Difference Between Ontology and Epistemology

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: August 06, 2022


Difference Between Ontology and Epistemology Difference Between Ontology and Epistemology

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“To be or not to be” – the infamous existential crisis of Hamlet echoes in the minds of our generation as well today. The playwright - William Shakespeare nailed the woes of a mundane every day with those immortal words. In the play, Hamlet, the titular character asks this question while pondering the point of existence. Of course, for him, the question is rather significant and involves deception and murder. For us, well, we do tend to exaggerate.

Our lives might not be thriving with the drama of homicides and treacheries but the little scenes of drama we face cause us to question our existence too. If not us, some researchers delve into the very question of their volition. They not only investigate our existence but also that of the creatures that surround us, the ecosystem we live in and everything that makes our world the way it currently is. Their obsession with gaining insight into the truth of our existence is what furthers our collective knowledge. It is what causes progress and enables scientific discoveries. Our universe is full of mysteries that leave no adventurer bereft of curiosity. The search, thus, is perpetual and often enlightening.

Ontology vs Epistemology

To understand the world at its crux, research is critical. And within the research community, to figure out the best methods and methodology, terms like – ontology and epistemology come to play. These words sound and mean similar things, but they are different. Ontology deals with the nature of reality, whereas epistemology deals with discovering the basis of that reality. They are essential to answer the questions of research and prove or disprove the hypothesis put forth by the researchers. Let us see how these terms further differ from each other.

Differences Between Ontology and Epistemology in Tabular Form

Table: Ontology vs Epistemology
Parameters of Comparison
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that believes that generally, all principles that apply to everything are real.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge.
The questions posed by ontology are – What is existence? What is the nature of existence?
The questions posed by epistemology are – What do you know? How do you know it?
The word ontology is derived from Modern Latin ontologia, which means a metaphysical science or study of being and the essence of things.
The word epistemology is derived from the Greek word episteme, which means knowledge and acquaintance with skill or experience.
Ontology was mentioned for the first time by Gideon Harvey in the 1660s.
Scottish philosopher James F. Ferrier coined Epistemology in 1856.
Following are a few theories found in ontology – ontological monoism, dualism, pluralism etc.
Following are a few theories found in epistemology – realism, rationalism, relativism etc.
Following are the levels found in ontology – top-level, domain-level, absolutist, multiplist etc.
Following are the levels found in epistemology – realist, multiplist, absolutist and evaluativist.
Models or conditions
Following are the models found in ontology – the general trajectory domain model, the domain knowledge or semantic model and the temporal domain model.
The conditions in epistemology are truth, belief and justification.
Following are the branches found in ontology – formal epistemology, agnotology, and alethiology.
Following are the branches of epistemology – realism, idealism and materialism.

What is Meant by Ontology?

Ontology is a philosophical science and a metaphysical study of the being, believing that everything that applies to it is real. The term is generally credited to the mathematician Pythogoras in 570 BCE. Parmindes, in 500 BC explained the ontological categorizations of existence. However, the first occurrence of the word as recorded by the Oxford Dictionary was in 1664 when Gideon Harvey mentioned the word in Archelogia philosophica nova.

Ontology is a study that tries to pinpoint things. It is the study of the nature of various beings, and the similarities and differences between them. It is not confined to only living beings. It also tries to figure out the relationship between objects and beings. People dealing with this subject try to learn why a specific thing occurs and how it is related to people.

Ontology attempts to answer the questions that begin with What. It is the study of the philosophical conclusion of what is.  Ontologists quest to find solutions for questions like – What is God, what is a disease, what is the end, what is artificial intelligence, etc. In addition to questioning these entities, ontology also includes the study of entities that presently exist. There are two major types of problems in ontology – the first is when the approach to the problem isn’t clear and the second is when the problem itself isn’t clear. The former variety ensures a debate with ontological commitment, while the latter ensures a more philosophical approach encompassing meta-ontology. The scope of ontology is vast and can be generalized to various fields like science, technology, physics and even medicine.

A lot of philosophical history is riddled with ontological disputes. Most of these disputes are due to the beliefs of the being, existence, identity, essence, relations etc. In a typical ontological dispute, there are two groups. One group is the group of realists, who are philosophers that affirm the category of existence of an object or being. The other group is the opposite – the anti-realists, who believe in the abstract and deny the existence of the object or being.  Such categories believe in the abstract, free will, God and universals.

There are various methods an ontologist relies on the find the answer to their question. The technique utilized depends on the other disciplines and the nature of the discipline that they wish to rely on. The most common method employed since the 20th century is the linguistic method that relies upon the meaning or reference to find the kind of existence of the object or being. The basic categories that reflect this method correspond to the broader (syntactic) categories like substance (noun) or property (adjective) etc. the disadvantage of this method is that the ontology of the object can be changed by changing the semantic analysis of its natural form.

The largely used linguistic criterion was put forth by the philosopher Quine, who said that the scientific theory must first be expressed using predicate logic or logical calculus, which is a language of names, variables, predicates and quantifiers. He rejected primacy for ontology and said that ontological beliefs must be predicted by natural science. In contrast to Quine, philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and David Armstrong said that ontology cannot be solely dependent on only philosophical or scientific study. Its results should be evaluated in terms of adequacy of the overall system, including experience.

