Ontology: A Historiographical Sketch

Ontology is all the rage right now in philosophy (as much as anything in philosophy can be, anyway). New volumes on ontology and metaontology are popping up with increasing frequency, but there’s a bit of a lack of studies of ontology from a historiographical perspective, which is a shame, because it’s a fascinating thread to unravel (if anyone knows of any, please, point them out!).

Aristotle, in the ‘Metaphysics‘, said of metaphysics:

There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these others treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do. Now since we are seeking the first principles and the highest causes, clearly there must be some thing to which these belong in virtue of its own nature. If then those who sought the elements of existing things were seeking these same principles, it is necessary that the elements must be elements of being not by accident but just because it is being. Therefore it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes.

Being in its most general sense, in other words -not this or that ‘section’ of being, which is left to the special sciences (another translation says ‘departmental sciences’, which I thought was funny). Now, a quick Google reveals that, at first glance at least, ontology seems to mean about the same thing: the study of being. And, in the history of philosophy, the two terms (metaphysics and ontology) have been somewhat debated as to how closely their related. What’s interesting is the origin of the term ontology itself.

The term ontology itself wasn’t introduced, as far as I can tell, until the 17th century:

The term itself did not make an appearance until the 17th century when it was introduced by Goclenius in 1653, used by Clauberg in 1647, Micraelius in 1653, and DuHamel in 1663. Accepted by Leibniz, Wolff, and Baumgarten, the term had become standard by the century’s end.(W.L. Reese, ‘Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion’,  p. 401)

The entry from ‘A Companion to Metaphysics’ also concurs:

The term was introduced into philosophy ny the German Protestant Scholastic Goclenius in his Lexicon philosophicum (1613) and was given currency above all through the influence of Christian Wolff. (p. 373)

So there’s a bit of history; how exactly did these characters define the term? So far as I can tell, it’s first full definition in English cashes out to nearly the same as we saw by Googling:

Its first occurrence in English as recorded by the OED appears in Bailey’s dictionary of 1721, which defines ontology as ‘an Account of being in the Abstract’. (Barry Smith, ‘Ontology’, p. 1)

So it appears that, despite a relatively late entry into the vocabulary of philosophy, the term ontology is roughly continuous with the Aristotelian sense of metaphysics. Fast forward a few centuries, however, and the picture has changed remarkably. In Tim Maudlin’s ‘The Metaphysics Within Physics’, we can see just how dramatically things have changed:

‘Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’ (p. 104)

‘First: metaphysics, i.e. ontology, is the most generic account of what exists, and since our knowledge of what exists in the physical world rests on empirical evidence, metaphysics must be informed by empirical science.’ (p. 78)

From Barry Smith’s essay ‘Ontology’:

‘Ontology as a branch of philosophy is the science of what is, of the kinds and
structures of objects, properties, events, processes and relations in every area of
reality.’ (p. 1)

Following these kinds of definitions, the ‘Every Thing Must Go‘, approach of Ladyman and Ross makes a good deal of sense:

‘Any new metaphysical claim that is to be taken seriously at time t should be motivated by, and only by, the service it would perform, if true, in showing how two or more specific scientific hypotheses, at least one of which is drawn from fundamental physics, jointly explain more than the sum of what is explained by the two hypotheses taken separately.’ (p. 30)

What exactly has happened? Aristotle defined metaphysics as the study of being qua being – being in its most general sense.Wolff and Baumgarten have nearly identical definitions – the study of being in general. Both of these are roughly the same or at least sound the same. Until the 20th century, nearly every philosopher had a similar definition of ontology. How is it that, within the span of a handful of decades, two disciplines with nearly identical meanings (there are of course fine grained differences) shift in such a way that philosophers want to either dissolve metaphysics entirely and replace it with ontology or collapse them into each other?

My quick and dirty answer looks something like this: somewhere in the twentieth century, philosophy/metaphysics/ontology came to be seen as a handmaiden to the natural sciences. Instead of the study of being in general, metaphysics and ontology came to be seen as two separate disciplines – the former being the study of reality in its most general sense, and the latter the study of what exists. With the priority given to the natural sciences, what exists, as Maudlin says above, is informed by (and perhaps even reduced to) what the sciences tell us. Metaphysics is reduced to armchair speculation, and seen as either something that needs to be dissolved or collapsed into ontology. The key figures in this story are (for the moment) Peirce, Husserl, Frege/Russell and Quine.

