08 April 2019

Ontological and grammatical degeneration

Any self-respecting liberal humanist soundly rejects the objectification of people. Why? Because each of us is supposed to be a subject endowed with self-consciousness and a selfhood and personhood imbued with a dignity demanding respect from others.

The language of both the everyday and of science, however, tells a contradictorily opposed story. No one has any qualms about talking of the 'inner self' located somewhere 'deep' inside. For neuroscience it is axiomatic (but nevertheless empirically non-verifiable) that the mind is located individually in each individual head, specifically, in a physical organ, the brain. (How we could ever 'be of one mind' thereby becomes a total mystery.) Neuroscientists, among other scientists, are awarded Nobel Prizes for their research into the cognitive capacities of the brain. That quintessential dimension of time, namely, memory, is supposed to be located like a storage bin in the limbic lobe of the brain, and this is supposed to have been scientifically verified and proven. The crude ontological presupposition in this is that time itself can somehow be spatialized into a where. But what is time itself? Who possesses the temerity to put (putatively) empirically-based, scientific truth into question? Anyone doing so is exposed to ridicule and is ignored as some kind of perverse 'philosophical speculator'.

Nonetheless, philosophically it is entirely visible for those willing to interrogate obviousness that, ontologically speaking, the slide from endowing human being with a whoness demanding respect to a whatness open to objective scientific investigation has long since been consummated. No ethics is capable of cleaning up this ontological mess, simply because ethics does not think ontologically; it is ontologically defenceless.

One inconspicuous symptom of ontological degeneration is the degeneration in grammar itself, which can be noticed everywhere, in particular, in the growing inability of native English speakers to distinguish grammatically between singular and plural. Another symptom is the widespread, today almost ubiquitous, use of 'that' as the personal relative pronoun of choice. Its advantage is manifest since, by replacing that fussy personal relative pronoun, 'who', it obviates having to distinguish between 'who' (nominative) and 'whom' (accusative), which English speakers have been confused about for centuries. With the all-purpose relative pronoun 'that' for both whats and whos, the tiresome cognitive effort of distinguishing between 'who' and 'whom' is eluded once and for all, and the human being itself becomes finally — and apparently irrevocably — a 'that', i.e. a 'what', subject to scientific investigation, statistical registration, state subjugation, media manipulation, advertisement targeting, and so on.

Who notices this in our consummately thoughtless times?

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness.


  1. I wonder about how to imagine the difference between 'mind' and' intelligence', or 'what' and 'who'. Perhaps that mind is still present when doing nothing, whereas intelligence only exists when in use. Mind is synchronic, intelligence sequential. Intelligence thinks, mind entertains a thought. Michael, how do you recognise the difference? How would you illustrate them?

  2. A succinct and clear reminder how Cartesian dualism has become so pervasive that it limits possibilities of language. Heidegger’s critical discussion of Descartes comes to mind. Thank you Michael. What do we see in its place? Certainly not an objectified identity? Man’s ultimate hybris to fashion itself (sic!) according to its own design? Hm, maybe a return to a unified notion of Geist? Or a sense for- and of Dasein? Or the sense of a Nietzschean free- spirit whose life and thought transcends past and future? Complex challenge ...thank you for making us think.