Ontology

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

It looks like February 2014 was ontology month. That’s “on” as when Sylvia Tyson sings ‘When I woke up this morning, you were on my mind.’ It’s ‘tol’ as when Little Richard sings ‘Long Tall Sally she’s built for speed.’ It’s ‘o’ as when he sings “Oh, my soul” and gee as when Cliff Richard sings ‘Gee whiz it’s you.’ On-tall-oh-gee. Contrary to the Feb. 2 blog only four (count ‘em, 4) syllables. Of course from there you go to “ontological” which does truly have five syllables. A massive ideogram suited for the most erudite of bibliophiles indeed. As I ‘splained back then, it refers to “being”. Whenever you get yourself into a snit with someone over whether something is real or not, you are embroiled in an ontological dispute.

Not all definitional disagreements are ontological in nature, but when you resort to the official USDA definition for a farm in order to clarify whether or your bud who’s growing a little weed in the back of his closet is a real farmer, that’s ontology. It’s also ontology when you are sweating out the details of whether or not one person is or is not food insecure. If all you’re worried about is how to use a word, it may not be ontology, but when you are worried about what is one thing or another, and similarly, what ain’t, well, then you are sailing to the ontological ocean. And then there was last week, when we were worried about whether resilience is an alternative to sustainability, or whether it is implied and encompassed by sustainability. I take that to be an ontological question, too. And as the Venetians used to say, ‘The Ocean gets deeper the further you go into it.”

We (and by us I actually mean just about everyone) are much more sophisticated about ontology than even in comparatively recent times. I think we have J.K. Rowling to thank for that, (though possibly it was Keano Reeves and the Wachowski Brothers). For now I’m going with Rowling who gave us the immortal quotation, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” A very wise observation, and one that I bear in mind constantly when I stray into the contested areas of food ethics. I had a professor in college who promulgated a philosophical doctrine he called ‘ontological parity’. In brief, the idea was that reality does not come in degrees. Everything that is is real, and you are only going to waste your breath by trying to scale beings by degrees. Or, to put it more concretely, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

All the same it’s still meaningful to think of things prevailing in distinct orders. Some things happen in your head; others in the back yard. Food, I’ve found, is generally better when it comes from the back yard, or some other soil-containing yard-like locale. I know that they say “Hunger is the best sauce,”—a thought suggestive of the idea that it might all be in your mind. But I’m sticking with the yard or in a couple of months now, Appleschram Farm courtesy of Thornapple CSA. No seeds in the ground yet, but the order has been placed and I’m dreaming about even as I look ahead to another week of single digits here in mid-Michigan. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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