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Monday, December 29, 2014

The Story of Ontology


“The real question is why is there “being”? The existence of existence is amazing, awesome.”
Gerald Schroeder


Alice C. Linsley

In our study of epistemology, we encountered philosophers who recognized the importance of the imagination:  Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, even Berkeley. Imagination plays a key role in this story of ontology.

Imagine that you are a spider weaving a web. As a master web-weaver how much thought is directed toward the creation of the web? Is this "ready-at hand" labor, as Heidegger suggests? What role does consciousness play in your actions?

Do you perceive of the web as the entire universe? Probably not, since you fabricated the web in such as way that it extends through air/space, and you are aware that you didn't fabricate the air/space.

Your construction of the web is a matter of daily coping. It is essential to trap other beings: flies, gnats, etc. This means that you are conscious of other beings in your universe.  The web is the spider's way to acquire nourishment to sustain its life, but does it recognize the web as a bounded ontological context?

There is the reality that the web will be broken and must be repaired or rebuilt. Is the spider's web-weaving existence pitiful? Does the spider wonder about the futility of his daily existence?

Of course, spiders do not reason as humans, but this illustrates how humans think about our existence. We fabricate from what we have and we think we are creators. Why is that? We recognize the existence of other entities in our world, especially those upon which we depend. We understand that things break in our world and sometimes the very web of our existence crashes. We grasp intellectually that there are other universes, but we do not know them because they are beyond our bounded context, our consciousness. Often our routines of daily existence cause us to wonder if all this effort is worth it.

The philosophical study of theories of existence and being is called "ontology" and it is probably my favorite area of philosophical study. The term "ontology" is derived from two Greek words: onto (being) and logia (written or spoken discourse).

In this unit, we will look at the nature of being, becoming, and existence (even extinction). In other words, we will explore the web, the air, the relationship of the web and the air, and the relationship of the web in air to the larger universe called "reality." Because the whole story of reality is an impossible tale for humans in our bounded ontological context, we will have to narrow our exploration. We will not wander far from metaphysics. We will not discuss ontology related to aesthetics or to ethics, though ontology determines and informs views of beauty, goodness, fairness, etc.

I hope to tell the story of ontology by staying with concrete particulars like air, fire, water and earth. Let us consider an illustration that employs fire.

When you build a fire, do you believe you have created the element of fire or do you recognize that you have merely started a process? When you contain the fire so that it will not spread, do you also contain the products of the process you started, the smoke and chemical reactions? You are safe while the fire is contained in a small space, but at the same time, you are not safe if the smoke and fumes are contained in the same small space. Apparently, the value or benefit of something being contained (bounded) is relative.

If these illustrations that speak of air and fire remind you of the pre-Socratic debates about primal substance, your thinking is headed in the right direction! Why did Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes not agree as to the substance that makes existence possible? Because each had to interpret their experiences, and no two humans can have exactly the same interpretation. The art and science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Maybe ontology is simply hermeneutics, or maybe hermeneutics is ontology.

That is what Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) thought. He developed this in his book Ontology--The Hermeneutics of Facticity (1988). The book is a compilation of the lectures he delivered at the University of Freiburg during the summer of 1923. In these lectures, Heidegger reviewed and critically appropriated the hermeneutic tradition, beginning with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and including the thought of Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Dilthey (1833-1911). He attempted to reformulate the question of being on the basis of facticity and the everyday world (phenomena/phenomenology).

Heidegger explored the structures of human consciousness, the categories of experience of being, what he called "Dasein." He is one of the philosophers whose work we will investigate in this unit on ontology. Another is Jacques Derrida, an Arabic-speaking, North African Jew who explored the relationship between ontology and theology, calling this "ontotheology," a term he picked up from Immanuel Kant. Derrida's deconstruction employs interpretative principles that have the effect of restoring a more ancient Afro-Asiatic approach to meaning (binary oppositions). He identifies the importance of context and presence, and initiates a deeply ontological conversation. A fundamental assertion of deconstruction is that "there is no outside-text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte). This oft-quoted phrase from Derrida's Grammatology means simply (or complexly) there is nothing outside of context.

As we came to recognize in our study of epistemology, there are limits to what humans can know. There are perplexing questions that philosophers have never resolved. These include the mind-body problem: how can that which is not extended act on the material world?; and the problem of induction: when is the evidence sufficient? We hit the same roadblock when we explore the central questions of ontology: What really is?; What constitutes being? Plato's Forms was an approach that sought a way around the roadblock. For Plato, the objects perceived as existing have a nature that is beyond what is perceived by the senses. Things are not what they seem to be because they are reflections of the true Forms.

