Ontology (introduced in 1606) is the philosophical study of the nature
of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic
categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a
part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology
often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be
said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a
hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences. A
very simple definition of ontology is that it is the examination of
what is meant by 'being'.
In modern terms, the formal study of reality itself is in the domain
of the physical sciences, while the study of personal "reality" is
left to psychology. The idea of ontology comes from a time before
people could make these distinctions and yet were beginning to
investigate the bigger questions ("first principle") within the
emerging context of secular thought, without religious forms and
2.1 Some fundamental questions
Parmenides and monism
3.1.2 Ontological pluralism
4 Other ontological topics
4.1 Ontological formations
4.2 Ontological and epistemological certainty
4.3 Body and environment, questioning the meaning of being
Ontology and language
Ontology and human geography
Reality and actuality
4.7 Microcosmic ontology
4.8 Ontological argument
5 Prominent ontologists
6 See also
8 External links
The compound word ontology combines onto-, from the Greek ὄν, on
(gen. ὄντος, ontos), i.e. "being; that which is", which is the
present participle of the verb εἰμί, eimí, i.e. "to be, I am",
and -λογία, -logia, i.e. "logical discourse", see classical
compounds for this type of word formation..
While the etymology is Greek, the oldest extant record of the word
New Latin form ontologia, appeared in 1606 in the work
Ogdoas Scholastica by
Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and in 1613 in the
Lexicon philosophicum by
Rudolf Göckel (Goclenius).
The first occurrence in English of ontology as recorded by the OED
(Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, 2008) came in a work by
Gideon Harvey (1636/7–1702): Archelogia philosophica nova; or, New
principles of Philosophy. Containing
Philosophy in general,
Metaphysicks or Ontology, Dynamilogy or a Discourse of Power, Religio
Philosophi or Natural Theology, Physicks or Natural philosophy,
London, Thomson, 1663. The word was first used in its Latin form by
philosophers based on the Latin roots, which themselves are based on
Leibniz is the only one of the great philosophers of the 17th century
to have used the term ontology.
Some philosophers, notably in the traditions of the Platonic school,
contend that all nouns (including abstract nouns) refer to existent
entities. Other philosophers contend that nouns do
not always name entities, but that some provide a kind of shorthand
for reference to a collection either of objects or of events. In this
latter view, mind, instead of referring to an entity, refers to a
collection of mental events experienced by a person; society refers to
a collection of persons with some shared characteristics, and geometry
refers to a collection of specific kinds of intellectual
activities.[need quotation to verify] Between these poles of
realism and nominalism stand a variety of other positions.
Some fundamental questions
Principal questions of ontology include:
"What can be said to exist?"
"What is a thing?"
"Into what categories, if any, can we sort existing things?"
"What are the meanings of being?"
"What are the various modes of being of entities?"
Various philosophers have provided different answers to these
questions. One common approach involves dividing the extant subjects
and predicates into groups called categories. Such
lists of categories differ widely from one another, and it is through
the co-ordination of different categorical schemes that ontology
relates to such fields as library science and artificial intelligence.
Such an understanding of ontological categories, however, is merely
taxonomic, classificatory. Aristotle's categories are the ways in
which a being may be addressed simply as a being, such as:
what it is (its 'whatness', quiddity, haecceity or essence)
how it is (its 'howness' or qualitativeness)
how much it is (quantitativeness)
where it is, its relatedness to other beings
Further examples of ontological questions include:
What is existence, i.e. what does it mean for a being to be?
Is existence a property?
Is existence a genus or general class that is simply divided up by
Which entities, if any, are fundamental?
Are all entities objects?
How do the properties of an object relate to the object itself?
Do physical properties actually exist?
What features are the essential, as opposed to merely accidental
attributes of a given object?
How many levels of existence or ontological levels are there? And what
constitutes a "level"?
What is a physical object?
Can one give an account of what it means to say that a physical object
Can one give an account of what it means to say that a non-physical
What constitutes the identity of an object?
