Reading Alain Badiou’s Being and Event 5: Pluth on the Subject of Ontology

0. For all too many weeks now I have been kept away from posting by an upwelling of a variety of matters needing attention, some taken on willingly and some, well, not so much. They have not, however, quite kept me from engaging in at least some reading and thinking about Badiou. The greater part of this reading and thinking has been focused on Ed Pluth’s survey of Badiou’s philosophy, Badiou. A Philosophy of the New (Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA, USA: Polity Press, 2010).

Pluth’s Badiou is rather more accessible than Badiou’s Being and Event, so there is room for worrying whether or not Pluth’s greater accessibility represents a loss in fidelity to Badiou’s philosophy. In response to this worry, my primary intent in approaching Pluth’s work will be to accept his understandings of Badiou’s views as hypotheses, to be confirmed or disconfirmed by the careful reading of the latter’s texts. At times, however, I have found myself seeing difficulties in the philosophical perspective which is seemingly that of Pluth himself. One such difficulty has given rise to the present post.

1. One of the most striking things about Badiou’s philosophy for someone approaching it from a neo-Aristotelian perspective such as the one motivating this blog’s posts is his identification of ontology as the science of being qua being and the latter in turn as mathematics; I previously devoted some thought to Badiou’s identifications in my posts of August 1 and 11, 2013, i.e., respectively, “Reading Alain Badiou’s “Being and Event” 2: Badiou and the Thesis That Philosophy Is Not Mathematics” and “Reading Alain Badiou’s “Being and Event” 3: Badiou and the Thesis That Philosophy and Ontology are “Separate.

Today’s post is focused on the first of the two identifications, that of ontology as the science of being qua being. The original statement of that identification, or one much like it, is of course that found in Book IV Aristotle’s Metaphysics (1083a21). The revised Oxford translation* of it reads:

There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.

The degree to which I have a command of Aristotle’s Greek can be very easily exaggerated, but I think it important that it be noted that the “being as being” of that translation is inadequate, for the Greek text itself** speaks of τὸ ὂν  ὂν, with the definite article “τὸ” preceding the first “ὂν” of “τὸ ὂν  ὂν.” There is then a more complete translation of Aristotle’s statement; I offer it as a friendly amendment:

There is a science which investigates the being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.

I understand, further, that the “ὂν” and the “being” are participles and, accordingly, understand that that to which the “τὸ ὂν” or the “the being” at hand refer can equivalently be referred to by a “that which is.” That, then, which is the subject of the science of the being qua being is, quite simply, that which is. It is not the abstract being which, according to a theory like that of Aquinas, that which is has, rather than is.

[November 12, 2013, Insertion: I would like to think that Aquinas too saw ontology in the same way. As I understand it, however, the Latin of his time lacked the definite article and so it is natural that his translation of τὸ ὂν ὂν as ens secundum quod ens is silent on the point. See his

(http://www.logicmuseum.com/authors/aquinas/metaphysics/meta-L4.htm).]

2. Pluth struggles to understand just what ontology is, first trying to understand how it might be related to metaphysics and then what, precisely, it might be the study of (Badiou. A Philosophy of the New, pp. 30-31).

Ontology is normally considered a sub-discipline in philosophy that is tasked with studying the nature of being. (Metaphysics, by slight contrast, might be said to be about the nature of reality in general: ontology would focus more narrowly on the nature of being itself.) This assignment has always made it a bit obscure. What is it, precisely, about being that ontology is supposed to study? Physics studies nature or matter; biology studies living things; geology studies interactions among rocks, wind, water, and so on. Every science can be said to have a particular region of being as its object of study. Ontology is supposed to be the area of philosophy that studies being in general.

3. As for the first, the question of how ontology might be related to metaphysics, let me first note that, if it is assumed possible that there is a science, theory, or discipline identified as ontology and that there is a science, theory, or discipline identified as metaphysics, then the question naturally arises of which of the following four com-possibilities is actually the case:

It is the case both that the science, theory, or discipline identified as ontology exists and that the science, theory, or discipline identified as metaphysics exists.

