Conference to Look At How Philosophy Can Clarify Contemporary Issues In Law, Society

Release Date: April 20, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ontology, the modern philosophical study of the characteristics of all reality, has had a great influence on many aspects of 20th century thought. In recent years, the tools of ontology have strongly affected the design of medical databases, for instance, and the construction of geographic information systems.

These tools have not, however, been applied to the field of law, an area in which they would be of significant use. As a result, new legislation often is not informed by sound analysis of the "meaning" of new legal entities, such as clones and computer software. This has led to many legal and social problems related to the rapid introduction of new technologies and other forms of social change.

Ways in which sound ontological analysis can help to alleviate some of these problems in the law, and for social institutions in general, will be explored when major figures in philosophy and law participate in the international Marvin Farber Conference in Applied Ontology.

Sponsored by the University at Buffalo Department of Philosophy and the UB Marvin Farber Memorial Fund, it will be held April 24-25 in the Center for Tomorrow on the UB North (Amherst) Campus and the Center for Inquiry, 1310 Sweet Home Road, Amherst.

Participants will include philosophers from the U.S. and several nations in Europe and Latin America.

The conference will include a symposium on the book "The Construction of Social Reality" by distinguished philosopher John Searle of the University of California, Berkeley, with responses by the author.

Program details can be obtained by contacting the conference Web site at or by calling the UB Department of Philosophy at 716-645 2444, ext. 707.

The conference will be co-chaired by Barry Smith, UB professor of philosophy, and attorney David Koepsell of Cohen and Lombardo PC, of Buffalo, a visiting research fellow at UB.

Koepsell explained that the importance of legal entities in our everyday lives cannot be overlooked.

"Rights, property, obligations, crimes, contracts, patents, debts, insurance policies, parcels of real estate, nation-states and similar objects define the scope of accepted behavior in all societies ruled by laws," he said.

Barry Smith noted, for instance, that legal systems are composed of legal entities, or "beings" -- laws, contracts, obligations and rights -- whose application yields new categories of entities, such as corporations, trademarks, marriages and parcels of real estate.

"The categorization of these entities by different legal systems has not, by-and-large, been conducted in ways that exploit the tools of modern ontology," he said.

"Consequently, contradictions and inconsistencies often arise in the law when, for instance, one type of entity is forced into two mutually exclusive categories." An example of this, he said, is that computer software is considered to be both patentable and copyrightable.

The discipline of ontology involves the description of the structure of the different types of entities by which the different regions of reality are constituted. Ontology also describes the relations among these entities.

Koepsell said the fact that ontology has not been applied successfully in the legal domain has led to contradictions and economic inefficiencies in the development of law.

"A sophisticated study of legal entities, developed through the practice of applied ontology," he said, "can help avoid at least some of the pitfalls that naturally arise when 'naive' ontology guides lawmaking.

"Naive ontology is simply the categorization of objects without benefit of the tools of formal ontology -- without due consideration for the future implications of technological innovations," Koepsell said.

A formal ontology of law, he pointed out, will account for every object with which the law is concerned. Everything from bagels to battleships at some point comes to be the subject of legislation. Applied legal ontology is concerned with the examination and formulation of definitions, categories and systems of categorization designed to be of service in the articulation, codification, revision and application of laws.

Koepsell said its principles apply to legal entities, such as contracts and rights to other objects that are the subjects of lawmaking, such as CD-ROMs, biotopes, broadcast frequencies, nuclear weapons or genetically engineered mice, for instance.

He added, "When guided by sound analysis, legislation can at least to some degree alleviate the problems associated with the rapid forms of social change and the legal and economic problems that can follow."

Besides Searle, who is one of the nation's most distinguished and influential philosophers, featured presenters will include Raimo Tuomela and Lars Lundsten, both of the University of Helsinki; Ingvar Johansson of Umea University; Anthonie Meijers of the University of Tilberg; Nenad Miscevic of Maribor University; Miriam Thalos of Buffalo; Trevor Bench-Capon and Pepijn Visser, both from the University of Liverpool; Leonardo Zaibert of the University of Caracas; Clark Hare of UCLA, and Dieter Münch of the University of Berlin.

The late Marvin Farber was one of the greatest American proponents of phenomenology, a philosophical school in which ontology plays an important role.

The son of a prominent Buffalo family, Farber attended UB in the early 1920s and received a doctorate from Harvard University. He studied in Germany under Edmund Husserl, the great 20th century German philosopher whose thinking was controversial but wielded a powerful influence on the fields of sociology and psychology, as well as upon phenomenology and existentialism.

Farber returned to UB in 1927, where he taught until his retirement in 1974 as professor emeritus. During that time, he wrote a number of influential texts and founded and edited the prestigious international journal Philosophical and Phenomenological Research. An extensive collection of his publications, correspondence and principal papers is held in the UB Archives.

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.