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Ontology, History of


The term ontologia was coined by scholastic writers in the seventeenth century. Rudolf Goclenius, who mentioned the word in 1636, may have been the first user, but the term was such a natural Latin coinage and began to appear so regularly that disputes about priority are pointless. Some writers, such as Abraham Calovius, used it interchangeably with metaphysica ; others used it as the name of a subdivision of metaphysics. Johannes Clauberg (16221665), a Cartesian, coined instead the term ontosophia. By the time of Jean-Baptiste Duhamel (16241706), ontology was clearly distinguished from natural theology. The other subdivisions of metaphysics are cosmology and psychology, from which ontology is also distinguished. Thus, ontologia as a philosophical term of art was already in existence when it was finally canonized by Christian Wolff (16791754) and Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (17141762).


For the authors mentioned above, the subject matter of ontology was being as such. "Being" was understood univocally, as having one single sense. Ontology can therefore claim as ancestors John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, rather than Thomas Aquinas. In the case of Wolff himself, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a stronger influence than scholasticism, but in his Philosophia Prima Sive Ontologia, Wolff refers explicitly to Francisco Suárez. According to Wolff, the method of ontology is deductive. The fundamental principle applying to all that is, is the principle of noncontradiction, which holds that it is a property of being itself that no being can both have and not have a given characteristic at one and the same time. From this, Wolff believed, follows the principle of sufficient reason, namely, that in all cases there must be some sufficient reason to explain why any being exists rather than does not exist. The universe is a collection of beings each of which has an essence that the intellect is capable of grasping as a clear and distinct idea. The principle of sufficient reason is invoked to explain why some essences have had existence conferred on them and others have not. The truths about beings that are deduced from indubitable first principles are all necessary truths. Thus, ontology has nothing to do with the contingent order of the world.

The influence of late scholasticism (or of what Étienne Gilson calls "essentialism") on rationalist metaphysics was repaid in kind, for the division of metaphysics into ontology, cosmology, and psychology found its way back into scholastic manuals, where it has persisted until very recently. Along with this division, there persisted the view that being constitutes an independent subject matter over and above the subject matter of the special sciences. The persistence of this view is perhaps to be explained by cultural rather than by intellectual factors. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries scholasticism was isolated in seminaries until Pope Leo XIII guided Thomism back into intellectual debate. Only in this way was scholasticism able to avoid the nemesis (in the form of Immanuel Kant) that awaited rationalist metaphysics.


In the written announcement of lectures given from 1765 to 1766, Kant treated ontology as a subdivision of metaphysics that included rational psychology but was distinguished, in his case, from empirical psychology, cosmology, and what he called the "science of God and the world": "Then in ontology I discuss the more general properties of things, the difference between spiritual and material beings." But when Kant came to write the Critique of Pure Reason, he settled matters with ontology once and for all. The two key passages are the discussion of the second antinomy of pure reason and the refutation of the ontological argument. Wolff had argued a priori that the world is composed of simple substances, themselves neither perceived nor possessing extension or shape, and each of them different, and that physical objects are composite, collections of such substances. In the second antinomy the thesis is that "every composite substance in the world consists of simple parts, and nothing exists anywhere that is not either simple or composed of simple parts"; and the proof that Kant presented is effectively Wolffian. But he presented an equally powerful proof for the antithesis, namely, that "no composite thing in the world consists of simple parts, and there exists nothing simple anywhere." In exposing the shared fallacy of both proofs, Kant made it impossible ever again to accept ontology as a deductive body of necessary truths that is akin to geometry in form but has being as its subject matter. His analysis of existence in his refutation of the Ontological Proof is a counterpart to this.

Since Kant, the most influential use of the term ontology outside scholastic manuals has been in the writings of Martin Heidegger and W. V. Quine. Both have been greeted by scholastic writers as engaged in essentially the same enterprise as they themselves, Father D. A. Drennen taking this view of Heidegger, and Father I. M. Bocheński of Quine.


In regard to Heidegger's ontology, Father Drennen is perhaps partly correct. Heidegger wished to explain what character being must have if human consciousness is to be what it is. He began by quarreling with the principle of sufficient reason in its Leibniz-Wolff form. This, he said, is an inadequate starting point for ontology because the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" presupposes that we already know what being and nothing are. Heidegger treated "Being" and "Nothing" as the names of contrasted and opposed powers whose existence is presupposed in all our judgments. In negative judgments, for example, to speak of what is not the case is implicitly to refer to Nothing. Heidegger's ontology, however, was not deductive or even systematic in form. It proceeds at times by the exegesis of poetry or of the more aphoristic fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers and is thus very different from scholastic ontology.


In the case of Quine, the name ontology has been in fact given to a quite different set of preoccupations. Quine has been concerned with two closely allied questions: To the existence of what kind of thing does belief in a given theory commit us? And what are the relations between intensional and extensional logic? His answer to the first question is that to be is to be the value of a variable: We have to admit the existence of that range of possible entities for which names could occur as values for those variables without which we could not state our beliefs. His answer to the second question is that intensional logics and extensional logics involve the admission not merely of different but of incompatible types of entity. "Both sorts of entity can be accommodated in the same logic only with the help of restrictions such as Church's, which serve to keep them from mixing, and this is very nearly a matter of two separate logics with a universe for each" (From a Logical Point of View, p. 157).

It is clear that Quine's logical preoccupations are in fact relevant to Wolff and the scholastics only in that an understanding of Quine's inquiries would preclude one from trying to construct a deductive ontology in the mode of Suárez or Wolff.

See also Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb; Church, Alonzo; Clauberg, Johannes; Cosmology; Gilson, Étienne Henry; Heidegger, Martin; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Ontology; Psychology; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Suárez, Francisco; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thomism; Wolff, Christian.


primary sources

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. Metaphysica. Halle, 1740.

Clauberg, Johannes. Opera Omnia, edited by J. T. Schalbruch. 2 vols., 281. Amsterdam, 1691.

Duhamel, Jean-Baptiste. De Consensu Veteris et Novae Philosophiae. Paris, 1663.

Duns Scotus, John. Opera Omnia. 12 vols. Paris, 18911895. Vol. III, Quaestiones Subtillissimae Super Libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962.

Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being. Translated by D. Scott, R. Hall, and A. Crick. Chicago: Regnery, 1949.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan, 1929.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Wolff, Christian. Philosophia Prima Sive Ontologia. Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1729.

Wolff, Christian. Philosophia Rationalis, Sive Logica Methodo Scientifica Pertractata et ad Usum Scientiarum Atque Vitae Aptata. Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1728.

secondary sources

Bocheński, I. M. PhilosophyAn Introduction. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1962.

Drennen, D. A., ed. Modern Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.

Ferrater Mora, José. "On the Early History of Ontology." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 24 (1963): 3647.

Geach, P. T., A. J. Ayer, and W. V. Quine. "Symposium: On What There Is." PAS, Supp., 25 (1951): 125160.

Gilson, Étienne. Being and Some Philosophers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949.

Martin, Gottfried. Immanuel Kant: Ontologie und Wissenschaftstheorie. Cologne: University of Cologne, 1951. Translated by P. G. Lucas as Kant's Metaphysics and Theory of Science. Manchester, U.K., 1955.

Marx, Werner. Heidegger und die Tradition. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1961.

Owens, Joseph. The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1951.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)

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