Basic Principles of Ontology

To understand the nature of material existence, there are certain concepts that must first be understood. It is in terms of these concepts that material existence must be explained. This section introduces and explains these fundamental concepts which are the basic principles of ontology.

Material Existents - Three Corollaries of the Axiom of Identity

Metaphysically, existence consists of everything that exists, without regard to its mode or category of existence. Ontologically, existence consists of material existents. All other things that are sometimes thought of as material existents, qualities, events, and relationships, are not themselves existents, but aspects of material existents with no existence independent of those existents. Qualities are qualities of existents, events are the behavior of existents, and relationships are between existents; there are no other qualities, events, or relationships.

The second axiomatic concept of Objectivism, originally stated by Aristotle, is identity, that is, A is A, or a thing is what it is. But what exactly is a thing's identity?

It is one of the most important questions of philosophy. "A is A," is fine, but what exactly is A? A thing certainly is what it is, but what is a thing anyway? While the answer to this question is frequently alluded to throughout Objectivism, and at least once actually stated, it is never made explicit. There are three corollaries to the axiomatic concept of identity which do make the answer to that question explicit. Those corollaries are, the necessity of qualities, the necessity of difference, and the necessity of relationship. By necessity is meant the fact all three corollaries are true of all existents and there can be no existent of which all three are not true.

These corollaries may seem simplistic, even obvious, yet it is their very simplicity and obviousness that makes them so easily neglected, and that neglect is the reason for so many mistakes in the field of ontology. Whole bundles of mistaken metaphysical lumber are swept away by these simple principles.

Corollary 1: The Necessity of Qualities Anything that exists must have some qualities.

[NOTE: By qualities, I mean all of an entity's properties, attributes, and characteristics.]

It is true of all existents, not just material ones, that a thing is whatever all of its qualities are. Note, however, the qualities do not make a thing what it is, the qualities are what they are because a thing is what it is. Identifying a thing's qualities (an epistemological function) is not identifying why a thing is what it is, only what it is (ontologically).

For example, the redness, elasticity, and roundness of a red rubber ball are the qualities if the red rubber ball, but they are not things impressed on or added to something else that somehow transforms it into a red rubber ball, the qualities are simply the qualities of a red rubber ball, and have no independent meaning or existence apart from it. If there were never anything elastic, or red, or round, none of those qualities would exist.

An entity's identity, ontologically, is all of it's qualities. This must not be confused with an existent's epistemological identity, which is dependent on what is known about it. The entity identified, itself, both ontologically and epistemologically is the same. An entity is what it is regardless of how much is known or not known about it.

The Nature of Things—Necessary and Possible Qualities

An existent's identity determines its nature, that is, the kind of existent it is. Everything that exists has a specific nature because, everything that exists has the specific qualities and attributes that are its identity. A full description of the nature of any existent would be the identification of all its qualities.

The subject of qualities is very large (though usually neglected) and I will devote an entire section to that subject. There is one aspect of that subject that must be mentioned here, because it is a cause of much confusion both in ontology and epistemology. It is the difference between necessary (sometimes called essential) qualities and possible (sometimes called accidental) qualities. Necessary qualities are all of an existent's qualities which it must have to be the existent it is and without which it would not be that existent.

There are two kinds of necessary qualities:

Immutable necessary qualities—are those qualities that cannot change. An existent always has the same immutable necessary qualities or ceases to be that existent. An individual, for example, matures, may gain or loose weight, learns, lives in different places, but always remains the same individual so long as he lives. The immutable qualities that identify and individual never change, even if those attributes are not known.

Mutable necessary qualities—are those qualities that can change, but are the qualities of an existent "at the moment." The mutable necessary qualities may change or may be true sometimes and not at other times, but are true of the existent at the time the existent is being identified. For example, a person's weight may change, but at any particular time that weight will have a specific value. For that person at that specific time that weight is a necessary quality, if the person had a different weight at that moment, it would be a different person.

Generally we do not think of mutable qualities as necessary, because, they are only necessary while actual qualities of an existent. At all other times, the mutable qualities are only possible qualities.

Possible qualities are all those qualities that an existent may have but does not necessarily have at the moment or never has, including all those qualities that may change without the existent becoming a different existent or a different kind of existent. Possible qualities also include all possible relationships an existent may have to other existents. The necessary qualities determine what qualities are possible to an existent.

The distinctions I have made in qualities eliminate some of the philosophical baggage usually associated with the concepts of essential vs accidental qualities. I also prefer the terms necessary and possible, because the meaning of essential in epistemology, especially for definitions, is a different concept, and the two are easily confused.

Corollary 2: The Necessity of Difference Anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists. No two things can be identical in every way.

This seemingly obvious corollary has important consequences. It is obvious if there are two things, something must make them different, else they would not be two things. Since it is an existent's qualities that determine what an existent is, if existents are different (which they must be) they must have at least one quality which is different.

Therefore, since, "anything that exists must have some qualities (corollary 1.) and "anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists" (corollary 2.) and it is a thing's qualities that determine what it is, this corollary may be restated this way:

Every existent has some quality or combination of qualities which is different from some quality or combination of qualities of all other existents.

This corollary is very important to the ontological hierarchy of existence I shall discuss in the next section. While there is probably nothing we can directly perceive that is identical in every way to any other existent, there is no logical reason why there could not be, so long as the were different in some way.

For example, though we cannot directly perceive individual molecules of water, we know if they have the same energy levels they are identical. If they are identical, the second corollary says they cannot exist, so there must different in some way, and that difference cannot be any of the necessary qualities. The quality that differentiates things that are otherwise identical must be a relative quality. In the case of water molecules, the quality that differentiates them is the spatial quality, position. Two water molecules may be identical in every way, but if they are really two, the cannot be in the same place.

