I think all PhD students – all academics – have been there: to the place where they are confronted with an -ology and asked to explain it only to find that while it makes sense (sort of) in their heads, it doesn’t make any sense in actual words. I’ve been there, so many times. I’m still there with some of these -ologies. I call them my ‘scary -ologies’.
There are the big ones – ‘epistemology’; ‘ontology’ – I still can’t really explain these in small, clear soundbites (or even longer, less clear phrases) without confusing myself and others. This is frustrating because in the quietness of my mind I do feel like I sort of know what they mean. But please don’t ask me to use them is a sentence. I can tell you, probably not completely correctly, that epistemology has to do with knowledge and knowing, and ontology has to do with being. But that’s not very helpful if you are new to these terms or trying to get a handle on them yourself. Sorry. I could cite some online dictionary definitions (some of which are actually quite helpful) but the best way to get to grips with any -ology or tough concept is to find examples you can use to explain them, or ways to break them down into simpler, easier terms. I thought I’d share my examples and self-explanations on these two bigger and more scary -ologies.
Epistemology, at its most simple, is the study of knowledge – its scope and also its limits and validity. It is also defined as a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the origins, nature and so forth of knowledge – it is often called a ‘theory of knowledge’. I think this is where I usually come unstuck in my own understanding of what it is and how to explain it to myself in less dictionaried terms. I’ll come back to this though. Ontology is defined, generally, as a ‘theory of being’, or or theory about the nature of being and what kinds of things exist and why. I tend to get stuck when people start referring to these things as ‘theories’ about other things. [Theoryology is another scary -ology for me (so scary I made it into an ology).]
I have tried, then, not to be put off my the word ‘theory’ which in my mind signals other notions like ‘grand’, ‘impenetrable’, ‘will take months of reading to work out’ and so on. I have tried to look rather at what these ‘ologies’ are about. Epistemology is about knowledge, and what we can know and how we can know it and what the limits of that knowledge and knowing are or could be. As an example: we can ask whether something we know, like the world being roughly spherical in shape, is justified. We can say ‘yes, it is justified to know that’. We can also ask how or why that knowledge is justified or true, and in response we could posit evidence drawn from physics, geography, astronomy and so on. You can ask these questions about the nature of many different kinds of knowledge, and that for me (right now anyway) is epistemology – this kind of inquiry and thinking process around what I think I know and why I think I can know it or not.
Ontology is about being and this -ology is more tricky for me to get my head around. I try to understand it in relation to my work or my research. For example, I research pedagogy and what lecturers and students do in relationship in classrooms in order to teach and learn and come to know and so on. A big part of teaching and learning is a process of becoming – you need to become, for example, a lecturer or teacher; it’s not something you just are. It’s a process. In the same way, students need to become lawyers or accountants or physicists – these are ontological as well as epistemological processes because they involve not just knowledge and knowing but also personal and metaphysical traits as well. So, ontology, then, would involve questioning these processes, and the nature of them and what is happening and what that means. I’m not sure I’m right about this – -ologies can make even the most sure-footed researcher doubtful (and I’m not all that sure-footed anyway). But I am very willing to be corrected.
There are other scary -ologies I will get to in my next post – tune in next week – but for now my advice would be to work on the concepts that scare you by finding simple examples or stories to try and contextualise and explain them, all the better if you can do so in the context of your own research. Turning them into stories and examples takes some of their power to scare you and render you speechless in the face of ‘Do you know what X means?’-type questions. And half the battle with concepts and -ologies is getting them under our control rather than being too much under theirs :-).
Notes: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online has a very useful entry on epistemology.