Word of the Month: Ontology

David Zapatka

Last month’s column on “negentropy” elicited this response from a reader, “My thermodynamics class was at 8 a.m. and I slept through that particular law. Thanks for the review, albeit a little late to do anything with it.” There’s an art to scheduling university classes, and avoiding 8 a.m. classes was one of my principal strategies, so I can relate!

Our Wisdom Seekers book-reading group is reading Deeper Than Suspected by Thomas Daniel Nehrer, a cohort of mine for nearly 20 years who transitioned nearly two years ago. On page 81, we read “Where metaphysics, as a branch of philosophy that should regard the fundamental nature of reality, can look to ontology to explore and explain various categories of the real, it invariably gets lost in its own complex explanations.”

Ontology: noun on·tol·o·gy | än-ˈtä-lə-jē 1. a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. 2. a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence. 3. a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them.

Origin and Etymology: New Latin ontologia, from ont- + -logia -logy.  The compound word ontology combines onto, from the Greek ὄν, on (gen. ὄντος, ontos) and -λογία, -logia to form logical discourse.

First Used: The oldest record of the word appeared in the 1606 work Ogdoas Scholastica by Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and the 1613 work Lexicon philosophicum by Rudolf Göckel (Goclenius).

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It is the science of what is, of the kinds and structures of objects. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.

How does ontology relate to epistemology? Ontology is concerned with the nature and properties of the state of being or existing. Epistemology seeks to understand knowledge.

Used in a sentence: from its beginning, ontology has always been intimately related to ethics and politics. It was not very concerned with the ontology or metaphysics of the natural sciences. The argument operated at the level of the fundamental ontology of the rival philosophies.

Ontology in the news:

Temporalities, ontologies, and epistemologies are discussed. — Nate Berg, Curbed, “Can engineering save Louisiana’s coastline?” 7 Nov. 2018.

With a prolific career including more than 90 works, Lin developed his own choreographic style blending Western dance with Eastern ontology. — Lauren Warnecke, chicagotribune.com, “Likely the last chance to see founder lead the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan,” 27 Feb. 2018.

But when conducted best—including in Breville’s case, and despite Hoare’s insistence otherwise—design is more related to the philosophy of what things are, called ontology. — Ian Bogost, The Atlantic, “Why a Toaster Is a Design Triumph,” 20 July 2017.

Please submit any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].