What is ontology?
March 14, 2005 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Philosophy 101: What is 'ontology'? For a while now I've been using the word ontology to mean an unspoken and taken-for-granted theory of the world. I've used it as a kind of opposite to epistemology, and congruent with the distinction (in my mind at least) between tacit and explicit. Last year I was mugged by some philosophers who said that I just could not do that. Am I right? Am I wrong? Useful resources? Help!

I personally either think about ontology in the more formal Information Science sense of information ontologies, or in the looser sense of an everyday theory of the world (e.g. Wittgenstein's language-games and 'forms of life'). These philosophers threw a bunch of Plato at me, which seemed to be a third way to think about ontology; but the way they explained it completely baffled me. Are there any good resources out there (print, web) that lay out the Platonic view at a 'dummies' level. and hopefully relate it to these other views? Am I correct in my own definitions of ontology? What resources have you found useful to understand this concept?
posted by carter to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Being and Time.
posted by kenko at 10:47 AM on March 14, 2005

Ontology = theory of being, epistemology = theory of knowledge. Not exactly opposites like tacit (implicit) vs explicit. I'm resisting the temptation to use metaphors on one hand, and to fall into verbosity on the other, so the brief version will have to do until the next person does a better job than me.
posted by DaShiv at 10:51 AM on March 14, 2005

the wikipedia entry is pretty good. it's possible you're also confused between the "philosophy" kind of ontology and the library kind - see the wikipedia link to computer science at the top of that page.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:52 AM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: This should give you a good start -

posted by LadyBonita at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: In the more analytic tradition (not Heidegger), ontology and "metaphysics" are basically synonyms. Ontology, as DaShiv says, is the study of being, or what is. An ontology is basically a set of claims about what kinds of things there are in the universe (usually argued for, not assumed). Austere ontologies have very few things exisiting -- maybe just quarks, electrons, or protons. Everything else then wouldn't properly speaking "exist", but instead be assemblages of these parts and exist in a derivative sense. Less austere ontologies would include such things as persons, species, values, and so on, as things that exist and are not reducible to assemblages of other things.

Spinoza has an ontology on which everything is one thing and all of us are mere modifications of that one thing (as are rocks, tree branches, sounds, and so on).

To do ontology or to do metaphysics is to make and defend claims about what kinds of things there are in the universe -- not to create them yourself.

Once you have a theory about what there is in the world, it makes sense to ask next how we come to know these things. This is epistemology. So far from being the opposite of ontology, epistemology is a partner to it. (Of course, things get complicated (as they always do) when people suggest that epistemology should come before ontology, or that coming to know things is what, in some sense, brings things into being. Kant comes in and makes things much more complicated. It gets worse from there on out.)

Also some notes in my user profile.
posted by ontic at 11:37 AM on March 14, 2005 [2 favorites]

Ontic's user page has a nice bit as well, on preview: he's here now.
posted by safetyfork at 11:39 AM on March 14, 2005

Not a bad description of Plato's forms here: http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/platform.htm. .

Plato is generally said to be doing ontology because he argues that what really exists are eternal, unchanging forms. The everyday world are imitations, or reflections of these forms.

This quite a different ontology than one that says the universe is only made up of quarks.
posted by ontic at 11:43 AM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: There's also a definition of ontology as it pertains to artificial intelligence systems. The Free Online Dictionary of Computing has what I consider the most concise definition:
For AI systems, what "exists" is that which can be represented. When the knowledge about a domain is represented in a declarative language, the set of objects that can be represented is called the universe of discourse.

We can describe the ontology of a program by defining a set of representational terms. Definitions associate the names of entities in the universe of discourse (e.g. classes, relations, functions or other objects) with human-readable text describing what the names mean, and formal axioms that constrain the interpretation and well-formed use of these terms. Formally, an ontology is the statement of a logical
posted by dejah420 at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2005

Side note: you can have tacit ideas about epistemology, too. Lots of people just assume that their senses are reliable, for example, or that their ideas refer to external objects in a straightforward way. That stuff is definitely epistemology, whether it's tacit or explicit, because it's about how we know what we know.