Peirce is (as far as I can tell) one of the first philosophers to explicitly enlist metaphysics in the service of the sciences, specifically in the service of theory development:

From around 1890 he developed a system of ‘scientific metaphysics’, the aim of which was to ‘study the most general features of reality and real objects’ (Collected Papers, vol. 6, section 6).

The need for a scientific metaphysics emerges from his work in logic and epistemology. In order to carry out scientific investigations we have to adopt various regulative assumptions: that we can exercise rational self-control over our reasoning; that our sense of plausibility is properly attuned to reality; that all regularities and patterns in our experience can be explained ; that the universe contains real laws or ‘generals’. Unless these assumptions are true, our strategies of inquiry are illegitimate. Metaphysics explains how the world must be for these assumptions to be true; it defends the general account of the self and the cosmos which vindicates them. (Christopher Hookway, ‘A Companion to Metaphysics’, p. 379)

So, while Peirce is far from having a scientific metaphysic in contemporary terms, it is clear that his metaphysic is in the service of science, as an aid to general inquiry and theory development. There’s nothing too troubling here – it could be argued that a good deal of, if not all, of the history of philosophy has a dialectic like this going on. What I want to point out for genealogical purposes, is that, as generous as Peirce is with his metaphysic, he set the tone for thinking of metaphysics in terms of doing work for scientific inquiry and theory development, and thus set the tone for the reduction of metaphysics/ontology to purely in service of the sciences.

The next figure is Husserl, who did a good deal of work on ontology. As may be expected, he was quite keen to divide ontology into a number of sub-disciplines:

Formal ontology was introduced by Edmund Husserl in his Logical Investigations (1): according to Husserl, its object is the study of the genera of being, the leading regional concepts, i.e., the categories; its true method is the eidetic reduction coupled with the method of categorial intuition. The phenomenological ontology is divided into two: (I) Formal, and (II) Regional, or Material, Ontologies. The former  nvestigates the problem of truth on three basic levels: (a) Formal Apophantics, or formal logic of judgments, where the a priori conditions for the possibility of the doxic certainty of reason are to be sought, along with (b) the synthetic forms for the possibility of the axiological, and (c) “practical” truths. In other words it is divided into formal logic, formal axiology, and formal praxis.

Husserl quite clearly doesn’t have a flat way of thinking about ontology. However, the reception of his ontology (ontologies?) by Frege and Russell would prove one more stepping stone to reducing metaphysics/ontology to the sciences:

The discipline of formal ontology itself  was seen by Husserl as a complement to formal logic. Where formal logic would deal with the forms of scientific theories, formal ontology would deal with the forms of object domains to which sets theories, if true would correspond. Formal ontology is, then, a science of certain sorts of entities the (forms of objects) in the world. Logic, too, was conceived in this realistic fashion by Frege, as also by the early Russell and by Lesniewski, for all of whom it was the world itself which constituted the single intended interpretation of their respective logical theories. Frege and Russell however, like Wittgenstein in the Tractatus (1922) did not distinguish clearly between formal logic and formal ontology, and their works rest on the assumption (which was the prove fateful for the subsequent history of analytic philosophy) to the effect that all form is logical form. The role of ontology there for came usurped by the construction of set-theoretic models, and for the world itself there came to be substituted mathematical artefacts having convenient algebraic properties but otherwise bearing little or no relation to the flesh and blood subject matter of scientific theories. (Barry Smith, ‘A Companion to Metaphysics’, p. 374)

The takeway from this? Once ontology was seen not as a multi-faceted study of being, and once it was reduced/usurped by the construction of set-theoretic models, the stage was set for the final reduction of metaphysics/ontology to specifying the ontological commitments of our best scientific theories. Quine is the key figure here, how saw a strict relationship between existence and language.

