Ontology

Hans Despain DESPAIN at econ.sbs.utah.edu
Sat Jun 24 00:26:04 MDT 1995


First, I thank you all for your thoughtful concern, thoughts, and
comments.  Chris B. and Joseph have asked me to further elucidate a
distinction and defination of ontology and epistemology (dialectics).
Below, I simply attempt to draw out the signifance of explicating an
ontological commitment.  I will attempt to further distinction
between epistemological and ontological dialectics in a future post.
Lets start out with the simple point that ontology is the study of
being; and epistemology the study of knowledge.  Thus, ontology will
analysis what exists.  Philosophically ontology seems to have played
a diminishing role from the time of the Greeks to the British
empiricists.  For the empiricists ontology is a nothing other than
epistemology because the things that exists are known by way of our
senses only, so that questions about ontology, or what types of
things exist, are reduced to what we know from our experiences
(Bhaksar calls this the epistemic fallacy).

The Kantian system attempts to address this theoritical ill by
arguing for a dualistic world, whereby there are phenomena which we
can know, and there is noumena which we cannot know.  This constructs
a strict veil between two world, one we can know by our sense datum
the phenomena, and one "hidden" beyond human beings.  Most Kantians
today reject this dual world ontology and argue that Kant was
attempting to establish that we cannot know the real world seperated
from our own conceptual system (Putnam, *Reason, Truth and History*).

Now in Kant's ontology we cannot know "things in themselves" this
belongs to the world of noumena.  This leaves Kant "drunk" in
Empiricism.  But he offers the tools to get beyond it, that is his
dialectical comment and transcendental argument.  Kant realizes for
knowledge to be possible, the empiricist account of "Sense Certainty"
must be incomplete.  Therefore, positing his dualistic ontology and
arguing (ontologically) human beings must possess (transcendently)
"intuitions" which allows them to reason beyond "Sense Certainty."

Kant dialectical comment gives human "reason" strict limits, this is
illustrated in his infamous anaomiles.  Dualities which human reason
is incapable of resolving.  His transcendental arguments spring from
what we know.  That is they are retroductive, in that if we know
something about a thing, what does it tell us about the type of thing
it is.  For example, if human beings are able to know something
beyond "Sense Certainty" than they must possess some power to achieve
this?  Or, if science is possible, and in fact needed to understand
our experience what does this tell us about the world we live in?.

Hegel will attempt to explicate Kantian intuitions in his
*Phenomenology of Mind*, and for Marx his implied ontological
commitment moves him beyond "that mighty thinker" (Hegel).  But for
now let me make the point.  Ontology attempts to describe the
constitution of a being.  Let me offer some examples, for Marx, his
(explicit) ontological commitment is especially in opposition to Max
Stirner's individualistic egoism (and at this level quite similar to
Hegel).  Stirner is committed to a view that sees human being
constituted by there own inner ego, autonomy is achieved by
developing one's inner ego to full maturity.  Marx and Engels reject
this ontological outlook and argue that part of what constitutes a
human being is their relations to other human beings. Thus, whereby
for Stirner (and neo-Classical economics) what exists are simply
individuals, for Marx and Engels what exist are individuals and then
also the relations.  Thus, if you are keeping an accounting list, of
what exists on an island of three individuals, Stirner would say
three enities.  Marx and Engels would suggest that not only do three
individuals "exists" but a relation between individual 1 & 2, 2 & 3,
1 & 3, and 1, 2 & 3, or 7 enities.

This may seem relative, but it has great importance, let me offer
another example, neo-Classical economists suggest that what makes up
political economy and civil society are a mass of individualistic
entites bouncing off of each other in their pursuit of fulfilling
individual desires.  Marx and Engels suggest that the specific
relations in capitalist society determine these actions.  That is in
the relationship between the wage-labor and capitalist, is an
ontological entity which constitutes each one.

Let me offer two more examples, think of the relation between student
and teacher.  Regardless of the level of cognition, there is a
specific interaction between them.  It is as if something mediates
the specific interaction.  O.K. let me give my last example something
that Chris B. will (hopefully) appreciate.  The relation between
psychologists and patient, there is a debate whether the relationship
itself specifically "creates" the ill, or whether mental illness
truely exists.  I would suspect that Chris B. will argue
ontologically that mental illness does exist.  Those who oppose this
however, suggest that somehow this "illness" is imposed on the patient
by way of the specific relationship of patient/doctor.  Those who
reject the ontological (quasi-)existence of mental illness suggest
that psychology not only fails to help the patient but worsen the
the hyop-condition.  Personally I think arguing over the ontological
existence of mental illness is quite limited, but certainly the
specific relationship between the psychologist and patient will
determine the success of the treatment.

O.K. what is the significance of all this?  The significance for
economics is being able to argue that capitalism exists, and it exist
different from a fuedalism or a slave economy.  The next question is
how does it exist different from other economies.  The neo-Classical
will suggest that the capitalism constitutes the complete freedom of
the individual, because for them the relations between wage-laborer
and capitalist constitutes a different relation than he does for Marx.
For the neo-Classical the cagetories of wage-laborer and capitalist
is a "choose" or (usually justly) "achieved" position.  For Marx, this
"freedom" of capitalism is quite limited, I think he would argee that
generally it can be aruged that *any* one has potential to be a
captialist or wage-laborer, but that the specific relation requires
the wage-laborer (and arguably the capitalist) to give up her
freedom.  The structural coercion inforces these relations, whereby,
even if we could establish philosophically that on some level
freedom exists for *anyone* it cannot, by defination of wage-labor
capialist exist for *everyone*.

Let me leave it here, with a final comment that Bhaskar argues that
our ontological commitment to what must constitute the world, as
great significance for our science and philosophy and the vision of
freedom possible to obtain.  Bhaksar's ontological commitment to
*stratification* allows for emergence and change, in a world that is
seemingly indifferent to human existence.  But, at the same time
human agency can impose its will on the world (nature and socio-
structures) to change it.  Bhaskar also believes that Marx himself is
implicitly (or should be) commitment to a similar Critical Realist
ontology, which is beyond his explicit ontology of internal relations.

Hans Despain
University of Utah
despain at econ.sbs.utah.edu

P.S. In a post to follow, specifically to dialectics (and more
toward Joe's question), I will develop the significance distinction
between Hegelian and Bhaskarian ontological dialectics.  And how it
changes the epistemological result.


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