By Mark English
Earlier this year, Gene Weingarten wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which he suggested that maybe words like ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’ are the literary equivalent of monosodium glutamate, in that their role is more to enhance the intellectual flavor of a piece of writing than to contribute any substantive or specific semantic content in and of themselves.  In fact, he confessed that he had been using these words (and their cognates) merely as intellectual flavor enhancers for the last twenty-five years. He used them interchangeably, and nobody had called him out on it.
Maybe they didn’t, but Weingarten pushes this point too far. The two words are meaningful and, although the meanings may be a bit fuzzy at the edges, they don’t really overlap in any very significant or troublesome way as far as I can see.
But Weingarten was also implicitly making a more serious – and I think plausible – point on a broader question: the legitimacy of metaphysical inquiry as a stand-alone discipline.
Here he finds fault with a traditional definition of ontology: “… The definition of ontology is even murkier [than that for epistemology]: ‘The philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations’. (Or, in other words, beeble beeble beeble.)”
Many philosophers would agree with Weingarten’s implicit claim that traditional philosophical approaches to metaphysics and ontology are not (or are no longer) viable. But being skeptical of traditional philosophical approaches to ontology and metaphysics certainly does not equate to seeing all ontological talk as nonsensical. In fact, questions about what exists are very natural and basic human questions.
Now there are three issues here that I would like to distinguish from one another: the question of whether ontology is or can be a viable academic discipline or subdiscipline; the nature of such a discipline; and particular ontological questions (which may or may not require the support and authority of an academic discipline to be satisfactorily addressed).
I am more concerned here with the third issue, but let me say a couple of things about the first two.
There is a long tradition of sophisticated thought on the ways that natural language can mislead us; in general (e.g. the tendency to hypostatize concepts), or in terms of the grammar or idioms of a specific language creating the sense of an implicit metaphysics that can easily be mistaken for something universal or necessary.
I wrote a piece some months ago defending Rudolf Carnap’s approach to ontological questions.  Basically, he said that what we claim to exist always exists (if it does) within the context of a certain framework, and it just doesn’t make sense to ask so-called “external” questions. Numbers, for example, exist quite uncontroversially within the framework of arithmetic, and it just doesn’t make sense to ask if they exist outside of this framework.
In my view, the best philosophical approaches to ontological questions are, like Carnap’s, pragmatic, deflationist and (where appropriate) engaged with scientific and/or other kinds of empirical or formal inquiry. Areas like psychology and linguistics, for example, have matured, developed and expanded to such a point that it is clearly self-limiting to ignore them in many general philosophical contexts – contexts which in previous times were the preserve of armchair thinkers and divines. (Actually, I think a strong case can be made that much philosophy of language in the mid- to late-20th century suffered by cutting itself off from the rapidly-developing disciplines of linguistics and psychology or drawing on them only to a minimal extent. Some philosophers did draw on linguistics, and a few contributed to the discipline, but such cross-fertilization has been rare.)
I want to look now at a few examples of ontological questions such as might be asked in ordinary, non-technical contexts. Though Carnap was concerned primarily with scientific discourse, I think the basic principles of his approach have universal applicability. It is certainly the case, at any rate, that the general framework or context within which a question (ontological or not) is asked is often a central consideration in figuring out what the question really means.
Five questions, then… Do souls exist? Or gods? Or ghosts? Or minds? Or moral obligations?
The first three are (or can be interpreted as) relatively straightforward questions and (arguably) are relatively straightforwardly answerable by reference to experience, observation, a basic education and/or scientific findings. The last two are more complicated.
What I want to focus on here is not so much answers as the nature of the questions, the way they relate to the contexts within which they are asked and the sorts of consideration (scientific, historical, commonsensical, etc.) that might be relevant to answering them satisfactorily.
The first three questions arise quite naturally in people’s minds, and their meaning is usually clear. For example, a frightened child might be reassured by his mother that “there are no such things as ghosts”. In this case, depending on the age and level of knowledge of the child, ‘ghosts’ might just refer to hostile, spooky things out there in the dark or specifically to immaterial manifestations of people who have died. Meanings are fluid and always context-sensitive, if not context-dependent.
Paradoxically it’s questions about the existence of ordinary things like chairs or tables or rocks or hands (which, by and large, only philosophers ask) that seem most problematic.
The usual problem here is that a natural language question is being asked out of context; or rather, is being asked in an artificial, philosophical context which is devoid of all the normal pragmatic and semantic markers which allow natural language to function in a natural and effective way. (Wittgenstein often warned about this sort of thing.) Does my hand exist? Does this chair I’m sitting on exist? These sorts of questions are very suspect. What is being asked is not entirely clear.
