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Article

What People Said: The Theoretical Foundations of a Minimal Doxographical Ontology and Its Use in the History of Philosophy

Traditionally, ontology engineering is based on the presumption that the meaning of a proposition results from the combination of the meaning of its elements (concepts) and its syntactical structure. The reach of this "principle of compositionality" is, however, a contested topic in semantics. Its opponents defend the primacy of propositional meaning and derive the meaning of concepts from their contribution to propositional meaning. In this situation, this paper argues for an approach to ontology design that does not presuppose a stance in this debate. The proposed "minimal doxographical ontology" is intended as a heuristic tool charting unknown or complex domains. It regards propositional meaning as atomic and relates it to a bearer of propositional content (persons or texts). The strengths of such an approach are first discussed in a simplified example, the analysis of legal stipulations on alcoholic beverages. A more complex use case concerns the doxographical analysis of debates in the history of early modern philosophy. In closing, the paper sketches briefly how this approach may be extended using ontologies as hermeneutic tools in the interpretation of sources from the history of philosophy.