Thursday, February 02, 2006

Being and Foolishness

I like to eavesdrop. Yesterday, as I was sitting at the coffice, I honed in on a nearby table. They were a strange pair. She was young, earnest, and weepy. He was old, bearded, and obese, wearing a button down shirt tucked into sweatpants. I strained to hear their conversation, trying to determine the nature of their relationship.

At one point they both stopped to talk on their cellphones. I could hear her. "Oh, I'm at the coffee shop. I'm meeting with my ontologist." Pause. "He's a doctor who..." The rest was undecipherable.

Ontologist? Did she say "ontologist?" Certainly she said "oncologist." Poor dear. She's too young to have cancer. But no, it was definitely "ontologist." What can she possibly mean? Let's consult the dictionary:
on·tol·o·gy n. The branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being.
That's all well and good if you're sitting under a tree in Ancient Greece or hunched over a desk in 19th Century Germany, but it hardly seemed relevant to the current circumstances.

More eavesdropping confirmed that her malady was one of the spirit, not the body. It also confirmed that ontology has gotten a lot groovier since its stodgy old days in the ivory tower. I couldn't get the whole flow but did catch little tidbits from her: "Judeo-Christian...", "Scientology...", "finding peace in myself...". He was harder to hear, but I would occasionally get a real gem: "I don't think you know who you are. I think you know you you're not. Most people think they are who they're not..." He would flip through a large three ring binder and hand her various pamphlets. At the end of the meeting she pushed several twenty dollar bills across the table to him.

This ontology thing seems like a pretty good gig. How does one get trained? What are the accreditation boards? Earn good money while wearing sweatpants? Come on, you can't beat that.


  1. Sounds like an excellent post-K job!

  2. Excellent work, if you can get it.

    I can see it now: "Ladies and gentleman, the captain has collapsed in a ball in the cockpit as the stress between the Platonic paradigm and Thomas Aquinas' view of the spiritual self has become too great... PLEASE, IS ANYONE ON BOARD A TRAINED ONTOLOGIST?"

  3. Who are you and how do you see inside my head?

  4. Anonymous7:36 PM

    I'm intrigued by the client's statement that 'he's a doctor who...'

    She could have been referring to a doctorate in the humanities, but then her explanation would sound very strange. A theologian might have a PhD, but wouldn't be described as 'a doctor who' does some particular thing.

    I think it's more likely that she thought he was a doctor in the medical sense (a practitioner of healing arts, if not an actual MD). An ontologist might treat the same sort of ailments a psychiatrist would treat, but maybe rejects the latter's unquestioned belief in such a thing as a psyche.

    A more boring possibility: 'ontologist' is a recognized specialization within that queen of sciences, library science. I think they deal with 'ontologies' in the sense of 'catalogues of things,' rather than in the sense of 'doctrines of being.'

  5. 'Ontologist' is also a recognized specialization within that stinky, weird knave of sciences, computer science, and it again principally concerns 'catalogues of things.' Semantic webs, knowledge engines, they all deal with 'ontologies.' That, however, was clearer not the situation here.

    She clearly thought of him as "a practitioner of the healing arts." I have been informed that there is a movement within the psychiatric community to develop a sort of "philosophical therapy" akin to conventional therapy but explicitly addressing philosophical issues that might cause emotional angst. This would be one possilbe explanation.l

    However, I think the most probable explanation, based on my reading of the various signs, was that he was full of shit.