Ontology is a major branch of philosophy and a central part of metaphysics that studies questions of being or existence. The questions include a wide range of issues concerning being or existence such as: the meaning of being or what it means "to be" for each of such beings as physical entities, souls, God, values, numbers, time, space, imaginary objects, and others; what is real existence; why something exists rather than nothing.
The conceptual division of this branch of philosophy was established by Aristotle. He distinguished "a science of that studies being in so far as it is being" (Metaphysics, IV.1; 1003a21) and called it the "First Philosophy." Thomas Aquinas (1224/1225 - 1274) further developed it within a Christian context and the issues were continually discussed as the central issue in philosophy by Scholastics. The term "ontology" is, however, a modern coinage by Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) (1591 - 1609) and Rudolph Göckel (Goclenius) (1547 - 1628), as a compound of "on" (Greek ὤν, genitive ὄντος: of being (part. of εἶναι: to be)) and "-logy" or "logos" (-λογία: science, study, theory).
Although Christian von Wolff (1679 - 1754) further developed it, ontology was superseded by epistemology as a major concern by major modern philosophers from Descartes to Kant. In the twentieth century, Nicolai Hartmann, Martin Heidegger, and Neo-Thomists shed new light on ontology and revived its popularity. In the tradition of Analytic philosophy, questions of being are approached through linguistic analysis.
Some questions of ontology
Examples of ontological questions include:
- Why does anything exist, rather than nothingness? (a question raised by Leibniz)
- What constitutes the identity of an object? When does an object go out of existence, as opposed to changing?
- Is existence an event, flux, process? Or is it something static, stable, or unchanging?
- How is existence related to time and space? What is and kind of being is time and space? Is it a being or something else?
- What features are essential, as opposed to merely accidental, attributes of a given object? What are an object's properties or relations and how are they related to the object itself?
- What could it mean to say that non-physical objects (such as times, numbers, souls, deities, values, imaginative objects) exist? What is existence?
- What is a physical object? Can one give an account of what it means to say that a physical object exists?
- Is existence a property? What does it mean to say something exists or does not exist? Is existence properly a predicate? Are sentences expressing the existence or non-existence of something properly called propositions?
Questions of being are also closely tied to those of language, logic, theology, taxonomy, and other areas.
Some questions of being in Pre-Socratic philosophy: Heraclitus and Parmenides
Questions of being began as early as sixth century B.C.E. by Pre-Socratics in Ancient Greece. Heraclitus and Parmenides, for example, inquired into the ultimate nature of existence and arrived at two contrasting views. On one hand, Heraclitus affirmed change as the ultimate nature of things. Heraclitus viewed being as a "process" and argued that there is nothing unchanging in the world. He symbolized the status of ever-changing nature of being as "fire." The existence of fire lies in its activities so as other beings do. There is nothing, he argued, that is not changing. On the other hand, Parmenides denied that there is any real change in the universe and argued that we can not even speak of any change without presupposing some unchanging self-identity. We can observe changes only in appearance but they are merely appearances of the unchanging reality. If we use an analogy to understand his view, we can take the example of matter in physics. While a given energy can appear in various forms such as heat or mass, the totality of the energy of a given material remains the same. One may also argue that if there is nothing unchanging, we cannot even claim any permanent principle including the principle of change itself. Is being an ever-changing event, flux, and a temporal process? Or is it immutable, a-temporal, and stable existence? This is one of perennial issues in ontology. Pre-Socratic philosophers discussed various other questions of being but they did not conceptualized ontology as a distinct area of inquiry.
Ontological questions have also been raised and debated by thinkers in other ancient civilizations, in some cases perhaps predating the Greek thinkers who have become associated with the concept. For example, Ontology is an aspect of the Samkhya school of philosophy from the first millenium B.C.E.1 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.
Aristotle: ontology as the "First Philosophy"
Plato developed his own perspectives but not as a distinctive area of study. It was Aristotle who made the conceptual distinction and established ontology as a branch of philosophy. Aristotle understood that there are many senses of being or various senses when we say something "exists." For example, when we say "God exists," "a book exits," "there is justice," "numbers exist," "laws exist," "time exists," "I exit," "life exits," and what we mean by "exist" and "to-be" are not equivocal. Aristotle called the studies of "being as being" the First Philosophy and his First Philosophy was closely tied to Theology as the study of a supreme being.
Thomas Aquinas incorporated Aristotelian ontology into Christian ideas and developed Christian philosophy and theology; issues of ontology became the subject matters of Scholasticism in the Middle Ages.
