In philosophy, ontology is the inquiry into, or theory of, being. It was coined in the early 17th century in order to avoid some of the ambiguities of the term ‘metaphysics’. It has come to mean the general theory of what there is, of what exists.

This usage of the term should not be confused with that in computer science and information science where an ontology is a representation of a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. It is used to reason about the properties of that domain, and may be used to define the domain.


Across a range of academic disciplines, researchers have made what is sometimes termed an ‘ontological turn’. This reflects a change of emphasis away from the epistemological and discursive (or, indeed, ‘representational’ or ‘mimetologogical’) approaches dominant in the 20th century towards a greater emphasis, emerging towards the end of the 20th century, upon the entanglement of epistemology and ontology in material social practices.

Examples include the work of Descola (2013, 2005) and Latour (1988), who have emerged as path-breakers in the ontological turn, having developed the two most formidable and productive approaches to an ontological anthropology (Kelly, 2014). A further example can be seen in the work of Dell’Alba in the field of education in which, in her conceptualisation of learning, there is a shift in focus from epistemology in itself to epistemology in the service of ontology (Dall’Alba and Barnacle, 2007).

Such a body of literature concerning the relationship between epistemology and ontology has considerable relevance to design practices in general and to narrative environment design in particular. In designing a narrative environment, the designer will make various assumptions about what exists in the world and what can be considered real, even while challenging the nature of that ‘realism’ and considering the conditions in which such entities, existents and realities are sustained. In doing this, the designer is making certain ontological assumptions.

As noted above, historically ontology is the branch of philosophy and of metaphysics that is concerned to establish the nature of the fundamental kinds of thing which exist in the world or the “nature of being”, what the world is and consists of. Examples of philosophical ontological theory include Plato’s theory of ‘forms’ and, more recently, scientific realism, which asks what kinds of thing are presupposed by scientific theories.

However, while philosophy can inform discussions in different disciplines, it is no longer regarded as the kind of final arbiter it was once assumed to be. Ontologies will change as knowledge and individual sciences and modes of study change. In sociological theory, for example, much of the debate since Comte, has been broadly ontological in nature. This debate has done much to clarify the nature, while also underlining the very complexity, of social reality.

Furthermore, ontological arguments are an explicit or implicit feature of particular kinds of disciplinary theory, such as in sociological theory with Durkheim’s conception of ‘social acts’, Weber’s and the symbolic interactionist’s emphasis on individual actors and Marx’s materialism and emphasis on modes and relations in production.

Ontology has to do with the assumptions different social groups make about the kinds of entities taken to exist “in the real world.” This definition does not entail a strong realist position, i.e. concerning a common or universal underlying reality, but this does not mean at all the ‘the mind’ constructs the world, i.e. it is not a kind of subjectivism. What the definition seeks to bring to attention is the existence of multiple worlds without negating the real. Our ontological stances about what the world is, what we are, and how we come to know the world define our being, our doing, and our knowing, our historicity.

A complex definition of ontology that draws out these dimensions is provided by Blaser (2010), who proposes three-layers. The first layer concerns the assumptions about the kinds of beings that exist and their conditions of existence. The second layer refers to ways in which these ontologies give rise to particular socio-natural configurations, how they perform themselves, so to speak, into worlds. In other words, ontologies do not precede or exist independently of our everyday practices. The third layer occurs when ontologies manifest themselves as stories, which make the underlying assumptions easier to identify. This layer is amply corroborated by the ethnographic literature on myths and rituals, for example, creation myths. It also exists in the modern world, in the narratives that we, moderns, tell ourselves about ourselves, and which are repeated over and over by politicians in their speeches, or in the insistent news’ rendition of about “what happens in the world.”

In an introduction to Heidegger’s The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Albert Hofstadter argues that human behaviour is mediated by the understanding-of-being. If ontological means of or belonging to the understanding of being, then the human Dasein is, by its very constitution, an ontological being. This does not mean that the human being has an explicit concept of being, which s/he then applies in every encounter with beings. Rather, it means that before all ontology, as explicit discipline of thinking, the human Dasein always already encounters beings in terms of a pre-ontological, pre-conceptual, non-conceptual grasp of their being. Ontology as a scientific discipline is then the unfolding, in the light proper to thought and therefore in conceptual form, of this pre-conceptual understanding-of- being (Willis, 2006” 96, n9).

The relevance of ontology, given this layered complexity, for the design narrative environments becomes very clear. It is strengthened by the fact that narrative environment designers use material elements to articulate meaning, further complicating the relationships between epistemology and ontology embodied in and performed by such material entities.This relevance is further established when one considers relational ontologies and ontological design.

