The historical problem of fundamental ontology

Recently, something I was reading and responding to, raised the question of ontology in its most basic sense, and I was reminded of Heidegger, and the problems many have understanding his metaphysics. Although Heidegger sometimes claimed to have gotten beyond metaphysics – or perhaps underneath it, so to speak – to some more primordial question concerning being – the truth is, no matter how one addresses the question of being at its base – fundamental ontology, as Heidegger would call it – one engages metaphysics. Heidegger recognized the difficulty, and tried to develop a language that talked around the problem, drawn from poetics, which he thought had more direct access to the question, given that poets were not constrained by the grammar of theory construction. Whether he succeeded or not is, to say the least, debatable. Indeed, it is questionable whether he should even have undertaken the project, since it has left many readers suspicious about Heidegger’s capacity to engage in philosophy at all.

Fundamental ontology engages several intriguing questions:

First, what is the nature of being – is it all one substance diversified into different entities, or do the entities themselves have qualitatively, perhaps even quantitatively, separate substances?

To put this in terms understandable to the pre-Socratics, if all being is literally fluid, then does a tree simply manifest a moment of fluidity (discernible by its gradual life changes, and the sap that runs through it), or is its being fundamentally different than any directly observable fluid substance, like water?

In more modern terms: While we now believe that matter and energy are convertible and discretely reducible to particles in motion, and our Big Bang cosmology suggests that energy pre-existed matter, this still leaves open some intriguing questions surfaced by quantum physics, which suggests that below the level of the atom, the universe functions more probabilistically than we would like.

Secondly, is being unlimited? That is, as Parmenides would say, is all there is just what is, and what isn’t just is not? Or is there a logic that needs the ‘what isn’t’ to be taken into consideration, in order to consider that which is? This is of course the infamous – but poorly understood – question of the relationship between Being and Nothingness. The question received its richest inquiry by scholastics in the Middle Ages. First, they were committed to the presumption that god generated all being out of nothingness; so being exists as opposite to the possibility of a nothingness that existed prior to it.

Secondly, the scholastics recognized that nothing has two problematic uses in logic – as the principle of negation and as the category of impossibilities. To say that ‘my dog is dead’ is as much as to say ‘my dog is not anymore’ – that is, the term ‘my dog’ refers to nothing anymore. Further, to say square circles cannot exist, are impossible, asserts that square circles have the existential status of nothing at all.

But this raises an interesting problem with fundamental ontology. We want to discuss it in strictly objective terms, but doing so in logic – that is, in formal language – indicates that it has a necessary epistemic component. So the question arises: Given our necessarily limited access to knowledge concerning fundamental being (assuming we are not god), can we make any claim on it at all? or are we restricted to claims on the knowledge itself? That is, can we really discuss the essential nature of entities, or are we really discussing ‘this is what we can know about beings, given how we can know anything at all.’ This opens the door to epistemology, and indeed one sees here the Modern turn in philosophy, although the logical questions had already been considerably debated by the Medievals without resolution. What changed of course was the development of the natural sciences, and the re-ordering of our awareness of the structures and substances of the stuff of the universe we inhabit.

In the wake of these changes, metaphysics (including ontology) now largely concern the language of the claims we can make about being. That is, we no longer discuss the nature of being just as such, but rather the language(s) we use to refer to it.

Heidegger understood all this. It is not clear how deep his understanding of the physics and the logic of his day was, but it was certainly deeper than his critics give him credit for. He certainly knew something of quantum physics, and what Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle indicated. He knew of Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, and I believe in a later seminar he mentions having read Wittgenstein.

But he believed that the Modern turn in philosophy (particularly in Kant, who cauterized the essence of beings as the noumenal – which can not be directly known) had blind-sided those engaged in it – Heidegger believed that Modern epistemology was still deeply engaged in fundamental ontology, that claims about what we can say about being are really oblique claims about the nature of being. This would seem to suggest that Modern philosophers have engaged in their discussions in bad faith, that when they say, ‘let’s talk about how we discuss nature,’ they are implicitly still talking about nature.

But that isn’t where Heidegger wants to take this. Because Heidegger has a trump card to play. Logic, language, epistemology – all have a necessary ontological component, and all are components of a fundamental ontology of a specific entity – human being.