And that takes us to our next illustration. This one uses the element of water and comes from Plato's Republic (X. 602c). The "oar in the water" illustration demonstrates how circumstances (contexts) can affect the individual's perception. Consider an oar half submerged in water. Beneath the water's surface the oar appears to be bent. It appears to have a different trajectory. Many have found this illustration trite. J.L Austin's comment reflects the modern attitude: "Does anyone suppose that if something is straight, then it jolly well has to look straight at all times and in all circumstances?" (Sense and Sensibilia, pages 21 and 29) However, Plato's illustration is less about sensibility than it is about his "two worlds" metaphysics. It is used to make his point that, since we can have only knowledge of Forms, we cannot have any false beliefs about Forms. What is below the surface, though refracted, is yet the very real projection of what is above the surface.

Austin appears to be unfamiliar with the Nilotic background of Plato's belief in universals. Indeed, this binary perception of reality was already ancient in Plato's time. Austin attempts to dismiss this, writing, “Ideally, I suppose, a discussion of this sort ought to begin with the very earliest texts; but in this case that course is ruled out by their no longer being extant. The doctrines we shall be discussing—unlike, for example, doctrines about 'universals'—were already quite ancient in Plato's time.”(Sense and Sensibilia, page 2) (Italics mine for emphasis.)

We do keep coming back to this binary feature. In telling the story of ontology, we cannot escape it. Our human anatomical structure, with bilaterialism, makes greater range of movement possible. Our bicameral brain/mind makes greater complexity of thought possible. Daily we are faced with the binary pattern of universal sets: male-female; night-day, and most significantly, life-death.

The mind makes distinctions along binary lines. We tend to think axiomatically: good-bad, normal-strange; one-many; now-not yet, etc. The mind recognizes that something can be and yet not be: the Biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God. Something can exist (actuality) while not yet existing. The kingdom is here now and yet still to come (potentiality), if we take Biblical eschatology seriously.

Aristotle's understanding of the elements now comes into play. He wrote, "The elements ... cannot be eternal. It is a matter of observation that fire, water, and every simple body undergo a process of analysis [i.e., destruction]. (On the Heavens 304b23). Fire can be destroyed by water. Water can be evaporated by wind/air. Vacuums exist, so air cannot be said to be everywhere at all times. And then there is earth, our final illustration.

The Greek comic poet and "wise man" Epicharmus (540-450 BC) was known to both Plato and Aristotle. He expressed a widely held ontological idea: "Life is compounded and broken up, and again goes whence it came; earth indeed to earth, and the spirit to upper regions." Many regarded the elements as deities. In this view, the gods are the winds, the water, the earth, the sun, the fire, the stars. To which Epicharmus quips: "But I think that the only gods useful to us are gold and silver."

Ben Sira (the author of Ecclesiasticus) writes, "How can dust and ashes be proud? Even in life the human body decays." (Ben Sira 10:9) He calls man "dust and ashes" and asserts that all things that are of the earth return to the earth. "Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes." The connection seemed obvious to those who came upon sites where humans had been buried long before and all that remained was an outline of ash and dust. This sight necessarily confronts us with the reality or unconcealment (aletheia) of our death as non-existence, what Heidegger termed "negation."

Negation means to deny, and Heidegger is concerned with a specific form of denial: the denial of one's non-existence, the refusal to face the reality of one's death. How we live and die tests the authenticity of our being. Awareness of my mortality changes how I live. For Heidegger, the proper response to being as a human is reflection on existence as a way to tug the veil that covers essence. We must do this to own our being as individuals living in the everyday world. We must look at the dust of the earth and say to ourselves, "That's what I am and to dust shall I return." Yet, as soon as we say those words, we know we have spoken a half-truth. The human is more than dust. We find ourselves turning from our well considered philosophical pretenses to language that has a God concept as its first order predicate. This has happened in the thought of many philosophers as they aged and approached death: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida are examples. By avoiding the use of the word God and by replacing it with a god concept, they have unveiled a presence that has always been there. The presence serves as a function whereby existence is explored as second order extension. This "turning" (as Heidegger called it) appears to be a sign of authentication of individual being.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Imagination is what providence uses to take men captive in actuality, in existence, in order to get them far enough out, or within, or down into existence. And when imagination has helped them get as far out as they should be - then actuality genuinely begins.” (The Two Ages)

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