As a discourse, ontology seeks to articulate the most general and fundamental nature of being or of what is and what is not. Ontology and being are not the same. Being consists of what is regardless of whether there is any discourse about it. Ontology is a discourse about what is. This distinction is important because ontologies, as discourses about the being of beings, can be mistaken. There is no discourse that doesn’t presuppose an ontology or metaphysics (I use the two terms as synonyms). For example, if you tell a person that your mother is seriously ill and going in for surgery and they reply by saying “I will pray for you”, their statement, whether they realize it or not, presupposes an ontology. Minimally such a statement presupposes ontological claims about the types of beings that exist and about causation. This person presupposes the existence of a divine being of some sort and that prayer can have some sort of causal effect on your mother. Likewise, when someone says that a particular technology is intrinsically neoliberal or capitalistic, they are making certain metaphysical claims about the world. They are saying that 1) entities are an expression of the context in which they exist (in this case the technology expresses capitalism), and 2) they are saying that relations expressed by the entity are internal to that entity. The claim that a relation is internal to an entity is the claim that that entity is inseparable from those for relations. For example, if I claimed that the steam engine is an expression of capitalist economy, I am claiming that steam engines are inseparable from capitalist economies and that they cannot, for example, exist in a communist economy. The claim is that the steam engine is necessarily an embodiment of capitalism. Such a view presupposes a particular ontology: an ontology of expression and internal relations.
Whatever certain post-metaphysical thinkers might like to claim, there is no statement nor action that does not presuppose an ontology or metaphysics. Of course, most of the time the ontologies we presuppose are operative yet unconscious. We speak and act based on them, without reflecting upon them. I seldom pause to think of the ontology my actions presuppose when I’m cooking. I seldom pause to think of the ontology I’m assuming when I evaluate presidential politics in the United States. This is true even in philosophy. Often the epistemologist fails to reflect on the ontology his utterances about the nature of knowledge presuppose, and likewise with the philosopher of art and ethicist. We can refer to these types of ontologies as “non-reflective ontologies of everyday life” or just “non-reflective ontologies”. These non-reflective ontologies are presupposed and operative without the person acting and speaking based on them being aware of them. They’re just experienced as the obvious way things are. Like Heidegger’s spectacles in Being and Time, they are so close we don’t even notice them. I look through my spectacles to something else, not at my spectacles. Likewise, I speak, live, and act through my ontology, rather than reflecting on my ontology.
Non-reflective ontologies of everyday life can be contrasted with philosophical ontologies. Philosophical ontologies strive to make ontological commitments explicit and evaluate their adequacy. We can imagine philosophical ontology in a couple different modes. One mode might be referred to as “ethnographic ontology”. Ethnographic ontology wouldn’t be concerned with evaluating a particular ontology, but simply with making it explicit. It might seek to determine the ontology advocated by particular groups of people such as the Maori, or the ontology presupposed by modern day economists, or the ontology presupposed in the practices and utterances of OWS. From there, of course, we can go on to evaluate the adequacy of these ontologies, but ethnographic ontology is first and foremost concerned with determining the ontologies assumed by the groups of people it investigates. By contrast, “critical ontology” is concerned with articulating an ontology adequate to the being of being and of evaluating the adequacy of ontologies. It wants an adequate account of being.
Generally ontologies can be inadequate in one of two ways. On the one hand, an ontology might make claims about the being of being that simply aren’t true. It might claim that certain types of beings exist that simply don’t exist. Reciprocally, it might claim that certain beings do not exist, that do, in fact, exist. For example, years ago there was a raging debate online within SR circles as to whether or not trees exist. Both sides of the debate recognized that trees are a part of our experience, but the question was whether or not trees are real independent of that experience. One side, basing its ontology on quantum mechanics, argued that only fundamental particles are real and that larger-scale entities like trees are just illusions or experiential phantasms “carved out” by how we perceive the world. The other side argued that while trees cannot exist without fundamental particles, emergence is real and emergent entities like trees cannot be reduced to fundamental particles. Similarly, an ontology can be mistaken as to whether time really does or does not exist. It might be, for example, that time is but an illusion and that there really is no past, present, and future, but that everything is already here at once like stills in a film reel. This seems to have been Einstein’s position.
