Integral Ontology

Posted on 4 November 2006

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An ontology is an account of being, of reality. An ontology, in short, determines what is and is not real. For example, a materialist ontology assumes that matter is fundamentally real, while things like consciousness do not have any reality of their own. Consciousness is a mere function of matter (at best) or delusion (at worst). A spiritual ontology, on the other hand, might take the opposite view: consciousness is fundamentally real, while things like matter do not have any reality of their own. Matter is a mere function of consciousness (at best) or delusion (at worst).

How can we integrate such contradictory accounts of reality? This depends, in part, on what we mean by “integrate”. To include both accounts as complementary perspectives in some meta-system is a partial integration at best, and is not so difficult. A genuine integration, though, must go further than mere collection and correlation. It must transcend these apparent contradictions and divisions in a deeper vision of wholeness. The task of true integration is not putting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle back together. It is attaining that seemless vision of the original landscape, before the photograph was taken and cut into pieces.

Any ontology that posits “things” that exist has an implicit metaphysics. Now, in Western philosophy there has been a well known critique of metaphysical realities. But this critique, if applied consistently, applies just as equally to physical realities as to metaphysical realities. Thus, a “post-metaphysical” understanding must also be equally “post-physical”. The sword of criticism cuts both ways. In other words, the physical world is no less speculative than any metaphysical world. This materialist bias can be exposed by sufficiently profound critical insight.

At a more profound level, the very notion of a perspective or view of reality presupposes a structure or filter of some kind, something that passes through this filter, and something that sees the result of that filtering. Insofar as we take this perspectival view as given, we have adopted a “perspectival metaphysics” that is no less a metaphysics than materialism, idealism, or any other metaphysical stance. There is no metaphysics that escapes critical insight. There is no place to stand, no ground beneath our feet.

The deepest root of all ontologies, paradoxically, is no ontology at all. To even talk of an ontology presupposes an ontology. But prior to these accounts of reality is reality before any account of it. The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao. Here is revealed the ineffable, trans-ontological reality that, by nature, integrates all accounts of itself because these accounts are itself.

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Posted in: Philosophy