

For the moment we stick with the third of these steps.  Say we have correctly discriminated the world into a collection of things.  We then need to be able to look at that collection and relate objects within our sentences to those things.  This is what we mean by reference: a term like ‘the dog’ in our sentence above is said to refer if it corresponds precisely to a thing in the world that we have discriminated as being of the kind ‘dog’.  Reference is therefore, as we can see, absolutely necessary if we are to be able to make any sentence we utter concrete, in the sense of relating to the world we perceive.  Moreover, even with sentences dealing with purely abstract matters, if terms do not refer, that is, if they cannot be assigned to (abstract) things of specific, well-understood, commonly agreed kinds, then there is no way that I can understand your utterances, for there is no way that I can relate the objects in your sentences to anything in my conceptual world.  Thus without reference, language as a tool for communication is useless.


The final thing we have to deal with is the first two steps outlined above as preconditions for reference, that is to say building a conceptual model of the kinds of things the world is made of, then describing each kind of thing in such a way that we can discriminate instances of it within the world and ask questions about its properties (that is, assign it to the extensions or antiextensions of predicates).

This turns out to be the part of the structure which simultaneously is the most critical for evaluating the ‘meaning’ of sentences and the one about which we can say least.  The first of these claims should be obvious, in that if I divide up the world in a different way to you then you may utter sentences that, from you point of view, reference specific objects, and yet, from my point of view, those objects do not even exist.  A simple case of this would occur if I had been blind from birth, in which case colour terms would be entirely meaningless to me; words like ‘red’ and ‘green’ would be valid words, and I would even be able to determine the truth value of sentences like:

  1. Green is a colour
  2. An object can be red all over and green all over simultaneously

But those sentences treat ‘red’ and ‘green’ as objects of predicates like ‘is a colour’, not as predicates in their own right.  As predicates, they have no reference and hence no (anti)extension, so I genuinely have no way of answering as to the truth value of:

  1. This dog is brown

As an additional subtlety, given the sentences:

  1. Unripe tomatoes are green, ripe tomatoes are red
  2. This tomato is green

Then if I were blind from birth, I could answer as to the truth value of 1, because I can learn these facts about the habitual colours of tomatoes, and yet I have no way of answering 2 other than asking someone else to do it for me.  Going the other way, say I were a human being and you were an animal with sonar-based senses (e.g. a dolphin).  To such an animal, objects properties go beyond their visible externals and include their internal constitution in terms of density, mass distribution, etc.  Thus your ontology would contain large quantities of information that simply vanishes on translation to mine; you would distinguish classes of objects that I saw as being identical. Ontology is inherently private.


We conclude from this that two speakers of a language can easily agree on syntax and semantics, as these are the mechanics of language, which depend only on the internal structure of a sentence and not at all on the outside world.  Reference begins to be problematic, for example consider the sentence:

  1. Cicero was troubled by serious crime

Does ‘Cicero’ reference the American city or the Roman Senator?  In either case the sentence is true, so we have to deduce reference from context.  Thus reference depends not just on the sentence itself, but on the context in which it is placed.  This context has two aspects.  First, we can assign reference to particular terms by ostention, that is by (literally) pointing at an object while using the term we wish to assign it to, e.g. saying ‘This dog is brown’ while pointing out a particular dog.  This can be generalised to apply to a very wide range of cases.  It provides what we can consider the occasion specific part of the context by indicating those references that cannot be deduced from the sentence or from background knowledge.  So, second comes background knowledge or what Quine calls a conceptual scheme.  I do not need to have the term ‘dog’ in the sentence above defined for me because you assume that I know what a dog is.

How can you test that I know what a dog is?  The test is simply that you and I should agree on the contexts in which the term ‘dog’ can be used in a sentence and on the truth of the resulting sentences (at least in cases where we can both make sense of those sentences).  So if I were to answer ‘It’s not a dog, it’s a canary’ that would imply a failure of common reference. However,we can determine whether you and I agree on the class of objects referenced by the term ‘dog’, and if we do then we assume that we have a common reference.