Ontologies can also be right to claim that certain beings exist but be mistaken in how they conceptualize the nature of the beings that exist. For example, a variety of ontologies will claim that being is composed of substances or individual entities (Aristotle, Leibniz, Whitehead, Latour, Harman, myself, etc), but will conceptualize what substances are in very different ways. Not all of these accounts of the nature of substance can be right. A good deal of ontological inquiry will consist in determining which of these models we should adopt.
On the other hand, ontologies can go astray by being too partial. An ontology can simultaneously be right in claiming that certain types of beings exist, while also being wrong in failing to recognize the existence of other types of entities. Thus, for example, an ontology can be right to claim that fundamental particles exist, while wrong in rejecting the existence of trees, fruit bats, planets, and pulsars. A social and political ontology– every social and political theory and practice assumes an ontology –can be right in holding that norms, laws, beliefs, texts, fictions, and ideologies play a key role in why social-relations hold together in the way that they do, while being wrong in not noticing that power lines, sanitation systems, roads, water reservoirs, microbes, livestock, food preservation technologies, plant life, weather patterns, etc, also play a key role in the form social relations take. In our political practice, this oversight, of course, would have important practical implications for we might find ourselves in a situation where we have successful debunked a belief and persuaded the majority of the population that this belief or ideology is mistaken, while nonetheless finding ourselves frustrated that social relations don’t change. Here our failure to produce change would arise from failing to recognize that how things are materially related also plays a central role in why social relations take the form they do. In its over-emphasis on the discursive in our political practice, we would have forgotten that we also need to arrange things materially in new ways to render new types of social relations possible.
The questions of philosophical ontology are very general and basic. They are questions such as what features, if any, do all beings share in common? Are all beings, regardless of type, processes? Are they substances and what are the nature of substances? Are substances and processes identical to one another (my position)? Are being and becoming identical or distinct? They are questions of what types of beings exist at the most general level. Are all beings material? Do ideal, mind-independent, entities exist? Are there minds in addition to bodies or are bodies and minds identical? Do universals exist? Are numbers real entities or do they only exist in the mind. If the latter, how does nature turn out to be so mathematical? We also get the regional ontologies. What is the being of life? What is the being of art? What is the being of societies? Ontology asks what the nature of time and space is. It seeks to determine whether all relations are internal (inseparable) or external (separable) or some combination of both.
It is often asked whether an ontology presupposes and entails a politics. In my view, this is a very odd question. On the one hand, it seems to hold that we should choose our ontology based on our politics. That is, it seems to entail that we should base our claims about what is and what is not based on what we believe ought to be and what ought not to be. So here, I suppose, we’re supposed to claim that nuclear weapons and corporations don’t exist because we believe they ought not to exist. That is a peculiar position to say the least. It is equally odd to claim that an ontology entails any particular politics. If ontology is a discourse about being, and being is what is, how could it entail a particular politics? Oppressive regimes are something that are. As such, they must be accounted for by any ontology. The claim that ontology entails a particular politics would be the claim that forms of politics contrary to this politics entailed by an ontology can’t exist. It’s the claim that being ineluctably generates the right politics; which is clearly quite contrary to our daily experience in the world.
To be clear, the distinction between politics and ontology does not entail that an ontology cannot be contaminated by particular ideological and political biases. Just as Stephen J. Gould, in The Mismeasure of Man, shows how the so-called “sciences” of eugenics and IQ testing are pervaded by unfounded ideological assumptions that thoroughly distorted the research, we can subject any ontology to an ideological critique to discern whether its claims are grounded in genuinely ontological reasons, or whether the ontology is a pseudo-ontology designed to ontologize a particular ideology (e.g., naturalize it). However, the aim here shouldn’t be to show that “everything is ideology and that ontology should be banished tout court“, but to produce better ontology. If the ideology critic doesn’t endorse this aim then he’ll find himself caught in a vicious circle because his position will itself be yet one more ideological position leaving us without the means of deciding why we should attend to his claims anymore than we attend to other claims.