Heidegger’s metaphysics become far more understandable when we recognize that his revitalization of the fundamental question of being – Why is there something rather than nothing? – can only be answered by a human consciousness. Indeed, human consciousness is the answer; but it is an answer that, in its generality and fundamental givenness (if there weren’t any human being, hence no human consciousness, nothing would be known to exist), doesn’t yet answer anything at all. It needs elaboration and realization. The elaboration can only come through philosophy (although later Heidegger thought poetry was better equipped for it); the realization can only be achieved by the living individual. The modern sciences may tell us all we need to know about the human body and its place in the material universe. They can never tell a living human being how to live his or her life in a meaningful way. Thus for Heidegger, fundamental ontology as developed since the pre-Socratics remains in play (albeit in a considerably convoluted and sometimes critical manner), as an ontology of the human – a finite being that, in its finitude, is always confronting the inevitable nothingness of death. (The common understanding, that for Heidegger being and time resolve into an identity – being is time – is actually something of a misreading; but it helps us to recognize that human being’s fundamental ontology necessitates coming to grips with its intrinsically temporal – and temporary – nature.)

So, how should we evaluate this? Was Heidegger on the right track or was he simply an obscurantist outsider?

I won’t elaborate any such evaluation here (which would be necessarily lengthy and technical, in order to be precise). I will say, in a general way, that I think he was probably both and yet neither. Heidegger’s real problem is that, while an ontology of the human remains a worthwhile pursuit, it probably can no longer be pursued in terms of classical ontology. There is no base ‘substance’ of the human, nothing metaphysically absolute about its being, beyond the simple fact that it lives and dies. But we have a myriad of languages with which to address these primal facts and by which we develop responses to them. It is true that many of these languages are used to elide and evade the problem of our living finitude rather than confronting it; but that is a problem of psychology, no longer a matter of metaphysics.

Heidegger’s problem, then has to do with history. He was the last philosopher – and I believe really the last, I can think of none writing since – to believe that the metaphysics that began with the pre-Socratics could still be confronted in a meaningful way. This is why, when he writes of Heraclitus or Parmenides, he treats them as virtually contemporaries. He believed they still speak to us.

Well, they do, but only in a poetic way. That is, they helped shape what could be known, in the West, for many centuries, and ignoring them does ourselves a disservice. But the shape of knowledge has changed; and indeed, human being itself has changed. The manner in which human beings confront being is now too diversified to make any but the most general claims concerning its nature. And, as the biologist J. B. S. Haldane once put it:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”  (Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286.)

Claims on fundamental ontology – even human ontology – can only be made tentatively, contingent on whatever it is we can know – for now. As Scarlett O’Hara remarks at the end of Gone With The Wind, tomorrow is another day.


3 thoughts on “The historical problem of fundamental ontology

  1. I stumbled on your posting here, and it caught my eye, so I thought I’d leave a comment. I’m an amateur and like to think about the questions “Why does anything exist?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But, like most people, I want to try and find the answers. I’ve come up with some solutions that make sense to me and have submitted them to philosophy journals, but they’ve, of course, rejected them with kind of the same rationale you say in

    “…In the wake of these changes, metaphysics (including ontology) now largely concern the language of the claims we can make about being. That is, we no longer discuss the nature of being just as such, but rather the language(s) we use to refer to it…”

    The one rejection email that gave reasons the reviewers said they rejected it was that I proposed a definition for why a thing exists and used this to solve an existential question. They thought I should have talked about the questions more. To me, this seems to be a big problem in metaphysics and philosophy and the main reason why so many hard scientists think of philosophers as having nothing to contribute. Given their current mindset, I basically agree.

    The way I look at it is that if metaphysics is the study of being and existence, and the universe “be”s and exists, and physics is the study of the universe, then the laws of physics should be derivable from the principles of metaphysics. Metaphysicians can take their ideas on existence, use them to build a model of the universe (which exists), and make testable predictions. In this metaphysics-to-physics or philosophical engineering approach, metaphysics can almost be like a science and can maybe hope to make some progress on the above questions.

    If you’re interested, I put my proposed solutions at my websites at:
    (click on 3rd link; this is a longer version with more detail, and I’ve recently tried to add some philosophical jargon to appeal to any philosophers).

    Anyways, good blog posting. Thanks!



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