As soon as we move onto ontology that breaks down entirely.  It may be that I break the world down in a way entirely alien to you, but have still been able to spot common features in things you reference as ‘dog’, and so can agree on the reference of the term, even if my ontology is entirely different.  For example, if I had the senses of a spider with eight eyes, complex chemical sensors (sense of smell) and very sensitive motion detectors, my ontology might classify all items based on whether they were moving or not, so I would consider a moving dog as distinct from a stationary dog, not out of perversity or choice, but simply because my brain was wired in such a way that all visual percepts automatically came to me with a motion indicator attached to them.  Again, if I were a robot which had eight distance sensors instead of two eyes, my ‘visual’ perception of the world would be as structures in an eight-dimensional space and would (as for the dolphin) include information about internal structures of objects, and again this information would be an inherent part of my perception, not just something tagged on to a more basic perception.  So if perception differs ontology will differ.

But now, none of us have the same perceptions as one another and none of us have the same conceptual schemes as one another.  You and I will be trained by common culture in how to break things down as far as reference goes, and in so far as our common neural anatomy goes, but as we move beyond reference into ontology, as ontology is always private, we have no way of telling whether we do, in fact, share an ontology or not, because our only tool for testing this claim is language, and language can only tell us about reference.  Therefore ontological relativity is necessary, not because we can prove it is true, but because it is necessarily impossible to prove that it is not true.

Philosophical aspects of anarchism


In this time of riots and general law-breaking, I thought it would be interesting to discuss precisely what it is that anarchism entails, and whether this much misunderstood political theory is, in fact, viable.  I say much misunderstood because, though it seems positively de rigeur to claim that one is an anarchist, it is very obvious after a quick flick through the writings of many self-proclaimed ‘anarchists’ that few, if any, of them actually know what anarchy means.

I thought it would be interesting to see if there is anything to anarchy other than a rallying-cry for antisocial malcontents, and, if there is, whether it could be applied in practice.  It turns out that there is: I call it philosophical anarchism, which is really a theory of leadership that embodies an extremely radical democratisation of the decision-making process.  It has even been used as a basis for running at least two states.  However, those states were short-lived and degenerated from true democracy into authoritarianism.  General analysis shows that philosophical anarchism will inevitably be unstable and collapse into authoritarianism on any but the smallest of scales.

This means that as a theory of the state, anarchism is a dead duck.  However, as a model for organisations, and in particular for relations between decision-makers and workers in businesses or bureaucracies, philosophical anarchism is a useful ideal, even if it cannot be applied in its pure form.

What anarchism is not

In the popular mind, anarchist is seen almost as an absence of order.  Indeed, we often take the word ‘anarchy’ as being synonymous with ‘disorder’.  And yet ‘anarchy’ literally means ‘without a leader’, which is not the same thing at all.  As I shall discuss below, there are several examples of large-scale leaderless states which must count as strictly anarchic, and yet in common usage they would be seen as not being anarchic precisely because they are orderly.

Moving to the political arena, examination of the pronouncements of contemporary anarchists makes it clear that for them anarchy is about removing a state that they consider to be illegitimate.  So they take ‘without a leader’ in an extremely broad sense as meaning that they desire a state of affairs where there is no authority that has the right to tell them what to do.  Such a state of affairs will, inevitably, degenerate into genuine disorder.  Indeed some anarchists seem to positively embrace disorder, apparently wishing to overturn any structures that prevent them having or doing whatever they want, up to and including property rights.

Now, it is not my purpose in this essay to expose what is wrong about this political vision.  That it is manifestly nonsensical, and that such a society could not function in a stable way on any scale larger than the village is, I would hope, obvious.  However, it is my purpose to comment on the abuse of the word ‘anarchy’.  I believe that in fact many of those who proclaim themselves anarchists are, in fact, extreme libertarians.  This is not hard to see, in that libertarians also preach the illegitimacy of the state and believe that somehow or other a society can function without any law or state apparatus to protect the weak from the strong.  Many extreme libertarians do indeed reject the state and attempt to dissociate themselves from it.  The only real difference between them and the ‘anarchists’ is that they do seem to have reasonable respect for individual property rights, and have none of the anarchists’ desire to cause harm and damage to others.

