Every more than once in a while I get to teach a course in whatever I happen to be thinking about. And so I get to con those students foolish enough to take the course into helping me think about what I happen to be thinking about. This fall, for my sins and theirs, we’re thinking about something called “ontology”. 

By ontology is meant the study of being, but that’s singularly unhelpful. More helpful is that we’re looking at 

  1. how we carve up the world into the kinds of things we regard as constituent of it, and then 
  2. how we individuate tokens of the same kind from each other. 

So, for example, 

  1. what makes a collection of people – people being the plural of person – a peopleapeople being the singular of peoples? And then
  2. what individuates one people from another?

Sitting at the core of how we carve up the world are concepts like existence, substance, mind, sameness, contiguity, cause and effect, space, time, number, extension … I call these our ‘enabling’ concepts, because they’re the ones by which – meaning in the absence of which we could not – we define those concepts occupying the next orbit out, such as a thing, a thought, a movement, an event, and so on.

Whole libraries have been written on each of these enabling concepts. But in the interests of getting something done, we decided to skip all this ‘solar’ navel gazing, so to speak, and start with those first set of orbiting concepts, concepts like things and movements and events. 

And to that end, the first thing we asked was not how we heuristically think about the world, but rather what must be undergirding that heuristically thinking. That is, what must we believe, albeit only implicitly, about the atomic constituents of the world, such that we can cognise it, even if only heuristically?

We started with a point representing the cogniser. Then we drew three lines intersecting that point at right angles. Then we added fixed measures to these dimensions. We were then able to specify the eight coordinates required to define a cubic unit in space. Then we settled on the  occupation conditions of these units. Then what collection of units might count as an object. Then collections of objects. Then relations between collections. And so on, until, at long last, we arrived at the concept of a people.

Well, not quite. For we noticed that some cognising organisms see objects, and collections of objects, that others don’t. What could explain this? Answer: natural selection. But what could explain that members of the same species see objects and collections of objects that others don’t? For example that a Hutu can tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi but you and I can’t. Answer: that that distinction matters to the Hutu but not to us. So what counts as a people, and distinguishes one people from another, is indexed to a) who’s doing the counting and b) to what purpose.

Some people think that cats and dogs are natural kinds but Hutu and Tutsi are not. By this they mean that, unlike that between Hutu and Tutsi, the distinction between cats and dogs is … What? Is it unindexed? Indexed, but to the mind of the Creator? And yet some people think the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi – or if not Hutu and Tutsi then certainly Blacks and Whites – is also indexed to the mind and purposes of the Creator. The fact that cats and dogs can’t breed whereas Blacks and Whites can doesn’t mean they should

To be fair, defenders of natural kinds, at least as such, think nothing of the sort. They simply believe that, not unlike the Thanksgiving turkey already on the platter, the world comes to us already carved at its joints. And that there are joints at which it can most usefully be carved. But, say the detractors of natural kinds, it’s the word ‘usefully’ that’s the dead giveaway. Use is indexed to a user. Nature has no use for drumsticks and wings. You and I do.

The debate for and against natural kinds is as old as Plato’s realism about universals versus Aristotle’s nominalism. To be fair to Plato, it’s hard to think of the world as just a mass of undifferentiated atoms in the void, and that it’s left to us to  carve it up in our minds to our own contingent ends. Surely there are ways of carving up the world that are and are not useful to us because of something about the world quite independent of us. Is the nominalist seriously suggesting that prior to the emergence of the first cognising organism, there were neither suns nor planets nor moons?!

Obviously not. Rather what the nominalist must concede is that there are an infinite number of ways the world can be usefully carved up, but of that infinite number of ways we select the ones that are useful to us. So, for example, there is a distinction, whether natural or otherwise, between Hutu and Tutsi, just as there’s a distinction between these rocks and those, but whereas you and I don’t find that distinction useful, the Hutu and Tutsi apparently do.

Where am I going with all of this? Or more accurately, where does all of this allow the class to go? It allows us to say that whether there are or are not a people called the Palestinians, which Zionists deny, or the Ukrainians, which Vladimir Putin denies, or trans women, which Ben Shapiro denies, has nothing to do with whether Palestinians or Ukrainians or trans women respectively do or do not satisfy some set of properties in virtue of which they are or are not a people, but rather whether Zionists or Putin or Shapiro wants Israel or Russia or America respectively to assign Palestinians or Ukrainians or trans women respectively any of the rights we assign to members of a people. So the debate is about the just distribution of the dividends of our civil societies, masquerading as a debate about the metaphysical status of potential recipients of those dividends.

Understanding this doesn’t settle any of these distributive issues. But it does help us to focus on what’s really at stake. And that ain’t nothin’!    

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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