Revisiting ontology and epistemology … again

As a science student I came across ontology and epistemology. I’m now learning about systems and they’ve cropped up again. I never fully understood them the first time around. After mulling over, and resisting, it dawned on me that understanding them offer practical choices for how I approach, not just work, but life overall.

So for the umpteenth time: what do they mean? But I can’t ask that question without framing it. The question needs contextualising. Reframe. In a systems thinking context, what do they mean?



Things exist outside of me. They are fully formed and I can study it from a distance. By studying it I am not changing it. I am gathering objective knowledge by identifying, distinguishing and naming it. For example, take the concept of an ‘ecosystem’: the ontological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ exists even if I don’t because it is something that exists fully formed and independent in nature.



I am part of the things that I am aware of – by naming it I am giving existence to it, and I’m using language to learn about it. As my thinking changes, the thing I’m thinking about also changes. Going back to the example of an ‘ecosystem’: the epistemological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ can’t exist if I don’t, because I am the one describing it as an ‘ecosystem’. It is a construct I’m inventing to learn about what I frame as an ‘ecosystem’.

So what?

Well, I think revisiting these concepts are useful when stepping back and asking: how do I see the world? how do I interact with projects? how do I work with other people? how do I choose to frame things? how do I learn? do I see things as fully formed, or do I see myself as co-creator of the situations I’m a part of?

So for me, choosing an epistemological framework means owning up to responsibility. By blaming situations or other people we shy away from the responsibility (and opportunity) to design behaviours that are purposeful1. It’s a tough one, because we are very good at sidestepping responsibility.

Now, when I get back to work, things just can’t be the same anymore.

  1. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World, Ray Ison distinguishes between two forms of behaviour in relation to purpose: purposeful behaviour, that is behaviour that is willed, and purposive behaviour, that is behaviour to which an observer can attribute purpose.