Modern anarchism is also, of course, influenced by half-understood Marxist doctrine, so mixed in with the libertarian anti-statism we get a strong admixture of class warfare and some ideas along the lines that private ownership of anything is somehow an affront against – and here we run into the major intellectual incoherence of this system of thought, in that the anarchists are attempting to overthrow the current regime in the name of something they proclaim to not believe in, that is to say a supra-personal collective entity.  In other words, modern anarchism seems to be an incoherent mishmash espoused mostly by those who feel their position in society should be other than it is, and who find destruction more appealing than constructive effort.

The only positive strand of though that I can mention is that espoused by Alan Moore in his novel V for Vendetta, where he makes precisely the point I made above: anarchy does not mean no order it means no leader.  He proposes the vision of a leaderless but orderly society but, it has to be said, rather ducks the question of what such a thing might look like.  Let us turn to considering just that.

Philosophical anarchism


I wish to propose my concept of philosophical anarchism.  This is essentially a theory of leadership and what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate leadership.  It is simple to state.  Say I want you to do something.  There are two possibilities:

  1. I assert that because I am your leader you must obey me in everything; you have no right of comeback, and if you refuse sanctions can be taken against you.
  2. I explain  why I am asking you and am prepared to answer any questions you might have about my request; you then have the right to do what I ask, to propose a modified version, or to refuse outright.

The first approach is the very aptly named fuehrerprinzip and is essentially an authoritarian approach where leaders have coercive rights over followers.  It is, in fact, not all that uncommon even in open societies.  For example, some business leaders positively boast of following it, and it is also commonplace in large bureaucracies.  The second approach is philosophical anarchism.  Why do I call this anarchism?  Essentially it is because this approach is an absolute denial of leadership.  Rather than I having coercive power over you, we are placed in an association of equals, where you are free to act as you will, I am free to persuade you, but that is all.  So neither of us is placed over or beneath the other.

How might this work?  First of all, let us make it clear, this does not mean that you have no decision-makers, and that there is no distinction between those who set the direction of an organisation and those who do the work.  The point is that in an enterprise run along philosophically anarchic lines, decision makers still make the big decisions, but they must be accountable to the workers.  That is to say, if a decision has been made and workers dislike it, the decision makers do not have the right to say ‘we have decided, your opinions count for nothing, obey us or leave’.  They do have the right to say ‘we are sorry, but for the following forty-seven reasons we have to do this, even though we acknowledge that your complaints have merit’.  In other words, decision makers can still make uncomfortable decisions, but they cannot lie to their workers about those decisions, and they must be prepared to do what they can to alleviate workers’ concerns.

As I said in the introduction, this is actually a very radical form of democracy, in fact its ultimate outcome, in that we establish that people no longer have different roles because one is better than the other, only that they have different aptitudes.  Such ‘leaders’ as there are in a society run along philosophically anarchic lines are at best provisional, and have no right to expect unquestioning obedience.  The concept creates a fundamental equality between those who make the decisions and those who implement them.

Historical examples

In fact there are a number of examples of philosophical anarchism in action.  Perhaps the purest instance is the classical Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE.  This was a society which quite literally had no leaders.  Decisions were made by the demos, the assembly of the people.  Aristophanes, who appears to have been part of the group around Plato who were anti-democratic,  satirises the tendency of Athenians to expect to have everything explained to them before they will agree to do anything; he complains in Wasps that democracy has become so endemic that whores refuse to take up positions in which they have to take a subordinate role.  In other words, philosophical anarchism was in full play.  The seemingly trivial jibe about the whores and sex positions shows a radical democracy in which any assumption of superiority or inequality is questioned.

Now, charismatic individuals emerged and took on temporary positions of influencing decision-making. Cleon and Pericles became powerful in directing the state, but their power lasted precisely as long as they were able to convince the demos to go along with what they proposed; the moment it lost confidence in them, they were finished, in the case of Pericles with positively catastrophic results for the demos.  But by and large we see, for example in the extraordinarily convoluted mechanisms for counting jury votes in trials, and the fact that the jury was constituted of anyone who happened to turn up that day, extreme devotion to the principle that all are equal and none has the right to require another (so long as they be free, a man and not a foreigner, of course) to do anything.

