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In philosophy, ontology (from the Greek ὄν, genitive ὄντος: being (part. of εἶναι: to be) and -λογία: writing about, study of) is the most fundamental branch of metaphysics. It studies being or existence as well as the basic categories thereof—trying to find out what entities and what types of entities exist. Ontology has strong implications for the conceptions of reality.
Some philosophers, notably of the Platonic school, contend that all nouns refer to entities. Other philosophers contend that some nouns do not name entities but provide a kind of shorthand way of referring to a collection (of either objects or events). In this latter view, mind, instead of referring to an entity, refers to a collection of mental events experienced by a person; society refers to a collection of persons with some shared characteristics, and geometry refers to a collection of a specific kind of intellectual activity. Any ontology must give an account of which words refer to entities, which do not, why, and what categories result. When one applies this process to nouns such as electrons, energy, contract, happiness, time, truth, causality, and god, ontology becomes fundamental to many branches of philosophy.
Some basic questions
Ontology has one basic question: "What are the fundamental categories of being?" Different philosophers make different lists of such fundamental categories of being.
This highlights one of the problems of the philosophical approach—it relies on continued investigation of categories, and has no clear way to stop asking. In theology, library science and artificial intelligence, in contrast, one typically adopts a relatively stable foundation ontology. This avoids some problems with the philosophical approach which has a larger base of cosmology and probably also morals and aesthetic examples or stories, each of which can set foundational priorities. In theology this base derives from a religion and its (relatively) stable doctrines.
Further examples of ontological questions include:
- What is existence?
- What are physical objects?
- What are the essential, as opposed to merely accidental, attributes of a given object?
- What constitutes the identity of an object?
- Can one give an account of what it means to say that a physical object exists?
- What are an object's properties or relations and how are they related to the object itself?
- Is existence a property?
- When does an object go out of existence, as opposed to merely changing?
- Why does something exist rather than nothing?
Quintessential ontological concepts include:
Early history of ontology
The concept of ontology is generally thought to have originated in early Greece and occupied Plato and Aristotle. Since the word is of Greek origin its current meaning and application are certainly sourced from Greek culture. Aristotle described ontology as "the science of being qua being". The word 'qua' means 'in the capacity of'. According to this theory, then, ontology is the science of being inasmuch as it is being, or the study of beings insofar as they exist. Take anything you can find in the world, and look at it, not as a puppy or a slice of pizza or a folding chair or a president, but just as something that is. More precisely, ontology concerns determining what categories of being are fundamental and asks whether, and in what sense, the items in those categories can be said to "be".
Prior to Greek philosophy these questions were debated in ancient India by many philosophers and thinkers. The names of a few of these have come down to us today. The most notable secular philosophers are Raja (King) Janaka and Rajamuni (Royal Sage) Kapila. Kapila's Samkhya philosophy asked and answers many ontological questions posed by the Greek philosophers. The most distinguishing fact concerning Kapila's ontology is that it is entirely secular in nature.
Subject, relationship, object
"What exists", "What is", "What am I", "What is describing this to me", all exemplify questions about being, and highlight the most basic problems in ontology: finding a subject, a relationship, and an object to talk about. During the Enlightenment the view of René Descartes that "cogito ergo sum" ("I think therefore I am") had generally prevailed, although Descartes himself did not believe the question worthy of any deep investigation. However, Descartes was very religious in his philosophy, and indeed argued that "cogito ergo sum" proved the existence of God. Later theorists would note the existence of the "Cartesian Other" — asking "who is reading that sentence about thinking and being?" — and generally concluded that it must be God.
This answer, however, became increasingly unsatisfactory in the 20th century as the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science and even particle physics explored some of the most fundamental barriers to knowledge about being. Sociological theorists, most notably George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman, saw the Cartesian Other as a "Generalized Other," the imaginary audience that individuals use when thinking about the self. The Cartesian Other was also used by Freud, who saw the superego as an abstract regulatory force.
Body and environment
Schools of subjectivism, objectivism and relativism existed at various times in the 20th century, and the postmodernists and body philosophers tried to reframe all these questions in terms of bodies taking some specific action in an environment. This relied to a great degree on insights derived from scientific research into animals taking instinctive action in natural and artificial settings — as studied by biology, ecology, and cognitive science.
The processes by which bodies related to environments became of great concern, and the idea of being itself became difficult to really define. What did people mean when they said "A is B", "A must be B", "A was B"...? Some linguists advocated dropping the verb "to be" from the English language, leaving "E Prime", supposedly less prone to bad abstractions. Others, mostly philosophers, tried to dig into the word and its usage. Heidegger attempted to distinguish being and existence.
Existentialism regards being as a fundamental central concept. It 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. Because "to be" has so many different meanings, there are, accordingly, many different ways of being.
Social scientists adopt one of four main ontological approaches: realism (the idea that facts are out there just waiting to be discovered), empiricism (the idea that we can observe the world and evaluate those observations in relation to facts), positivism (which focuses on the observations themselves, attentive more to claims about facts than to facts themselves), and post-modernism (which holds that facts are fluid and elusive, so that we should focus only on our observational claims).
- Heidegger, Martin
- Husserl, Edmund
- Ingarden, Roman
- Immanuel Kant
- Leibniz, Gottfried
- Quine, W. V.
- Gilbert Ryle
- Sartre, Jean-Paul
- Taylor, Charles
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig
- Foundation ontology
- Modal logic
- Ontology (computer science)
- Philosophy of science
- Philosophy of space and time
- Philosophy of mathematics
- Quantum ontology
- Aristotle's definition of a science of Being qua Being: ancient and modern interpretations
- Barry Smith's Ontology Page
- Buffalo Ontology Site
- Building a Sensor Ontology: A Practical Approach Leveraging ISO and OGC Models
- Designing medical law ontology from technical texts and core ontology
- National Center for Ontological Research
- National Center for Biomedical Ontology
- Ontology. A resource guide for philosophers
- Clay Shirky: Ontology is Overrated
- White papers by L&C, a medicinal domain-oriented ontology provider
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