Phil 101: Basic Ontology

Philosophy divides into different subfields, which engage with different kinds of questions and issues.

Ethics is about what’s right and wrong (if anything is), about values, rights and obligations, justice, that kind of thing. When and why we have reasons to act some ways rather than others.

Epistemology is about knowledge and evidence, when and why we have reasons to think some things are true and others false. Discussions of “appearance versus reality” often belong here.

Metaphysics is the part of philosophy that investigates the basic structure and contents of reality. Not just concrete physical reality, but also non-physical reality, if things like minds turn out to be partly non-physical, or if things like God or angels exist. And also abstract reality, if things like numbers exist. Metaphysics also studies phenomena like time and causation and so on.

Most of this course will be engaging with metaphysical and epistemological debates; though sometimes we have (and will again) dipped into issues in ethics.

Ontology is a part of metaphysics; it investigates and tries to catalog everything that exists or is in some way real.

One basic category in ontology is that of an individual or particular thing. This is understood in a very general way; it’s not restricted to people and maybe not even restricted to things in space and time. Let’s get a handle on this category by considering what it’s opposed to. What would philosophers think don’t count as individual things?

Well, there are pluralities or collections of many things, and stuffs that can’t be counted, like the coffee in your mug. (You can measure your coffee, but the liquid itself doesn’t seem to be one or many.) We won’t be dealing with these categories in this course.

Another category is that of events or processes or happenings. We will come back to these in a moment.

Another category that’s contrasted to individual things are properties (or “attributes,” “qualities,” “features,” or “characteristics”) and relations. Some examples of properties are:

These examples cover a range. Some philosophers would deny that some of them (like the second) really are properties. The third example is a property that I and/or my body currently has. If we stick to Newtonian physics, it’s a property that I have just in virtue of how I am in myself, and if I were to lose that property, it would have to be because I somehow changed in myself. (I became shorter, or taller.) The fourth property is interestingly different. It might be that I lost that property because I changed in myself (I grew a lot overnight). Or it might be that I lost that property not because of anything that happened to me, but rather because of what happened to Professor Worsnip (he shrunk overnight). The fifth property is another where I might gain or lose it because of how Professor Worsnip moves around, rather than anything I do myself.

All of these are examples of properties I have, but the third is sometimes called an intrinsic and the fourth and fifth extrinisic or relational properties.

A property is something that has a single bearer or argument: the second, third, fourth and fifth examples above are all properties that I, Professor Pryor, bear. A relation is instead something that has two or more bearers or arguments. An example is being shorter than. Although being shorter than Professor Worsnip is a property that I have, being shorter than is a relation that I stand in to Professor Worsnip. In some cases, when A stands in a relation to B, B doesn’t need to (and sometimes can’t) stand in the same relation to A. If I’m shorter than Professor Worsnip (at this moment), he can’t also be shorter than me (at this same moment). (Again, for simplicity, I’m sticking to Newtonian physics. If you’ve studied special relativity, you’ll know what’s problematic with these examples.) In other cases, A and B can stand in the same relation to each other. For instance, I stand in the relation being part of the same department to Professor Worsnip, and he stands in the same relation to me.

There can also be relations that have more than two bearers or arguments. An example might be being intermediate in age between. I stand in that relation to Professors Worsnip and Professor Bovens.

So that’s one philosophical category, the category of properties and relations. It contrasts to individual things, because individuals aren’t themselves properties, but instead can only have properties. (The same is true for pluralities and stuffs. On many views, properties and relations can also have properties. For instance, the property of being shorter than Professor Worsnip has the property of being an extrinsic property.)

Some philosophers will stop with just the categories already mentioned (or might even try to do without some of them). But many think we need more categories as well. One kind of category that’s sometimes posited is that of facts. Some philosophers will say that there’s such a thing as the fact that Professor Pryor is (currently) shorter than Professor Worsnip, and that this is neither an individual nor a property or relation. Others might accept that there is such a thing as that fact, but argue that it is a property after all (perhaps a property of the whole world?). Or maybe it shouldn’t be called a property, but it belongs in the same category as properties and relations. While properties have single bearers, and relations have two or more bearers, facts are the same kind of thing, they just have zero bearers. It’s not important for us to get into these debates, or decide upon any of the proposals. We’re just getting the feel of the terrain.

