Two Approaches to Ontology ~ a work in progress

“To be is to be the value of a bound variable.” (Quine 1948)

“ ‘Phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to the light” (Heidegger 1927)

Already, these two sentences announce two very different orientations toward the question of being, the question of what is there.

Echoing the broader empiricist and narrower logical positivist traditions from which he springs, Quine cushions being in set-theoretical terms. To unpack the above slogan, a variable x becomes bound under some predication, such as x is a person, where the predicate ‘is a person’ is expressed by a capital letter, say F. If we wanted to say something as simple  as ‘there are people’ or ‘people exist’, we would say ‘there is at least one x, and that x is a person’, expressed in first-order logical notation as ∃xFx. This proposition therefore binds the free variable x to a predicate, which happens to be the set of people F, and asserts that the set contains at least one member. If we wanted to say exactly one thing has a certain property, say ‘Rabelais is the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel’ we would write in first-order logical notation: ∃x (Gx ∧ ∀y (Gy ↔ y=x), where G =author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, which reads: There is an x, such that x is the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel,and for all y, y is the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel if and only if y is identical to x. In other words, the set author of Gargantua and Pantagruel contains exactly one member. The variable x, therefore, is bound in the above expression to the property G, and the value of property G is Rabelais.

Therefore, to be, in Quine’s view, is to be a variable that ranges over a set of objects. As such , we make ontological commitments simply by affirming the existence of an entity or class of entities or predicating something of an entity or class, such as‘there are fauns’, ‘the Greek Gods reside in Mount Olympus’, and ‘all reality bottoms out on fields of force’. Of course, merely committing to an ontology, a set of values to bound variables, does not imply that the propositions admitted by the ontology are true. The above statements do not meet the “tribunal of experience” independently, but together with a network of presuppositions , whose logical interdependence regiments their appraisal (confirmation or disconfirmation) against observation. Because the meaning of a term constitutes a, generally uneven, distribution of theoretical and empirical content,conceptual terms can be made to square with observational terms given certain presuppositions. Thus even though we do not directly observe the ether, we can fit it into a theory in order to increase its explanatory power. Likewise, even though we do not observe curved space-time, on whose metaphysical status the jury is still out, it’s supposition lends general relativity its predictive precision. What we observe are the effects entailed by its supposition. The God postulate, in similar fashion, can be made consistent with observation. However, this is not to say that all the above ontological commitments can be made consistent with one another. Quine believes that conceptual schemas ought to aspire to certain standards to be admissible as plausible descriptions of the world. These standards include internal coherence, which implies least wise internal consistency and at most mutual explanatory support between propositions, accordance with observation, simplicity, and explanatory and predictive power, to name some of the most central. These standards deny the ether existential import, but admit or remain agnostic about curved space-time.

Quine sees language as a conceptual scheme, on a par with the theoretical posits of science, and more paradigmatically physics, that distends in excess of observable phenomena. The parity that Quine sees between scientific theories and language hinges on the view that language provides, as a corporate body, a theory of the world. The distinction between linguistic posits and scientific posits, say between “pains” and “fields of force” is something akin to the difference between folk science and mature science. The continuity between language and science derives its impetus in Quine from his meaning holism, the view that propositions do not mean independently but within a matrix of presuppositions. Just as a scientific hypothesis purports to explain a region of reality in context of a set of auxiliary assumptions, i.e. other propositions that typically cohere together, so propositions in language describe states of affairs relative to a matrix of posits, or ontological commitments, already presupposed in the corporate body of the language. While science, therefore, begins with ordinary language, it improves and refines its ontological commitments through the systematic interrogation of empirical reality. The answer to what there is, thus, resides with our best theory, and the values of the variables the theory quantifies over. The question, therefore, becomes: what entities does our best science admit existence to?                 

To illustrate, the conceptual scheme of special relativity commits to wave-particle duality of light, mass-energy equivalence, the constancy of light-speed in all frames of reference, time-dilation and space-contraction, among others. A particular statement, say something like ‘the speed of light remains constant across all frames of reference’, is verified in light of the totality of statements that make up the theory. That is to say, the propositions that make up special relativity, are tested against observation together as a corporate body.

