I could be wrong, but it sounds like ontology is the study of what things exist. But I wonder what is the name for the study of what changes happen? The study of action, change, motion, etc.

  • 1
    You could see ontology as studying the structure of becoming as well as being; that said, the study of becoming in its 'biggest' sense would be metaphysics (but metaphysics can mean a lot of other things as well, of course...)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 13, 2012 at 0:55
  • @JosephWeissman thank you. It is kind of confusing though because another answer philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/1537/1956 said that ontology was a branch of metaphysics dealing with what exists. But if we reify change/action then everything becomes a "noun" to get lumped in w/ ontology. How could ontology be a subset of studying "becoming"?
    – Benjamin
    Jun 13, 2012 at 1:00
  • I think I am misunderstanding.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 13, 2012 at 1:01

4 Answers 4


There is no accepted term for the study of change in metaphysics, analogous to ontology for the study of what there is, or mereology for the study of the parthood relation. Many scholars resort to the phrase "the problem of change", or "the problem of persistence".

  • Why call it a problem?
    – Benjamin
    Oct 31, 2012 at 23:42
  • I don't know. I guess the idea is that, if something is worth philosophical investigation, it is because it is somehow puzzling or problematic. If it was "the entirely obvious question of change", few philosophers would bother thinking about it :)
    – Schiphol
    Nov 1, 2012 at 2:30

I'm going to use the term metaphysics because while ontology is used as a synonym, some distinguish the former from the latter quite sharply (something along the lines of the study of being itself vs. mere conceptual analysis). Your distinction between change and being is a bit of a false one, I think, and you yourself propose the study of change, of something as if it were a something on its own without reference to anything else. The answer is metaphysics by virtue of the fact that change occurs in beings.

Historically, there was a debate between Parmenides and Heraclitus about exactly being and change; the former concluded that only being exists (think Zeno and his proofs of the non-existence of motion, otherwise known as change) while the latter concluded that only change exists ("you can't step in the same river twice", leaving the world essentially unintelligible). The former flies in the face of our experience: things do change. On the other hand, the latter is absurd if we admit the existence of things at all: it's not that you can't step in the same river twice, Heraclitus, it's that you can't step in the same river once, because even while you take your step, the river changes...as does your foot.

Aristotle's solution, which sought to reconcile being with change, was to define change, briefly, as the transition from potency to act and act to potency. So while the river changes, as does your foot, it is the river that changes, and it is your foot that changes. The change is only accidental, and not substantial, in this case. Changes in substance are still changes in something.

  • There are people who use the term metaphysics interchangeably with ontology?
    – stoicfury
    Sep 2, 2012 at 6:48
  • I don't. But I have run into confusions of the two in the past, where authors use one of the two words exclusively to mean anything that falls under either.
    – danielm
    Sep 6, 2012 at 13:13

I think the question is clear. I don't think that there is such a term. The lack of a term, may show that the predominant tendency (within Western Euopean metaphysics) is to take impermenance/change as illusory, so needs not be blessed with a name, and 'Being' is more primary, is more real so its study is thus baptised Ontology.

It seems obvious that the question of impermanance/change does not then go away, but becomes subsumed within that of Being/Ontology.

A term for impermance/change seems to be a very useful thing; I suspect such a term could be imported from the Buddhist tradition where such a study is taken to be primary as Being/Essence is Sunya (nothing).

  • How did this happen to Western European metaphysics? These ideas also infiltrated early Christianity through the influence of Augustine and others (I imagine it goes back to Plato and those guys). If the reality of change is denied and pushed into ontology then I think ontological descriptions lose verb tenses and start sounding like incoherent babble. As I understand it, Presentism is the way to go. I don't think 'being' and change are at odds with each other.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 16, 2012 at 0:29
  • @Benjamin: I'm not saying that Change then becomes Being, because, as you said, there would be ontological confusion, but simply the question remains alive and is discussed under that rubric. Jun 16, 2012 at 0:36
  • @Benjamin: an intriguing possibility of nomenclature might come also from Indian Metaphysics. Maya, is a classical Sanskrit word, whose roots are Ma and Ya, meaning Not and That respectively. ie not that=not that thing.... Jun 16, 2012 at 0:50

this question i think is a bit vague. maybe a question in response would be can you cite an ontological position which neglects change .. To frame the question in Heidegger's terminology ontology is grounded in the question 'what is being?', and guided by the question 'what are beings?' - for Heidegger the answer to the first question is found through interrogation of the second , so in relation to your question the fact that beings cannot escape change means it's impossible not to consider it in relation to Being, thus it's a neccesary thing to 'study' in the question of ontology.

There are many formulations of the nature of change within ontological prilosophy, Spinoza for eg.'s notion of conatus, that entities strive to preserve themselves within their present mode by avoiding entering into relations with their environment which tend towards decomposition, or Nietzsche who says the will to power in every entity forces it to reach always beyond what it is in order to overcome it's present mode of being and become stronger, more powerful .. i think there are innumerable examples showing how the study of change is included within the nature of ontological investigation.

  • It seems like the question "what is being?" un-asks itself by both using and questioning the be/is idea. This answer to another question philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/1537/1956 said, "Ontology is a related sub-field, partially within metaphysics, that answers questions of what things exist in the world. An ontology posits which entities exist in the world." If I am understanding it correctly then ontology is to metaphysics as nouns are to words, and I am asking what the other sub-field of metaphysics would be called that deals with the verb-ish aspect of reality.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 13, 2012 at 11:41
  • 1
    Differential calculus?
    – Dr Sister
    Jun 13, 2012 at 12:21
  • maybe i'm misunderstanding .. what would be the object of study? what would a question in this study of change look like? can you provide an example?
    – Dr Sister
    Jun 14, 2012 at 1:41
  • It would not be a study of objects but a study of actions and changes that objects perform or go through. I think the study of time would be a big part of it. If time was an entity then it would fall under ontology right? But if time is not an entity or a thing that exists, then the topic is really change I think, though it may involve most of the same questions.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 16, 2012 at 17:31
  • as a follow up the work of Paul Virilio on dromology may also be of interest
    – Dr Sister
    Sep 2, 2012 at 6:05

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