Ontology and the nature of being

Bhuvinder S. Vaid

The term ontology draws its traditional meaning from the philosophical discussions of metaphysics pertaining to the nature of being .   This concept can be simplified into “questions about the nature of reality” (Maykut and Morehouse, 1994, p.3) when in reference to social sciences methodologies such as qualitative inquiry.

In the traditional philosophical discussions (Plato and Aristotle) regarding ontology, the nature of being is concerned with what truly exists.   Here any physical object takes on this basic tenant, for it has form and therefore exists to be perceived.   However, this definition, which held true for centuries, evolved during the Enlightenment with the idea postulated by Rene Descartes of “I think therefore I am”.   This is an important point to take note of, for it introduces the idea of the mind being able to perceive without any physical connection to an object.   These perceptions then take on the primary importance in any questions pertaining to ontology, for they create systems and hierarchies of the way the world works, or rather, how the world around an individual exists.

In the social sciences, thanks to the work of individuals such as Edmund Husserl (termed the ‘father' of phenomenology) and his student Martin Heidegger, the notion of multiple subjectivities was introduced in the early 20 th century.   This idea argued that the world could be seen (constructed) in several different ways, which was dependant upon ones notion of reality (truth or fact).   These ontological approaches of knowing, perceiving and interpreting the world are generally lumped into four distinct categories: realism, empiricism, positivism and post-modernism.

Realism concerns itself with the notion that there are universal truths and facts which can be discovered through active exploration.   These facts are independent of the context in which they are found, so the systems and hierarchies they enable are essentially static.

Empiricism rejects the notion of universal truths and facts that simply exist, but rather postulates that facts can only become clear by a careful observation and evaluation of the world around us .   This idea presupposes that the world around us is real, what we know; and therefore takes no account for the notion of perceptions of or interpretations of reality.

Positivism takes the ideas of empiricism one step further, by rejecting the notion of clear facts to be found, and rather concerns itself almost entirely with what can be observed and therefore codified.   It is through an analysis of these codified observations that some explanation (not necessarily a fact) can be offered.   This idea is premised on the notion that which is real can be observed.

Post-modernism concerns itself with the very subjectivities first posited by Husserl (and Heidegger), in that facts are not rigid but rather shift according to an individual's interpretation of the world around them.   Therefore there is a need for a greater understanding of the systems and hierarchies' individuals have established to understand the world.

Within the tradition of Qualitative Inquiry, positivism and post-modernism (phenomenology) exist as the two competing ontological approaches of seeing the world and understanding reality.   While positivism allows for an evaluation of what is observed (i.e. text), it does not allow for interpretation as to what it could mean to an individual taking part in the inquiry.   The individual's sense of reality is subjugated to that which comes through in the text.   Post-modernism allows for an interrogation of the individual's sense of reality to gain greater understanding to their interpretation of facts and truths as presented in the text.

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