The other example is the Roman Republic.  Ideally this was a society in which none had de facto special status (ignoring the peculiarity of Patricians versus Plebians which is a complication but does not change the argument) and anyone could, if they were sufficiently successful, be elected to pretty well any position of state.  There was some complexity as regards elegibility for Senatorial status, but this was mostly related to property rather than anything else.  The rich-man’s Senate was balanced by the poor-man’s Popular Assembly, at which Tribunes of the Plebs could introduce laws.  Moreover, the Tribunes could over-ride the Senate: they had the right to attend its meetings and any of them could demand that the session end immediately, thus effectively vetoing whatever legislation may have been under debate.

In addition to this finely balanced system, the main Roman relationship between individuals was that of patron and client.  Not leader and follower.  The client undertook to carry out certain actions for their patron in return for assistance of some form or other and, critically, both parties were bound by whatever agreement they came to.  So the arrangement was contractual rather than dictatorial.  And, of course, the client always had the right to say ‘no’.  This notional equality was very important to the Romans, who saw all of their society, even the army, as an association of free individuals working together, rather than as leaders and followers.


One might think that Athens was some kind of paradise.  In fact, if you were a woman in Athens you had two choices: you could become a prostitute or you could enter a life so secluded and hemmed in that it would be comparable to life as a woman under the Taliban.  On the other hand, in authoritarian, strongly centralised Sparta, women were highly valued members of society and more or less equal to men; Spartan women were, in fact, noted across Greece for their forthrightness and blunt way of speaking.

Similarly, the Roman Republic was ostensibly an extremely egalitarian society.  In practice, a few powerful families arranged things so that they achieved almost total control, and manipulated the system so that the people never had a chance to actually use their notional powers to prevent legislation that benefited the few at the expense of the many.  Indeed, whenever any Senator or Tribune tried to redress the imbalance in the system they tended to die quite quickly.  It took the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the subsequent monarchical empire to make the system as fair as it claimed to be.

So a decentralised ‘egalitarian’ state isn’t necessarily good and an authoritarian state isn’t necessarily bad.  This is a critical point: philosophical anarchism, like any political theory can be applied for good or for bad; it is no guarantee of a fair and free society.  This fact is often overlooked by adherents of liberal politics, who appear to think that provided the ideas are liberal, the execution of those ideas must also be liberal.  This is not true.

As soon as you have an in-group and an out-group then the notional egalitarianism of philosophical anarchism is disrupted.  In the case of Athens, the in-group were the adult non-foreign free men of the demos, in the case of Rome it was Patrician Senators and their conservative hangers-on.  In general, the disruption creates an imbalance, and naturally the in-group will act to advantage itself at the expense of the out-group, and so things will go on until a notionally egalitarian system has turned into an incognito oligarchy.  We see this in the United States, where the claim that all are equal is regularly demolished, as can be seen in the absurd racial imbalance of prison inmates, or the equally absurd way that titles relating to a role or job appear to stay with the one-time holder of that role or job for life.

So the question is: is the formation of in-groups and out-groups avoidable?  Here there are no simple answers.  My belief is that it is provided that there is constant vigilance by all involved in the society to ensure that none are allowed to introduce imbalances.  However, this is incredibly unstable.  What I mean by that is that it is very easy to knock the system off balance and turn it into an unequal society.  For example, all it takes is for a majority to decide to disenfranchise a minority and we have an out-group.  Provided enough people come to agree with a proposition, no matter how vile it may be, they can make it happen if there is no restraining mechanism. However, we need to be careful: some action against minorities is justified, e.g. punishment for misdeeds.  What we need to avoid is letting these justified actions result in the creation of defined out-groups.  So, for example, criminals are punished, but they are not then (as, for example, is the case in the United States) treated as outcasts.

So what is the appropriate restraining mechanism?  It’s fairly easy to see that one needs a way that minorities can push back against majorities.  But this has to apply with all sizes of minority.  So one has to have a mechanism somehow built into the society that any one individual can, if they wish, thwart the will of all of the others.  That is a recipe for deadlock.  It is also nonsense (it means that one cannot, for example, take any sanction against criminals).  Moreover it is a reversion to the libertarian self-centred form of anarchy, where nothing can be done unless all will it.  So it seems that philosophical anarchy will inevitably collapse into popular anarchy: a condition of the absence of order.