When, by contrast, I ask about ghosts, you know more or less what I’m asking. The question makes immediate sense. So let me try to answer it.
Ghosts – understood as once-embodied but bodiless or immaterial beings – don’t exist. Well, at least there is no good evidence for them, nor any good theoretical reason to entertain the possibility of their existence. Apparently more than 40% of Americans believe in ghosts, but these beliefs are fairly easily explained in terms of common and quite well-understood psychological phenomena.
You could say similar things about gods, or at least the sorts of gods that populate various religions and mythologies. Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained  applies insights from cognitive science to anthropological data in very productive ways.
Of course, over time more sophisticated god-concepts developed: Platonists, Stoics, Jews and Christians developed subtle and interesting forms of monotheism. In the Roman world there was the “unknown God” (deus incognito), a notion which was developed within various schools of Neoplatonism. In medieval and Reformation Christianity, there was much discussion of the “hidden God” (deus absconditus). And, of course, religious notions need to be distinguished from purely rational or philosophical notions (like “first cause”). Blaise Pascal was a sophisticated religious thinker who drew a firm dividing line between “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and what he scathingly referred to as “the God of the philosophers”.
So, obviously, if you are going to talk about the existence of gods or God, you need to be clear with regard to which particular concepts you are interested in.
Souls? Well, we are back to ghosts or spirits here. The soul is normally understood as the ghost during its embodied stage. Certainly words like ‘soulful’ have real meaning and remain useful, as do expressions such as ‘She is a good soul’, but the common religious idea of a distinct eternal soul residing in each living human body seems not to have a lot going for it.
Again, there are subtle variations: a more or less Pythagorean notion (via Plato) was incorporated into mainstream Christianity in competition, as it were, with a more earthy (and necessarily embodied) notion deriving from Hebraic and later, Judaic sources.
And so to the last two questions – about the existence of minds and moral obligations.
The term ‘mind’ is a meaningful one when used in ordinary expressions, but it’s not the sort of ‘thing’ one can study. We say that someone can’t make up her mind, doesn’t know her own mind, often changes it [interesting!], loses it, etc.; the meaning – about patterns of behavior – is clear. ‘Keep this in mind’ simply means ‘Remember this’. Things ‘come to mind’, ‘slip one’s mind’ and so on. There are also other interesting metaphorical extensions of the term: e.g. ‘at the back of my mind’ (as if the mind were some kind of closet). The question as to whether minds exist simply dissolves under this kind of analysis, it seems to me.
The question of the existence of moral obligations is both more substantive and more intractable. Obviously (most) people feel obligations to do or refrain from doing certain things. These feelings are uncontroversially real. Likewise people see others as having certain moral obligations. These feelings or beliefs are also uncontroversially real. Understood in terms of feelings and social rules and expectations, then, moral obligations are real. But whether there is anything more to them (as Kantians and religious believers would want to say) is a controversial question. People certainly take sides on it, based on their wider view of the world and what the world consists of – their private ontologies, in other words, which are inevitably based on a variety of assumptions and intuitions. Robert Wright, for example, in a discussion with Daniel Kaufman  asserted his commitment – clearly a deep and basic one – to moral realism. Such strong and private convictions make productive discussion of such topics very difficult.
Perhaps the best we can hope for from reflection and discussion is clarification, a perspicuous view of what people believe and why (and so of the various possibilities). Reflection and discussion may allow us to move forward by identifying certain views as inconsistent with what we know or as incoherent and/or as having arisen from what could be seen as a misuse of language caused by an inadequate understanding of the nature of natural language and how it works.
The deflationist and anti-metaphysical tradition of thought, pioneered by Nietzsche and exemplified, for example, by the logical positivists and the later Wittgenstein, advocates such an approach, being primarily concerned with identifying and dissolving the pseudo-problems (or confusions) thrown up by natural language.
But inevitably there will be questions with which neither the sciences nor this particular approach are equipped to deal, and they include the question of whether moral obligations have a ‘reality’ that goes beyond psychological, sociological and pragmatic considerations. Dealing with this and similar questions (relating, for example, to the status of social and political ideals and prescriptions) in a satisfactory way is extremely difficult for various reasons but mainly, I would say, because such questions are so often inextricably bound up with the individual’s self-image and general view of the world.
Certainly, given these complexities of perspective and judgment (especially when they are seen in conjunction with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge in relevant areas), any plausible systematic – or even rigorously scholarly – approach to such matters seems to be quite unattainable.
- This article in The Atlantic covers the general topic in a sensible way, I think.
- Basic Books, 2001.