Know What’s Right and Be True

Bryan Wandel

Many debates come down to hard questions. We can shed some light on these presuppositions by understanding that we aren’t all even coming down to the same hard questions. The world is a big place, and perhaps it is big enough for a word like “epistemology” as well as a word like “ontology.” Perhaps.

Several months ago, a debate opened up at the Public Discourse about, ostensibly, how to argue for pro-life policy or other moral issues. The debate was interesting because, from the opening shot, fundamental questions were raised about how you can know what is good. On the one side was rationalism and its deductive methods, driving home points from first principles. On the other side was empiricism, inductively pulling together experiences and a loose collection of “happy lives.” With similar goals (making the case for the protection of life) each author employed opposing means and pointed out the shortcoming of his conversant.

I relish these debates, which tend to recur because they are at the core of so many questions. Nevertheless, I am glad that they happen infrequently. The merit of this series of posts lay primarily in the depth of the authors – Hadley Arkes and Matthew O’Brien’s spirited conversation was rich in its precision and satisfying in its comprehension. I must admit that my own personal conversations of this sort fall into bland generalities and end up light as meringue.

But at the risk of further culinary allegory, I would like present another fundamental debate: which takes precedence, epistemology or ontology? When it really comes down to the hard questions, should I ask “What kind of a being is a human?” or “What are your grounds for making such a claim?” This debate is related to the Arkes/O’Brien combat above, but let us examine the epistemology/ontology difference first.

On a question like, say, sexual ethics, some people will conclude that the only way to approach an answer will be to ask questions like, “On what basis can you say that monogamy is ideal?” What are the preconditions for such an ethic, and how do we know if they jibe with things we can know for sure? Otherwise, we would be floating our lives on a fiction, with no solid ground.

Others might decide to ask what kind of people we humans really are, and ask what kind of sexual ethic would be consistent with that. If we are primarily relational, a stable relationship form is demanded. Or if, in the main, we are free self-choosers, an open marketplace must have the day. In these questions asked by the ontologist, there is an implicit critique of the epistemologist: yes we are knowing beings, but we are also loving beings, and free beings. None of these attributes can trump the others, and we can only investigate them by partaking in them. This is not necessarily a relativism of whether truth “works” – but it is a mistrust that abstractions can be a guide in themselves.

Within Christianity, epistemological priority has been held more closely by the Reformed camp. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have followed on the heels of such Calvinist stars as Cornelius Van Til. They have essentially used a negative epistemology: any knowledge without God is baseless and random.

On the other side, ontological priority has often been taken by Roman Catholics. The Thomist version of Aristotelian philosophy has rested on definitions of the human person as a “rational being;” others have set up hierarchies of being. These ontologies have tended to take the assertion of “what kind of people we are” as the center and basis for further rational extrapolation.

So where, you ask, does such an obscure debate show up? Who actually makes the arguments between these two alternatives? Well, Martin Heidegger mounted a modern revival of ontology in the 1920s. He claimed that all the questions about how things are known ultimately rest on what kind of being we exist within. That is, a scientific materialism only supplies acceptable answers insofar as it accords with some aspect of the way we exist in the world. We “project” a mathematical structure onto the world – which can only be legitimate in any way if it has to do with the kind of existence we actually have, and can describe. We should also admit the legitimacy of ethics that are based in our identity as speaking beings, or beings needing authenticity. Thus was born continental philosophy.

In a more recent piece, James K.A. Smith criticized the conversion to Catholicism of Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Rather than the finding the gem of pristine, objective truth, says Smith, such decisions should be made on the basis of the kind of person assumed and created by Catholicism. Smith is not opposed so much to Beckwith’s position as his primary method (epistemology).

According to the ontologists, epistemology has failed. It has failed, though, not simply because it has been unable to establish unassailable foundations, but because it asks the wrong questions and, ultimately, posits the wrong kind of people. As Smith put it: “Beckwith returns to an intellectualized Rome, fixated on truth … Instead, I find myself tempted by Rome’s fictions.”


  • May 3, 2011

    Karen Rupprecht

    What an excellent piece. This issue – the priority of ontology or epistemology – is the unarticulated core of so many debates that unnecessarily end in aporia, or, say, frustrated foot-stomping and huffing/puffing. Thank you for addressing it so clearly.
    It seems to me that, of course, epistemological and ontological questions are to some extent inseparable, at least in questions of practical reasoning (such as those examples you’ve called to our attention). It is the sole agent who both is and knows, and I hope I am understanding you correctly to be in agreement on this. (Right?)
    Nevertheless, I’ve never been able to fully grasp how epistemology can indeed be prior, since one can be without knowing but cannot know without (also and first) being. To ask “on what basis do you make that claim” will eventually rest on some conception, articulated or not, of the human person, will it not?
    Of course, it is also the case that by most definitions, the human person is some sort of agent who deals in rationality, and again, these are to a great deal inseparable elements. But he IS an agent which is qualified, characterized by rationality; i.e., his existence is prior to his knowing.
    I realize in posing the issue in this way I am to some extent begging the question – how do we go about inquiry, epistemologically or ontologically? Well, we have to begin with ontology, because human beings are x or y.
    Nevertheless, I’m hoping you can perhaps elucidate the epistemologist’s position, because every time I try to figure it out I end up at ontology. Even if one accepts that “any knowledge without God is baseless and random,” he actually presupposes a certain ontology, thereby making in prior in the inquiry.
    Or am I missing something?
    Thank you!

  • May 3, 2011

    Bryan Wandel


    I think there are two ways to criticize the reductionism of the epistemologist. One way is to keep on reducing further and further; epistemology has somewhat broken apart because it’s unclear, since Wittgenstein, how you can actually connect two things logically. Insisting on purer and purer logical rigor, without presuppositions, becomes a disintegration. In this way, you might reluctantly accept non-reductive concepts because there is no other alternative.

    On the other side, you could proceed phenomenologically, like Heidegger. That is, you say that we do not actually perceive all the separate wooden parts of a chair, and then assemble them in our head to arrive at “chair.” We see a chair, because we use it as a chair. This is not to arrive at Platonic Idealism. Rather, it is to say that we are forced to work with non-reductive concepts (a chair, a marriage, a city) because that is how we “always already” approach them.

    I think the first critique of epistemology is still basically epistemological, because it is basically a negative epistemology. You boil down to the need for a something, then throw in an unprovable “core” and the logic takes off from there.

    The second critique is ontology. Modern, Heideggerian ontology, anyway. It does not arrive at hard principles, but sort of “tries things on for size.”

    This does not answer your question. However, I don’t know that it’s possible for these two positions to be in direct conversation with each other. If they could, they would be opposites. But they are not. At best, they are 2 different ways of describing the world. At their most antagonistic, each side assumes it envelops the other. The epistemologist wants knowledge – he may have presuppositions, but these are basically presuppositions of knowledge. The ontologist not only points out ontological foundations of knowledge, but also shifts the debate to things like “understanding” and is possibly more directly concerned with ethics and aesthetics, especially from the perspective of the kind of world we find ourselves in.

    I am still unclear on this in many ways – sorry for the confusion.