There is one possible way out.  Instead of preventing the majority from acting against a minority by providing a way for the minority to inhibit action, what about a way of making it less likely that majorities will, in fact decide to victimise minorities?  If the society is small enough this might work simply because all individuals will know a sufficiently large sector of the total population that virtually everyone will be a friend-of-a-friend.  It is very hard to decide to demonise your friends, or your friends’ friends, and so this should act to inhibit the formation of exclusionary ideas.  So, more formally, if the average distance (in terms of number of acquaintances required to get from one to the other) between any two individuals in the population is small (I would guess less than three) then philosophical anarchism may be stable.  Indeed, it seems to be more or less stable in village / small town environments.  However, as cases such as Salem show, even these may be susceptible to instability.

So, in conclusion, philosophical anarchy is a nice idea, but it seems that unless it is propped up by some fairly strong state-like machinery it will eventually break down.  It may, however, be usable as an organisational technique for businesses where, used with discretion, it could reduce the employee disaffection that the current cult of the leader inevitably creates.

Against Standard Ontologies

1 Introduction

It is a truism that lay persons rush in where experts fear to tread. We are too well aware of the many enthusiasts who insist that they have built a perpetual motion machine, that they can square the circle, and so on and so forth. Where philosophers have long concluded that there can be no such thing as a single standard ontology, non-philosophers ignore such minor issues and set about trying to build one (e.g. SUMO, see [4]).

Unfortunately, it is still the case that there can be no such thing as a standard ontology. As I will show in this note, at best there can be a number of local ontologies, each dealing with a small, well understood problem domain, where there is only one point of view. This latter criterion is crucial: if I am building ontologies in (say) robotics, I have to accept that the points of view of the robot’s designer, programmer and user are very different, not to mention the point of view of the robot itself. Thus each of these must involve a separate ontology.

I proceed by setting out the arguments for ontological relativity, the claim that multiple equally valid ontologies are endemic. Having done this I show that there are, in fact, very severe constraints on what a candidate ontology can look like, imposed not by a world-view but by the requirement for philosophical coherence.

2 Ontological relativity

An ontology is a (hopefully systematic) collection of types whose intersections are such that by applying subsets of the types in the collection to a thing we can reach the point at which we have a sound description of that thing, and some understanding of its structure. But this is immensely problematical.

2.1 Multiple Ontologies

Consider first the case of types of things whose existence is debated. For example, I may believe in angels, you may not. So, even if an ontology extended to include the category of ‘imaginary things’ we would end up categorising angels in different ways. Thus there is no way that even one ontology can be applied in a consistent and unambiguous way across all cases and individuals.

Now consider the case where I am a classical physicist and you are trained in quantum mechanics. Your conceptual world contains ideas such as ‘wave function’, ‘S-matrix’, ‘state vector’ and so on and so forth mine does not. Thus it is not a matter of our having a common set of categories but disagreeing as to how to categorise a thing; in this case you have categories that I do not even know of the existence of. Therefore either we must conclude that multiple ontological frameworks must coexist, or we must assert that progress will inevitably drive us to bigger and better ontologies, or we must become Platonists and assert that there is a single ‘correct’ ontology, but we have not yet discovered it all. Of these options, the second is dumbfounding in its arrogance and, less pejoratively, is merely a weak form of the third. The third is unprovable and also faintly worrying for all those of us who are not Platonists. Therefore multiple ontologies must coexist.

2.2 Coexisting ontologies

Third, we can do serious damage to the Platonist point of view. Consider Quine’s famous example from [6] where you and I see a rabbit, you say gavagai and I deduce that gavagai means rabbit. Which seems perfectly sound, until we consider the assumptions inherent in this deduction. I have assumed that you ontologise the world into things in the same way as me, so you look at what I think of as a rabbit and see a single thing. But you could use an ontology in which the basic unit is the body part, and then there are names for particular collections of types of body part, so gavagai actually refers to the components of what I would call a rabbit.

