English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I have yet to find a good description of the difference between ontology and ontography. Can anyone help clarify?

share|improve this question
I don't think I've ever heard the term 'ontography' before. Is it a made up term? Where have you heard of it before and what did your dictionary say? – Mitch May 6 '12 at 18:11
@Mitch - there is a definition for it at OED.com if you have access. – Matt E. Эллен May 6 '12 at 18:13
The writer Ian Bogost uses it. I'd say it is partially made up, as least in its non-geographic usage. Seems to mean "ontology" but without humans, if that makes any sense. – Jefferson Bailey May 6 '12 at 18:25
The OED seems to suggest that the word ontography was a one-off use, viz. "a description of the nature and essence of things (Mayne)". It's transparently made out of onto- (the combining form of present participle of the Greek verb 'to be', also used as the word for 'thing' or 'entity') and -graphein 'to write'. I've never heard it before. Ontology, on the other hand, is a standard term in philosophy, and has been for centuries. That's the one to learn; forget the other. – John Lawler May 6 '12 at 21:50
That’s only the first definition. The second, the one I gave in my answer, has three supporting citations from 1902, 1941 and 1983. It is used, admittedly, ‘Chiefly with reference to the work of W. M. Davies’ (no doubt of blessèd memory for some). – Barrie England May 7 '12 at 10:58

The first is a philosophical term describing the study of being. The second is a geographical term, describing the branch of knowledge which deals with the human response to the natural environment.

share|improve this answer

In object oriented philosophy folks like Ian Bogost and Graham Harman have started to use the word ontography as a term for composing works that help illuminate the existence and relationships between objects.

share|improve this answer
Harman gets the term "ontography" from a story by M.R. James - "Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad" - James made up the term and Harman reclaims it for philosophical purposes. – user38792 Mar 5 '13 at 18:14
Yes, the more infrequent term is used by M.R. James to denote a fictitious professorship. The professor/protagonist is a earnest sceptic re. ghosts, i.e., he does not believe in them as beings, as beings essentially. – user92446 Sep 25 '14 at 0:03

Ontography as a 'working method' is beautifully explained in Graham Harman's book 'Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. The context is Lovecraft's writing, but the principles can be applied elsewhere.

share|improve this answer

I just started watching a DVD of Michael Hordern in Jonathan Miller's 1968 British TV film of M.R. James' Whistle and I'll Come to You (orig. "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad" 1904). I happen to be studying theories of consciousness, physicality and panpsychism, all ontological subjects ("ontology" lit. study of being) and I've been quite overloaded the last few days and thought I'd just relax this evening with this one before I carry on.

As soon as I heard "ontography" I was suspicious not because it sounds implausible but simply because I hadn't read or heard of it. According to Wikipedia the word has been used by at least one contemporary philosopher to denote the proposition of an objective but necessarily indecipherable nature of cognisance in a closed culture. If it is a James invention (something in his catalogue of library manuscripts perhaps?) then its a cheekily clever one because it perfectly conjurs up the image of a theoretically important but scantily cited domain of academic enquiry (perhaps I am thinking of "psychophysics" which is the modern science of measuring human sensory thresholds but which was coined in the 19th century and can still have an esoteric ring to those unfamiliar with it).

By word root "ontography" should presumably pertain to, as is fitting for a ghost tale, the attempt to formally describe being, not necessarily non-human, but perhaps as is suggested above, of the nature of things in themselves and to each other, on their 'own' natural physical terms as it were; the noumenal, or the spirit body.

Incidentally the Jonathan Miller adaptation is very well made and imparts a genuine atmosphere of doubt and unease which is well worth experiencing. The accuracy of the film as a portrayal of the at once absurd yet deeply serious and disturbing consequences of an episodal encounter with a spirit force is difficult to match on screen. If you might be more inclined to diagnose a psychotic lapse, then as an exemplary and humourous account it also holds true without further comment.

I don't see why "ontography" can't be used in earnest now or ever, indeed it appears as though it has. I suspect its recent employment may be cavalier although perhaps in saying this I only reveal a stiff English old school mentality. The trend for introducing a new word to draw attention and bring legitimacy to a pattern of potentially pertinent (and publishable) interests is unavoidable but definitely one to watch in academia, which should ideally be clearly distinct from politics and commerce. Spontaneous augmentation of specific terms often appears with subtle but palpably selfish motives which one can easily imagine causing eddies of real obfustication at teaching level requiring unnecessarily time-consuming distillation for prospective empirical integrity or wholesale disposal if none is found. So with "ontography" one would most simply just be referring to a description of being as distinct from the particular or combined study which informs it (ontology). Something to occupy the curious minds of frustrated and stuffed up old bachelors at least I would have thought! If I had a brain. MMMMM

share|improve this answer
Hi Sam, welcome to ELU! Answers are much easier to read if they are split up into sections using some kind of formatting. People generally won't want to take the time to read a wall of text. – Adam May 15 '15 at 23:53

protected by Rathony May 1 at 4:16

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.