Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Variety and ontology

A major part of the ontologist’s dream has always been to find a small number of fundamental categories—maybe one, maybe two or three or maybe ten—into which everything falls.

Aristotle says somewhere that the philosopher knows all things—in general terms. That’s the kind of knowledge the ontologist’s dream accomplishes. But I worry: isn’t there a deep hubris in thinking we can categorize fundamental reality? And aren’t we destroying the deep richness of reality by pushing into into a handful of categories?

Well, maybe not. After all, all books could be seen as finite sequences of a small number of symbols. (Recall the lovely argument in Plato’s Euthydemus that one can’t learn from books, because if you don’t know the alphabet, you can’t read, and if you know the alphabet, you already know all that is in the books, namely letters.) And yet among these arrangements—all of which are ontologically the same sort of thing—there are the Summa Theologiae, The Deluge, Hamlet, the Psalms, the best of the scientific literature… and the latest tweets from world leaders, too. One doesn’t destroy the richness of literature by noting that ontologically it’s all of a piece. Being all of a piece ontologically is compatible with great variation.

That said, I still have the worry. While there is great richness in literature, culture be impoverished if there weren’t painting, sculpture, dance, etc. Similarly, even if there can be enormous richness among monads, their apperceptions and their appetitions, wouldn’t reality be impoverished if monads, perceptions and appetitions were all there is?


SMatthewStolte said...

Can’t I ask the same question about any ontology with a definite number of categories? “Oh … Is that all there is?”

Alexander R Pruss said...


Heath White said...

I think you get out of this puzzle by breaking the link between "is ontologically fundamental" and "is rich and important and valuable." Just say the ontologically fundamental things are not necessarily the important and valuable things.

Fundamentality is interesting because it allows for certain kinds of simple, and therefore powerful, explanatory schemes. That is one kind of value, certainly, but not the only kind. And value does not percolate up from the fundamental layer: works of literature are not valuable in virtue of the value of their letters; rather, letters are valuable because they allow the creation of great works of literature.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the present worry is not so much driven by thinking in general that the fundamental is the valuable, as by thinking that the fundamental *differences* are the really important differences.

Martin Cooke said...

There is only God and His creation, fundamentally; but I guess you mean the differences within creation? I agree about the hubris because we would need God's view to know what the fundamental divisions were there; we are more likely to get back the grammar of our own thoughts, I would have thought.

Heath White said...

I think that comes to the same thing. The important differences in, say, literature are not driven by differences in their constituents.

(You can, if you like, pull out the notion of form, and say it is a fundamental ingredient in things. Then the important differences will be differences of form, and therefore fundamental. I'm not inclined in this direction myself.)