When does an object go out of existence, as opposed to merely
Do beings exist other than in the modes of objectivity and
subjectivity, i.e. is the subject/object split of modern philosophy
Essential ontological dichotomies include:
universals and particulars
substance and accident
abstract and concrete objects
essence and existence
determinism and indeterminism
monism and dualism
idealism and materialism
Philosophers can classify ontologies in various ways, using criteria
such as the degree of abstraction and field of application:
Upper ontology: concepts supporting development of an ontology,
Domain ontology: concepts relevant to a particular topic or area of
interest, for example, to information technology or to computer
languages, or to particular branches of science
Interface ontology: concepts relevant to the juncture of two
Process ontology: inputs, outputs, constraints, sequencing
information, involved in business or engineering processes
Ontology was referred to as
Mimamsa by ancient Indian
philosophers going back as early as Vedas. Ontology
is an aspect of the
Samkhya school of philosophy from the first
millennium BCE. The concept of
Guna which describes the three
properties (sattva, rajas and tamas) present in differing proportions
in all existing things, is a notable concept of this school.
Parmenides and monism
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Parmenides was among the first in the Greek tradition to propose an
ontological characterization of the fundamental nature of existence.
In his prologue or proem he describes two views of existence;
initially that nothing comes from nothing, and therefore existence is
eternal. Consequently, our opinions about truth must often be false
and deceitful. Most of western philosophy — including the
fundamental concepts of falsifiability — have emerged from this
view. This posits that existence is what may be conceived of by
thought, created, or possessed. Hence, there may be neither void nor
vacuum; and true reality neither may come into being nor vanish from
existence. Rather, the entirety of creation is eternal, uniform, and
immutable, though not infinite (he characterized its shape as that of
a perfect sphere).
Parmenides thus posits that change, as perceived in
everyday experience, is illusory. Everything that may be apprehended
is but one part of a single entity. This idea somewhat anticipates the
modern concept of an ultimate grand unification theory that finally
describes all of existence in terms of one inter-related sub-atomic
reality which applies to everything.
Main article: Ontological pluralism
The opposite of eleatic monism is the pluralistic conception of Being.
In the 5th century BC,
Leucippus replaced the
Being (unique and unchanging) with that of Becoming and
therefore by a more fundamental and elementary ontic plurality. This
thesis originated in the Hellenic world, stated in two different ways
Anaxagoras and by Leucippus. The first theory dealt with "seeds"
Aristotle referred to as "homeomeries") of the various
substances. The second was the atomistic theory, which dealt with
reality as based on the vacuum, the atoms and their intrinsic movement
in it.
The materialist atomism proposed by
Leucippus was indeterminist, but
then developed by
Democritus in a deterministic way. It was later (4th
century BC) that the original atomism was taken again as
indeterministic by Epicurus. He confirmed the reality as composed of
an infinity of indivisible, unchangeable corpuscles or atoms (atomon,
lit. 'uncuttable'), but he gives weight to characterize atoms while
Leucippus they are characterized by a "figure", an "order" and a
"position" in the cosmos. They are, besides, creating the whole
with the intrinsic movement in the vacuum, producing the diverse flux
of being. Their movement is influenced by the parenklisis (Lucretius
names it clinamen) and that is determined by the chance. These ideas
foreshadowed our understanding of traditional physics until the nature
of atoms was discovered in the 20th century.
Plato developed this distinction between true reality and illusion, in
arguing that what is real are eternal and unchanging Forms or Ideas (a
precursor to universals), of which things experienced in sensation are
at best merely copies, and real only in so far as they copy ('partake
of') such Forms. In general,
Plato presumes that all nouns (e.g.,
'Beauty') refer to real entities, whether sensible bodies or
insensible Forms. Hence, in The
Plato argues that
Being is a
Form in which all existent things participate and which they have in
common (though it is unclear whether 'Being' is intended in the sense
of existence, copula, or identity); and argues, against Parmenides,
that Forms must exist not only of Being, but also of
Negation and of
Being (or Difference).
In his Categories,
Aristotle identifies ten possible kinds of things
that may be the subject or the predicate of a proposition. For
Aristotle there are four different ontological dimensions:[citation
according to the various categories or ways of addressing a being as
according to its truth or falsity (e.g. fake gold, counterfeit money)
whether it exists in and of itself or simply 'comes along' by accident
according to its potency, movement (energy) or finished presence
According to Avicenna, and in an interpretation of Greek Aristotelian
and Platonist ontological doctrines in medieval metaphysics, being is
either necessary, contingent qua possible, or impossible. Necessary
being is that which cannot but be, since its non-being entails a
contradiction. Contingent qua possible being is neither necessary nor
impossible for it to be or not to be. It is ontologically neutral, and
is brought from potential existing into actual existence by way of a
cause that is external to its essence. Its being is borrowed unlike
the necessary existent, which is self-subsisting and is impossible for
it not to be. As for the impossible, it necessarily does not exist,
and the affirmation of its being is a contradiction.
