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  • Writer's pictureJ. W. Barlament

The Difference Between Ontology and Metaphysics, Explained

“Things-in-the-world”, obviously, exist, but what about the tropes we ascribe to these things? Do they exist? And if so, what shape(s) do they take?

I’m pulling your leg, I swear, please stay. No philosophical word vomit here. But really, if so many of the most famous minds of the last few millennia have spoken or written on the subjects of ontology and metaphysics, and if students like me are forced to read no less than four books by Plato and another four by Aristotle over the course of a couple of years, we might as well actually know what these words mean, and surely more importantly, what they can tell us about the world.

The central problem of both ontology and metaphysics (if you’d just tilt your head the same way as me) is the Problem of Universals; “universals”, in this case, referring to not any concrete physical things, but instead referring to the attributes or properties of said things (the things-in-the-world of earlier; it sounds confusing at first but unfortunately the philosophers might be right that it’s actually the least confusing way to say it). Both disciplines deal with “things” and what things really do be in the world and all of that; the distinction between them lies in the branch of being they deal with. Simply put, ontology is the study of existence itself, and metaphysics is the study of the nature of existence. The central question of ontology, therefore, is: what exists? And the central question of metaphysics: what is the nature of that which exists?

Well, then, what exists, and how so? We know, we think, that things-in-the-world exist, at least on as deep a level as could ever be relevant to us humans. But what about those “universals”? Do things-in-the-world have properties that exist on their own as independent entities? Or, less headache-inducingly, should an object’s properties be considered to exist beyond said object itself?

It’s a simple enough question — not to say that ontology and metaphysics as a whole are simple fields or even that the reduction of them to this is fair or sane — and it doesn’t really require any lengthy explanations of obscure Classical philosophers to answer. To get at least an idea of what these fields (and all of their handsomely tenured faculty) are up to, we need really only look at one recent figure, the American philosopher D. C. Williams, and his Trope Theory.

The idea goes as such: a “trope” is a particular property; not an abstracted idea of a property, like the ideas of “skinniness” or “sturdiness” in general, but a particular property of a particular thing, like a skinny book or a sturdy table. The idea that there must be “universal” properties behind the appearance of specific properties — that, if something is red, then there must be a universal “red” that is being expressed in that particular instance — is a sort of linguistic illusion. Just because two things can both accurately be described as “red” does not really make them “red things”; their common description is only accurate because we’ve all collectively, and arbitrarily, decided to call some things red and other things not, and it doesn’t reflect any higher principle of “red” in some transcendental realm or perhaps invisibly omnipresent in our universe.

This view is called “nominalism”, but William’s isn’t your run-of-the-mill nominalism because it doesn’t just deny the universals’ existence, but crucially also asserts the tropes’ existence. It isn’t that qualities or properties aren’t real; it’s just that, while their specific instances (in Williams’ words, “particulars”) may be real, any overarching universal principles behind them may just be the linguistically reinforced whimsy of people with too much time on their hands.

And so we may say, at least according to that theory which seems least cooky to me, that properties are real, but only as singular unique properties of singular unique objects, or of abstract descriptive tools used to describe objects. And so we see, at least through the lens of one central problem through one thinker’s interpretation, the difference between ontology and metaphysics and their respective applications in how we view our world and ourselves.

photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

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