Ontology in its most general sense questions the meaning of the word “to be”. “What is being?”, considered as an inaugural question, that is to say, first in time and first in the order of knowledge, is that of the first thinkers of ancient Greece, such as Parmenides and Plato. It goes far beyond the strict framework of metaphysics which, born with Aristotle, studies the different modalities and properties of being (no longer posing any problem in itself), with which we tend to confuse it. It is also necessary to distinguish ontology as such from ousiology, which is the science of being understood as essence.
The term ontology, like that of metaphysics – also unknown to Aristotle – only appears much later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, where it takes on the meaning of “philosophy of being” or transcendental, but also of “first science.” To follow Aristotle, “There is a particular science that studies being as being, and the attributes that belong to it essentially. It is not to be confused with any of these particular sciences, for none of these other particular sciences generally consider the Being as being, but, cutting out a certain part of the Being, it is only from this part that they study the attribute “. From this definition, “tradition has sometimes understood this Aristotelian ontology as designating both a general metaphysics or first principles, in charge of the discourse on being, and a special metaphysics which deals with the soul, the world and of God “. What Aristotle and his successors discuss is less about the “question of being” as such, which will remain fixed for him and his successors in his metaphysics, that the multiple meanings of being – being understood as being, categories, being as true, being by self, becoming – according to the distinctions spotted by Franz Brentano.
“Scholasticism” will take up this doctrine by reinterpreting in its turn the “question of being” as general metaphysics, that is to say as a science of the first principles, also called “transcendental” in the sense that they refer to the common determinations to all beings. To this general metaphysics, we will oppose special metaphysics, or “theology,” dealing with the question of God. To speak of ontology is essentially to distinguish it from metaphysics.
After a brief historical overview of ontology, this article will distinguish the two major axes under which the question of the “sense of being” has been addressed, either as a question relating to the “being of being” or as question about “Being as such”; or by other approaches that intend to go beyond this way of presenting the ontology.
Brief history of ontology
It is customary to present the birth of philosophy and the first questions about being based on the questions men asked about their physical surroundings. Thales, for example, posits as principle of all things a material element, water. It is to know what things are made of, that thought has been drawn up according to various approaches, which are grouped before Plato into many schools:
- The Pythagorean school places origin “in a primitive substance from which everything comes out as numbers come out of unity”;
- The Eleatic school with Parmenides and Zeno of Elea posits as a first truth the fact that what is, being, is, and that it is without negation and without alteration. Only the doxa, the changing or confused opinion, which separates us from the truth, makes us believe in what is changing and therefore in what is not. The Eleate came to deny all material reality, all variety, and to admit only absolute unity.
In contrast, Heraclitus of Ephesus maintains that “nothing in the world remains for a moment identical to itself. Everything changes constantly, passing from one opposite to another, and the only thing that is immutable is the law of this eternal metamorphosis.” But, moreover, each thing contains in itself what denies it.
It is against the Eleatic thesis that Plato poses, in the Sophist, the problem of “non-being”. Being is not one and unique, and the great kinds of being must also include alteration and negation.
Aristotle defines being above all as substance and secondarily as accidents of substance (other categories, quality, quantity, relation, place, time, disposition, possession …).
In fact, all later thought endeavored to reconcile the Heraclitean affirmation of the eternal becoming with the definition that Parmenides gave of being. Being, essence, accident: the Stoics distinguish what exists (the Bodies) from something (ti) in general (which also includes what is not, emptiness, time and the expressible).
In Avicenna’s Latin interpretation, being (ens, being) is common, univocal, between the divine being and the created being. Essence is indifferent to existence. The essence of equality is considered neither existent nor non-existent, and existence is therefore analyzed as an “accident of the essence” (which was not the case in Aristotle).
Thomas Aquinas opposes this theory of the univocity of being, and also rejects a total equivocity. He introduces a middle term with that of analogy. There is an analogy of proportionality (analogia entis) between the being of God (for God is the Act of Being) and created substances that receive being. But it is mostly an appointment analogy. For example, it may be said that God possesses intelligence in that He possesses in infinite degree human intelligence. Thomists like Suárez will extend this theory of analogy to the whole being as an analogy of being. The “beings” will all be hierarchized intrinsically towards the ultimate Being, the summit of analogy, which is God.
The “analogy of being” derived from Thomas Aquinas becomes a structural principle, taken up by late scholasticism and the beginning of modern philosophy in the contemporary form of Jesuit Erich Przywara and his work Analogia entis. It was not until the seventeenth century that the disciplinary term “Ontology” was born as a specialty or “metaphysica generalis”.
We speak of “ontological argument” according to an advance from the eleventh century, by Anselm of Canterbury who claims to prove the existence of God from his concept. Formulated many times in the course of history, it is still found in Descartes’ Metaphysical meditations.
Immanuel Kant invents the term “onto-theology” to designate “the speculative form of theology which aims to deduce the existence of God from his simple concept”. The Critique of Pure Reason rejects on-theological arguments by considering that existence is not a predicate that one would add to a subject, but the position of the subject.