U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ontology, Jesus, And U.S. Intellectual History

I first encountered the term “ontology” back in the mid-1990s while debating a friend about Catholic theological issues. I had asked him about the femininity of God and the corresponding limits, or possibilities, of Catholic discussion about the subject. He had classified my question as an ontological one—meaning that a principle of ontology limited the ability to talk about God in feminine terms. Sadly our brief conversation never progressed beyond the introduction of the term and the categorization of my question.

Although I was unfamiliar the term, I recall looking up ontology in the dictionary. I don’t remember what version of the dictionary I had at the time, but the one on my desk currently defines it as follows: “The branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being” (The American Heritage College dictionary, third edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1997, p. 955). I think the definition I ran into in the mid-1990s was similar. But since I was less familiar with metaphysical terminology, I think I brushed this off as a kind of restatement of the definition of metaphysics. It was the “nature of” distinction that was lost on me back then.

My ignorance of a more precise meaning persisted for nearly fifteen years. Since philosophy had little to do with my full-time or part-time work (environmental field, social services agency, sales, dean’s office gopher/go-fer/go-for, adjunct history faculty) or education (graduate studies in history), opportunities to think more about the term were scarce. Even my doctoral exam reading lists on intellectual history were of no help. Few American philosophers delve deeply into metaphysics. Indeed, it seems to be the nature of pragmatism and instrumentalism to avoid metaphysics. And transcendentalism does not force one to think about traditional metaphysical questions. Even my dalliances with Thomistic/Aristotelian philosophy in connection with Mortimer J. Adler and his community of discourse never caused me to encounter ontology as a term again. It is amazing to me how long we can let unresolved questions linger.

The happy ending to this story involves another thing put-off: reading Frederick Copleston’s multi-volume A History of Philosophy series. I had started volume I (“Greece and Rome: From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus”) several years ago, probably during my doctoral exams, but put it down because of other obligations. I finally picked it up again about two weeks ago with a stronger resolve than ever to get into the series. Since then I’ve gone from page 16 or so to page 186. Aside from his humbling insertions of Greek and Latin phrases, and even one long passage in French, Copleston moves the narrative along. As an Americanist it is easier, of course, for me to read the ancients quickly, even if I am reading it for professional reasons, because of the remoteness of the terminology and actors. Even so, it’s useful to see the roots of Kantian and Hegelian idealism in Plato—to understand the longue durée of a unit idea.

Copleston has helped me understand my friend’s classification of my question. For starters, it is probably no coincidence that I did not understand ontology until I had obtained some understanding of Plato’s Forms/Ideas/Essences/In-common terms. Our awareness, or discovery, of forms—those stable, immaterial essences that provide the template for everything true and eternal—by the process of dialectic determines the level of our knowledge. Copleston reports that this constitutes the epistemology of Plato’s system. And conversely, according to Copleston, ontology refers to the corresponding objects of forms. [Aside: You could argue that if Forms really exist, they are also ontological and not just epistemological. Indeed, to complicate these classifications Allan Silverman writes, in the Stanford Ency. of Philosophy article on forms above, that Plato’s ontology is also his metaphysics. Silverman asserts that although “students of Plato…divide philosophy into three parts: Ethics, Epistemology and Metaphysics,” and that is “generally accurate and certainly useful for pedagogical purposes,” in fact “no rigid boundary separates the parts.” And let’s not even get into the apparently backwards use of the term ontology in relation to ontological arguments for God’s existence.]

Back to my Catholic friend, in reference to God’s masculinity or femininity, he was asserting that the limits of the discussion were dictated by the ontological fact—the object of reference with regard to God considered as an ultimate Platonic form—that Jesus was a male. Consequently, Jesus’ really existing maleness limited the Church’s ability to speculate about, or conceive of, God’s feminine characteristics. Right or wrong, that was my friend’s assessment.

In relation to U.S. intellectual history, what intrigues me about the notion of ontology is that what it represents about the prominent strains of American philosophical thought. If Kantian and Hegelian idealism do indeed correspond with the general metaphysics (or epistemology) of many nineteenth-century U.S. philosophers, as is argued by Bruce Kuklick in A History of Philosophy in America, then one could say that American pragmatism, realism, and instrumentalism were American contributions to the ongoing debate about the meaning of ontology in relation to idealism. In other words, what are the objects of reference for high thinking? Rather than worrying primarily about what is stable, essential, and immaterial, American thinkers of the late nineteenth century began to work a posteriori, or from experience backwards. And their commitments to the stability of truth determined the depth of their exploration of metaphysics, whether ancient or modern.