So no, ontology/epistemology doesn't map onto tacit/explicit at all.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:34 PM on March 14, 2005

I had a prof who had (I found) a memorable and useful way of putting it:

"ontology is what we think we know; epistomology is how we think we know it"
posted by carmen at 12:38 PM on March 14, 2005

epistemology, that is
posted by carmen at 12:41 PM on March 14, 2005

I guess the problem with your definition I'd think is that it presumes Kant's murder of metaphysics. Ontology isn't a theory about the world so much as it's a framework in which the world is placed. Ontologies make concrete claims that determine what things exist and what the relationships between those things are and these claims are rarely, if ever, based on empirical data. I could see why Platonists would have trouble with your definition since it undermines their whole work and the very idea that humans can make authoritative claims about what is.
posted by nixerman at 1:09 PM on March 14, 2005

I think Hiedegger's Being and Time is a very funny answer to a question that begins: 'Philosophy 101'.
posted by Slothrop at 2:15 PM on March 14, 2005

carmen's got it--"ontology" is the study of what we know, and "epistemology" is the study of how we attain that knowledge.

As an exercise in that distinction, her prof's hedging of "what we think we know" and "how we think we know it" is itself an epistemological gesture. He's making implications about the nature of what we really know--that our ability to perceive the "truth" is imperfect, or maybe even totally subjective.

It's a correct one, in my opinion, but it adds a layer of complexity to the basic issue. (Typical of the type of thing that philosophy profs love to endlessly dissect.)
posted by LairBob at 2:54 PM on March 14, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks everyone; you're wonderful! There's some good stuff there to get me started on more exploration.
posted by carter at 4:19 PM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: This isn't too much of an addition, but it does point to a source that may help, one that came up in a similar conversation I had the other day. Philosophers might be getting pissy if you're using it in any context other than the nature of "being." But social scientists have appropriated it to mean any unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions behind social theories, and not just the make-up of the self.

In Stephen K. White's recent book Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory he claims that in order to comprehend contemporary arguments about ontology, it is crucial to understand "the shift in the meaning of ontology that emerged in the last century in analytic philosophy and philosophy of science. For most English-speaking philosophers, ontology came to refer increasingly to the question of what entities are presupposed by our scientific theories. In affirming a theory, one also takes on commitment to the existence of certain entities. Ontology in this general sense seems to have been increasingly appropriated in recent years by the social sciences" (White 3).
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:02 PM on March 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Ha! Ontic, I never realized that your user profile includes a counter-assertion to the one in my user profile. I might have to put mine in italics too so that it looks as fist-poundingly forceful. Congratulations on your professorship, by the way!
posted by painquale at 5:46 PM on March 14, 2005

What Kobayashi is referring to is Quine's notion of ontology. For the most part, analytic philosophers believe ontological claims shouldn't conflict with scientific claims, but they need not be limited to what is presupposed by scientific claims.
posted by ontic at 6:03 PM on March 14, 2005

quine was a funny, funny man. many years ago I was lucky enough to have lunch with him in a ramen shop. he did not make a distinction between soup and tea.
posted by dorian at 6:38 PM on March 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

May help to remember that ontos is the greek verb "to be" and episteme is greek for "knowledge" or "science", so ontology is the ology of what IS, and epistemology is the ology of episteme, or determinate knowledge.

As others have said, a fair percentage of modern analytic or pragmatic philosophers don't think the distinction is meaningful.
posted by mdn at 7:59 PM on March 14, 2005

The question is pretty much answered, but I'd like to affirm that, yes, qualia do exist and painquale is wrong there - so where else might he be wrong?

posted by kavasa at 8:14 PM on March 14, 2005

Response by poster: Once again, thanks for all the great answers, everyone! I now have a better idea of where *I* am with respect to ontology (a vague social scientist, which makes sense), and thus also why I made the Platonists mad. Thanks for the SEP link, LadyBonita (I'd checked SEP but the ontology page isn't posted yet); and also for the Stephen White link (.kobayashi.), which has the first chapter as a pdf, which I will read today.
posted by carter at 6:12 AM on March 15, 2005

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