To be or not to be: What is Ontology?

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 8 Comments

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.

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11 years ago

Reading this blog two things came up. First of all Kierkegaard -who influenced Heidegger- talks about the syntheses between body and soul; the ‘becoming’ of an individual is a syntheses between these two. An example he gives is when an individual reaches puberty: childhood is over and one has to ‘become’ oneself in a new way. ‘The moment’ is the syntheses between ‘temporal and eternal’ where time and eternity touch each other. The temporal being the ‘now’, health, beauty, success, wealth. It connects to ‘how one is seen by others’. The eternal is the moment that one realizes that one… Read more »

Heather Fester
11 years ago

Hi, Jeff. I’m reading Heidegger now, too, as a project of understanding, and I’m also coming from the classical pragmatists as my knowledge base as I do so. It’s a steep climb, so I appreciate your leadership in explaining concepts. I would also recommend Hubert Dreyfus’s open course through iTunes (he was at U Berkeley), and is an expert on Heidegger and teaching it to undergrads (that most excellent combination of complexity and accessibility). I’m about 3/4 of the way through his Being course and will pick up with the Time lecture series next. I’m intrigued by this statement: “One… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago
Reply to  Heather Fester

Hello Heather, On this link you can find all of the posts that I have put up associated with Peirce and his thoughts…. Drefus’ courses on line are amazing, I am listening to them for the second time now. They get better with age. I think Heidegger was explaining being as a secondary effect of the entity (humans) who can take a stand on being. Being in large part for heiddeger is dependent on us – Peirce was trying to assume nothing at all and figure out what were the minimum essences that must be assumed in order for the… Read more »

11 years ago

Hi Jeff, Thanks for your posts. I’ve just started reading them and you’ve cleared a few confusing things. I am not sure about the reality of reality though (is there such a thing as meta-ontology?) My argument is what we communicate as being real or not is merely an ascribed status we give to a thought that crosses our mind. So if I think that this page is useful then that usefulness is very real. But aren’t these simply socially constructed labels? Even to distinguish between physical and social is a socially constructed label that hinges on our technology. When… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Hi Kevin, Many of our labels for “being” are socially constructed and I think the way Heidegger saw it the nature of being ultimately depends on the “beings” that are perceiving it. When we say something exists we mean it exists for us. So a substance exists if it can be seen, touched, tasted etc. If there was no way to conceive of it then it would not exist. A table is a table by definition – that is a socially constructed reality. It is only a table in a society that recognizes it as a table. I believe that… Read more »

10 years ago

Hello and thanks for your posts.
“To be or not to be” is fundamental.
It shows how something can come from nothing. It shows how opposites are equal.
It shows how growth occurs.
It shows how science and spirituality connect.
If you take the underlying “energy” as a given, then there are indeed 3 additional layers of reality.
I will follow up with more…

10 years ago

Hi, Again a killer post Jeff. Well done. I am not sure I buy into discussions on ‘reality’. The intellectual aspect is remarkably satisfying and your readers have shared some beautiful thoughts. One feels that sensation of immersion in an ocean of knowledge and ideas. It has that salty fragrance of the ocean (for people who lived close to the ocean that is). Yet, this beauty aside, what use does ontology provide us when these are merely assumptions? For example, At some very deep level, Westerners assume the possibility of body and soul. Some refute the dualism, others embrace it.… Read more »

10 years ago

that in connection with Peirce docitrne of the Universal Categories, it is worthwhile to ask whether hypotheses approximating in certain respects to any parts of Peirce’s cosmogonic principle can be found. Hypotheses showing an important resemblance to Peirce’s principle of habit-taking are likely to be used to explain the origins of relatively closed systems –whether physical, biological or social –from previous relatively open systems. An example of this is the speculation about the first origins of life on this earth. Here the main difficulty is to conceive at once of certain conditions of equilibrium, or of certain periodic ‘exchange phenomena’… Read more »