Quine showed that, in fact, there is no way of distinguishing by purely extensional communication whether gavagai means rabbit or ‘a particular collection of types of body part’, meaning that both ontologies are equally valid and the difference causes no problem in communication. It is therefore impossible to privilege one over the other; any attempt to do so would inevitably end up deriving from personal prejudice than any rigorous criterion. Thus, not only are multiple ontologies possible, they are endemic. In [6] Quine coined the term ontological relativity to refer to this concept that in fact there can be no preferred ontology.

2.3 Local ontologies

Therefore we must conclude that there is no global ontology that can be applied by fiat. At best there are local ontologies, tailored to specific problems or domains, between which we translate. This should not, of course, come as a surprise to anyone who regularly switches between vocabularies depending on context (e.g. technical, formal, informal).

3 Constraints on ontologies

3.1 Concrete vs Abstract

We need to be very careful with the formulation of the categories that make up ontologies, for the way we formulate them can depend on the precise world-view we want to adopt. Moreover, they can result in severe constraints being imposed on the resulting ontology. Thus any candidate ontology must be verified not just against its creators’ view of the world, but against meta-ontological requirements of coherence and consistency. In this section I demonstrate this fact by analysing one apparently safe top-level categorisation, into concrete and abstract.

3.1.1 What is concrete?

What, precisely, do we mean by concrete? The folk-epistemology denition that something is concrete if it is real is far from helpful, because if I am a Platonist then, as far as I am concerned, \aleph_0 is real, whereas if I am a constructivist I might assert that only finite integers are real, if I were an empiricist I might deny the negative integers, and if I were a strict empiricist I might wonder whether it is actually provable that the integer 472,533,956 is realised anywhere in the physical world. So the naive view founders on ontological relativity.

So say that a thing is real if it can be realised; that seems safe enough. A horse can be realised, so horses are real. But what about unicorns? The fact that no realised unicorns have been discovered does not mean that they cannot be realised, only that they have not been realised; there is a clear distinction between absence and impossibility. Now, we might decide to rule against unicorns because they are imaginary, but consider the case of the top quark. Top quarks have been demonstrated to be realised, so top quarks are concrete. But the top quark as a thing was hypothesised long before it was discovered, so what was its ontological status after its invention but before its discovery? If unicorns are abstract, so must the top quark have been, in which case it suddenly underwent transition from abstract to concrete upon its discovery. Thus either, once again, ontological relativity rears its ugly head, or else we have to accept the Platonic position that anything we can construct hypothetically is, in fact, concrete.

3.1.2 Types and kinds

In fact things get much worse. When we speak of things, do we consider a thing to be anything that is realisable, or does it have to correspond to a particular object. To put it more formally, can types and kinds be things? To return to my example, horse is actually a type, in that it consists of a collection of qualities that allow us to ascribe identity to one particular class of things. But surely types cannot be concrete, for (unless we are Platonists) surely the concept horse cannot be realised, precisely because it is, in the truest sense, an abstraction.

So let us suppose that all types and kinds are abstract. What, then is there left to be concrete? That question is very hard to answer, because once we have taken away all types, kinds and properties (for properties are merely a kind of type), what is left is formless, undistinguished stuff. Indeed, as Quine has pointed out ([7]), even proper names can be thought of as properties, as they are essentially predicates that allow us to distinguish one thing from the rest, and hence are a property held only by that thing. Even within the context of Kripke’s rather more Platonic universe, the rigid designator ends up as being a kind of label that picks out a particular thing ([3]), and is hence a property or type. Thus, once we have stripped away all types and kinds what is left is things that are undistinguished and undistinguishable, the unknowable thing in itself. The concrete category might well exist, but in as far as the purpose of an ontology is to enable proper categorisation of things, then it is useless, because it is not susceptible to categorisation.

Therefore it follows that when we are building an ontology, we might, if we so wished, make an initial division into concrete and abstract, but we would immediately find that at that point we had, at least in the concrete category, gone as far as we could go, and that all subsequent work must involve the imposition of structure upon the abstract. Therefore, any ontology that attempts to maintain a distinction between the concrete and the abstract while imposing structure on the concrete is incoherent.

