Skip to content

Dialectical ontology, idealist methodology

The following material references a 2013 lecture by Dr. George Petelin titled Refining the research question, at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Queensland.


There are lots of big words to be found in the world of art academia, which is pretty much as expected.  After all, why say something simply when a convoluted mouthful of seemingly unconnected multi-syllaballastic spewage will do?  And so, we move into the realm of ontology.

Simply put, an ontology is what you believe is real, your ‘ultimate reality’.  Think about atheism and religion and you get an idea of the scope of belief systems ontology deals with.  It’s not about cats versus dogs.  It’s not even about folding versus scrunching, although that is a weighty issue that could occupy a future PHD enquiry.  Ontology concerns the deepest beliefs someone has about the way things are.  When reading a text, our esteemed lecturer George Petelin has suggested we meditate upon the author’s ontology, and accordingly, the underlying assumptions that may be found within the text’s argument.  The idea is that there will be a set of beliefs that influence the author’s reasoning, thrust upon us in the guise of truths.  We need to identify these ontological assumptions, which will in turn lead us to target weaknesses in their argument.

In a previous week’s lecture we were introduced to the art critique tools of formalist interpretation, art history and semiotics.  This week we were informed of the ability to assess art by its function, cultural significance, and historical, social, ethical and economic criteria.  We are warned that all of these can mix and masquerade with the aesthetic.  This means that people may make grand statements such as “x is beautiful because it fulfills z criteria of functionality”.  According to G. Petelin, “aesthetic judgement is an empty glass waiting to be filled,” meaning that other judgements may be attached to it.  We need to qualify values and statements in order to weed out irrationality, and to judge for ourselves the underlying ideological position.

Some terms that relate to an ontological position are as follows:

Dialectical– Someone who believes in change as the main reality; that things are always in a state of change, be it degradation or growth.

Metaphysical– A belief in absolute truth and laws, with change seen as an illusion.

Idealist– Belief in ideas and the intangible as the main force of reality.

Materialist– Someone who only believes in solid objects, what they can see and touch.

There are philosophers and movements that combine aspects of these ontologies.  Newtonian science is an example of Mechanistic Materialism- it ascribes to a set of unchanging laws that we can observe that the universe is governed by.  Quantum physics, however, is an example of Dialectical Materialism; it posits that although there is only matter in the universe, because of natures dialectical nature, it is unable to be grasped with certainty.

There is much more information we were presented with but this is the generality of the lecture.  There is always going to be an underlying set of ideas and assumptions behind any text.  As writers we need to keep our own ontology hidden as best as possible, as researchers we need to be on the lookout for these belief systems, and always question the truth of any document we read.