Quine’s well known answer to the question of what exists is that everything exists. Fleshing this out a bit, we find that ‘to be assumed as an entity is, purely and simply, to be reckoned as the value of a bound variable’ (‘On What There Is’, p. 13) . This is tied closely to Quine’s use of quantifiers, which is a theory of reference:

A first-order quantified proposition is one in which the bound variables range over individual objects. These objects, as making up the domain of possible values over which the quantified individual variables range, may be of any type one chooses to distinguish in one’s ontology, including the making of a broad distinction between concrete and abstract objects. For Quine, the differences among ontologies have to do primarily with what kinds of objects are said to make up `what there is’, and so are represented by different types of individual variables. Thus, for Quine, it is enough for purposes of clarifying one’s ontological commitments to make use of first order quantifications where the quantified variables range over one or more types of individual objects. In such first-order generalizations, predicate expressions (concepts), since they do not name or rep resent objects, are not quantified. Also, of course, various logical constants do not designate -or name special kinds of objects, And so do not appear as quantified variables. Thus all expressions (quantifiers, bound variables, predicate expressions, and logical constants) assume their proper place in logically `re-parsed’ sentences. Given such sentences, we are then in a position to see where ontological commitments are present. They are to be found in the range of values allowed for and governed by its bound variables. Quine’s famous statement, “To be is to be the value of a variable,” may accordingly serve as a slogan’ to sum up the criterion of ontological commitment…We now have a more explicit standard whereby to decide what ontology a given theory or form of discourse is committed to: a theory is committed to those and only those entities to which the bound variables of the theory must be capable of referring in order that the affirmations made in the theory be true.


Thus, for Quine, ontology serves as a way of figuring out ‘what there is’, – i.e., what we are committed to by our best scientific theories. It is but a short leap from this point to Maudlin, Ladyman and Ross’s conclusions above.

We are now in a place to come to some conclusions. Given the trajectory outlined here, I think it’s fair to say that once the natural sciences were given priority over metaphysics, it was only a matter of time before metaphysics and ontology’s value were seen within the context of doing work for the sciences, and from there only a matter of time before even that was questioned. This account is obviously far from exhaustive (though I’ve attempted to be somewhat thorough) and is no doubt quite contentious. It is, however, as far as I can tell, a valid narrative.

6 thoughts on “Ontology: A Historiographical Sketch

  1. Rod Lampard February 28, 2016 / 5:21 pm

    Informative read, mate. Unfortunately, my studies only scratched the surface of philosophy. My major being Church History, we didn’t have the time to dig too deeply. We only dealt with the impacts and sources of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. scbrownlhrm March 3, 2016 / 9:27 am

    This is both helpful and interesting to say the least. Another avenue which suggests abandoning pinning down what (ultimately exists) is seen in the likes of “Ethics without Ontology” (by Hilary Putnam). …..Putnam’s central concern is ontology – indeed, the very idea of ontology as the division of philosophy concerned with what (ultimately) exists. Reviewing what he deems the disastrous consequences of ontology’s influence on analytic philosophy – in particular, the contortions it imposes upon debates about the objective of ethical judgments…….. It seems unavoidable that any of our respective “terminus / termini of explanation” are often, if not always, forced into either the likes of Ross’s appeal to physics as the absolutely necessary ingredient (which seems to force physics as necessary in the philosophical sense, which forces more than a few reductio ad absurdums) or into that by which physics is in fact intelligible vis-à-vis the proverbial chain of ontological IOU’s (which is another story etc.). There’s an obvious tug-o-war with all sorts of constant “tension” in both directions. Perhaps that fact all by itself is informing us of the actual nature of reality. If reality can’t get on without both, well then both it is. But then God.


  3. PeterJ March 5, 2016 / 9:36 am

    The post seems to be a good overview.

    The modern philosopher’s idea of ontology seems to be utterly pointless. It takes the existence of things for granted, it seems, so makes up its mind before the research even begins. We seem to have gone backwards since Aristotle. At any rate, I’ve never seen an academic book on ontology that actually deals with ontology, as opposed to how to avoid dealing with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua March 5, 2016 / 12:09 pm

      I can sympathize – but if modern ontology is supposed to deal with things that exist, then I don’t think we can fairly criticize it for doing what it’s supposed to do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • PeterJ March 8, 2016 / 7:41 am

        Hi Joshua. Yes, good point.

        But how would one deal with the claim that nothing really exists, as made by Buddhist philosophers? They are doing ontology and pushing it right to the wire. To assume that appearance equals existence would be to bypass ontology entirely and to render ones world-theory incomplete. Then we would have to vote for ex nihilo creation or some such implausible miracle. We see this happening all the time.

        Ontology is deducing what truly or metaphysically exists, in the sense of surviving a theoretical or conceptual reduction, not assuming that X exists therefore we must study it. That would be physics.



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