Other ontological topics
The concept of 'ontological formations' refers to formations of social
relations understood as dominant ways of living. Temporal, spatial,
corporeal, epistemological and performative relations are taken to be
central to understanding a dominant formation. That is, a particular
ontological formation is based on how ontological categories of time,
space, embodiment, knowing and performing are lived—objectively and
subjectively. Different ontological formations include the customary
(including the tribal), the traditional, the modern and the
postmodern. The concept was first introduced by Paul James' Globalism,
Nationalism, Tribalism together with a series of writers including
Damian Grenfell and Manfred Steger.
In the engaged theory approach, ontological formations are seen as
layered and intersecting rather than singular formations. They are
'formations of being'. This approach avoids the usual problems of a
Great Divide being posited between the modern and the pre-modern.
Ontological and epistemological certainty
René Descartes, with je pense donc je suis or cogito ergo sum or "I
think, therefore I am", argued that "the self" is something that we
can know exists with epistemological certainty. Descartes argued
further that this knowledge could lead to a proof of the certainty of
the existence of God, using the ontological argument that had been
formulated first by Anselm of Canterbury.
Certainty about the existence of "the self" and "the other", however,
came under increasing criticism in the 20th century. Sociological
theorists, most notably
George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman, saw
Cartesian Other as a "Generalized Other", the imaginary audience
that individuals use when thinking about the self. According to Mead,
"we do not assume there is a self to begin with. Self is not
presupposed as a stuff out of which the world arises. Rather, the self
arises in the world". The
Cartesian Other was also used by
Sigmund Freud, who saw the superego as an abstract regulatory force,
Émile Durkheim who viewed this as a psychologically manifested
entity which represented God in society at large.
Body and environment, questioning the meaning of being
Schools of subjectivism, objectivism and relativism existed at various
times in the 20th century, and the postmodernists and body
philosophers tried to reframe all these questions in terms of bodies
taking some specific action in an environment. This relied to a great
degree on insights derived from scientific research into animals
taking instinctive action in natural and artificial settings—as
studied by biology, ecology, and cognitive science.[citation
The processes by which bodies related to environments became of great
concern, and the idea of being itself became difficult to really
define. What did people mean when they said "A is B", "A must be B",
"A was B"...? Some linguists advocated dropping the verb "to be" from
the English language, leaving "E Prime", supposedly less prone to
bad abstractions. Others, mostly philosophers, tried to dig into the
word and its usage.
Martin Heidegger distinguished human being as
existence from the being of things in the world. Heidegger proposes
that our way of being human and the way the world is for us are cast
historically through a fundamental ontological questioning. These
fundamental ontological categories provide the basis for communication
in an age: a horizon of unspoken and seemingly unquestionable
background meanings, such as human beings understood unquestioningly
as subjects and other entities understood unquestioningly as objects.
Because these basic ontological meanings both generate and are
regenerated in everyday interactions, the locus of our way of being in
a historical epoch is the communicative event of language in use.
For Heidegger, however, communication in the first place is not among
human beings, but language itself shapes up in response to questioning
(the inexhaustible meaning of) being. Even the focus of
traditional ontology on the 'whatness' or quidditas of beings in their
substantial, standing presence can be shifted to pose the question of
the 'whoness' of human being itself.
Ontology and language
Some philosophers suggest that the question of "What is?" is (at least
in part) an issue of usage rather than a question about facts.
This perspective is conveyed by an analogy made by Donald Davidson:
Suppose a person refers to a 'cup' as a 'chair' and makes some
comments pertinent to a cup, but uses the word 'chair' consistently
throughout instead of 'cup'. One might readily catch on that this
person simply calls a 'cup' a 'chair' and the oddity is explained.
Analogously, if we find people asserting 'there are' such-and-such,
and we do not ourselves think that 'such-and-such' exist, we might
conclude that these people are not nuts (Davidson calls this
assumption 'charity'), they simply use 'there are' differently than we
do. The question of What is? is at least partially a topic in the
philosophy of language, and is not entirely about ontology itself.
