When evaluating a worldview and checking for coherence, is one's ontology or epistemology a more fundamental building block? Could anything be more fundamental?

I ask because I heard a criticism stating someone was "putting their activism above their epistemology." I would consider it a fair critique, but that's not the issue.

This got me wondering what should be the highest order fundamental worldview building block. This wouldn't bother me if it weren't made so obvious by the criticism that you can get the order wrong. Clearly, trying to establish morals before establishing if the demands of the moral framework could be realizable or coherently knowable can lead to some seemingly bugnutty insane brands of idealism.

In order for something to be true or knowable in any meaningful way, it should also exist in some meaningful way. In order to evaluate the existence of anything, we need to have a framework to establish if the claim of existence is true or knowable. Seems like an irreconcilable conflict making a coherent and internally justified worldview near impossible. Right?

I'm an armchair philosopher with a fair amount of study, but no formal training. Sorry if this is a basic or silly question. Any thoughts or direction to a proper reading would be appreciated. Thanks.

  • 1
    See what you think about pages 5-46. Peter Coffey on the Theory of Being. gutenberg.org/files/35722/35722-pdf.pdf (General Metaphysics from the Scholastic Viewpoint). Maybe you have already studied this sort of thing; when I was in college, we barely discussed this period of philosophy. I was assigned readings, but I didn't read them. I think I missed something important by not engaging more with this type of material.
    – Gordon
    Apr 10, 2018 at 4:50
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    If you adopt the view of the mystics then epistemology and ontology become the same thing at the limit. They propose that what is fundamental is 'knowing'. A doctrine of unity reconciles all distinctions including this one.
    – user20253
    Apr 10, 2018 at 12:18

2 Answers 2


First of all; there ARE some bugnutty insane brands of idealism out there already, and I'd also argue that there are some bugnutty insane brands of realism out there as well because people think in the opposite order.

To be frank, my view has always been that ontology and epistemology are more or less equal in their fundamental contribution to a world view. Your argument is sound because they both rely on each other for their refinement.

As parents, we use a mix of both to train our children. We might (for instance) chastise a child for trying to reach up to a hotplate. At first, the child equates the hotplate with our chastisement - hotplate = bad (ontology) but then later learns why we were so upset by this; that the hotplate can burn them and cause them harm (epistemology).

By the same token, we teach them things like math and physics (epistemology) so that they can then discriminate for themselves fantasy from reality in entertainments, IE Superman is a fiction because people can't fly (ontology).

A simple (perhaps too simple) analogy; when you're climbing a rock face, you don't use only your left hand for the first half of the climb, then your right. You use a hand over hand technique. You use the purchase in your left hand to gain additional purchase with your right, and then use that additional purchase to gain better purchase with your left.

In my experience, the same is true of epistemology and ontology. We use our knowledge of things to build our ability to detect and discriminate new things, which we then in turn use to extend our knowledge of new things.

The problem comes when one gets this counter-work out of balance. Some people are so busy trying to validate their process at determining their worldview that they forget to actually adopt one. Others adopt a worldview and refuse to change it because they have no well defined epistemology.

Which comes first is a chicken and egg scenario and a question for the ages, but I'm of the view that they both develop in tandem and favouring one over the other can only harm the potential of both to advance our worldview as we progress through our lives.

  • Fair point about there being some equally bugnutty "realists" out there as well.
    – Phil C
    Apr 10, 2018 at 3:39
  • I've been resting on a similar conclusion. I just find it frustratingly unsatisfying.
    – Phil C
    Apr 10, 2018 at 4:03
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    True, but consider this thought experiment; completely fill a HDD with data, then put it on a shelf. At the same time, put a human baby in a sensory deprivation chamber for 20 years, with no contact to the outside world. Neither the HDD or the deprived human have the capacity to form a worldview. If intelligence is the ability to detect patterns in observations, then both the raw data and intelligence are required to make something meaningful. It's even arguable that the Flynn effect is a consequence of information being more freely available, thus boosting pattern matching capability.
    – Tim B II
    Apr 10, 2018 at 5:07

The questions sounds a bit like the "hen egg problem" :-)

As you write, a worldview needs reflection about both philosophical disciplines.

I consider it most important to make clear that these are two different disciplines. Morever, it is often helpful to start a philosophical investigation with reflecting: Which issues are epistemic issues, which ones are ontological?

Secondly, I would like to emphasize that both, a specific ontology and a specific epistemology, are models. We do not speak about the world, we speak about our model of the world.

Concerning ontology: An ontology should not only declare the entities, but also the relations between the entities. This kind of model is named entity-relationship-model in informatics. Being a model, any ontology is based on the decision, which entities one considers necessary to describe and to explain the phenomena. We do not find an ontology, we invent a specifiy ontology.

Your remark concerning ethics gives an example where it is advanteous to start with the epistemic questions. And then referring to the ontoloy to declare the choosen ontological state of the moral values.

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