Learning new words late in life (by which I here mean “in my 30s”) is interesting, because most of the time it’s a word that’s just another version of a word I already know with some subtle difference, or a mashing of two concepts that might be useful to have mashed together once in a while. Truly new concepts become rarer the older and more educated someone is, but as faulty as words are for communicating concepts, if you have no word for a concept then it becomes much harder to think about and discuss, a bit like having to rebuild chair every time you want to sit on it, or only being able to direct people to a location by describing landmarks.
A couple years ago I had no idea what “ontology” actually meant, despite feeling like I was hearing people say it all the time. Once I did I started using it all the time too. Okay not actually, maybe a few times a month , but that still feels like a meaningful jump given I had no word to cleanly represent what it meant before! So here’s me explaining it in a way I hope will help others do so too.
The problem was, every time I saw the word used, it seemed like it could be removed from a sentence and the sentence’s meaning wouldn’t change. All the definitions I read appeared to just mash words together in a way that made sense, but didn’t mean anything. For example, Wikipedia says:
“The branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.”
This may or may not be a great definition, but it does little to actually tell people how to use the word “ontology” in any other context, or how it can be usefully applied to confusions or conversations.
What I found most helpful, ultimately, was considering the question “Do winged horses exist?”
This a question of ontology, because depending on how we define “exist” the answer might be “Probably not, there’s no evidence of any horses ever having wings,” or it might be “Yes, I read about them all the time in fiction, in contrast to flanglezoppers, which is a sound I just made that has no meaning.”
So ontology is the study and specification of what we mean when we say “real.” But it’s also about categorization; a more useful definition of ontology I came across is: An adjective signifying a relation to subjective models.
What does “a relation to subjective models” mean? Well, all ways of thinking of objects, for example, are subjective models; reality at its most basic level is absurdly fine-grained, far too detailed for us to understand or easily talk about. So we focus on emergent phenomena that are much easier to interface with, even if they’re not as precise. For example, we can talk about a country’s hundreds of millions of individuals, with their own personal goals and desires and preferences, and that can be useful. Or we can just say “The USA wants X” and it’s understood to mean something like “a meaningful chunk of the population” or “the government.” On the flip side, even an individual is not monolithic in their desires, and can be further broken down into subagents that might want competing things, like Freedom vs Security.
So it can be very valuable to know what model/map/layer you’re organizing concepts on, as well as what level your conversation partner is, to focus discussions. I wrote a brief conversation that shows what this looks like:
The philosophy teacher hands his student a pencil. “Describe this to me as if I was blind.”
The student thinks he’s clever, so says, “Well, it’s a collection of atoms, probably mostly carbon and graphite, with some rubber molecules—”
The teacher flicks the student’s ear, causing him to wince. “You’re in the wrong ontology. What you described could be a lot of different things, it could have been a lubricated piece of coal for all I knew. Describe it in a way that makes its distinctly observable parts plain to me.”
“Um. It’s a core of graphite wrapped in wood, with a piece of rubber on the end?”
“Better. Now switch the ontological frame to the functional parts.”
“It… has a writing part that’s at one end, and it has an erasing part at the other, and it has a holding part between them?”
“Excellent. Now tell me about it from the ontology of fundamental particles…”
There may be no end to ontological frames that you can use to examine and organize reality; animals can be classified by environmental preference or limb count or diet, stories by genre or structure or perspective, food by flavor or culture or substance. Some are more broadly useful than others, but being able to swap ontological frames of how concepts are related and at what complexity level of “reality” they emerge, can be very valuable for the whole practice of using maps, frames, lenses, etc in a strategic way.