For the last 25 years, in my writing, I have been using the adjectives “epistemological” and “ontological” interchangeably and without actually knowing what either means. Sure, I have looked them up, but their definitions are so gauzy and academic that they are meaningless to me, and forgettable. So I forget them. I don’t even go back to check anymore.
But here is the amazing thing: Not once in 25 years has anyone called me out on this. There has been not one phone call or online comment or letter to the editor pointing out that, philosophically, I have my head up my arse, which I obviously do. There is only one conclusion I can reach: No one else has any idea what these words mean, either.
Ontologically speaking, then, are they even words, from an epistemological standpoint?
I use ontology and epistemology, and their derivative forms, whenever the subject involves an abstract idea and I want to convey a sense that I have given deeper thought to it than I really have. I have made these words my own. My Twitter profile identifies me as an “epistemologist.”
I wrote this in a story once: “If a great musician plays great music but no one hears ... was he really any good? It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest.” That story won the Pulitzer Prize.
Did I use the word correctly? Maybe, maybe not. I repeat, I do not really know what it means.
Until now, I’ve kept this to myself as a shameful secret, a form of journalistic malpractice. It’s like a surgeon transplanting a goose’s heart into a human because it’s what he had lying around and it looked interesting. Then waiting to see if anyone notices.
By writing this column, I am unburdening myself. But the more I thought about it and poked around in books, the more it occurred to me that my sin might not be so grave.
One dictionary defines epistemology as “The theory of knowledge, especially its methods, validity and scope.” What does that even mean? More to the point, what doesn’t it mean? Might a rectal thermometer be an epistemological instrument? Seeing how I’m fumbling for understanding here, doesn’t this stupid column qualify as epistemology?
The definition of ontology is even murkier: “The philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.” (Or, in other words, beeble beeble beeble.)
My growing suspicion is that philosophers invented these terms for the same reason I use them: To make them seem smarter than they are, and to make the reader feel smarter than she is. Can it be that these words are of value not for their meaning — for they have no meaning — but for the sensations they impart? Maybe they are the literary equivalent of monosodium glutamate — having no substance of their own, but enhancing what is around them? The comparison is compelling: Among connoisseurs, their use is considered a sin. And can give you headaches.
I contend you can’t pillory a man for trying to make things more flavorful.
More to the point, I remain ... unchallenged.
Just yesterday I was having a Twitter argument with my friend David Simon, the erudite creator of “The Wire,” a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant. A Very Smart Dude. On Twitter, David had chided me because I had called “Dr. Strangelove” the only perfect film comedy; he said it was a mistake to call it a comedy since its genre was more complex. In response I wrote: “To deny that Strangelove is genre comedy is to deny ontology.”
David Simon is the most joyfully argumentative person I have ever known. He thrills at confrontation and seeks it out wherever he can. But, like everyone else, he just meekly let this go.
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