Actualist Ontology? (1 of possibly 2)

Editor's note: I'm glad you've stumbled across this, but I must warn you that what I do below is not actually actualist ontology, at least not the way it's done in the Princeton school. The introduction to Paul Nimmo's book is a better description, as are the gestures in the same direction by David Congdon here and by David and others here and here. That said, I still think what follows here is an interesting grasp after it in terms of philosophical theology.

I'm wrestling at the moment with something I'm not sure about: "actualist ontology." It came up in the discussion of David Congdon's very interesting proposal on the Evangelical idea. Part of me wants to say, "well, of course, if we're talking about Barth, we mean that theology proceeds from what is (including and especially the content of God's self-revelation and the scriptural witness to same)." Which is, from the analytic philosophy perspective, a very interesting sort of "actualism" -- granting actual existence to things that cannot be epistemologically warranted on empirical grounds. Granting, in fact, a superior epistemological warrant to them, in such a way as to determine the structure of what is empirically observable and readily warranted. Which is not to make any claim, of course, that what is so readily warranted is not in fact actual -- it is simply to exert a structurally interpretive framework for the actuality of the empirically observable.

Now, this is some ways distant from what I hear David actually claiming -- which is more along the lines of Barth's definition of human existence in terms of a history of moral agency. That our being is our doing, which is to say that our existence is constituted by that history of things we have actually done, rather than by that set of possible deeds from which we have chosen, wittingly or unwittingly. It is constituted by the choices to actualize this and not those in given circumstances. But this seems more to be an agentic ontology, than an actualist one. (Stressing the nature of what becomes actual, and the path to actuality, rather than ontological assertion from what is presently actual alone.)

(Obviously I'm open to clarification, here, and I plan on asking for it, but I'm going to at least attempt a first-principles reconstruction from what I do understand so there's something to correct.)

Now, already by those two sketches, there's sort of the spectral outline of a connection. And in fact we get one of the classical apologies for the existence of God, if we look at it backwards. Every observable actuality is the product of the exertion of agency upon a point of selection from the possible. Walk the chain backwards and postulate an original Agent who selected all of existence from the full range of the possible. Works nicely with process and quantum mechanics. But that's not the point, and it's futile as an evidentiary claim. It is not built on the observable, but on faith in God as a demonstrably valid interpretive framework for interpreting the world. (Nor is it itself demonstration of that validity -- it is merely a claim of faith built on demonstrations external to itself.)

On the other hand, such a reductio ad absurdum is useful to get at the root abstractions at play. In the analytic philosophy discussions over possibles and actuals, we are not here positing any existence to the possible -- only what has been actualized has concrete existence. What exists is contingently necessary, having been produced from the possible. Which is to say that it is only necessary after the fact -- as even Augustine argues with respect to original sin. What is is, and cannot be otherwise; it could have been otherwise, but it is not so now, and that state of original possibility has passed irretrievably. Such necessity respects the arrow of time. Choice entails change, and change constrains future choice. A new state of possibility follows every exercise of agency. But fate is not at play, only causality.

The problem with actualism as an ontology is that it is only suited for posterior analysis. It can determine possibility only from actuality, and actuality only from observation. It can only determine the nature of something externally, and therefore only its historical existence. It is by no means a valid predictive ontological system. It leads to the expectation that what will be is always only an extension of what has been. And yet it cannot rule out the possibility of what has not been experienced, and so should not be used to try. What it is, is a good diagnostic for the state of the way things are right now and in the availably proximate history of this state. One might reasonably suggest that Saussurean linguistics is an actualistic philology. And at that level, actualism really is good at what it's good at.

And I think I can see where David is coming from, when it comes to his use of actualism as a means of existentializing, rather than essentializing, discussions of being. Rather than coming down in an anti-realist direction along lines that assert being prior to action, and therefore essence as determinant over existence, or in prescriptivist directions that assert that our existence is in fact the result of the outworking of our essence, actualism comes down in very Humean directions and simply says what can be said from the "is" of existence. We demonstrably are what we do, at every moment in which we are. Further, our existence within systems and structures of other existence is demonstrably constituted by the interplay of agentic actions. We really are doing posterior analytics here; no indemonstrably prior essences come into play. Only the actual have demonstrable natures, in that only the actual provide a basis for generalization about the state of things as they are. But we may, can and must draw the circle of the actual large enough to derive a valid conceptual definition for the entire class under consideration.

This lets David do what he has done in the Evangelical Hypothesis piece: refuse to permit present existence alone to determine essence -- to let a necessary but not sufficient state of affairs define the conceptual basis in any exclusive way. This is not, strictly speaking, actualism, but if I get it right, the limits of an actualist ontology create the freedom to play in the realm of concepts, to consider the possibilities available for actualization and to make a persuasive ethical appeal for the choice and actualization of a specific range of those possibilities -- a different range than is presently being actualized, even if demonstrably overlapping in terms of the conceptual basis.


  1. So much clarification of this point comes up when one realizes that the problem is in Aristotle. The word ενεργεια in the Metaphysics is properly translated as "actuality" in opposition to mere possibility, but in the Rhetoric, while still translated as "actuality," refers in 3.10 and 3.11 to activity, to the attribute of agency in that we make a thing vivid to the reader by giving it a metaphorical activity that it does.

    "Actualism" and "actuality" share this double meaning on a regular basis: both what is (as opposed to what might be but is not) and what does.


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