[NOTE: This corollary is one of the most important concepts, not only to ontology, but all of philosophy. To exist, a thing must be different from everything else that exists. There is one creative power, the power to make different. The more difference there is, the more existence there is. It is an ultimate principle of existence. Conversely, the power to make the same, [to blur, meld, blend, or obfuscate differences] is the power to destroy or decrease existence.]

Corollary 3: The Necessity of Relationship Anything that exists must have some relationship to everything else that exists. Nothing can exist that does not have some relationship to everything else that exists.

This corollary is actually the converse of the previous. It really says that everything that exists must share some quality or qualities with something else that exists. Nothing can be totally unique.

This is the least obvious of the three corollaries and is easiest to grasp from the relationship aspect. If there could be something that shared no qualities whatsoever with anything else that exists, it could not possibly have any relationship to anything else that exists. It could not have any spatial relationships, because it would than have spatial qualities, it could have no physical relationship, because it would than have physical qualities, and it could have perceptual relationships (ones that can be perceived), because it would then have perceptual qualities. If a thing has any relationship with any other existent, whatever the relationship is, there is some common quality or characteristic which that relationship represents a variation of.

This corollary contradicts all of those mystical and pseudo-scientific notions of other worlds and other existences, for example. There is only existence and whatever exists is part of that existence and has some relationship to everything else that exists.

The Existence We Actually Live In

I explained in Metaphysics—Part 1, the purpose of this philosophy is to defend the view: "The ultimate reality, the primary existence, the absolute is, the "really real existence" is the physical reality we are directly conscious of."

Since it is material existence as it actually is, as we perceive and experience it, as our science studies it, our technology uses it, our arts transform it, and our souls enjoy it that is reality, it is that reality ontology must describe. This actually experienced existence has certain essential characteristics that ontology must account for. The following is a list of those essential characteristics. The descriptions that follow only explain what is meant by these characteristics. The next section will present the ontological explanation of these characteristics and their relationship to one another.

  • Plurality
  • Dynamism
  • Duration
  • Interaction
  • Life
  • Consciousness
  • Volition

Plurality - means there is more than one thing. Material existence consists of multiple entities. Since everything that exists must be different from everything else that exists, ontology must account for how those differences and the qualities responsible for them are possible and true.

Dynamism - means things happen. Material existence is characterized by events and processes, therefore it must by capable of change. Ontology must account for the nature of change.

Duration - means there are things that do not change. Material existence consists of entities, therefore, in the midst of change, so to speak, some things must not change. Ontology must account for the continuity of things that persist in a dynamic existence.

Interaction - means things effect each other. The events of material existence are not perpetual. Events start and stop and change their character while happening. Material entities do not act independently but interact.

There are hard things in this world that bump into each other, things that resist other thing, push other things. The entities involved in these physical reactions have a "solidness" and "substantialness" that makes these reactions possible. These reactions are not limited to physical proximity. Physical things react to one another even when separated. Physics calls this attribute "mass" and it is what makes the interaction between existents possible. It is the task of ontology to account for the substantialness of physical existence.

Life - means there are living organisms. Some material entities sustain themselves as the kind of existents they are by means of a process called life. The moment that process ceases the entities cease to be the kind of entities (living organisms) they are. Some of the behavior of such entities cannot be attributed to physical qualities alone, and can only be explained in terms of that process called life. Ontology must explain the nature of life as an actual material existent.

Consciousness - means some living organism are aware. The living behavior of some organism is a response to other existents and is different depending on the nature of the existents. These differences in behavior would not be possible if the organisms were not able to recognize, that is, be aware of, the differences in the existents they react to. This awareness is called consciousness. Ontology must describe the nature of conscious as an actual existent.

Volition - means some organisms are capable of identifying what they are aware of and choosing their behavior based on those identifications. Identification requires a process of reason and the product of that process is called knowledge, choosing requires the faculty of volition, which is the faculty that makes reason, knowledge, and conscious choice possible. This is the ultimate objective of ontology; to demonstrate that volition exists materially with all other aspects of existence.

I have identified seven characteristics of reality which ontology must account for and explain non-contradictorily. This ontology will demonstrate that these seven characteristic have a hierarchical relationship to one another, and are all aspects of the same material reality. That hierarchy consists only of six levels, because dynamism and duration are two aspects of the same level of existence. The purpose of the next section is to describe that hierarchy.

The Ontological Foundation of Epistemology

The corollaries of axiomatic concept of identity and the seven characteristics of existence are fundamental to ontology, but are also crucial concepts to epistemology. Ontology lays the foundation for epistemology because it describes that nature of that which knowledge is knowledge of. In order to understand how knowledge is possible and validate it, the nature of that which is known must be established. My discussion of the nature of perception (which I have already described in essence in my article Perception) together with this ontology are the foundations of a correct epistemology.

—Reginald Firehammer (1/05/05)


  1. The three Corollaries of the Axiom of Identity are:
    —Anything that exists must have some qualities.
    —Anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists. No two things can be identical in every way. (Every existent has some quality or combination of qualities which is different from some quality or combination of qualities of all other existents.)
    —Anything that exists must have some relationship to everything else that exists. Nothing can exist that does not have some relationship to everything else that exists. (Everything that exists must share some quality or qualities with something else that exists. Nothing can be totally unique.)
  2. Since it is material existence as it actually is, as we perceive and experience it, as our science studies it, our technology uses it, our arts transform it, and our souls enjoy it that is reality, it is that reality ontology must describe.
  3. The seven essential characteristics ontological existence are: Plurality, Dynamism, Duration, Interaction, Life, Consciousness, and Volition.