Against ontology – part 1

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been critical of metaphysics in the past.  When I suggest that there is a problem with metaphysics, philosophers seem to come out of the woodwork to tell me how wrong I am.

Well, never mind that.  I’ll continue to call them as I see them.

I’m told that ontology is the main part of metaphysics.  I’ve recently come across some examples of ontology that illustrate my viewpoint.

This post will comment on the first of those examples.  It is a blog post

As an example of “fundamental ontology” it mentions:

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?

I presume some people see that as an important question.  To me, it looks as if some words have been strung together so as to match the syntactic form of a question.  But it still reads as word salad.

Now maybe I have just picked one sentence out of that blog post.  So go read the whole thing.  To me, it all seems silly.

So I see ontology as nonsense.  Epistemology should be done without ontology.  If you don’t think that epistemology can be done without ontology, then you are doing it wrong.  Lots of people are doing epistemology wrongly.  (And that’s why I am a heretic).

2 Comments to “Against ontology – part 1”

  1. Neil,
    As author of the post you react against, I feel somewhat pleased to see it quoted, even if only as an example of ‘word salad.’

    The purpose of the post was explanatory; I was not engaging in ‘fundamental ontology’ but describing its basics, and the way in which our understanding of it has changed. Along the way, I also wanted to indicate why the work of Heidegger was both historically important, and yet out of date, because Heidegger was the last philosopher to attempt to engage traditional ontology in the modern era.

    I did have an agenda. The writing of the post was triggered by a physicist’s claiming, on another blog, that a given ontology constituted a “scientific theory.” While not addressing the issue directly, what I wanted to show was that neither traditional ontology nor modern ontology could possibly accomplish that, since the former presumes ‘essences’ and ‘substances,’ and the latter is largely about language and, yes, implicit epistemological claims. Indeed, the historical breaking point between traditional and modern ontology is the epistemological turn with Descartes. Heidegger, as the last traditionalist, thought he could get around that. I was saying that he was wrong. Even a question like, ‘what does it mean to be human,’ is now answerable without resort to ‘fundamental ontology’ – indeed, it is now unanswerable ontologically, given the diverse forms of human life, except in a gross and perhaps trivial way.

    While I do concern myself with the question of what it means to be human, I do not engage in ontology except, perhaps, in the loosest sense. As a thorough-going nominalist, I don’t believe we have the kind of direct epistemic access to any entities necessary to make ontological claims concerning them.

    So, my implicit point was that claiming that an ontology constitutes a scientific theory falls in the domain of claims like, e.g, ‘Democritus was a scientist.’

    As for the ‘word salad’ quality of some of the post, I regret that there was no other way to present traditional ontology on its own terms. Although I admit that perhaps the writing could have been more clear, when trying to describe what traditional ontology means by ‘the nature of being,’ one is kind of stuck with the terms given.


    • I wasn’t really “reacting against” your post. I was criticizing ontology, and your post provided some useful tidbits. You possibly noticed that I followed that with a second post criticizing some ontology of mathematical objects.

      In any case, I would agree that an ontology could not be a scientific theory.


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