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The Ontology of Logical Atomism

May 21, 2019

Beginning with the work of Bertrand Russell, it’s origins being in Russell’s Critical Exposition of Leibniz, there emerges the first hints of this ontological approach of logical atomism. The basic requirement of it is that talk of substance in the traditional sense be removed. Where, to the minds of this movement, any talk of substance is a fallacious metaphysical move, either and both because it talks of necessity and of internal relations between certain things. Thus, it was to replaced by isolated things only connected contingently with external relations. The whole point of this view is to be consistent with the methodology of physics and natural science, which particularly in Russell’s era, the early 1900’s, was flourishing and achieving many theoretical and experimental successes and original ideas.

Key aspects of this approach are taken up and continued by many and varied thinkers within analytical philosophy. The details of which need to be gone over in relation to each of them, to determine the degrees and manner in which they go along with it. But to summarise for now, through all of them, from Quine to Wittgenstein to Nagel to Lewis to Dummett to Davidson and even including Kripke and Searle, who in some very specific ways are trying to break free of this model (more on this later), two core problems keep cropping up.

  1. Appeals to representations of things
  2. The primacy of externalised perspectives

It is a bit like Leibniz’ monads, where each isolated atom is turned inwards and can only mirror reality. The difference being that, unlike Leibniz, without appeal to substance or a preestablished harmony between mind and matter. Because there is no place for internal relations in the model. Hence the isolated atomic monad merely watches and supervenes on an external world that it has no influence over.

This is the impoverished view of self that people of the logical atomist persuasion are committed to due to those two key core premises mentioned above. They insist on salvaging them at the cost of everything else for they are seen as primitive concepts that describe the basic ontology that physical/natural science is committed to.

What is the motivating drive for this whole perspective? It is the desire to be as neutral and impartial in ones statements about reality and truth as possible. And why this desire? Because they already hypostatised a view of external reality as “given” in some way in line with their early scientific education and now they belatedly need to fit themselves back into this pre-given reality. But you cannot achieve it from this position. You can’t create a model of reality and then find a way to live in that model!

All these problems, I argue, come from those two core prepositions above, and they both come as the result of the rejection of a substance based ontology. What is gained in neutrality by rejecting substance, is lost in ones ability to embody and live the truths one utters. For it relies on a hypostatised external model which is set up specifically to leave no room for an embodied self to live, breathe and move.

How do we create an ontology of reality to replace this standard model that has dominated western analytical philosophy pretty much since its inauguration in Bertrand Russell? How do create an ontology of reality in which the self can breathe once again? This is the challenge facing the philosophy I want to understand and have been developing and is what I intend to work on and share my progress with in the coming months.


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