To be or not to be: What is Ontology?

What does it mean ‘to be’? When I say “I am…” or “It is…” what am I saying? What does it mean to exist – or to not exist, to be or not to be? That is the question of ontology? Ontology is the discipline of philosophy that deals with the fundamental essences of existence. When does something count as existing – as being real?

In my last post I mentioned that throughout Western philosophy it has most often been assumed that the most fundamental essence of being is “substance.” That means that in order for something to count as being real it has to be some sort of ‘stuff.’ It could be matter or it could be mind or something else – but in any case it has to be some sort of stuff – a form of matter, or energy, or something.

Philosophy is often concerned with fundamental essences. What makes something whatever it is? What makes wood, wood? What makes humans, humans? What makes thoughts, thoughts? What makes anything what it is and not something else? What is the essence of it?

Ontology then is the most general form of the question of essence. It asks the question what makes anything that exists real and not unreal? What is the essence of being? If you start to think about it you will find that it is not as simple a question as it seems. In fact it is one of those perfectly annoying philosophical questions that appear to be too obvious to be asked? Something is real if it is here! You might think. It is real if it exists! But these are simply two ways of saying that something is real if it is real – and we already knew that.

You might think that this question is useless – but nothing could be farther from the truth. The question of what constitutes reality? or what is reality made from? is crucial because it will always be the starting point for all of our value judgments. What we see as good or bad, significant or insignificant, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly will always fundamentally depend on what we believe is ultimately most real.

If we are a materialist we believe that ultimately the universe is made of physical matter and that everything else is derived from that. That belief will lead to certain sets of values about what is important and significant and not others. If we are an idealist we believe that the universe is ultimately mental, made up of mind. That belief will also lead to certain sets of values and not others.

In my last post I reported that Martin Heidegger believed that there was not one ultimate ontological basis for realty, but three. I referred to these using the terms substance, utility and existence. He used the terms “presence to hand”, “readiness to hand”, and “existence.”

One of the reasons that Heidegger intrigues me is that he felt that there were three modes of being not just one and similarly Charles Sanders Peirce also believed that there were three modes of being and not just one. Peirce’s modes of being he called “firstness”, “secondness” and “thirdness”, and I have written about these extensively in this blog.

What Peirce and Heidegger are both attempting is to redefine what it means to be. What forms does being take? In what ways can something be considered real and not unreal? And they both concluded that there were three fundamental ways that things could be real and that all of reality was made up of combinations of these three fundamental building blocks.

My intention is to keep reading Heiddeger and to see if there is any relationship between his modes of being and those of Peirce.