Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Beyond Ousiodic Ontology: Reflections on John McCumber's on Philosophy: Notes from a Crisis

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Beyond Ousiodic Ontology: Reflections on John McCumber's on Philosophy: Notes from a Crisis

Article excerpt

At the historical moment when the fate of Western civilization is being decided in a way that seems unprecedented-when Hamlet's question resounds with a new force not only on theatrical stages, but also in the halls of academia-John McCumber's On Philosophy: Notes from a Crisis points us to a third, much less dramatic, but the only viable possibility: to be differently.

The extraordinary character of our historical moment is revealed also in the recent and ongoing events in Ukraine, the events that came to be known as Maidan: this country on the margins of Europe is proving to be more European than Europe, insofar as the people of Ukraine are willing to risk their lives in the search of who they are, of their dignity and freedom. Simultaneously the non- Europeanness of Europe becomes evident when we consider that in the recent elections for the European Parliament on May 25, 2014, Europeans either directly or through indifference upheld non-European values by voting for candidates with neo-Nazi agendas.

There are many other important indicators that the West is in the midst of a profound crisis, and that both of the roads contemplated by Hamlet-regardless of the unbreachable distance that seems to be separating them-lead to the same place. If Western civilization decides to be by clinging to its wealth, including the treacherous wealth of its philosophical tradition, by striving for ethnic or national purity, by reinforcing its borders, and by distinguishing itself from everything it is not-if the West chooses to be in this way, then it will not be. If Western philoso- phy chooses to be by separating itself from the vast realms of non-philosophy, by upholding professional standards and hierarchies that silence and marginalize the vast majority of voices, and restrict the range and the tonality of those that are allowed to resound within its lecture and conference halls, then it will not to be. It is no wonder that some Western intellectuals have chosen to preempt this seeming impasse by announcing the end-the end of metaphysics, of man, of art, of history, of narrative.

John McCumber is not one of these thinkers, yet he harbors no illusions as to the oppressive nature of Western philosophy and culture: while acknowledging the profundity of the current crisis, he also sees beyond the simple either/or. In particular, McCumber brings to our attention two points of inconsistency that can help us to disentangle ourselves from the deadly embrace of philosophy's history: the contradictory road of both/and, and the anomalous path of neither/ nor. McCumber urges us to begin articulating new ontologies, and for this alone his book deserves most careful consideration.

On Philosophy challenges the key dichotomy of Western philosophical tra- dition-the basic ontological distinction that appeared under different guises throughout the long and frequently unseemly history of Western thought, but that is perhaps best articulated as the distinction between form, or ο?σ??, and matter. Aristotle, McCumber argues, was the first to place this dichotomy at the center of metaphysics, and it dominated philosophical thought ever since. Most, if not all Western metaphysical theories have been constructed around this basic distinction-by either explicitly asserting, or implicitly relying on the supposed ontological difference between ο?σ?? and matter. Oppression, instituted by this ontological difference, became integral to Western philosophy, so that, for instance, Kant's racism and sexism "are not blemishes on his philosophy," but "specifications of some of its most basic and ancient views."1

Matter as mute, and devoid of logos, and reason as rigid and purged of any shade of ambiguity-this dichotomy was and is still used to justify oppression, and it grows directly out of Aristotle's notion of ο?σ??. McCumber identifies three traits that the beings with ousiodic structure exhibit: 1) continuous and clear borders2 that separate an entity from that which it is not, 2) a single unitary component of that entity that maintains order within those borders, and 3) the same unitary component that "governs all interaction with the world beyond" the entity's borders. …

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