The term Ontology is, however, a fairly modern term. While the etymology is Greek, the oldest extant record of the word itself is the Latin form ontologia, which appeared in 1661, in the work Ogdoas Scholastica by Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and in 1631 in the Lexicon philosophicum by Rudolf Goclenius (Rudolph Göckel or Goclenius). Goclenius, a German logician, however, used ontology, in a limited sense, as an abstract studies of physical entities and did not mean a general studies of being. It was Johannes Clauberg (1622 - 1665) who used ontology in the sense of a universal studies of being, which was closer to Aristotelian sense.
The first occurrence in English of "ontology" as recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) appears in Bailey's dictionary of 1721, which defines ontology as 'an Account of being in the Abstract." However its appearance in a dictionary indicates it was in use already at that time. It is likely the word was first used in its Latin form by philosophers based on the Latin roots, which themselves are based on the Greek. Clauberg also used the word "ontosophia" as well as ontology.
It was, however, Christian Wolff who played the foundational role in addressing ontology in the sense of the universal study of being. Philosophy is defined by him as the science of the possible and divided it, according to the two faculties of the human individual, into theoretical and practical parts. Logic, sometimes called philosophia rationales, forms the introduction or propaedeutic to both. Theoretical philosophy has for its parts ontology or philosophia prima,, cosmology, rational psychology and natural theology; ontology examines the existent in general, psychology of the soul as a simple non-extended substance, cosmology of the world as a whole, and rational theology of the existence and attributes of God. Wolff's conceptual distinction was succeeded by Kant.
Medieval philosophy generally accepted two sources of knowledge: revelation and reason (natural light). Descartes rejected revelation as the legitimate source of knowledge and preserved reason alone. Thinkers after him similarly raised questions of the legitimate source of knowledge and human capacities of knowledge. Theory of knowledge or Epistemology gradually became dominant and it superseded ontology. In other words, before we discuss the questions of being, the questions of the limit of our knowledge or the limit of what we can know became the primary issue. Kant established the primacy of epistemology in theoretical studies of philosophy and rejected traditional ontology, which Wolff developed, as "dogmatism."
In the middle of nineteenth century, Neo-Scholasticism emerged and they re-introduced Thomistic ontology. In the twentieth century, ontology was revived by Husserl and other phenomenologists.
Husserl (1859 - 1938) was the founder of a new philosophical movement called phenomenology. He realized that there are various senses of being on one hand, and our perceptual capacities are also multifaceted. Since he was a student of Franz Brentano (1838 - 1917), Husserl probably learned Aristotelian ontology from Brentano. Brentano's On the several senses of Being in Aristotle (Von der mannigfachen Bedeutung des Seienden nach Aristoteles) was one of the monumental studies of Aristotle's ontology.
Husserl was dissatisfied with the narrow, one-sided view of being in modern philosophy. He criticized that modern philosophers presupposed sense perception as the primary cognitive faculty and physically sensible qualities as the primary quality of being. In other words, the model of being was taken from a material object. Husserl argued that faculties of mind are far diverse and they include feeling, sensing, imagining, reasoning, believing, loving, willing, hoping, and so on. The framework of modern philosophy did not capture this multifaceted faculties of mind. Each object equally presents its existence in multifaceted ways. Husserl developed phenomenology as a philosophical methodology to describe diverse senses of being. Husserl attempted to establish what he called "Formal Ontology" within his own phenomenological framework. Nicolai Hartmann (1882 - 1950) also developed "Critical Ontology" within phenomenological tradition.
Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976) made a decisive impact on the revival of ontology in the twentieth century. He combined phenomenology and hermeneutics and developed "hermeneutic phenomenology" as his philosophical methodology to approach the questions of being. While Husserl developed phenomenology as the analysis of consciousness and a philosophical discipline that clarifies the essential principles of being, Heidegger took a different path. Heidegger argued that since human understanding is always interpretive, hermeneutics (a discipline that deals with arts and methods of interpretation) is indispensable for philosophical studies.
Heidegger took the human being as the access point to the question of being. To highlight man's existence, he called man "Dasein." He pointed out that the human being is a kind of being whose sense of being (meaning of life) or non-being (death) is always at stake. Heidegger carried out an existential analysis of Dasein in one of his major works, Being and Time. In it, Heidegger attempted to clarify the intricate relationships among being, time, life, death, conscience, man's original (authentic) and non-original (in-authentic) way of existence, interconnectedness of beings, teleological relationships among beings, hermeneutics, and other fundamental questions of ontology. He was critical of traditional ontologies since Aristotle as well the entire tradition of Western philosophy. His quest for a new path of thinking led him to the studies of poetic language in his later carrier.
After Heidegger, Sartre and other phenomenologists also approached the question of being.
Philosophers in the tradition of Analytic philosophy approached the questions of being through the analysis of languages including the extensive use of logic.
- Thomas Aquinas
- ↑ Gerald James Larson, Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, and Karl H. Potter, The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 4: Samkhya, A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0691604411), 3-11.
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