“The term ‘formal ontology’ has been given two different interpretations. The first of these, entirely in keeping with the mainstream of contemporary philosophy, has been what I shall call analytic: formal ontology is that branch of ontology which is analysed within the framework of formal logic. The leading exponent of this approach has undoubtedly been Nino Cocchiarella.’ On the premise that each particular science has its own ‘mode of being’, Cocchiarella has written that ‘metaphysics [ …] — or what we might instead call formal ontology —is concerned with the study and development of alternative formalizations regarding the systematic co-ordination of all the ‘modes’ or ‘categories of being’ under the most general laws’ (1). From this point of view, formal ontology studies the logical characteristics of predication and the various theories of universals.

The other interpretation, which I shall call phenomenological, developed from Husserl’s early works, in particular Logical Investigations. As a first approximation, we may say that this approach mainly addresses the problems of parts and wholes and of dependence. Despite their differences, these two varieties of formal ontology quite frequently overlap each other, although to date there has been no systematic study of the categories and layers that constitute formal ontology and no systematic analysis of the issues addressed by it.


The best way to deal with Husserl’s theory of formal ontology, therefore, is to explicate both the connections between the formal and material, and those between the ontological and the logical.

In introducing his distinction between formal and material ontology, Husserl asserts that the former is descriptive and involves analytic a priori judgements, and that the latter involves synthetic a priori judgements. In its most general sense formal ontology concerns itself with characterizing the simple ‘something’. Depending on how this ‘something’ is conceived, Husserl adds, the ‘field of formal ontology should be the “formal region” of the object in general’ (Formale und transzendentale Logik 1929, art. 38).

Characterizing material ontology is a more complicated matter, because the term can be interpreted in either of two ways. In the genetic interpretation it relates to the field of perception and its foundations (Husserl Krisis 1954, art. 6, sec. 1). In the descriptive interpretation, material ontology is instead ontic and concerns the highest material genera, i.e. the material categories in which single ontologies are rooted (Ideen zu einer reinen Phenomenologie 1913, vol. 1, art. 75). The sphere of material ontology in this sense are the laws of non-independence (2) which delimit the ontological regions. For the genetic interpretation, material ontology precedes formal ontology; for the descriptive interpretation it is the other way round (1913, art. 10). Here emerges ‘the fundamental distinction between formal and material ontology’: namely, the distinction between analytic a priori and synthetic a priori (introduction to 1929).

Detailed treatment has never been given to the stratified connections between material ontology in the genetic sense, formal ontology, and material ontology in the regional sense. It would, however, go beyond my present brief to investigate this question in detail, even though one should have at least a general topographical outline in mind.

The second opposition distinguishes the ‘formal’ into ontological and logical. In this sense, we must not confuse or superimpose that which pertains to formal logic and that which pertains to formal ontology. Likewise, we should not superimpose or mix the formal and material meanings of the concepts used.”

(1) Formal ontology and the foundations of mathematics in: G. Nakhnikian (ed.), Bertrand Russell’s Philosophy, Duckworth: London, 1974, pp. 29-30.

From: Roberto Poli, Husserl’s Conception of Formal Ontology, History and Philosophy of Logic, vol. 14 pp.1-14 (1993) p. 1-2.

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