Ontology is most accurately described as a “taxonomy of being,” meaning that it seeks to figure out what kinds of things there are, whether those things are “real” – (a much trickier concept than we commonly take it to be), and to map the relations between the categories of things it uncovers.
“Taxonomy” is perhaps an appropriate term because philosophers often rely on the Nietzschean idea of a “genealogy” of ideas through history. It also helps capture that the project of ontology isn’t merely word games (although there is a lot of that, to be sure) – but also a practical endeavor to discover real relationships between the categories of being that might shed light on how the world works at its most fundamental level.
Like many things in philosophy, if you really dig into it, ontology gets incredibly complicated with a lot of different “-isms” to keep track of (see image below), but it’s really just about figuring out what’s real, what isn’t, and what impact the reality/unreality of things should have on the way we think about them.
If you take one thing away from ontology as a concept, it’s the ability to question the nature of your reality, as Dolores says in Westworld. Many of the things we take for granted in life, according to strict ontological scrutiny, aren’t real things. That doesn’t mean that they don’t matter, but it does mean that their existence depends on their relationships to other things.
The existence of government and law, for example, depend by their very nature on the people who create and enact them. Color, mathematical concepts like pi or infinity, even scientific concepts like the atom – these are all things that have real and observable consequences, but their existence as such, or to use some fancy philosophical jargon, their existence qua existence, is dependent on human observation.
Realizing this, we can take a more critical look at the areas where we get complacent about what is and isn’t “real” or “true” without our active participation in creating its reality. This has real consequences, in the case of government and law, as I mentioned, but also for things like money, corporations, psychological disorders, morality, justice, gender, social class, and many more “things” that we often fail to question the “thingness” of, to put it crudely.
I want to underline here, though, that to say that something “doesn’t exist” in a strict ontological sense isn’t necessarily to say it’s unimportant, it’s just to say that it’s less fundamental to the structure of reality than other things. Often this simply comes down to its human construction as a concept, but this doesn’t mean that the reality underneath ceases to exist without humans. The wavelengths that we perceive as color can still exist without a person to see them, but the way we divide them is reflective of our perception, rather than the wavelengths themselves.
The atom remains a reality that is scientifically describable, regardless of the way we as humans currently agree that it should be described. Gender is still meaningful insofar as it describes biological sex characteristics, but the meanings we attach to those characteristics depends on social and contingent (i.e. subject to change) factors.
These are important things to take into account when we’re talking about things that have real consequences despite not necessarily being real things. We have to get straight about what we mean when we say these words in order to understand the conversations we have about them.