As an aside, I also now understand more thoroughly Mortimer J. Adler’s apparent fixation on dialectic and the notion of ideas as objects of knowledge (e.g. 102 Great Ideas). While Adler consistently adhered to Thomistic and Aristotelian philosophies, he apparently also sought a synthesis with the Platonic ideals, as well as admired the process of obtaining knowledge—the dialectic—outlined by Plato in the dialogues, Socratic and otherwise. This tension, or hoped for synthesis, dominated Adler’s philosophical thinking until at least the 1960s. It was then that he gave himself over, fully, to Aristotelian philosophy.

Perhaps one could make the argument that all that is distinctive about American philosophy from 1850 to 1950, after which the analytic movement became prominent, was the attempt to understand ontology in relation to Platonic/Kantian/Hegelian idealism? – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. My question is why was it in America specifically, as opposed to Europe, that philosophers worked mainly a posteriori?

  2. theology uses these words a little differently than does philosophy. i guess it’s theology exactly *because* the historical fact of an individual’s gender could be elevated to the level of ontology.

    As far as what you say about US philosophy…i don’t remember exactly how Kuklick’s argument goes, but it seems to me that it would be easy to argue that both american and european philosophy were completely dominated by kantian/hegelian themes and problems in the late 19th century. in my own work, largely on france, what seems new is the attempt to use the experimental sciences to move past old questions, and then the discarding of experimental science. in the US, i think of this as meaning william james–who was important in france, but identified with Bergson, himself identified as an antirationalist.

    in my fairly amature understanding of the history of philosophy, ontology means the question of being-qua-being, and the question of being means heidegger.

    in general, though, i think it is historically wrong to see US and European philosophy as especially distinct, especially in the later 19th century when professionalization created a trans-atlantic disciplinary community. perhaps the first world war puts an end to this, temporarially, but certainly not for long, because starting in the 1930s it is impossible to imagine american academia without european refugees.

  3. Rivka: I can’t answer that question fully except to say that it was a late nineteenth-century development here. Menand outlines the move to pragmatism and instrumentalism in his now famous book. As Eric says in the next comment, it looks the continental move to use experimental sciences just didn’t take hold. You do have the followers of Comte/positivists, and the utilitarians in England, but there was never a move toward pragmatism there as occurred in the U.S. – TL

    Eric: It never occurred to me that my old Catholic friend might have been aware or, or spoke, in one or the other category. He was a fan of philosophy too. But we’ve lost touch so I’ll never know. As for your work on France, I guess my question is this: Who succeeded the Positivists? I never understood Bergson to be a positivist, or even to be a part of the international pragmatist circle of thinkers for that matter (although I noted just now that the Wikipedia entry for Bergson comments on his relationship with William James). As for the U.S. and Europe as being distinct from each other, I never meant to imply that. I only meant to speculate that American philosophers of the 1850-1950 period, or at least those not caught up in Kantian idealism, seem overly preoccupied with corresponding objects of reality, not the transcendent ideas (or metaphysical/epistemological entities) themselves. Hence, they were more a posteriori than a priori thinkers. – TL

  4. no doubt all of this happens a little differently in different national contexts, although they’re also all connected. i guess what makes me nervous with this way of discussing the late 19th century is that i understand the most creative thinkers concerned to be mainly trying to get away from just these ways of thinking. at least in france, the accusations and counter-accusations of postivism, spiritualism, idealism, materialism, rationalism, rank empiricism (many of which might be said to boil down to a posteriori vs a prior)…they all fly thick and fast. everyone, practically, claims to be forging a new third way. some people (bergson and durkheim especially), really did break out of the old binaries and problems.

    perhaps in the US the philosophical field is actually broader. i know much less about it. but the harvard philosophy department was supposed to be the only game in town in the 1890s–and william james was hardly the only one there. royce was a broadly respected hegelian, right? i’ve read a little bit of santayana, and *the sense of beauty* is perhaps idiosyncratically jamesian, a posteriori, but later on doesn’t he become some sort of neo-platonist?

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