In On What There Is Quine admonishes against bloated ontologies, that is, conceptual schemas that posit more entities than necessary, because they make confirmation/justification more difficult and increase the probability of falsity. At the same time, positing more entities proportionally increases explanatory power. Either way, Quine sees conceptual schemes as man-made tapestries whose outer extremities impinge on experience, and whose inner extremities hinge on inferential links between beliefs. 

Heidegger, by contrast, approaches the question of the  meaning of Being through the ontological analysis of the existential structures  of  the human being, which he terms Dasein.

For Heidegger, beings show themselves within the horizon of  Dasein’s being-in-the-world. Dasein always already occupies a world. The world  of Dasein’s dwelling has significance. Without further analyzing the meaning of  the word “significance”, we can say that Dasein is engulfed in a matrix of  significations, or an ‘average understanding’ if you will, of itself, and the  world it occupies. Heidegger uses the word pre-theoretical or pre-ontological  to refer to Dasein’s understanding of itself and its world. Why so? Because  Dasein’s ‘knowledge’ consists for the most part of implicit know-how, an unconscious tool-kit of context-dependent behaviours or interactions. Dasein  may possess explicit, propositional knowledge of limited regions of the world,but these sit atop a summit of implicit, iconic, and procedural capabilities, whose  determinations spawn in an inter-subjective, public dwelling. In this mode of  engagement, the world shows itself through the filter of ‘circumspective  concern’. Dasein does not dwell in passive cognizance of its environment, nor is it some neutral bystander toward phenomena, but rather factors, in large part as a public signifier, in the mode of its disclosure, namely as conglomerations of equipment-contexts. Dasein is never the lone progenitor of  such significations, they are always already in some determination before Dasein enters the stage, hence the notion of being “thrown”, or thrust into a horizon of intelligibility, which circumscribes, in a sense, the bounds of the  possible, the temporal “being-towards” that defines Dasein’s basic constitution.

In the chapter titled “The Worldhood of the World” in Being and Time Heidegger elaborates the concept of “world”, which furnishes the “Da” in Dasein, and explicates the ontological structure of the environment of Dasein’s being. Dasein is never separate from its environment, hence the composite phrase Da-sein, that is, there-being, or being-there (some contend that being-open is the superior translation, but this is of little account to our present purposes). Dasein is purposefully situated in an environment that shows itself as a corporate body of familiar pathways. Dasein, for example, understands that the pen he holds in his hand is for writing, and that writing is something that is done, among other places, at the uniform arrangement of desks he finds in the library. The library is a place for studying and finding information. The library is also a building. Buildings are man-made structures that house various human activities. When Dasein becomes absorbed in writing, the pen he holds in his hand, the computer screen he stares into, and the rest of the surrounding environment, sink into a peripheral awareness. The pen, therefore, shows itself as a reference in the larger equipment-context of writing, within whose circumference fall an indefinite set of auxiliary entities such as paper, books, the desk etc. This is not to say that the purposeful activity of writing exhausts the intelligibility of the aforementioned entities. Their intelligibility and their enclosure into the fore-having of “significance” extends, in principle, indefinitely. Thus Heidegger says, “any concern is already as it is, because of some familiarity with the world” (Heidegger 1927). He also says, “it becomes plain, moreover, that assignments and referential totalities could in some sense become constitutive of worldhood itself”.