This viewpoint has been expressed by Eli Hirsch.
Hilary Putnam as asserting that different concepts
of "the existence of something" can be correct. This position does
not contradict the view that some things do exist, but points out that
different 'languages' will have different rules about assigning this
property. How to determine the 'fitness' of a 'language' to
the world then becomes a subject for investigation.
Common to all
Indo-European copula languages is the double use of the
verb "to be" in both stating that entity X exists ("X is.") as well as
stating that X has a property ("X is P"). It is sometimes argued that
a third use is also distinct, stating that X is a member of a class
("X is a C"). In other language families these roles may have
completely different verbs and are less likely to be confused with one
another. For example they might say something like "the car has
redness" rather than "the car is red". Hence any discussion of "being"
in Indo-European language philosophy may need to make distinctions
between these senses.
Ontology and human geography
In human geography there are two types of ontology: small "o" which
accounts for the practical orientation, describing functions of being
a part of the group, thought to oversimplify and ignore key
activities. The other "o", or big "O", systematically, logically, and
rationally describes the essential characteristics and universal
traits. This concept relates closely to Plato's view that the human
mind can only perceive a bigger world if they continue to live within
the confines of their "caves". However, in spite of the differences,
ontology relies on the symbolic agreements among members. That said,
ontology is crucial for the axiomatic language frameworks.
Reality and actuality
According to A.N. Whitehead, for ontology, it is useful to distinguish
the terms 'reality' and 'actuality'. In this view, an 'actual entity'
has a philosophical status of fundamental ontological priority, while
a 'real entity' is one which may be actual, or may derive its reality
from its logical relation to some actual entity or entities. For
example, an occasion in the life of Socrates is an actual entity. But
Socrates' being a man does not make 'man' an actual entity, because it
refers indeterminately to many actual entities, such as several
occasions in the life of Socrates, and also to several occasions in
the lives of Alcibiades, and of others. But the notion of man is real;
it derives its reality from its reference to those many actual
occasions, each of which is an actual entity. An actual occasion is a
concrete entity, while terms such as 'man' are abstractions from many
concrete relevant entities.
According to Whitehead, an actual entity must earn its philosophical
status of fundamental ontological priority by satisfying several
philosophical criteria, as follows.
There is no going behind an actual entity, to find something more
fundamental in fact or in efficacy. This criterion is to be regarded
as expressing an axiom, or postulated distinguished doctrine.
An actual entity must be completely determinate in the sense that
there may be no confusion about its identity that would allow it to be
confounded with another actual entity. In this sense an actual entity
is completely concrete, with no potential to be something other than
itself. It is what it is. It is a source of potentiality for the
creation of other actual entities, of which it may be said to be a
part cause. Likewise it is the concretion or realization of
potentialities of other actual entities which are its partial causes.
Causation between actual entities is essential to their actuality.
Consequently, for Whitehead, each actual entity has its distinct and
definite extension in physical Minkowski space, and so is uniquely
identifiable. A description in
Minkowski space supports descriptions
in time and space for particular observers.
It is part of the aim of the philosophy of such an ontology as
Whitehead's that the actual entities should be all alike, qua actual
entities; they should all satisfy a single definite set of well stated
ontological criteria of actuality.
Whitehead proposed that his notion of an occasion of experience
satisfies the criteria for its status as the philosophically preferred
definition of an actual entity. From a purely logical point of view,
each occasion of experience has in full measure the characters of both
objective and subjective reality. Subjectivity and objectivity refer
to different aspects of an occasion of experience, and in no way do
they exclude each other.
Examples of other philosophical proposals or candidates as actual
entities, in this view, are Aristotle's 'substances', Leibniz' monads,
and Descartes ′res verae' , and the more modern 'states of affairs'.
Aristotle's substances, such as Socrates, have behind them as more
fundamental the 'primary substances', and in this sense do not satisfy
Whitehead's criteria. Whitehead is not happy with Leibniz' monads as
actual entities because they are "windowless" and do not cause each
other. 'States of affairs' are often not closely defined, often
without specific mention of extension in physical Minkowski space;
they are therefore not necessarily processes of becoming, but may be
as their name suggests, simply static states in some sense. States of
affairs are contingent on particulars, and therefore have something
behind them. One summary of the Whiteheadian actual entity is that
it is a process of becoming. Another summary, referring to its causal
linkage to other actual entities, is that it is "all window", in
contrast with Leibniz' windowless monads.
