What is the difference between metaphysics and ontology?

  • I know that ontology is a sub-field of metaphysics. But I can't see the difference between them. I mean ontology is defined as "The study of being and existence", and metaphysics is defined as "fundamental nature of being and the world"; is there a difference between these two definitions?

    As you say, really there is no difference. We may choose to study this or that area of metaphysics but by its very nature all the approaches to metaphysics converge. It would not be possible to solve ontology without solving all significant metaphysical problems. There is a difference between the definitions but as you observe it doesn't matter much.

  • This is an excellent question, and deserves more discussion than I can really provide here, but I'll try to give a simple and clear delineation between the two fields.

    Metaphysics is a very broad field, and metaphysicians attempt to answer questions about how the world is. Ontology is a related sub-field, partially within metaphysics, that answers questions of what things exist in the world. An ontology posits which entities exist in the world. So, while a metaphysics may include an implicit ontology (which means, how your theory describes the world may imply specific things in the world), they are not necessary the same field of study.

    Let's consider an example that might clarify the distinction a little more: gravity. Gravity is certainly not an object, but I assume that physics would be in a pretty bad spot if we say that gravity isn't real. So what should we make of gravity? Well, we roughly know that gravity is a physical law that affects matter.

    So, a metaphysical conclusion we can draw from this is:

    "The world is such that matter is governed by physical laws."

    This is a metaphysical conclusion because it describes a way that reality is - laws are a property of reality (and further, reality is the kind of reality that can have laws). The distinct ontological conclusion to draw from our discussion so far is:

    "There is a physical law of gravity."͏͏͏͏͏͏

    This is ontological because it is about a posited entity - the entity that we call "the law of gravity". Now, where most people seem to get tripped up here is in the fact that our ontological conclusion is also a metaphysical conclusion; any posited entities are also part of (or describe) how the world may or may not be. But the ontological conclusion differs from the non-ontological metaphysical conclusion insofar as it may imply metaphysical conclusions, but is not itself about reality. "Meta" means roughly "about" or "after", and physics means physics, so metaphysics means "about (or after/beyond) reality". The ontological conclusion is about a given entity (or kind of entities).

    I hope that helps!

    This answer was helpful but I got confused when you said a law "exists". What if a physical law is just a description of how things work, wouldn't that bump it out of ontology back into the broader category of metaphysics? Otherwise it seems like we could reify any behavior and make it sound ontological?

    Its does but I got confuse when you said the sentence 'the world is governed by physical laws' is a metaphysical conclusion, since the law of gravity is a physical thing. Please explain.

    I just want to comment on your metaphysics etymology position: the word "meta" does mean "after", but the name "metaphysics" appeared because the Aristotle works about this subject were arranged after the works on physics. That's all. (a lot of people's other meanings were fabricated only after)

    The law of gravity does not exist, ontologically. Read Newton. He admits in the Principia that he does not know what causes gravity. Only that he can measure the affect. Later Einstein admitted that he needed to read Hume to publish his theories on relativity: Hume showed that there is no Cause and effect: they are products of Custom and Habit and thus imposed on the world by the mind. Thus your answer demonstrates an appalling philosophical ignorance.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM