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Reflections on ontic and noetic presences

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In this blog post, I wish to examine the metaphysics of objects of sense and thought. My view is that abstractions do not have an ontic presence commensurate with that of objects of sense. They do, however, “exist” in the realm of the thinkable and are graspable by the faculty of the intellect. Theirs is a noetic presence. To start from small beginnings, consider these two propositions, p1 and p2 respectively:

  1. Morgan behaves friendly.
  2. This society acts responsibly.

Assume both as truthful, their description indeed corresponding to a state of affairs. We thus draw knowledge about the following:

  1. It is true that Morgan is an agent whose behaviour manifests the quality of friendliness.
  2. It is true that this society is an agent whose action is characterised by the quality of responsibility.

It can be held that, contextually-understood, p1 names a specific Morgan who actually manifests friendliness in their behaviour. Such would be an instantiated truth, not a universal one. It would not represent a definitive claim on the necessity of all that can ever be Morgan to always manifest behaviour partaking of friendliness. Similarly, the use of “this” in p2 denotes exclusivity. It directs us to a certain fact in a particular case. In so doing, it names an agent — society — that exhibits responsibility in their action.

Given that at a surface level, Morgan and society are both presented as agents, we need first explore the validity of this tacit claim on the equivalence of their ontological status. Is the agency of one tantamount to the other?

For the sake of reducing a longer syllogism to a shorter one, we stipulate that the label “Morgan” is primarily attached to a human being (though that is not generally true). In so doing, we are provided with an impetus to infer that Morgan is a person, a single human being. In being a person it is an agent with behavioural capacity, the patterns of which have certain discernible features such as that of friendliness.

If Morgan is an agent and if both p1 and p2 are truthful in their tacit claim about the metaphysical equivalence of their agents, does it follow that the agent of p2 is a person?

If the agent of p2 were to be such, it would have to share in the qualities constitutive of person. One of them could be that of being mortal, which would mean that where mortal is not true, person is not true. A related property to mortal would be tangible, for something would live and die in space-time. A person has a physical presence, graspable through the faculties of sense — it is the idea of [a/the] person that exists beyond the realm of what is sensible.

Is society exhibiting the qualities of person?

Unless p2 utilises the term “society” in a metaphorical capacity, we can suggest that a society is, in plain terms, a collective of persons who coexist in sharing certain rules and institutions that provide an underlying order and overarching system to the various facets of their living. It might be held that society has a finite lifespan, at least in such cases where the number of it members remains constant, so that eventually they all pass away, sending it to oblivion with them.

An alternative view could suggest that, while a possible scenario, it would not be the exclusive form of a society’s constitution. Society, it could be argued, can and does transcend the lifespan of the persons forming it in present time. Society qua society persists through the presence of those present persons’ posterity and the posterity of theirs and so on. Hence the perception of its historical-cultural evolution/change. Society may not be mortal in the same sense a person is, even if, under the scope of eternity, it can have a finite presence.

These contrasting views both depict states of affairs that do not justify the identification of the mortal property of the object person with the characteristic of the limited temporal occurrence of society. It is not pertinent to explore the subtleties of society’s lifespan (or “lifespan”). What matters to the present argument is to trace and to identify an element of differentiation in the comparison between the properties of two objects that were posited as metaphysically alike. Under the assumption that the criterion for revealing said differentiation was valid and appropriate, we deduct that the property of mortal would be insufficient in substantiating an affirmative stance towards the ontological claim under examination.

How about the physicality of its presence? Would society as such be tangible?

If it were analogous to arrangements of matter, like atoms and molecules eventually forming up more complex material constitutions, say, a tree, then it would have an ontic presence that would emerge from the totality of its parts in their given [inter-]operations. If, however, it were not analogous to that, and if tangibility of society in itself were not achievable, it would have to be suggested that “society” is an abstraction that names the common in the multitude among the plurality of persons that partake of all the properties and intersubjectively recognisable tokens and norms that qualify them as members of such predefined group.

In reflecting an abstract pattern or set thereof, it is susceptible to evolution/change insofar as the underlying factors interoperate to produce that intelligibly graspable result. “Evolution” or “change” being the differentiating elements that are rendered meaningful against the backdrop of a broader continuum of comparable representations.

An abstraction does not have an ontic or sensible presence, but a noetic or intelligible one. That decisively prevents society qua agent of p2 from being a person, provided the condition for physical presence of the latter is held to be true. Would it, nevertheless, qualify as an agent as per the original [tacit] claim? In terms of what can be experienced, it would not, for action/behaviour also occurs in space-time. If, however, we were to adopt a broader view on the notion of “agent” we could suggest that society’s “action” is conceptually taken as encompassing all those instances of individualised activity jointly exemplifying commonalities with discernible qualities, such as that of responsibility.

Perhaps then, the linguistic appearance of p1 and p2 can, without the application of the metaphysical bifurcation into the ontic and the noetic, produce a certain conflation between the categories of such objects. While adjusting linguistic instruments to better convey meanings may be an end worth pursuing, clarity of concept is contingent on the analytical framework in use. Language will fail to communicate that which has not been conceived beyond the words themselves. Put differently, it would be preferable to use distinct terms to demarcate the ontic from the noetic, so that the same “agent” would not apply to both propositions (similar for “behaviour”/”action” etc.); all while noting that the metaphysical distinction would not be accurately grasped solely by means of recognising manifestable linguistic variance. The specialised terms would become meaningful within the analytical framework.

It then becomes a matter of developing the skills necessary for anticipating such subtleties, as a reliable way of preventing misunderstandings that can have far-reaching ramifications. Treating the dissimilar as similar or the similar as dissimilar, is not only fallacious, but potentially detrimental to the progress of research. For instance, a field were this is immediately felt is in the study of law, were it is accepted that, in basic terms, “discrimination”/”injustice” (or “double-standards”) is not only the unequal treatment of equals, but also the equal treatment of unequals (treating like as unlike and unlike as like). For a theory of Justice to be comprehensive, it would also have to factor in such a scenario. And, more generally, this principle can be applicable in all sorts of research programmes engaged in the discernment and classification of objects and their properties.

Admittedly, all of the above are but a caricature of over-encompassing and profound themes. If, however, there is any value to this text, it is that it sheds some faint light on abstract aspects of our reality that, while so common, often pass without notice, representing a missed opportunity on leveraging the enhancements in comprehension yielded thereof. The appreciation of the different categories of metaphysical objects reinforces the dialectical approach to inquiry. Instead of p2 being dismissed as outright erroneous, it is treated with attentiveness by being placed in its proper context, enabling it to possibly engender a greater awareness of the issue at hand. With the scope of understanding in a state of expansion, the case-specific [im-]possibilities become more fully revealed, providing a clearer direction and allowing for a more precise focus in tracing, discerning, and making an orderly structure out of totality.