The first book I read for my first class in university was Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. The most important part of that book for me was the word ontology. Not just what it means, but the fact that I read the first sentence and simply had no idea what it was talking about. This was largely due to the presence of the word ontology. For a seventeen-year-old who thought she had an excellent vocabulary, this was a salutary obstacle.
I came across the word again this last week in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet. The period she describes is the summer she learned, and focussed on, ontology.
Let me see if I can explain it. Ontology is the study of being: the logos of onta. Onta is the Greek present participle of one of the words for ‘to be’, thus corresponding to the English ‘being’. Logos is a notoriously difficult word to translate, and means something like study, reason, reasoning, order, word. The Word is how logos is translated in the Gospel of John; ratio is how it is usually given in Latin texts. It is about the inner ordering of things, and the spoken order that corresponds to that underlying order.
Ontology. The reason of being, the rationale of being, the word of being. Even without getting too far into the complexities of being (in Greek or in English), the ology part of it indicates something of the problem. This isn’t just the study of life (biology) or even of truth (epistemology); this is the study of the thing that is, or the things that are; of what is. It’s hard to talk about without being mystical, mystifying, or, I suspect, mistaken.
I’m only an amateur philosopher, so I can’t go too much farther than here at the moment, I’m afraid. For most ancient philosophers the question was about where reality lies: usually in relation to God, or indeed in relation to the relationship between the divine and the human. The divine is what is; the human, what only comes to be.
We are not fully real, says Parmenides, a statement that at first sounds absurd — of course we exist! We’re here thinking, aren’t we? (Cue vague thoughts about Descartes.) But yet there do seem to be degrees of reality, distinct ontological states, even if it’s very hard to distinguish them. Some things seem to make us more real, deepen our onta.* Others dilute it, make us feel thinner, scraped like Bilbo Baggins, as too little butter over too much toast.
Ontology. The question of what is existence; one of the questions of questions. Part of the tools of thought, even if I don’t know how to use the stranger items in the box. I usually start questioning the ontological state of fictional characters, but that’s a question, I think, for another day.
* Yes, I know there are grammatical barbarisms in this. On is ambiguous in Roman letters.