The Ecstasy of St. Theresa
Ontology is the most fundamental branch of Metaphysics, the study of Being and Existence, as well as the basic Categories of things in general. A Being is anything that can be said to 'be' in various senses of the word 'be'. The verb "to be" has many different meanings and can therefore be rather ambiguous, and because "to be" has so many different meanings, there are, accordingly, many different ways of Being.
Aristotle described Ontology as "the Science of Being qua Being." The word "qua", by the way, means "with regard to the aspect of". Accordingly, Ontology is the Science of Being with regard to the aspect of Being, the study of beings in-so-far as they exist. Even more precisely, Ontology concerns how we determine what Categories of Being are, which are fundamental, and whether or not, and in what sense, items in those categories can be said to "be."
Ontology and ScienceDifferent philosophers have made various lists of the fundamental Categories of Being throughout the History of Philosophy. Before the rise of the Sciences in the Western Renaissance, Ontology, taken with Metaphysics more generally, was the central focus of philosophical concern. One strong reason was because this directly related to Theology (or the Philosophy of Religion) and the existence of God. Science directly challenged these connections, and slowly, Ontology was reduced to an historical curiosity. Representative ontological thought is readily cited, but ground-breaking work is found in Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, to name a few. In Modern Philosophy and Contemporary Philosophy, Ontology was taken up by physicists who were already asking very similar questions using the Scientific Method.
To be sure, Ontology is being done today, though not under its ancient name. It is found in many branches of Physics and the other Sciences. Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, and Quantum Philosophy in general, are direct descendants of the ontological traditions, which naturally grew beyond the historical distinctions between Universals and Particulars, into questions of Particle States, Dimensions and Probabilities. The basic ontological questions of the nature of Existence are even more relevant to Quantum Mechanics today, as notions of solid Matter and any distinct, separate existence of Objects are challenged by the new discoveries.
Even in areas seemingly unrelated to Philosophy, such as Computer Science, Ontology is about asking what a Programming "object" is (not an easy question to answer, given various programming languages, schemas, and practices), and what types of computer Architectures are to be used. In areas like Marketing or Sales, ontological issues lie right at the heart of what a "Brand" is, and how to deal with "Brand Names" and even "Product Lines", not to mention the Legal connections with Intellectual Property and Management connections with "Business Processes". In Business as well as Government, ontological questions abound about the use and Management of Information, and how to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent or adversary though the manipulation of Information, either in a Public Relations sense, or in a Warfare one.
Quintessential Concepts and Questions
- What are physical Objects?
- Is it possible to give an account of the existence of physical Objects?
- What are an Object's Properties or Relations and how are they related to the Object itself?
- Is Existence a Property, Substance, or State?
- When does an object go out of Existence, as opposed to Change?
External LinksAristotle's Definition and Modern Interpretations
Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Ontology" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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