Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #11: Ontology


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #11:


Pronunciation: ahn-TAH-luh-JEE (first two syllables rhyme with “on top”; TAH has the strongest accent)

Definition: Okay. *cracks knuckles* Now we’re getting to the good stuff.

Ontology, from ontos = being + –logy = that ending that makes things into a theory, area of study, or “science”. Ontology? The study of being.

There are basically two ways this gets used.

(1) The branch of philosophy that tries to figure out what is, what has being, what actually exists – and trying to understand the nature of the stuff that does exist. “Dude, like, are we even real?” or “But, like, what if we’re just in the Matrix?” Turns out, those high bros down the hallway from you were doing ontology! So what is real? Some (but definitely not all) philosophers’ answers through the ages: To exist is to be in the mind of a god. To exist is to be perceivable through our senses. To exist is to be verifiable through science.

How about art? What really is the piece of art, ontologically speaking? Let’s say I’m in a rage because the Hobbit is going SO SLOWLY that I throw the book into a bonfire. I haven’t destroyed the artwork itself, even though I’ve destroyed that particular book. What if I turn into a serial book-burner and go around destroying all the copies of the Hobbit in existence? Have I destroyed the artwork? Oof, tricky one.


Example: a pretty silly, very elementary ontology. Just do a Google image search to find many many more complicated examples. [source]

(2) Once you have potential answers to these questions, you have a sort of framework about how the things that exist relate to each other. Some people also call that framework an ontology.

Sometimes this gets extended to apply to the relationships between concepts or ideas, although many philosophers will say that’s a confusion. (This use is especially popular in business-y contexts.)

An easy-ish way to tell the difference:
(2) is often used as a count noun (“an ontology”, “different ontologies”, “four ontologies”); whereas (1) usually isn’t.

Related terms:
metaphysics – basically a synonym for (1). Some people try to distinguish them, but if you’re learning these terms in this post, don’t sweat all that. (Not to be confused with: the section at a bookstore with crystals and chakras and stuff. Although that’s in a way a view about what’s real…)

Not to be confused with:
oncology – the study of cancer and tumors and by the way THANK YOU DOCTORS AND PUBLIC HEALTH WORKERS YOU’RE THE BEST

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