The Ontological Compass

July 20, 2022
The Ontological Compass assists in mapping out our understanding of too many philosophical arguments which get conflated, and interpretations which overlap without clarity.   It works on measuring out usual binaries in discussions, and provides the relational sense to these matters, avoiding meaningless cognitive relativism as well as out-dated absolutism. If there are any absolutism, […]

The Ontological Compass assists in mapping out our understanding of too many philosophical arguments which get conflated, and interpretations which overlap without clarity.


It works on measuring out usual binaries in discussions, and provides the relational sense to these matters, avoiding meaningless cognitive relativism as well as out-dated absolutism. If there are any absolutism, it is the universality that philosophers struggle with, as against the particulars. This is another binary which could be added, but, in many cases, the universal-particular, and other ontological senses, are caught up and better expressed in the four model binaries shown. It is a model and is not forcing any choice. In the order which has a certain logic to the author, we have:


  1. Construction-Nature: Ontology at its basic outlook is either seen as a construction of reasoning or the nature of things.


Parmenides’ idea of a stable state, contra Heraclitus whose view of Nature was of flux, infers a constructivist view, and one that is reasoned rather than going to the nature of things, often in the way described by the Stoics. Constructionism, though, is not an ancient schema, as such, and it was Immanuel Kant who set the idea of the Mind constructing a social reality. This is very different to Aristotle who establishes the Nature of Things as a Natural Order, not Plato’s Form, but the essence of being. As far as Human beings, it is a matter of habit, and, hence, David Hume for the moderns. However, it is Jean-Jacques Rousseau who religiously builds Hume’s concept of Natural Religion into the positive State of Nature, contra Thomas Hobbes. Perhaps, this is unfair and an unfortunate reading of Rousseau from the French Revolution’s Cult of Reason and where the concept of Reason is transmuted into an absurdly fixed naturalism. Nevertheless, the binaries are just the model, and where often the expert nuances are lost. A little bit of reading is a dangerous thing when persons cease to go further in their thinking.


  1. Individual-Community: Democritus began the idea of the universe made up of individual entities (atomic theory). Since then, there has been debates about how things hang together, most importantly how human individuals hang together or commune.


The Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were concerned with individual human life, a way of life where meditation was practiced by individuals. It is then somewhat ironic that, as an Emperor, he stands for the stable state. Aurelius appears less concerned with communities within the Empire than for fighting wars to defend the Empire itself. The Roman Emperors were often seen as individual gods, or their envoy, who could rule on a wimp. Aurelius was a more astute individual but his idea of calming the passions of individual human being did not extend to the commune. The Emperor was the State. The ancient historian Herodotus might seem a strange choice for communitarianism, but he is the first writer to identify past ethnic groupings, communities of distinction. Ethics or ethos is at the heart of the commune, as far as the intellectual framework – good folk in a bad world. It is John Stuart Mill who builds the modern framework for individualism. We see schematic threads in the ancient world, but it only becomes a full framework (with different and many variants) in modern times. In contrast, it is the sociologist of knowledge, Ferdinand Tönnies, who establishes the modern commune idea in the concept of Gemeinschaft (community) and as a contrast to Gesellschaft (society). Society is not the same as the State, but it is more aligned with the agenda of the State (e.g., Otto von Bismarck) or with some providential flow of history which is either Reason or Nature (e.g., Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel). Community is more aligned with ancient and medieval concepts of brotherhood and sisterhood, the cultic orders or the monastic orders, and, in history, there is always a clash with the agendas of the State.


  1. The Stable State (‘Form’)-the Habit described variously as Flux, Patterns or Instinct: Plato’s concept of the Form, following Parmenides, had the ontology fixed and permanent, and differing to Parmenides, it is transcendent permanent state. Philosophy since Plato has been to show Plato wrong and the capacity for the state to change, more inspired by Heraclitus, who marks the nature of things in flux.


Plato’s Republic (circa 375 BCE) is the conservatives’ textbook for a stable state, along with the modernist Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). The argument is always against chaos, anarchy, and those liberals who conservatives accuse of as only being a liberalising mask for chaos and anarchy – the progressivist breaking down of the order which needs conserving. Plato introduces a very fixed view of society and the stable state which is hierarchical and values the authority of Form above all else. Alfred North Whitehead might see all philosophy as a footnote to Plato, but the conservatives struggle to maintain a Platonic outlook in modern times. Since Hegel it is almost impossible to hold a Platonic historiography, with all copies as an image in the fixed unchanging form. Immanuel Kant’s concept of fixed categories of the Mind (a constructivist flow of reasoning) is a response to David Hume’s rejection of a stable state of understanding, since understanding was a rational pattern which emerges for human beings in the flux or instinct, a pattern of reason which is grounded in Nature, and not in a transcendent form of Reason.


  1. Reason-Passion: This is the first binary that fools rush to, failing to understand that is the very last, built on all that preceded. In that sense Heidegger was correct, and the pre-Socrates are worth their due. It is the one binary that is collapsing before cognitive science, where we can no longer hold to this ontological binary, except as a model where we understand it is not reality of any sort.


There are a few ancient logicians one can choose as the beginning of ‘reason’ in mathematics, but Pythagoras tops the list. A line in the western concepts and codes of reasoning then flows through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is René Descartes who provides the link between the broad western concept of reason and the modernist emphasis of the Self (Mind) and the Individual (Body). As Socrates and Aristotle demonstrated in the syllogisms, reason is a matter of individual judgement, even as it is dialogue. Who are the ancient philosophers of passion? One is tempted to choose Lucian of Samosata with A True Story (Dionysus, Διόνυσος, Diónusos, 2nd CE) or Euripides with The Bacchae (Βάκχος, Bákkhos, 405 BCE), however, in these writings we have a powerful mix of history and myth and too little philosophic intent, as contrast with the post-Socratics. Jesus of Nazareth might seem as a poor choice for philosophy, as he considered a religious figure. Historically, this is a misnomer. Jesus Christ is the religious figure. In Jesus of Nazareth, since David Strauss and Friedrich Nietzsche, we have an aphoristic philosopher, and, indeed, when one thinks of the rational tradition of the Passions of Christ, there is a clear candidate for the ancient philosopher of the passions. The Gospels and the New Testament writings are full of all passions and philosophic claims, not merely of their source, but of a psychic to which Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have drawn upon in their different frameworks. Here, as with cognitive science, the humanities have moved well away from the absurdly simplistic binaries. Much of that reformation has come from resecuring correct interpretations of Frederick Nietzsche against the Nazi State falsehoods.  Nietzsche was a philosopher of science and reason, as much as he was passionate about human passions. Some of these interpretations are negative as they are positive, and it is true also of claims in the biblical fragments drawn from the oral traditions in Jesus of Nazareth. We feel as individuals and as part of a commune, and from there mental reflections are already built-into, and is, the emergent consciousness.




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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
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