26 February 2014


Steve meditating on the ontology of a walnut
I reached a milestone today: I was able to use "ontological" in a sentence. If you're going "Huh? Onto-what?", believe me, I know where you're coming from. That word has been the bane of my grad school existence. I've been telling myself that if I ever learned to use it in a sentence, I'd have arrived - and that day came today.

Then again - maybe not. I still haven't used "ontological" in a word combination of my own choosing, I'm just able to quote something someone else said, and actually understand what they're talking about. But that's a big step in the right direction, isn't it? It represents an ontological shift, for me. There, I did it, I did it! Except I'm not entirely sure that what I just said actually makes sense.

Okay, "ontological". What does it actually mean? The word kept cropping up early in my grad school experience, in philosophy readings and such. I kept looking it up to try to get a handle on it, but it still didn't really make sense. The definitions all say something like "Ontology: the study of being", and some go on much longer about it. And usually, when I encountered that word, that definition didn't really help me make any sense of what I was reading. But then, a while back, I was reading some folktale theory, and the word popped up in a context where I actually understood what they were saying (Score!). And then the other day, I ran across a book review on this blog which was talking about Brian Boyd's book On the Origin of Stories, and what Jenny was saying about it made me rush out (metaphorically - into cyberspace, anyway) to get a hold of this book, which was well worth it (I waffle on about it here).

What she said was this: according to Boyd, "people find stories most memorable when the characters of the stories cross ontological boundaries." Huh, you say? Well, here, let me explain, out of my new-found state of enlightenment. The passage in question in Boyd's book analyses Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who. Dr. Seuss constantly messes with our ideas of what's real - specifically, by creating these really weird creatures, with what animals are. We have a quite clear idea of animals' being, and he crosses that boundary and gives fish antlers or puts wheels on some critter. That's ontology - he is saying something about a state of being.

As for finding stories most memorable when the characters "cross ontological boundaries", that's what our fascination with fantasy stories is all about. Think about it: of the blockbuster movies of the last twenty years, probably some 80% (if not more) were fantasies. A neglected boy finds out he's really a wizard. An injured soldier finds himself on a planet of tall blue creatures. A group of small woolly-footed people team up with a wizard and elves to destroy an evil magical ring. (And so on.) We know what things are really like, we have a clear grip on the nature of being - and we love stories that cross those boundaries, that tell of an alternate state of being. Ontological boundaries.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and "Ontological" Used in a Sentence. Oh frabjous day, I have arrived.


  1. You made me chuckle...now I understand! Great post Ange! Love it!

    1. So glad to be able to pass on the enlightenment! ;)