AskDefine | Define ontology

Dictionary Definition

ontology n : the metaphysical study of the nature of being and existence

User Contributed Dictionary



From (ōn) ‘being’, ‘existing’, ‘essence’ and (logos) ‘account’. Introduced as a philosophical term by Christian Wolf (1679-1754).


  1. The branch of metaphysics that addresses the nature or essential characteristics of being and of things that exist; the study of being qua being.
  2. The theory of a particular philosopher or school of thought concerning the fundamental types of entity in the universe.
    • 2000, C.D.C. Reeve, Substantial Knowledge: Aristotle's Metaphysics, Hackett Publishing, p. 97,
      The answer to the controversial question of whether Aristotle's ontology includes non-substantial particulars, then, is that it does.
  3. A logical system involving theory of classes, developed by Stanislaw Lesniewski (1886-1939).
  4. In the context of "computer science|information science": A structure of concepts or entities within a domain, organized by relationships; a system model.

Related terms


study of being
  • Croatian: ontologija
  • Czech: ontologie
  • Dutch: ontologie
  • Chinese: 本体论
  • Italian: ontologia
  • German: Ontologie
  • Norwegian: ontologi
  • Spanish: ontología
system model in computer science
  • Croatian: ontologija
  • Czech: ontologie
  • German: Ontologie
  • Norwegian: ontologi

Usage notes

In the field of philosophy there is some variation in how the term "ontology" is used. "Ontology" is a much more recent term than "metaphysics" and takes its root meaning explicitly from the Greek term for "being." "Ontology" can be used loosely as a rough equivalent to "metaphysics" or more precisely to denote that subset of the domain of metaphysics which is focussed rigorously on the study of being as being.


  • Webster 1828}}

Extensive Definition

This article discusses ontology in philosophy. For the term in computer science, see ontology (computer science).
In philosophy, ontology (from the Greek , genitive : of being (part. of : to be) and -λογία: science, study, theory) is the most fundamental branch of metaphysics. It studies being or existence and their basic categories and relationships, to determine what entities and what types of entities exist. Ontology thus has strong implications for 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 actually exists?" Different philosophers provide different answers to this question.
One common approach is to divide the extant entities into groups called "categories". However, these lists of categories are also quite different from one another. It is in this latter sense that ontology is applied to such fields as theology, library science and artificial intelligence.
Further examples of ontological questions include:


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. While the etymology is Greek, the oldest extant record of the word itself is the Latin form ontologia, which appeared in 1606, in the work Ogdoas Scholastica by Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and in 1613 in the Lexicon philosophicum by Rudolf Göckel (Goclenius). The first occurrence in English of "ontology" as recorded by the 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.
Students of Aristotle first used the word 'metaphysica' (literally "after the physical") to refer to the work their teacher described 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 in as much 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".
Ontological questions have also been raised and debated by thinkers in the ancient civilizations of India and China, in some cases perhaps predating the Greek thinkers who have become associated with the concept.

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. In Systems-Theory, 'being' corresponds with the 'system-state' and Systems-Engineering(not system-administration...) is the engineering-grade/wise onthology, which identifies to the architects the existence of systems and defines their boundaries to them.

Social science

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).

Prominent ontologists

See also

ontology in Afrikaans: Ontologie
ontology in Arabic: أنتولوجيا
ontology in Asturian: Ontoloxía
ontology in Min Nan: Pún-thé-lūn
ontology in Bulgarian: Онтология
ontology in Catalan: Ontologia
ontology in Czech: Ontologie
ontology in Danish: Ontologi (filosofi)
ontology in German: Ontologie
ontology in Estonian: Ontoloogia
ontology in Modern Greek (1453-): Οντολογία
ontology in Spanish: Ontología
ontology in Esperanto: Ontologio
ontology in Basque: Ontologia
ontology in Persian: هستی‌شناسی
ontology in French: Ontologie (philosophie)
ontology in Irish: Onteolaíocht
ontology in Galician: Ontoloxía
ontology in Croatian: Ontologija
ontology in Ido: Ontologio
ontology in Indonesian: Ontologi
ontology in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Ontologia
ontology in Icelandic: Verufræði
ontology in Italian: Ontologia
ontology in Hebrew: תורת ההוויה
ontology in Latin: Ontologia
ontology in Lithuanian: Ontologija
ontology in Hungarian: Ontológia
ontology in Dutch: Ontologie (filosofie)
ontology in Japanese: 存在論
ontology in Norwegian: Ontologi
ontology in Polish: Ontologia
ontology in Portuguese: Ontologia
ontology in Romanian: Ontologie
ontology in Russian: Онтология
ontology in Albanian: Ontologjia
ontology in Slovak: Ontológia
ontology in Slovenian: Ontologija
ontology in Serbian: Онтологија
ontology in Serbo-Croatian: Ontologija
ontology in Finnish: Ontologia
ontology in Swedish: Ontologi
ontology in Tamil: உள்ளியம் (மெய்யியல்)
ontology in Vietnamese: Bản thể luận
ontology in Turkish: Ontoloji
ontology in Ukrainian: Онтологія
ontology in Contenese: 本體論
ontology in Dimli: Ontolociye
ontology in Chinese: 本体论

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

aesthetics, axiology, casuistry, cosmology, epistemology, ethics, existentialism, first philosophy, gnosiology, logic, mental philosophy, metaphysics, moral philosophy, phenomenology, philosophastry, philosophic doctrine, philosophic system, philosophic theory, philosophical inquiry, philosophical speculation, philosophy, school of philosophy, school of thought, science of being, sophistry, theory of beauty, theory of knowledge, value theory
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