3.2 Hierarchies and other structures

There is a common assumption among practitioners of practical ontology that ontologies must be hierarchical, that is to say that each type or kind is a specialisation of precisely one (more general) type or kind, and so on all the way back to a single root kind. Thus the categories that make up the ontology form a simple tree. This top-down approach is strongly rooted in pre-modern systematic philosophy (see [1] and [5] for examples) but it is not obvious how realistic it is.

3.2.1 Hierarchical models are not sufficient

Consider, for example the case of the platypus. A platypus is a type of mammal, but it is also a type of egg-laying animal and those two types cannot be placed in a hierarchical relation to one another. Hence, the type platypus cannot be derived from only one parent type. As a more conceptual example, the C declaration

typedef union
  long l;
  double d;
} longdouble;

creates a type which is simultaneously a type of long and a type of double; in fact it is polymorphic and can be taken to be of either type.

Consider also this problem. Say I decide that a relation is a type of thing within my ontology. So it must sit somewhere in my hierarchy. But any realised relation is a relation (one type) between one or more things (one or more additional types), and so the realised relation derives from at least two types, and may derive from any number. This is evidence of a certain problem with naive ontologies: if one tries to make an ontology all-embracing then it has to end up being self-describing, so meta-ontological structures such as relation become part of the ontology and end up being related to almost everything.

3.2.2 Recursive types

In fact, we can go further. Clearly any reasonable ontology must allow for recursive types. For example, in Haskell we might specify the type of (rather ironically) a binary tree as

data Tree a = Leaf a | Node ( Tree a ) ( Tree a )

In general, we can only define the type binary tree in terms of itself, and this is far from being the only example. A sound ontology has to allow for recursive definitions, but a hierarchy cannot.

3.2.3 Functional types

A classic example of a type that will not fit in any hierarchy is the function type, that is to say a type of things that change the type of other things. So, for example, transducers are a type of thing that convert one type of energy to another, e.g. microphones, which convert sound energy into an electric current. We can model this as

transducer :: a -> b

where a and b are the input and output types of energy. So this function type depends crucially on two types, the input and the output.

3.2.4 Conditional types

This is complex enough, but the example of the tree demonstrates just how far from being a hierarchy ontology can get. Recall that we defined

data Tree a = Leaf a | Node ( Tree a ) ( Tree a)

Here a is a parameter that can stand for any type. So this prescription tells me how to make a binary tree of type a. Continuing down this route, we can be more stringent, for example

data (Eq a ) => Set a = Set [a]

says that I can make a set whose elements are things of any type a that happens to belong to the type Eq. In other words, I am given a type of types (i.e. Eq) and from it construct a function

Set : : (Eq a ) => a -> Set a

This is a conditional type, in that it imposes a condition on a: if a is of type Eq then Set a is a type.

To make this concrete consider the types heap of sand, heap of bricks, heap of clothes. These fall into a pattern, in that though each of them is a type in its own right, underlying them is a more general type, the type heap. Each type of heap is formed by combining heap of… with another type from within a fairly wide class of types. So we combine a type (heap) with a type of types (types of things you can form into heaps) and derive a function (that takes a heapable type into the type of heaps of things of that type).

It need hardly be said that this is entirely incompatible with notions of hierarchical or tree-based ontologies. A more subtle structure, such as that found in typed lambda calculus (see [2]), is probably required.

3.2.5 Conclusions

So we conclude that a viable ontology cannot be hierarchical or tree-based. This is not to say that it cannot have a parent-child structure, but whatever structure we choose must allow that (i) a type may have multiple parents, (ii) a type may be its own parent, and (iii) the most general rule for deriving more specialised types from less specialised must accomodate at least function types and conditional types.


  1. Aristotle. The Physics.
  2. H Barendregt. “Lambda calculi with types”. In: Handbook of Logic in Computer Science. Vol. II.
  3. S Kripke. Naming and Necessity.
  4. I Niles and A Pease. Towards a Standard Upper Ontology. 2008.
  5. Proclus. The Elements of Theology.
  6. W Quine. “Ontological Relativity”. In: Ontological Relativity and other essays.
  7. W Quine. Set Theory and its Logic.