Ontological Dilemmas

Commentary No. 495, April 15, 2019

Epistemology, especially statistics, is the study of how we measure things and how we know if our measurements are correct. Ontology is the study of whether the things we are measuring actually do exist.

A very long time ago, beginning in the sixteenth century, analysts were primarily concerned with methodological problems. But in the last century, more and more analysts turned their concerns to ontological problems.

The reason for this shift was the sense of increasing numbers of analysts that most of the benefits were awarded to those who worked on methodological problems. They turned to ontological problems as a way of challenging the domination of thought activity by a small group of the entire population.

They said, in effect, what you are studying does not exist; if you study what exists you discover different groups gain the benefits of collective activity. They asserted that there are groups that existed defined by specific groups, such as gender or race.

Increasingly, the majority of analysts turned therefore to the study of such groups as defined by ontology.

In recent years, the spokespeople for methodology began a movement to the primacy of return to their emphasis. Thus continued the struggle of thought possibilities.

The shift to ontology has not been without its own difficulties; this can be seen by attempting to use ontology to obtain acceptable results.

Let me give some examples: Suppose we say that nothing exists. Does the statement that <nothing exists> exist?

Let me give a second example. If nothing exists, are the two ways of forming groups equally valid? Is the statement that <the two ways of forming groups [are] equally valid> consonant with ontology premises?

What we see therefore is a pattern in which analyses shift over time, back and forth, between methodology and ontology primacy. These shifts occur slowly over long periods of time.

However, in the last 50 years or so, the shifts have become more frequent. What could explain this? It seems that shifts in structure of the modern world-system may account for greater frequency of shifts. Insofar as all these shifts occur within the framework of the modern world-system’s own normality, shifts are slow and infrequent.

But when the modern world-system enters a structural crisis, everything becomes more frequent and chaotic, and shifts from the emphasis on methodology to the emphasis on ontology are no exception.

Thus, we are adding a third layer to our understanding of thought activity. There is the methodological emphasis, the ontological emphasis, and the structure of the modern world-system. What exists? This is not a solvable problem. Rather, we can speak of ontological dilemmas.