While ontology doesn’t entail any particular politics, it can show that the ontological assumptions of a particular politics are mistaken. If it is true that every politics presupposes an ontology– even if only in a non-reflective way –then it is also true that the ontologies upon which these politics are based can be mistaken. Racism is a good example. Racism is based on the idea that humanity is composed of difference species, each of which has a particular essence that ineluctably makes individuals of that species behave in particular ways, such that some of these species are better than the others. These are ontological claims about the types of things that exist; in this case, those things being types of humans and why they live and act as they do. If it can be shown that this ontology is false, then racism finds that it is without ontological support. While we might be interested in this particular issue for political and ethical reasons insofar as we hold that people should be treated equally and that discrimination is wrong, the critique we develop here is ontological and based on ontological reasons. It’s a contestation of what is and what is not.
None of this is to denigrate or exclude ethics and politics, but rather to recognize the singularity of political, ethical, and ontological discourses. Since I’m in Edinburgh, it seems appropriate to talk about Hume and the is/ought problem. Hume showed that we fall into the is/ought fallacy arises whenever we conclude that a descriptive statement about what is entails a prescriptive statement about what ought to be. Take the example of Spinoza’s concept of conatus. Spinoza claims that all beings are characterized by a conatus or “will to persevere in their existence”. This claim aims to be a statement of fact about the nature of entities. However, if this is indeed a fact, nothing about this fact entails the prescription that every being ought to do whatever it can to persevere in its being. For example, this fact of conatus doesn’t entail that two men stranded on a lifeboat in the ocean without food ought to eat each other. Conatus doesn’t entail any prescriptions but merely states a purported fact about entities. To get prescriptions we need a different kind of reason distinct from ontological reasons.
The is/ought fallacy works in both directions. Just as we cannot infer an ethical prescription from a descriptive ontological claim, we can’t infer an ontological fact from a prescriptive claim. Thus, for example, when Kant claims that we can because we ought to, he is committing the is/ought fallacy. Thus the fact that reason says I have the duty to save another person’s life if they are in danger does not entail that ontologically I have the ability to do so. I might, for example, be a paraplegic.
The point is not that ontology excludes politics and ethics, but that ontology and politics and ethics are different kinds of discourses. Ontology is a discourse about what is and is not. Nothing about what is or what exists is intrinsically political or ethical. A great white shark eating a seal is simply an event that takes place in the world. It is simply something that happens. A person shooting another person is also, at the ontological level, simply an event that takes place. We don’t enter the domain of ethics and politics until we begin to raise questions about what ought to be. While ethics and politics will be intertwined with ontological issues– insofar as every discourse makes ontological assumptions –ethics and politics are distinct from ontology in that ethics and politics select what ought to be, they are premised on a partiality that is futural in the sense that they aim at arrangements of being where certain types of being would exist and others would not, where certain types of events would take place and others would not, where certain types of relations would arise and others would not, while ontology does not make such selections. Perhaps we could say that where ontology is concerned with the present and what has been, ethics and politics are modal in the sense that they are concerned with what could and should be. We enter the domain of the ethical and political where we are actively trying to form being, rather than simply approaching it in terms of what it is.
Given that most of us in both our personal and social lives are concerned with being being a certain way, what value, then, does ontology have? Ontology has value insofar as it is difficult to form being in the way we aim for if we do not have a knowledge of what being is and what entities are active in assemblages. Without some basic knowledge of this, it is unlikely that our futural aims will amount to much. For example, in the case of the social ontology that sees society as composed of beliefs, norms, contracts, ideologies, etc., it is unlikely that this ontology will get very far in forming the just society it envisions if it ignores the role that nonhuman, material entities play in the social assemblages from which we suffer.