Relational ontologies

A relational ontology proposes that nothing pre-exists the relations that constitute it. In such ontologies, life is inter-relation and inter-dependency through and through. Buddhism, through the principle of inter being, has one of the most succinct and powerful notions in this regard: nothing exists by itself, everything inter-exists, we inter-are with everything on the planet. A different perspective on this is provided by phenomenological biology through the notion that there is an “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing” (Maturana and Varela, 1987: 35). Maturana and Varela (1987: 26) aphorise this recognition as follows: “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing”, and by saying that “every act of knowing brings forth a world”. This coincidence of being, doing and knowing implies that we are deeply immersed in the world along with other sentient beings, who are similarly and ineluctably knower-doers as much as ourselves.

Relational ontologies are those which eschew the divisions between nature and culture, between individual and community, and between us and them that are central to the modern ontology. The emergence of relational ontologies challenges the epistemic foundation of modern politics. The political activation of relational ontologies enables a different way of imagining life and other modes of existence, pointing towards the pluriverse, which can be described as ‘a world where many worlds fit.’ In many such mobilizations, for example, against mining in South America, the activation of relational ontologies politicise modern binaries by mobilizing non-humans, for example, mountains and water, as sentient entities and as actors in the political arena. Struggles against the destruction of life are thus conjuring up the entire range of the living.

Ontological design

A concept of ontological design was Initially proposed by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in the mid 1980s (1986). The most important design, they suggest is ontological, as it constitutes an intervention into the ground of our heritage, growing from already-existent ways of being in the world, and deeply affecting the kinds of beings that we are.

Ontologically oriented design, they continue, is therefore both reflective and political: it looks back to the traditions that have formed us; and forwards to the as-yet-uncreated transformations of our lives together. Through the emergence of new tools and environments, we come to a changing awareness of human nature and human action. In turn, this leads to new technological development. The designing process is part of this movement through which the structure of possibilities for current and future worlds are generated. Thus, Winograd and Flores (1986: 179) argue,

“In ontological designing, we are doing more than asking what can be built. We are engaging in a philosophical discourse about the self – about what we can do and what can be. Tools are fundamental to action, and through our actions we generate the world. The transformation we are concerned with is not a technical one, but a continuing evolution of how we understand our surroundings and ourselves – of how we continue becoming the beings we are” .

However, Escobar suggests that ontological design remains relatively undeveloped so far. Ontological design is presented as one possibility for contributing to the transition from the hegemony of modernity’s One-World ontology to a pluriverse of socio-natural configurations. In this context, designs for the pluriverse become a tool for reimagining and reconstructing sustainable worlds.

Taken as the interaction between understanding and creation, design is ontological in that it is a conversation about possibilities; It is about the making of worlds and knowledges otherwise, that is, worlds and knowledges constructed on the basis of different ontological commitments, likely to yield collective ways of living less marked by modernist forms of domination. This brings to attention more explicitly the politics of design.


Blaser, Mario. 2010. Storytelling: globalization from the Chaco and beyond. Durham: Duke University Press.

Dall’Alba, G. and Barnacle, R. (2007). An ontological turn for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 32 (6), 679–691. Available from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075070701685130 [Accessed 25 November 2013].

Descola, P. (2013, 2005). Beyond nature and and culture, translated by Janet  Lloyd. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Escobar, A. (2013). Notes on the ontology of design [Draft paper]. Available from http://sawyerseminar.ucdavis.edu/files/2012/12/ESCOBAR_Notes-on-the-Ontology-of-Design-Parts-I-II-_-III.pdf [Accessed 4 September 2016].

Jary, D. and Jary, J. (2000). Collins dictionary [of] sociology, 3rd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins.

Kelly, J.D. (2014). Introduction: The ontological turn in French philosophical anthropology. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4 (1), 259–269. Available from http://haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau4.1.011 [Accessed 23 April 2016].

Latour, B. (1988). The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maturana, H.and Varela, F. (1987). The Tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding. Berkeley: Shambhala.

Willis, A.-M. (2006). Ontological designing – laying the ground. In: Willis, A.-M., ed. Design Philosophy Papers, Collection Three. Ravensbourne, Queensland: Team D/E/S Publications, 80–98. Available from https://www.academia.edu/888457/Ontological_designing [Accessed 14 September 2016].

Winograd, Terry, and Fernando Flores (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation

edited 18 September, 2016 by Admin