It is the case that the science, theory, or discipline identified as ontology exists and the science, the theory, or discipline identified as metaphysics does not exist.

It is the case that the science, theory, or discipline identified as ontology does not exist and the science, the theory, or discipline identified as metaphysics exists.

It is the case that the science, theory, or discipline identified as ontology does not exist and the science, the theory, or discipline identified as metaphysics does not exist.

If the first assumption is adopted, that both the science, theory, or discipline identified as ontology exists and the science, theory, or discipline identified as metaphysics exists, then the question of what the relationship is, or what the relationships are, between them then arises. In answering the question at its most fundamental level, one might hold that ontology and metaphysics are identical or, alternatively, that they are not.

Pluth thinks of them as non-identical, though the difference between them is that of but a “slight contrast.” It seems to me, however, that the contrast which he sees between them is, rather than slight, actually non-existent. I say this for the simple reason that, as I understand things (and as I understand Aristotle to have understood things), that which is genuinely a being is that which is genuinely real, and vice versa. A discipline, then, which bears upon the one bears upon the other, and vice versa.

4. Let’s turn now to the second question, that of what, precisely, ontology might be the study of: In the paragraph and then the beginning of another paragraph (Ibid., p. 31) immediately succeeding the one presented above, Pluth first raises a series of question bearing on some its possible answers and then goes on to present, though without explicitly endorsing it, a thoroughly dismissive understanding of ontology.

But still, what about being can it study? What it is? Its nature? Its laws? How it works or how it presents itself? Is there even such a thing as being itself or “being qua being,” as it is so often put in ontology? Could any branch of philosophy be more abstract and currently irrelevant, rendered outmoded by the development of the hard sciences?

Many have thought that such questions cannot be answered in a way that leaves ontology with anything to do any more, and they have therefore consigned ontology to the historical dustbin, along with such things as alchemy and astrology.

I think I see therein a second failure on Pluth’s part, in addition to that of not seeing that the subject, and now I’ll more explicitly identify it as the “material subject,” of the science of ontology is the being, or that which is. The second failure is that of not understanding the import of the reduplicative “as” or “qua” in the specification of the subject of the science as “[the] being as being” or “[the] being qua being.”

What that import is can perhaps most readily be seen if we render more precise Pluth’s understanding of what biology is the science of. Pluth has identified it as the science which studies living beings. That identification is, however, not precise enough, for physics too studies living beings; a 200 pound man thrown from the roof of a skyscraper will, friction and flailing set aside, fall and accelerate in accordance with the same physical laws as those in accordance with which a 200 pound chunk of lead similarly thrown will fall and accelerate. The difference between biology and physics is that physics considers living things, not as living things or qua living things, capable of, say, growth and reproduction, but as physical things, as subject to, say, the law of gravity. The formal subject of the science of biology, as distinguished from the material subject, is not simply the living being, but rather the living being as the living being or qua the living being. The formal subject of the science of anthropology, to take another example, is the human being as or qua the human being. Similarly, then, ontology or metaphysics has as its formal subject that which is, the being, as or qua being.

Let me hasten to add that the ontology of Aristotle and the in at least most central respects similar neo-Aristotelian ontology which I find myself holding dear are pluralist ontologies: I am in agreement with Aristotle in understanding it to be utterly  evident that there are many and really distinct beings. There should, then, be no thought that the singular form of the affirmation,

There is a science which investigates the being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.

involves an assumption that there is but one being. The use of the singular mode of expression need not be restricted to propositions bearing on but one entity.

To illustrate, Ben Franklin’s proverb***,

The wise man draws more advantage from his enemies than the fool from his friends.

is surely equivalent in meaning to

Wise men draw more advantage from their enemies than fools from their friends.

My mother, to engage in some really outrageous self-indulgence, has provided another illustration in the ditty, nay, poem, she once found in her mind upon awakening in the middle of the night:

The eagle is regal.

