Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
One of the words for this week is “ontology”. Inspired by the post “Down With Reality” from the blog Blogging Is a Responsibility, I realized that no philosopher’s lexicon can be complete without this word. However, taken on its own, “ontology” is a tricky business, and so I will be pairing it with another philosophical concept: epistemology. Taken together, these terms are far easier to understand than they are in isolation.
Ontology is, technically speaking, the study of being itself. What does it mean for something to exist? What does it mean for something to be “real”? You will often hear this term within the context of a debate over the “ontological status” of some proposed entity. What makes this a murky question is that the answer often comes in terms of degrees or sub-definitions.
For example, when a philosopher raises questions about the ontological status of counting numbers, the question isn’t just asking whether or not counting numbers are real, but in what way they can be said to be real. Are they symbols which signify some conceptual reality that exists independently of themselves? Or is the concept of “number” bound up within the symbol itself? Are numbers actual objects of knowledge, or merely tools which aid our human knowledge, and not themselves objects of that knowledge?
Epistemology is often posited as an alternative to ontology, as we see in the example above. Epistemology, strictly speaking, is the study of knowledge, and it too can often be found in the form of an adjective, treading in the murky waters of degree and sub-definition. When we ask about the epistemological status of numbers, we are primarily attempting to classify in what ways numbers can be known, and in what ways they aid in giving us knowledge of true things outside of our minds.
To put it simply, ontology is about the nature of existence, and epistemology is about the way we know and understand things which can be said or thought to exist. These terms become most confusing when we mix them together, either intentionally or unintentionally.
One example of an intentional collapse of the terms comes to us from Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, Socrates argues that all things which are ontologically real must be epistemologically knowable to a parallel degree, and then takes the converse to be equally true. Individual physical things are only knowable to individual people who have encountered those physical objects during their short lives, and are thus only real in a very limited way. However the idea behind a given physical object – its category, or the mathematical concepts that compose it – can be known with or without physical engagement with any particular object, and are thus real in a way that physical objects never can be. For instance, you may see many different individual chairs come and go, but the idea of the chair exists in your mind and in your knowledge regardless. Beyond that, your knowledge of the shapes made by those chairs can exist with or without any experience with any particular physical object at all. And beyond that, the pure ideas of “order” and “goodness” are independently knowable to anyone in any time, and are thus the most real of all. The union of the ontological and the epistemological here is the foundation of what people think of as Plato’s “theory of forms”, requiring an assumption of metaphysical ontology. Taken more empirically, such a union can lead to Berkley’s idealism, requiring an omniscient figure to explain away the threat of ontological solipsism.
While the intentional collapse of ontology and epistemology is plenty objectionable to many philosophers and thinkers who would see these two qualifiers as explicitly separate, I think that the unintentional collapse of the two terms is far more dangerous. I think, however, that I’ve covered this as thoroughly as I am currently able in my posts on teaching, language, and the de dicto/de re distinction. However, keeping these two categories completely separate is not just itself a difficult task, but it raises a whole new set of difficulties about whether – and how – we can ever encounter and understand reality just as it is, or if we’ll only ever be able to develop our own mediated version of it.
In other words, we might just be finding our way into an epistemological solipsism instead. And if the ontological and epistemological are truly separate, is there any way to know if we’ve ever known something real?