Metaphysical Objects and Events

Can either or both be fundamental ontological categories?

In my previous post, Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes, I mentioned the possibility of a metaphysical history, which is an idea I have hinted at several times, and which admits of many approaches. I happened to be reading in Strawson’s Individuals while I was writing that post, and there I found the suggestion of an approach to metaphysical history by way a metaphysics of events, and this is something that I had not previously thought about.

The first paragraph of Strawson’s Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, is as follows:

“We think of the world as containing particular things some of which are independent of ourselves; we think of the world’s history as made up of particular episodes in which we may or may not have a part; and we think of these particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talk to each other. These are remarks about the way we think of the world, about our conceptual scheme. A more recognizably philosophical, though no clearer, way of expressing them would be to say that our ontology comprises objective particulars. It may comprise much else besides.”

In the first sentence of this classic of analytical metaphysics Strawson drops some clear hints about a metaphysical treatment of history fundamentally different from the tradition of philosophical reflection on history that we know as the philosophy of history. The two approaches — which we might call metaphysics of history and philosophy of history, or the metaphysical approach and the philosophical approach — probably are not disjoint, and overlap each other to a significant degree, but

We find in this passage from Strawson (despite Strawson’s debt to Kant) the kind of naturalism and realism that I have been discussing in my recent posts on naturalism (Naturalism Purged of Metaphysical Fallacies, Addendum on Naturalism Purged of Metaphysical Fallacies, and Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes), which has come to constitute the background of assumptions about how contemporary philosophy is done.

That some objects and events are independent of us, i.e., implying that they are independent of any thinking subject, is a postulate of scientific realism, and, I think, central to naturalism as it plays out in contemporary science. The alternative is a kind of idealism that insists upon a doctrine of internal relations in which everything is related to everything else. (To formulate the latter sentence rigorously would involve a lot of exposition, namely, differentiating the doctrine of internal relations from the reticulate nature of causality that does connect all things in a naturalistic account of the world; on this cf. The Unity of the World According to Science (and a Scientific Ontology).)

Although Strawson’s “individuals” could refer to either individual objects or individual events, the emphasis, as in most analytical metaphysics, falls upon individual objects. However, many of Strawson’s formulations made in terms of objects are equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to events. Donald Davidson said identified Strawson’s “grander thesis” as being that: .

“…events are conceptually dependent on objects. According to Strawson we could not have the idea of a birth or a death or a blow without the idea of an animal that is born or dies, or of an agent who strikes the blow. I do not doubt that Strawson is right in this: most events are understood as changes in a more or less permanent object or substance.” (“The Individuation of Events” in Essays on Actions and Events)

This may be the intuition that underlies the ontologizing character of much Anglo-American analytical philosophy, but we could just as well turn this around and assert that objects are conceptually dependent upon events because an object cannot exist without the process of coming-to-be, and more-or-less permanent objects can be understood as manifestations of underlying changes. In a common sense ontology, we would understand objects and events to be complementary formulations of one and the same world, sort of like the wave/particle duality.

In the same essay as that quoted above, Davidson goes on to make the argument for:

“…an indirect defence of events as constituting a fundamental ontological category. A defence, because unless we can make sense of assertions and denials of identity we cannot claim to have made sense of the idea that events are particulars. Indirect, because it might be possible to make such needed sense, and to provide clear criteria for identity, and yet to have made no case at all for the need to posit events as an independent category.”

Whether one prefers a formulation of the world in terms of events exclusively, or merely to recognize events as a fundamental ontological category, in either case a metaphysical history would be constituted by events, which would make such a metaphysical history either the primary account of the world (under the first interpretation) or an account of the world in terms of a fundamental ontological category (in the second interpretation).

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