Ontology is branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the study of the nature of being (Merriam-Webster, 2019). It is also broadly related to categorisation; how knowledge about the nature of reality is linked together.
The key to understanding it is to understand that, as a general term, it does not relate to a scholastic or scientific discipline per se, but instead refers to the general orientation to understanding reality that anyone, or anything, might be guided by. This admission alone suggests the possibility of many ontologies; that all the world’s peoples, that all ‘sentient’ things, may have their own ontology.
But it sounds like it just means philosophy. Wrong! It can be reasonably argued that philosophy is something more culturally orientated; a literary field or discipline, or manner of communication, related to questions about life and existence, about the meaning of life, the fundamentals of human existence, about morality, and so on. Within the field of philosophy there might be three general areas; Epistemology relates to questions of knowledge, Axiology relates to value. Ontology then relates to that particular aspect of any kind of intellectual inquiry, philosophy included, that asks questions about the actual nature and substance of reality and the self (Devaux & Lamanna, 2009).
But isn’t that science? Yes, ‘science’ is and has always been concerned with discovering the makeup and substance of the physical universe. At the time of Isaac Newton, the founder of the scientific method, it was called ‘natural philosophy’.
Metaphysics, then, is concerned with the makeup and substance of the universe beyond the physical – the realm of mind. But can’t neuroscience, the positivist scientific study of the nervous system and the brain, explain the nature of the self and of awareness? The simple answer is no – it hasn’t been able to, and it can’t. Ontology, then, is any inquiry concerned with the intersection of both of these – how it is that mind and awareness interact and coexist with the physical universe.
But that still sounds like science! Maybe it is? Positivism means that only what can be proven is true. Well, no method of scientific observation can prove that awareness exists, no scientific observation can find where the observer is in the human brain. Yet, here we are. It seems, therefore, that something is missing. Our inquiry has become ontological.
Notice, as anthropologists are keen to notice, the seeming separation between nature (science) and culture (mind, awareness, metaphysics) in this equation. This demonstrates that the epistemological framework I have been using presupposes a division between the physical and metaphysical, between nature and culture. This framework I am using, how it is that I am thinking about what I know, is thus informed by something else – ‘an ontology’. That is, an overall ‘way’ in which I am positioned and am orientating myself in relation to my thinking mind and the world around me.
So, ontology just means how and what you think and believe about the world? No! That would be an epistemology, a philosophy, or an ideology. The ontological is something even more than that – how we live and experience, not merely how we think.
A way of life is an ontology.
Going back to its definitions of the categories of things, ontology is concerned with the way our categories and our knowledge, our epistemology, is linked together not by the way we think, but by the way we are. It isn’t merely a ‘world-view’, so much as how we experience and live out what constitutes the world and what constitutes the viewer, the act of viewing, and the nature of the viewed. Samkhya, the Indian philosophy underpinning the Yoga tradition, is an example of an ontology – it features an emanating, categorical map of the world, the mind, and the self (Larson et al, 2014).
So why is this relevant to our field of anthropology? Because! The more we understand about cultures different to our own, the more we understand that they have entirely different ontologies, not just epistemologies; different ways of experiencing the categories of things, different ways of discerning what is human, what is individuality, what is relatedness, what is kinship, what is nature, what is culture, and so on. They have different ways of thinking about these things that are entirely rational, just a different kind of ‘being rational’ than we are used to – just as they have different ways of experiencing things that are also as ‘rational’ as our own (Holbraad et al 2014).
Perhaps then anthropology is the apex discipline of understanding ontological difference, and of understanding the possibility of what we are not – and therefore, what we have the potential to be. I would agree!
Devaux, M & Lamanna, M. (2009) ‘The Rise and Early History of the Term Ontology (1606–1730)’, Quaestio Yearbook of the History of the Metaphysics. 9 (2009) 173–208.
Larson, G.J.; Bhattacharya, R.S.; Potter, K. (2014) The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 4: Samkhya. Princeton University Press.
Holbraad, M., Pederson M. A., & Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014) The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions, in The Politics of Ontology. Society for Cultural Anthropology, June 13 (2014). Accessed 11th June <https://culanth.org/fieldsights/the-politics-of-ontology-anthropological-positions>
Merriam-Webster (2019) Ontology, accessed 10th June 2019 <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ontology>