Not so the beagle.

The translation into the equivalent plural expression is obvious. So too is that of the affirmation of the existence of ontology (and I’ll indulge myself again by slipping in one additional precision).

There is a science which investigates beings as beings and the attributes which belong to them in virtue of their own natures [as beings].

5. We are now in a position to reply to some of the questions Pluth has raised. The first was

What is it, precisely, about being that ontology is supposed to study?

We need first to rephrase it, to read:

What is it, precisely, about the being qua being or beings qua beings that ontology is supposed to study?

The answer then is that ontology is “supposed to study” the being, or that which is, but qua being, or beings, those things which are, but qua beings.

The answer to the first question is also the answer to the second, “But still, what about being [or, given the preceding, the being qua being or the beings qua beings] can it study?” The answer to the third, “What it [the being] is?” is, “Yes, ontology is the study of the being, of that which is, but qua being.”

The fourth question Pluth raises, “Its nature?” can be understood as that of whether ontology studies the nature of the being, of that which is. To this the answer is, “Yes, it studies, or is the science of, the nature of the being or that which is, for the nature of the being or of that which is is nothing other than that which the being or that which is is.” (You may need to read the last line twice.)

6. I think it is safe, in the interests of brevity, to pass over the next three questions, leaving them perhaps for another day, and to close with the sketch of a response to the last question, that of whether ontology is outmoded, and the one answer presented, that it is. Here my alternative answer can be sketched in the form of two arguments. One premise of one of the two arguments is the following:

One of the sciences which our contemporaries identify as a “logical” science, that of the “logic of identity,” is a science the truths of which are necessary truths.

or, to formulate it in a manner appropriate to its use in the present argument:

The science which is the “logic” of identity is a science the truths of which are necessary truths.

To illustrate, the thesis of the reflexivity of identity, a thesis which is never far from my mind, that:

(x)(Ixx)

or, in quasi-English:

For any existent or being, x, x is identical with itself.

is a necessarily true thesis of the “logical” science of identity.

Assuming as evident for the purposes of this sketch the truth of its other premise, that no science the truths of which are necessary truths is a science which can be outmoded, the one argument is, then:

No science the truths of which are necessary truths is a science which can be outmoded.

The science which is the “logic” of identity is a science the truths of which are necessary truths.

Therefore, the science which is the “logic” of identity is not a science which can be outmoded.

But now, to move on to the second argument, the same thesis of the reflexivity of identity that is a thesis of the “logic” of identity is also a thesis of ontology, for it is true of all beings, qua beings, that they are what they are. That the thesis of the reflexivity of identity is a thesis both of the “logic” of identity and of ontology serves to suggest, though not to demonstrate, the truth of another premise, which, when added to the conclusion just presented, yields the second argument:

The science which is the “logic” of identity is not a science which can be outmoded.

Ontology, or at least one central part of ontology, is the science which is the “logic” of identity.

Therefore, ontology, or at least one central part of ontology, is not a science which can be outmoded.

The arguments are surely valid. But whether the premises involved are all true remains open to some doubt; as I have indicated above, we have here a sketch, not a demonstration. In particular, there is much more that needs to be said about those parts of ontology which are not to be simply identified with the science which is the “logic” of identity. These include most notably the Aristotelian theory of the actual and the potential, a cousin at least of today’s modal “logic,” and the theory of multitude, which latter is most obviously to be placed for comparison and contrast beside Badiou’s theory of the multiple. These, however, will have to await some further posts. I have already sufficiently tried the patience of those who have read thus far.

*Aristotle, Metaphysics, in Jonathan Barnes, editor. The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation (2 vols.; Princeton, New Jersey, and Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 1984), Vol. Two, p. 1584.

**The Greek text is available online at the Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library, at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0051%3Abook%3D4%3Asection%3D1003a.

*** http://www.poorrichards.net/benjamin-franklin

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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