When we talk about facts, we assume that they are always true. If something isn’t true, it’s not a fact (although people could mistakenly think it’s a fact). When philosophers want to talk about things that could be true or false, they instead use the notion of a proposition. You can think of these as something like a hypothesis or theory or statement that gets expressed with a declarative sentence.

Recall the category I mentioned before of events or processes/happenings. Some philosophers will distinguish between the fact that I recently joined the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department, and the event of my joining the department.

If events exist, they are specific occurrences, that start and end only once. There are also types of events. These are something like properties that can be had by different events. For example, there is the event-type joining a philosophy department. Since I’ve belonged to several department, there are multiple events involving me of that type. There are also events of that type where other philosophers are the agent.

(For another illustration of the contrast between types and specific instances, outside the realm of events, consider novels. You could understand them as titles that can be printed many times, or as physical copies, that have a specific location at a given time.)

Continuing with events: some events (like joining a department) are actions that people perform; others (like sneezing or growing taller) are not.

Our examples so far have been of events where something changes: one starts out not belonging to a department, and then some things change so that at the end, one now has joined the department. There are also more boring events. For instance, there’s the event of me being 70 inches tall today. I was 70 inches tall yesterday, and I’ll probably still be 70 inches tall tomorrow. So nothing changed in this respect today. But me being 70 inches tall today is still an event that some philosophers will recognize. (Sometimes these kinds of things are called states; and some philosophers reserve the word “event” for when things have been more exciting and dynamic.)

We’ve been discussing various ontological categories that many (but not all) philosophers recognize. Another division in ontology, that somewhat cross-cuts this, is between abstract things, including for example numbers, and also things with some generality to them, like circles-in-general (as opposed to such-and-such a specific yellow circle on my coffee mug). Or the general phenomena of justice and fear and sympathy. These are all abstract. Opposed to “abstract” is concrete. This includes everything that’s specific. On some views, it would include only things that have a specific location in space and time. But that’s not built into the meaning of “concrete.” As we’ll see in upcoming classes, some philosophers think we have non-physical souls; if these really exist they would also be concrete. If God exists, God would also be concrete, even if not in space and time. The category of concrete is meant to capture everything specific, and not abstract. It would be a substantive, controversial claim that everything which is concrete is physical or located in space and time. Similarly, some philosophers would say that everything abstract has something to do with our concepts or is subjective. But that again is a substantive, controversial claim. It’s not part of the meaning of “abstract.” Many philosophers think that numbers and general shapes objectively exist, and aren’t dependent on our concepts; and they’re not confused and incoherent when they still count numbers as abstract.

It’s important in philosophy to keep track of what is supposed to be part of the definition of a notion like “abstract” or “concrete”, and what is instead a substantive claim about that notion, that could be intelligibly disputed by someone who isn’t changing the definition.

If you’d like to read more about the notions of abstract and concrete, and controversies about how to define them, you can see this SEP entry. But at this stage in your engagement with philosophy, that article may be hard-going.

Where does this leave us?

Most philosophers who believe in properties, relations, facts and propositions would count these all as abstract (though there are some controversies). None of those would be categorized as individuals. But there may be some abstract individuals, like numbers or sets.

In this course, mostly we’ll instead be thinking about concrete individuals, like people and their brains and clothes, and perhaps non-physical individuals like souls if those exist.

Most philosophers accept that there are such things as events, and specific events would be also be counted as concrete, though not as being individuals. (Properties or types of events would not be counted as concrete.)


This was a brief sketch of the basic ontology or Map of Reality that many philosophers work with. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive or definitive accounting of different categories, but just to introduce some of the ones that philosophers commonly work with and talk about, and to give you a rough handle on them.

Even this much will already help us understand several of our debates this semester.