There is no formal ontology

Is the ontology of the terms themselves correct?

Philosophers defined the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘teleology’ before the rise of structuralism. That is, they named fundamental aspects of reality without a general theory about it. Is this reasonable? Can we keep the original meanings of these terms when a general theory requalifies them?

Quine defined ontology as the study of ‘what is’. Of everything therefore, from the angle ‘how does it exist?’. So-called material ontology. Brentano defined another approach, study of ‘the form of what is’. In what lies the identity of a thing? What are the properties and laws that make it what it is? Formal ontology.

The form exists only for the observer

I argue that it is a mistake to have called this second approach ‘ontology’. It is actually a teleology, that is to say a manifestation of our ways of knowing. There is no formal ontology without an observer. Thus this approach is entirely linked to the way of looking at the observer.

Consider reality as an immeasurable but structured whole. There is indeed an ontological structure for everything within it. It is the material ontology, experienced by each thing, the result of its organization. This experience is an ascending effect in the complex dimension: “I thus experience myself because I am” —I am what constitutes me in reality.

Ontologically we act formless to act

The form is not an ascending effect but on the contrary descending in the complex dimension. I can recognize a form identical to mine only with a knowledge of this form. It is not my constitution that gives me this knowledge but concepts that represent it. The concepts form an independent observer of the constitution. A wide variety of conflicting concepts are all made up of the same neural networks. The independence between the two is obvious.

The form is indeed teleological. Before its representation it is only structure, and a thing does not know its structure, it only experiences it. It needs no knowledge to relate to things that resemble it. Its material ontology, its constituted being, takes care of it. We do not need to reflect on the form of our action to act.

The very fundamental is hard to fix

The terms ‘ontology’ and ‘teleology’ are used in contemporary structuralist philosophy with their original meanings, which have become distorted. They should be abandoned in favor of the terms ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’1synonyms are ‘upward’ and ‘downward’ or ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ in the complex structure of reality. They symbolize the directions of the constitution and interpretation of things. This is the choice that motivated the principle of the double look and more generally the universal philosophical method UniPhiM.


On the Boundary between Material and Formal Ontology, Achille C Varzi, 2010

1 thought on “There is no formal ontology”

  1. Many philosophy terms are confusing. Definitions overlap or overleaf one another, in my arguably pedestrian view. For example, epistemology, if I have it correctly, talks about how we know what we know. So, ontology refers to ‘what is’. I sense there must be a distinction there. Somehow. I just can’t wrap my mind in it.


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