ancient charles taylor

Whither the Ontic Logos?

6:00:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson

In Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, while attempting to get a hold of what has created our modern identity of the self, he starts to articulate what he thinks is the largest philosophical shift between the modern and the pre-modern world. For Taylor, this all comes down to the rejection in the early modern world of what he calls the “ontic logos.”

The modern way of understanding the world, following upon thinkers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Francis Bacon, envisioned the world as dead, mechanical matter acting in accordance with mathematical, physical laws. To understand the world is to make an internal model of it, a schematic of sorts that is meant to correspond with the actions of the world. The best philosophy is one that makes the best blueprint of this world. Isaac Newton’s achievement in the physical sciences was seen as sort of a paradigm of this.

This way of understanding does need seem very remarkable to us. The model of the detached observer, diagramming the world around him is something etched into our thought about what it means to seek knowledge about the world. But in inaugurating this new way of seeing the world, these thinkers were reacting against a much older model, one that seems much more alien to us.

This older model is what Taylor calls the “ontic logos.” Understanding the world is not a matter of creating a model in our own head. The world is not dead matter, but rather it is imminently intelligible. Our understanding is a result of re-orienting ourselves toward the order in the universe rather than a matter of us constructing something in our own heads. This order is what Heraclitus and other ancient thinkers called the “logos.”

The difference between these two ways of seeing the world is subtle, but the implications of this difference are profound. For later thinkers like Locke, attributes of things were either in the thing itself or in the mind apprehending them. For example, the “redness” of the apple is created by our act of seeing it, while the the apple itself has quantitative features such as extension.

Ancient thinkers did not have this dramatic separation between the observer and the observed. An example would be something like “honor” or “praiseworthiness.” “Where we think of an activity of subjects, exercised on or in relation to certain objects‒here an activity of valuation‒the tradition seems to put the valuation in the objects themselves. Or perhaps better, it is somehow both in the worthy objects and the activity of praising them.” (1)

In some ways, it’s hard to speak of the pre-modern way of viewing these things, we are tempted to constantly prod and press whether the the praiseworthiness is “really” in the object or in us praising it. The subjective is always separated from the objects in the world, and we are asked to place all features on one side or the other of this sharp divide.

This is not the only difference. “Order” in the universe is also implied by the idea of the ontic logos. The order of the ancient world is dynamically within it, directed by a sort of reason that we as rational beings can grasp and understand. The order of the modern world, on the other hand, “is not an order of expressed or embodied meanings.” (2)

For example, a modern thinker like Leibniz “combines something of Aristotelian teleology, in the notion that the nature of a thing provides for its unfolding in a certain fashion, with the modern idea that the nature of a thing is [radically] within it.” But unlike Aristotle’s universe, “the harmony of the world must be ‘pre-established’ by God.” (3) The order of the universe is set up in an intrinsically or extrinsically mechanical way.

There are some compelling reasons for this shift, but I don’t wish here to get into arguments for and against the ontic logos. I simply want to point out its existence and how it can be a key to understanding more ancient thinkers. I also want to point out how many “classic” problems of modern philosophy can be cast into a new light when this is considered, how things like the mind-body problem might be seen differently in such a light. And, most of all, I wish to point out assumptions, like that thinks must either be “in the world” or “in my mind,” that we’re often not even aware we are making.

  1. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 206.
  2. Taylor, p. 275.
  3. Taylor, p. 277.

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