What is Ontology? - Definition & Examples

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Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, we will explore the philosophy of ontology. We will learn exactly what ontology is, as well as explore some of the most complex questions ever posed. Updated: 07/11/2020

Ontology & Metaphysics

Have you ever wondered what it means to exist, or what existence actually means? Complicated questions like those are part of a branch of philosophy known as ontology. Ontology, at its simplest, is the study of existence. But it is much more than that, too. Ontology is also the study of how we determine if things exist or not, as well as the classification of existence. It attempts to take things that are abstract and establish that they are, in fact, real. Ontology is a part of metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that looks at the very nature of things, their being, cause, or identity.

Metaphysics dates all the way back to the time of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived from 384-322 B.C.E. Although some historians say the pre-Socratic philosophers, Parmenides and Heraclitus, as well as Aristotle's teacher, Plato, who lived from 427-347 B.C.E., also studied both metaphysical and ontological ideas.

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  • 0:00 Ontology & Metaphysics
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Ontology as a Philosophy

Aristotle distinguishes between two ideas in his work entitled Metaphysics. First, he says, there is general metaphysics, or the study of beings as they exist. The second part of Aristotle's idea deals with special metaphysics, which he assigns to the study of specific ideas, such as the existence of the soul. The difference between the two ideas is really confusing, especially when you consider the fact that Aristotle's general metaphysics is what we call ontology today.

When Plato, Aristotle's teacher, created his ontological argument, he called it the theory of Forms. Essentially, the Form (capital F) of something was its essence, whereas, the form (lowercase f) was the actual physical representation. He used this idea to separate man's soul from his body, and explain the idea of the soul in a quantifiable way. Plato's Dualism, or the mind-body problem, also explored existence as an ontological question. Basically, he argued, that the body was a physical thing, something we can observe. The mind, however, was specific to each of us. An argument that explains this principle is the idea of pain. Think about the last time you hurt yourself. Did someone try to tell you that you weren't that hurt because you weren't bleeding? This person could see your body, but not the inside of your mind. According to Plato, the ontological question here is how could the mind, which can't be seen, relate to the body, which can?

In the 17th century, German philosopher Jacob Lorhard, who lived from 1561-1609, officially coined the term ontology. He used the word in the first volume, of his eight volume work, Ogdoas Scholastica to discuss the relationship between religion and scientific inquiry. It was a particularly interesting topic for people living at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, when many scientists were discovering new ideas about our universe, and many philosophers were attempting to reconcile the existence of both God and rational thought.

Lorhard's Ogdoas Scholastica was written as a grammar school textbook. It was meant to define the most basic philosophical concepts of his time and defined ontology as a hierarchy, or order of classification. When writing volume eight, Lorhard focused completely on ontology. He was influenced heavily by the work of another German philosopher, Clemens Timpler. Both focused on the idea of what could be known from the human perspective, a perspective based on reason.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Ontology:

Study Prompt:

Make a set of flash cards that defines all of the terms that are in bold from the lesson (ontology, metaphysics, Aristotle, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Metaphysics, general metaphysics, special metaphysics, Form, form, Dualism, Jacob Lorhard, Ogdoas Scholastica, Age of Enlightenment, hierarchy, Clemens Timpler, St. Anselm, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz).

Tip: Make sure your flash cards distinguish between Form and form!

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately one to two pages that describes how the works of Plato, Aristotle, Lorhard, and Timpler have influenced the development of the field of ontology.

Example: Aristotle built on his mentor's (Plato's) theory of Form and form by creating the notion of general metaphysics and special metaphysics.

Essay Prompt 2:

In at least three to four paragraphs, write an essay that describes the ontological arguments about God.

Example: As early as the 11th century, St. Anselm contended that God truly exists because He existed in human understanding.

Essay Prompt 3:

In about one page, write an essay that explains how René Descartes' statement, "I think, therefore I am," makes an ontological argument.

Example: Descartes' statement demonstrates that even things that cannot be seen can exist. This fits in with Plato's concept of Dualism.

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