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Monistic Ontology and Social Ontology - Transcendental Arguments

The account I wish to present argues for a monistic ontology that grounds a social ontology of meaningful intersubjectivity. In many ways, these two goals seem incompatible - if there is no ontological (in sense c) distinction between self and world, self and other, then how can there be human interaction at all rather than the mysterious world-spirit interacting with itself ? This is the challenge facing Hegel’s account, those inspired by him and German Idealism more generally, and, even more acutely, those who do wish to find some positive ethical example in Hegel’s practical and theoretical philosophy. I do not propose to answer this objection or potential problem in the introduction to this work, but rather to sketch out the structures that such a response could adopt. The most obvious and crude form of the ‘failure of intersubjectivity’ argument, as I term it, is already contained within the distinction between different senses of ontology, as detailed above. There is a difference between ontology as a meta-metaphysical position on how things relate to each other metaphysically in the most general ways - that is, taking an ontological position on how things relate to each other metaphysically in the most general ways, which is what monistic ontology as I outline it is - and ontology as the pure study of beings and what there is in the world. The key question here is which kind of ontology is the framework for intersubjectivity. I discuss intersubjectivity more generally in Chapter Two, but make some remarks here to set out my usage of terminology.10

Intersubjectivity, on one level, is the philosophical study of human interaction. In as far as it is concerned with beings and their being, it is an ontological field of study in sense (a) above. In so far as the methods involved in studying these beings is phenomenological in the broadest sense of the word, that is, proceeding from human experience without a pre-existing metaphysical framework, it is also an ontological field of study in sense (b) above. Intersubjectivity differs from, and underlies, psychology or other social sciences in the same way as metaphysics differs from and underlies physics - it provides the philosophical frameworks necessary for the examination of the objects and world containing those objects. In so far as an account of intersubjectivity might be grounded in a philosophical account of the world and its contents which involves certain commitments about the nature of ontology, it is closely bound up with ontology in sense (c).

Intersubjectivity as an ontological field of study in all three senses (a) (b) and (c) examines questions such as the following: what are the ontological structures that allow (human) subjects to perceive each other, act together, encounter each other? As I discuss in Chapter Two, whenever one discusses intersubjectivity there is an important ‘intersubjectivity of what’ question. Intersubjectivity as a field of study does not involve studying human subjects in isolation, but as they appear and act together and in the world together. (In this latter sense, intersubjectivity is a field of study that involves metaphysics, even if it is an ontological field in itself). We cannot ask what subjects are like together without being clear on what it is they are doing together - watching each other? Communicating? Competing for scarce resources? Attempting to fulfil some common goal? In Chapter Two, I argue for an intersubjectivity of action, since action is the context in which subjects’ relationships to one another are most readily revealed.11

Intersubjectivity, then, by its very nature, demands a phenomenological approach even if there will ultimately be found to be some detailed metaphysics behind the scenes of the arena of human interaction and experience. But what if this metaphysics, or ontology in the sense of meta-metaphysics, is such that there is, on the most fundamental level, no difference between human subjects? Does this render the phenomenological analysis useless, as it does not relate to truly separate entities and therefore no genuine inter-relation between subjects is possible ? This is one objection which I discuss in Chapter Three.12 There, I sketch out a way to understand intersubjectivity combined with a monistic ontology that does not involve subsuming the self and the Other, rendering genuine intersubjectivity impossible.

The part of this work which deals with ontology in the third sense (c), argues from social premises to ontological (in the sense of meta-metaphysical) conclusions. This takes the form of a transcendental argument; given that our experiences of interacting with others take a certain form, what must be the case about the way the world is, in the most fundamental sense, that allows this to take place? Specifically, with regard to this case, given that we do have encounters and interactions with each other that allow for progress in social, developmental and moral terms, and given that it also seems possible for us to have the kind of ‘re?cognition’ with relation to ourselves and to others that I discuss in this work, what must be true about reality and ourselves on the most basic and fundamental level ?

Whether or not these kinds of transcendental arguments are acceptable - that is, whether or not metaphysical and/or ontological enquiry can or should be guided by concerns from ‘practical’, i.e. moral, political or social, philosophy - is something of a metaphilosophical question far beyond the scope of this work. It has clear historical adherents in German Idealism and deeply rooted in German Idealism. Most obviously, Levinas’ concept of ethics as first philosophy is the most famous and emphatic of all such arguments.13 But one does not have to go as far as he does to use a transcendental argument of this nature. The whole Hegelian scheme is particularly germane to such a scheme. The famous Doppelsatz, the actual is the rational and the rational is the actual, can be regarded as a kind of transcendental argument.14 Often, most famously by Karl Popper, regarded as a fundamentally conservative and quietist statement which simply sanctions the (political) status quo ante,15 it has also been defended by those who point to the technical sense of Wirklichkeit which means that reality can always be made more ‘wirklich’.16 Robert Stern offers a kind of intermediate position when he claims that

Hegel identifies what is actual and what is rational in the Doppelsatz not in order to say that the actual is right or good (to ‘legitimate’ or ‘sanctify’ the actual, as it is sometimes put), but to remind his readers that philosophy has a basic commitment to reason as the proper way to engage with the world at a fundamental level (the level of what is actual); it is this that makes the identity of what is actual with what is rational a ‘point of departure’ for philosophy.17

Whilst agreeing with this fundamental assessment of that role of rationality, I would also suggest that Hegel’s Doppelsatz reminds us that the concerns of practical philosophy run alongside those of theoretical philosophy. Rationality is the correct approach to practical-philosophical and theoretical-philosophical questions; there is no gap, in the most basic sense, in how the questions are approached. Most importantly of all, practical philosophy is not something to be inserted into the framework of theoretical philosophy; one does not create a metaphysical, ontological and epistemological structure for an ethics and political philosophy, with the former defining the latter. Reality in the sense of Wirklichkeit can be further actualised, as the proponents of the critical reading of the Doppelsatz claim - something might have to be brought to fruition that thus far has not, and it should do so precisely because we can be led in this way by the concerns of practical philosophy.

Hegel, then is the perfect example of someone whose major premises take the form of a transcendental argument, an argumentative form crucial to the kind of account I am proposing here. Following this phenomenological method, over the six chapters that follow I will be considering examples at the level of everyday human interaction, and situating them in the wider context of theoretical -philosophical concerns.

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