Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.