Is there a "trade-off" between ontology and epistemology?

Is there a level of discourse or abstraction where it is possible to evade ontological questions by pivoting on epistemological ones?

Or is it a false claim since both areas are distinct and non-overlapping?

If it is the case and a relevant relation exists what are some (or any) relevant approaches by one ore more schools of philosophy?


I'm editing the original question to address some issues raised in the comments. As a preamble I'd like to emphasize that I really have minimal exposure to philosophy proper so I feel the need to apologize for misusing the jargon.

A simple example of what I had in mind comes from systems thinking (science): they avoid defining what a system is but take as granted that there are systems that can be modeled in (specific) ways; so they don't bother with questions of "what is this" but instead tackle questions related to "how it works".

My question is related to the efficacy of such an approach; is it a successful strategy to sidestep questions about the "nature" of "things" in order to ascertain how they work?

And does knowing how things work reveal anything about their "nature" or are "function" and "essence" in a sense orthogonal?

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    What does it mean "to sidestep ontological claims by pivoting on epistemological ones" ? Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:42
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    Ontology "is the study of what there is. Many classical philosophical problems are problems in ontology: the question whether or not there is a god, or the problem of the existence of universals, etc..." Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:45
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    Epistemology "is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits?" Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:45
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    The obvious link is through knowledge : is it possible to have knowledge of something that does not exist ? Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:47
  • See related post : Epistemological vs ontological claims. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:55

3 Answers 3


Post Quine, it is clear that these are not entirely two different things. Our understanding determines what things we see and what see to a degree comparable to the degree that what we see informs our understanding. Traditionally, one would assume that went only one direction. But it can't.

To know whether a thing exists, you need to define the thing. Does solid matter exist? Well, that depends at what level of granularity you are looking. At certain sizes, we observe it. At smaller sizes, we see that it is in fact impossible. So, then what are the properties of this impossible solid matter? Since we can't just rely on direct observation, we have to negotiate them. In that case, the original question was not clear without an entire historical context. And it is one that we change by interacting with stuff and with one another.

You trade ontology for epistemology in this negotiation, and so there is no natural boundary between them. Questions near the boundary can be moved from one side to the other by reasoning similar to our short example of solidity.

You can, as the other answer suggests, choose to push all the questions to one side or the other. But you cannot entirely follow through on that choice. The negotiation has to have some bracketing set of rules or it breaks down around the fact that those taking part cannot perceive a shared goal.

Science tries to be entirely epistemologically based, especially since quantum dynamics somewhat shook up our intuitive notion of 'existing'. But some things still need to be taken as observed real things, even if only provisionally: you can't do quantitative science if the reality of the readings on your instruments is in question. You have to trust that at some degree your clearest shared perceptions are treated as real, or you are caught in a pointless circle.

Mathematics tries to be entirely ontologically based. But it, too, has had epistemology intrude, with the discovery that axiomatic logic has serious pitfalls and limitations as an ontological base that can only be avoided by taking some rough epistemology seriously.

  • this answer makes sense on so many levels; I really appreciate it Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 18:55

In the non-dual or Perennial philosophy, aka mysticism, the distinction between ontology and epistemology breaks down at the limit as would all distinctions. Thus it is often said that what is fundamental is 'knowing'. This would be equivalent to saying that what is fundamental or Ultimate is 'I Am'. This would be equivalent to saying that the Universe is a Unity (for which all distinctions are emergent and not metaphysically real).

No attempt to construct a fundamental theory can succeed unless this distinction is broken down and there are no counter-examples. The idea is in line with the idea that emergence (creation, manifestation, whatever) is a process of symmetry-breaking, but it goes well beyond the currently limited use of this idea in physics.

So I'd say the answer to your question is roughly 'yes' but with the proviso that one is not side-stepping ontology by this approach but explaining it. It is precisely this elision of ontology and epistemology that allows mysticism to be logically plausible. If they really were entirely distinct studies then the mystical doctrine would be demonstrably flawed and contrary to logic.


The short answer is yes, Science have been doing it for more than a century. Thing is there is two means of enlarging knowledge: first you can assume a cosmology and then see how much you can discover within that context, i.e. an ontology first Metaphysic. This paradigm is exemplified by some ancient Greeks that developed their philosophy in deference to a Parthenon of gods, and the middle ages European philosophers that worked in a specifically Christian context.

Secondly there is the epistemology first approach, here a framework for establishing knowledge is developed without reference to existing ontological objects. The prime instance of this is of course the current form of the scientific establishment where epistemological rules preempt hypothetical factuals.

Unfortunately I can't provide direct references, there could be something useful here.

  • (And maybe @PhilipKlöcking would elaborate on his comment there.)
    – christo183
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 17:33

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