No, I’m not talking about Heidegger, but about how the manner in which we think about time plays a role in the particular ontology we endorse. Take the example of Plato. One way of thinking about the ontology endorsed by Plato in his famous of the analogy of the divided line is in terms of time and identity. Plato’s thesis seems to be that the more identical and enduring a thing is, the more real it is or the closer it comes to being. Plato roughly distinguishes four types of entities: images, physical objects, mathematical objects, and forms. If images are the least real, then this is because they are the most mediated by difference (a reflection in a pond requires an object other than itself in order to reflect) and because they are the most fleeting. If the wind blows, for example, or a cloud obscures the sun, the reflection is destroyed or distorted. For Plato physical objects are more real than images because they are more enduring and identical, yet they are still not completely real because they become or change over time, thereby harboring non-identity within themselves. By contrast, mathematical entities have a higher degree of reality than physical objects because they are unchanging and eternal. 2 + 2 will always equal four. Nonetheless, mathematical entities aren’t completely real because we still often rely on writing to represent mathematical entities. Writing is thus a non-identity harbored in the mathematical object (the inscription of a number and number itself are not the same). Finally, the forms would be the most real of all because they rely on nothing else to exist (writing, for example), and are always identical to themselves.
It’s pretty clear that Plato subordinates ontology to the requirements of knowledge. If Plato is led to claim that the forms are more real than physical objects, then this is because the forms are, for Plato, truth-preserving. A claim about the forms does not cease to be true at a certain point. However, if I say that my hair is brown, that claim is only true now. In a few years it will likely be grey, or perhaps I’ll lose it altogether. Claims about physical objects lose their truth-value. For this reason, Plato says, we can only have opinions or beliefs about physical objects. We cannot have knowledge of objects. This is because objects change, whereas the forms remain identical. In this connection, it’s clear that Plato is using norms about knowledge to determine what is real and what is not real.
Plato’s ontology is therefore organized around certain presuppositions about the nature of time and being, and, in particular, the finite or the changing and the eternal. It seems to me that where one comes down on the ontological status of social entities is similarly related to one’s positions on the relationship between time and being. Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend about OOO. When I pointed out to him that OOO holds that social entities are as real as anything else, he contended that while he readily acknowledges that social entities are real in a way, they are real in a way that is different from the reality of other entities. For example, Jews and homosexuals, he contended, are just ideas, they aren’t independent existences in the world. In this connection, he referenced Foucault’s demonstration that homosexuality was a category constructed around the 19th century. I emphasize the term “construction” because this use of the term “construction” reflects the common attitude that the constructed is somehow unreal. In this regard, to show that something is constructed is to show that it is unreal. This concept of construction is a central presupposition of a lot of critical thought. To show something is constructed is to debunk the existence of that thing.
My friend’s thesis is not so much a thesis about homosexuals, as a thesis about the relationship between time and existence. His argument seems to be that if something is historical, it is not real. Thus, because social entities are historical, they are not real in the sense that other things are real or existent. Here I would suggest that my friend has not caught up to Darwin (or physics, for that matter). In my view, Darwin’s central philosophical contribution was to show that forms are not eternal, but rather come into existence historically through the accumulation of individual differences. Chimpanzees did not always exist, but rather this type had to come into existence. Oak trees did not always exist, but rather had to come into existence. This coming into existence of types is not unique to living entities. For example, all of the elements found on the periodic table are produced by stars. As stars reach certain temperatures and masses, new types of atoms get produced. For example, certain stars never produce iron because they don’t reach the requisite heat and mass for the production of these sorts of atoms.
In light of the foregoing, I think we can safely say that those who continue to abide by the ontological distinction between Nature and Culture as fundamentally different at the metaphysical level, do so because of an implicit conception of time they advocate. Within this framework, natural entities are enduring or eternal, while cultural entities are historical such that they are constructed. Closely connected to this, the reason the existence of objects is often rejected within these frameworks is that objects are equated with the natural as here conceived. Consequently, if someone says that homosexuals are real objects, the advocate of this modernist view looks at her with perplexity, remarking “but cultural entities are historical and constructed!”
The object-oriented ontologist, however, says
So what? Why does whether or not homosexuality and heterosexuality are historical or constructed have any bearing on whether or not these are genuinely real entities?
Here it’s important to understand the argument that’s being made. The object-oriented ontologist is not contesting the thesis that homosexuality and heterosexuality are historical and constructed. Not at all. The object-oriented ontologist is contesting the implicit conception of nature the person who makes this claim is deploying. If it is ontologically significant that a cultural entity is constructed and historical, then this can only be if one presupposes that nature is not constructed and historical. But as my examples from Darwin and physics illustrate, this assumption simply isn’t warranted. Natural entities like oak trees, tardigrades, and platinum atoms are every bit as historical and constructed as cultural entities. As a consequence, there’s no legitimate ontological reason for treating these two domains as differing in kind. The most we can say is that natural entities like platinum atoms and the species of oak trees exist longer than cultural entities and are a bit sturdier. Yet sturdiness and endurance is no reason for treating one entity as being more real than another entity. If this is the case, then there’s no longer a reason for treating nature and culture as two heterogeneous domains. There’s just being or existence, and cultural entities are among the entities that really exist. They don’t exist everywhere, they don’t exist at all times and places, etc., but they do exist. Moreover, oak trees don’t exist everywhere, but they are no less real because they don’t exist on Mercury.
If this is the case, then the critical project becomes rather different. We’ve indeed learned something new and interesting about the world when we learn about how homosexuality and heterosexuality were constructed in the 19th century. Yet this new knowledge doesn’t debunk anything (except, perhaps, the theological idea that heterosexual is “natural” in the modernist sense). Rather, we’ve just learned the mechanisms by which certain entities were produced. But just as showing how chimpanzees evolved does not debunk the existence of chimpanzees, showing how heterosexuality and homosexuality were constructed does not debunk the existence of these categories.