The notion of truth as disclosure, and the world manifesting  itself most primordially in disclosure implies certain anthropomorphic  constraints that regulate the character of ontic being. Heidegger observes that  Dasein’s orientation toward the world always occurs within some mood or other, not in the ordinary sense of the word ‘mood’, but as a state-of-mind that is a priori constitutive of the world. Moods regulate the world’s modes of disclosure, so to speak, with a specific mood, which Heidegger terms anxiety, constituting a global breakdown of the mutual constitution that characterizes Dasein’s involvement with its  environment. Anxiety effectuates a fundamental reorientation of Dasein’s  relationship to beings, and its futural constitution. Where other moods affirm, or at least fail to fundamentally disturb, Dasein’s relationship to its possibilities as defined by its thrown-ness, anxiety permits an egress from its  familiar modes of engagement. The notion of anxiety constitutes the focal point of Heidegger’s entire philosophy, and is essential  to his approach to ontology. My remarks here about anxiety will be cursory, and epigrammatic. Therefore, the reader  who wishes to understand this concept more fully shall have to look else  where  for more thorough treatments. Because Heidegger’s method of investigation is phenomenology, his characterization of anxiety is built up from a phenomenal starting point. If in Dasein’s average moods “the context of equipment is lit up”, in anxiety the totality of significations becomes unlit. In understanding  this contrast, we must tread carefully. Anxiety does not disturb Dasein’s lower-order cognitive processing: the world discloses itself identically at lower levels of cognition. Dasein sees the same world, hears the same sounds; in this respect, nothing changes. Rather, what changes is the higher-order constitution of  Dasein’s situation. Anxiety wipes out the intelligibility of the world, the mode of understanding  that endows objects with their instrumental value, and that regulates Dasein’s futural projections. Anxiety constitutes a mode of disclosure whereby the world  presents itself as novel, that is, unintelligibly. Dasein becomes estranged, so to speak, from its there-ness.

Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein differentiates human beings from other beings. One, prima facie, agrees that Dasein is very different  from the ready-to-hand and present-at-hand entities that enter its purview  of awareness. How, however, is Dasein different from other living beings? Does  the existential-analytic apply, to some degree, to other mammals? Perhaps in so far as they share the same cognitive competencies. But it is clear that Dasein  possesses a wider and more pointed toolkit of cognitive competencies than other  beings. After all, Dasein is aware of its finitude, whereas they aren’t. It would  seem, therefore, that the difference lies with Dasein’s mental faculties, or, to use a more neutral yet all-encompassing  term, its cognitive competencies. For one, Dasein has language, which other  mammals lack, and second, Dasein has intentionality, which other mammals may or may not have. Heidegger does not pretend to offer causes, or explanations, for Dasein’s characteristics. His project, phenomenology and hermeneutics, offers only descriptions. In these descriptions, besides Dasein’s knowledge of its impending death, Dasein’s most distinctive trait appears to be its projection onto its possibilities, that is, its futurality, its state of always being ahead of itself. Indeed, Heidegger affirms in several occasions that Dasein is its possibilities. Thus, a physical time-slice of Dasein is not Dasein. Is then Dasein not a physical thing? Is Dasein’s physical constitution a necessary but insufficient condition for it? One way to make sense of this is to understand Heidegger as setting Dasein apart from other beings on account of its being a cybernetic, information-processing entity, whose mental models and storage and retrieval mechanisms are orders of magnitude larger and more complex than other cybernetic entities. This can be explained in part by language. Language enables Dasein to exponentially expand its representations of the outer world via descriptions, which allow it, in turn, to break free from its myopic tether to experience (see Russell). Because Dasein holds complex representations of the world, it can make large-scale predictions about phenomena to which it has no immediate sensory access. As a result, Dasein casts its plans a great deal further into the future than any other entities in its realm. Dasein’s possibilities are therefore directly proportional to the complexity of its mental models, yet Dasein owes these, primarily, to the cultural context into which it is thrown. Dasein’s future projections are bequeathed to it by its culture, but also constrained by it. Heidegger offers a way in which Dasein can escape the myopia of culture by recovering itself from its public signification via appeal to the notion of authenticity. 

Davidson, D., & Hintikka, K. J. (1969). Words and objections.

Heidegger, M. (1963). Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Hylton, Peter. “Willard Van Orman Quine”. N.p., 2017. Web. 3 May 2017.

Quine, W. V. Ontological Relativity, And Other Essays. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Print.

Quine, W. (1948). On What There Is. The Review of Metaphysics, 2(5), 21-38.

Using Format