What is Meant by Epistemology?

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the study of the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge. It was coined by the Scottish philosopher James F. Farrier in 1856 and is derived from the Greek word episteme, which means knowledge and acquaintance with skill or experience. In western philosophy, epistemology has a long history. It forms one of the four main branches of philosophy including ethics, metaphysics and logic.

Even though the term was coined much later, the idea was teased by Aristotle (384-322 BCE) when he said that philosophy begins with a kind of puzzlement. Human beings generally wonder about the world they live in and all the mysteries that surround them. Epistemologists often being their speculations with the common assumption that they have a great deal of knowledge. They then begin to dissect this knowledge they realize their knowledge is less secure than previously imagined and could also be dubious. Such doubts arise because of two reasons – knowledge of the external world and the ‘other-minds’ problem.

“The knowledge of the external world” problem states that the external senses that perceive all things around us are not sufficient to form trustworthy conclusions. Consider a wooden stick placed in a bowl of water. In the water, it appears to be bent, but when outside, it is a straight stick. Our knowledge tells us that only due to the optical illusion caused by the water, the stick appears bent, but who is to say that the nature of the stick does not transform underwater to appear or become bent? Our vision is not the only source of information and we lack more evidence to conclusively prove that what we know is a fact.

The second problem is “the other-minds problem”. This is a problem of subjectivity. Suppose a person underwent a surgical procedure and was warned by the surgeon of post-surgical pain, upon waking up after the surgery if the patient expresses pain, the surgeon cannot say for certain that the pain level is as anticipated because the threshold of pain varies for every single person. The other-minds problem essentially means that a person cannot know what is in another person’s mind and the entire human experience is impervious to any exterior inquiry.

The pursuit of epistemology is to study in-depth the assumptions of knowledge about the human mind and experience. It formulates theories about the reality of knowledge. It serves to find evidence for the knowledge we possess.

Main Differences Between Ontology and Epistemology In Points

Following are the main differences between ontology and epistemology:

  • Ontology is the branch of philosophy that is a study of being and believes that all the principles that apply to it are real. Epistemology, on the other hand, is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge.
  • Ontology is derived from the Modern Latin word ontologia, which means the study of the essence of things, whereas epistemology is derived from the Greek word episteme, which means knowledge and acquaintance with skills.
  • Ontology was put forth by Gideon Harvey in the 1660s, while epistemology was put forward much later by James F. Ferrier in 1856.
  • Ontology poses the question – What is the nature of existence? Epistemology poses the question – How do you know what you know?
  • Ontology has the following theories – ontological monoism, dualism etc., while epistemology has the following theories – realism, relativism etc.
  • Ontology has the following levels – top-level, absolutist, etc., while epistemology has the following levels – realist, multiplist etc.
  • Ontology has the following models – the general trajectory domain model, the semantic model etc., while epistemology has the following conditions – truth, belief and justification.
  • Ontology has the following branches – formal epistemology, agnotology etc., whereas epistemology has the following branches – realism, idealism and materialism.


The world is full of mysteries that engulf curious minds – giving them food for thought. To indulge in such delicacies benefits the world at large as we learn about things previously unknown. Ontology and epistemology are both branches of philosophy that ponder such inquisitive questions. Ontology is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of reality and our revolving world. It questions the nature of existence. Ontology has the following theories – ‘monoism’, ‘dualism’, ‘multiplism’ etc. It uses multiple methods in its studies like the semantic model and the linguistic criterion, which dissect the present knowledge to get to the crux of the concepts.

Epistemology, on the other hand, is the philosophical study of human knowledge. It strives to discover ways to reach the epicentre of knowledge. It is the study that wants to prove a certain viewpoint towards reality. Epistemology puts forth the question – How do you know what you know? It has the following conditions – truth, justification and belief. Thus, both these branches are interconnected. They are imperative for scientific discoveries and progressing forward to a better and brighter future. The questions that have since time immemorial bothered intellectual and common minds can only have answers when the methods and enquiries made by ontology and epistemology are explored. While they might seem like a chore requiring an endless supply of midnight oil, the fruits – the results, will be just as satisfying. Hamlet could have used either or both to ponder his question. The question still wreaks havoc with our generation because the multitude of responses to that question knows no end. As already mentioned, as a problem of epistemology (the other-minds problem), one cannot know for certain what the next person is thinking. While the answer to that question for you would be “to be”, the answer for your dog could be a whacky “to eat”. Both answers seem desirable and feasible. And could reveal truly the nature of the person (or dog) and their intentions.


  • https://www.dataversity.net/a-short-history-of-ontology-its-not-just-a-matter-of-philosophy-anymore/#
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/ontology-metaphysics
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/epistemology/The-other-minds-problem
  • https://www.researchgate.net/post/What-is-the-difference-between-Ontology-and-Epistomology
  • https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-ontology/


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"Difference Between Ontology and Epistemology." Diffzy.com, 2023. Thu. 23 Mar. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-ontology-and-epistemology-881>.

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