This view allows philosophical entities other than actual entities to
really exist, but not as fundamentally and primarily factual or
causally efficacious; they have existence as abstractions, with
reality only derived from their reference to actual entities. A
Whiteheadian actual entity has a unique and completely definite place
and time. Whiteheadian abstractions are not so tightly defined in time
and place, and in the extreme, some are timeless and placeless, or
'eternal' entities. All abstractions have logical or conceptual rather
than efficacious existence; their lack of definite time does not make
them unreal if they refer to actual entities. Whitehead calls this
'the ontological principle'.
There is an established and long philosophical history of the concept
of atoms as microscopic physical objects.They are far too small to be
visible to the naked eye. It was as recent as the nineteenth century
that precise estimates of the sizes of putative physical atoms began
to become plausible. Almost direct empirical observation of atomic
effects was due to the theoretical investigation of
Brownian motion by
Albert Einstein in the very early twentieth century. But even then,
the real existence of atoms was debated by some. Such debate might be
labeled 'microcosmic ontology'. Here the word 'microcosm' is used to
indicate a physical world of small entities, such as for example
Subatomic particles are usually considered to be much smaller than
atoms. Their real or actual existence may be very difficult to
demonstrate empirically. A distinction is sometimes drawn between
actual and virtual subatomic particles. Reasonably, one may ask, in
what sense, if any, do virtual particles exist as physical entities?
For atomic and subatomic particles, difficult questions arise, such as
do they possess a precise position, or a precise momentum? A question
that continues to be controversial is 'to what kind of physical thing,
if any, does the quantum mechanical wave function refer?'.
Main article: Ontological argument
Can ontology prove the existence, nature and attributes of God? The
ontological argument first formulated by
Anselm of Canterbury
Anselm of Canterbury deals
with the foundations of ontology.
Anselm of Canterbury
David Malet Armstrong
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Heraclitus of Ephesus
David Kellogg Lewis
E. J. Lowe
Charles Sanders Peirce
W. V. O. Quine
Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi
Peter van Inwagen
Alfred North Whitehead
William of Ockham
Edward N. Zalta
Living educational theory
Philosophy of mathematics
Philosophy of science
Philosophy of space and time
Structure and agency
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^ εἰμί. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English
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^ Michaël Devaux and Marco Lamanna, "The Rise and Early History of
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the Metaphysics, 9, 2009, pp. 173-208 (on
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^ Griswold, Charles L. (2001). Platonic Writings/Platonic Readings.
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^ Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, 4, 985
^ Lawson, C., Latsis, J. S., & Martins, N. (Eds.). (2013).
Contributions to social ontology. Routledge
^ Nader El-Bizri, '
Avicenna and Essentialism, Review of Metaphysics,
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^ James, Paul (2006). Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing
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^ a b Hyde, R. Bruce. "Listening Authentically: A Heideggerian
Perspective on Interpersonal Communication". In Interpretive
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^ Barry Smith: Objects and Their Environments: From
Ontology The Life and Motion of SocioEconomic Units
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^ Heidegger, Martin, On the Way to Language Harper & Row, New York
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^ Eldred, Michael, Social Ontology: Recasting Political Philosophy
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^ Carvalko, Joseph (Summer 2005). Introduction to an
Intellectual Property. The Scitech Lawyer, ABA.
^ Davidson refers to a 'ketch' and a 'yawl'; see p. 18 in Donald
Davidson (1974). "On the very idea of a conceptual scheme" (PDF).
Proceedings and Address of the American
Philosophical Association. 47:
^ Uriah Kriegel (2011). Two defenses of common-sense ontology (PDF).
Dialectica. 65. pp. 177–204.
^ Hirsch, Eli (2011). "Chapter 9: Physical-object ontology, verbal
disputes and common sense". Quantifier Variance and Realism: Essays in
Metaontology. Oxford University Press. pp. 144–177.
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realism". Quantifier Variance and Realism: Essays in Metaontology.
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Press, Cambridge UK, passim.
^ Armstrong, D.M. (1997). A World of States of Affairs, Cambridge
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^ Kaiser, D. (1994). Niels Bohr's legacy in contemporary particle
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particle physics phenomenology, pp. 262–264.
Look up ontology in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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Ontology entry by Thomas Hofweber in the Stanford
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