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I'm taking an introductory philosophy course and I find it fascinating. I can't really figure out an assignment though because I'm a bit foggy on what the difference between ontological and epistemological claims is.

Of course, I'm writing 2-3 sentences per bullet, but my shortened answers are in bold.

For each of the following claims (a)-(f), say whether it is an ontological claim or an epistemological claim. Then in one-three sentences explain why. In explaining your answer, it may help to spell out what the claim means.

  • (a) Zombies (in the philosophical sense) are conceivable. (epistemological)
  • (b) Zombies (in the philosophical sense) are possible. (ontological)
  • (c) A koala is necessarily an animal. (ontological, but not sure)
  • (d) From the claim that “All koalas are animals” and the claim that “Fluffy is a koala” I can deduce the claim that “Fluffy is an animal”. (epistemological, but not sure)
  • (e) There is only one fundamental kind of stuff that makes up the universe, and that stuff is physical. (ontological)
  • (f) All phenomena can be explained in terms of physical phenomena. (epistemological, but not sure)

Please let me know if I'm mixing them up or not understanding the concepts. Thanks!

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    Hint for c) how you know that koalas are animals?
    – David H
    Aug 2 '13 at 6:16
  • 1
    Or on second thought, I might be leading you astray! As a scientist I want call it epistemology, but a philosopher could very well call it ontology. Hmm...
    – David H
    Aug 2 '13 at 6:23
  • The write "one-three" for "one to three"?
    – Nikolaj-K
    Aug 2 '13 at 8:22
  • I'm not sure epistemological and ontological claims are disjoint. We can speak about the universe and about knowledge, but we can also speak about the knowledge or models that we have about the universe and about observers and their beliefs in the universe.
    – Trylks
    Aug 2 '13 at 12:30
  • The important thing is not just answering but also justifying your answer, that process should help you firm up the differences between epistemology & ontology. They're complex terms, and sometimes intrude on each others territory. Aug 2 '13 at 19:25
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In short, ontology might best be understood as existence and epistemology as knowing. A longer answer is that there isn't always necessarily an obvious distinction between them. It's not as if there is a committee stipulating the meaning of each. Some think that these sorts of questions don't have a good answer, others disagree. For more about this, see, for example (in no particular order) ordinary language philosophy, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, or meaning-as-use.

For better or worse, philosophy isn't often plain. For the sake of trying to answer your question a bit better, let's assume I can give a plainer answer by way of example. Let's consider a can of drink in a vending machine.

I might say, that there is this/a-can-of-drink (that it 'is true' that a can of drink exists) is an ontological claim. Incidentally, the said can is in a vending machine. I might also say, that we know there is this/a-can-of-drink, and that we know it is in the vending machine, is an epistemological claim.

Again, all sorts of complications can arise. One might claim that all existence/ontological claims depend on knowledge/epistemology (and vice versa). The meaning can be very context (historical, sub-discipline, journal, department, etc.) dependent. Colin McGinn, for instance, once suggested that philosophy should be renamed - in its entirety - to ontics. The idea there is along the lines of existence being front-and-centre.

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