How does one differentiate epistemological and ontological claims?



I'm taking an introductory philosophy course and I find it fascinating. I can't really figure out an assignment though because I'm a bit foggy on what the difference between ontological and epistemological claims is.

Of course, I'm writing 2-3 sentences per bullet, but my shortened answers are in bold.

For each of the following claims (a)-(f), say whether it is an ontological claim or an epistemological claim. Then in one-three sentences explain why. In explaining your answer, it may help to spell out what the claim means.

  • (a) Zombies (in the philosophical sense) are conceivable. (epistemological)
  • (b) Zombies (in the philosophical sense) are possible. (ontological)
  • (c) A koala is necessarily an animal. (ontological, but not sure)
  • (d) From the claim that “All koalas are animals” and the claim that “Fluffy is a koala” I can deduce the claim that “Fluffy is an animal”. (epistemological, but not sure)
  • (e) There is only one fundamental kind of stuff that makes up the universe, and that stuff is physical. (ontological)
  • (f) All phenomena can be explained in terms of physical phenomena. (epistemological, but not sure)

Please let me know if I'm mixing them up or not understanding the concepts. Thanks!


Posted 2013-08-02T05:27:27.447

Reputation: 51

can you write your reasonings? Why do you believe what you labeled each one? – Pinocchio – 2017-08-27T23:50:23.987

2Hint for c) how you know that koalas are animals? – David H – 2013-08-02T06:16:34.320

1Or on second thought, I might be leading you astray! As a scientist I want call it epistemology, but a philosopher could very well call it ontology. Hmm... – David H – 2013-08-02T06:23:46.923

The write "one-three" for "one to three"? – Nikolaj-K – 2013-08-02T08:22:56.117

I'm not sure epistemological and ontological claims are disjoint. We can speak about the universe and about knowledge, but we can also speak about the knowledge or models that we have about the universe and about observers and their beliefs in the universe. – Trylks – 2013-08-02T12:30:39.210

The important thing is not just answering but also justifying your answer, that process should help you firm up the differences between epistemology & ontology. They're complex terms, and sometimes intrude on each others territory. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-08-02T19:25:29.370

@David: I don't think it's an epistemological fact that koalas are necessarily animals. This seems similar to what's going on when we say that water is necessarily H2O: it's metaphysically necessary that water is H2O, but not epistemologically necessary, since we can imagine scenarios where water isn't H2O. – possibleWorld – 2015-03-13T18:47:48.260



Ontology is about existence while epistemology is about knowing. There is a subtlety here that might be approached by way of example - consider a can of coke in a vending machine.

That the can of coke is in the vending machine at all is an ontological matter. Another way to say this is that in the ontological case, we are concerned with the nature of the can of cokes being present in the universe/world/vending machine. The separate issue is epistemological. Whether you know it is there by seeing it, being notified by a keypad on the vending machine, or otherwise, is an epistemological matter. Another way to say this is that in the epistemological case, we are concerned with how you know that 'the can of coke is present in the vending machine' is true.

Simply put, ontology can be distinguished from epistemology by contrasting what exists and how we know so. Now, depending on what questions you ask, this delineation breaks down, but for the purposes of your question, I do not think it is necessary to consider ontology and epistemology in any deeper sense.

As an aside, all words entail some historical context - philosophical terms are no different. Often, this results in the lack of a sharp delineation between certain terms, especially upon first encounters through introductory philosophy courses. As you study more philosophy, you will probably develop a better sense of the philosophical 'vernacular', and consequently you will get a feel for when you ought to say ontology and when you ought to say epistemology.


Posted 2013-08-02T05:27:27.447

Reputation: 61