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Negation, Ontology and Epistemology

Domenico Pacitti (1991)

In The Nature of the Negative [see philosophical readings] I argue that insofar as ontology may be held separate from epistemology the nature of the negative is epistemological while the nature of the affirmative is ontological. If nothing can be truly or falsely predicated of what is not in the strictly ontological sense, that is because in the strictly ontological sense there is nothing to which such predication could ever be attached. When seen in this light negative/affirmative asymmetries are more readily explained. 

This epistemological nature of the negative accounts for the judgemental properties which reveal themselves at the highest levels in the metaphysical, the sublime and the contemplation of the self in its finite state, where the staticity of a fixed object is contrasted with the dynamicity of the mind in its mounting effort to reach a definitive judgement.

Our world would be infinitely less rich if admissible descriptions precluded any use of the word ‘not’.

But if what there is is a question of ontology, our individuation of what there is will already impose an interpretation: for our individuation of what there is will be in terms of our human faculties – the only thing they can be in terms of. Thus the interdependence between ontology and epistemology begins with human perception.

One form of expression of such perception is human speech, and insofar as saying is itself an act it will be subject to criteria of moral rightness. It is this moral rightness which is the measure of truth. For the correspondence of truth does not lie in a correspondence between words and reality but rather between the speaker, or human agent, and reality. But to the extent that the human agent is part of that reality rather than separate from it the notion of correspondence will be inappropriate and that of rightness will prevail instead.

Tensions arise naturally through our awareness of the opposite pulling forces of these two conceptions.

Post-Cartesian dualism – and consequently the whole of modern science – depends on a clear distinction between the ontological and the epistemological. In the present study I have, experimentally and for purely methodological purposes, assumed and tried to maintain such a distinction as far as possible. Thus objective sense is taken to be the first and most fundamental building block within a theory of meaning. Such ‘sense’ is understood as something like the inherent objective structure of reality. But sense turns out on reflection to be ultimately woven into the fabric of the whole world, cutting across observer and observed alike.

Modern science, like modern philosophy – and much of modern aesthetics – has no place for morality: the dualistic conception divides man from the world artificially.

The limits of quantification as of precision warrant a flight from extension in the search for truth. The vagueness of the sorites paradox is indicative of the vagueness inherent in authentic judgement which resists quantification.

Negation is sometimes seen as part of a metalanguage; but this proves to be merely an illusion: for we cannot stand outside the world in order to judge it. The solution is not therefore to be sought in terms of a metalanguage but rather in terms of our essential humanity.

From a temporal perspective too, that nostalgia which sometimes wells up within a man’s heart may be less for times past and more for a nonexistent age yearned for from within the very depths of his soul: as a man looks back over history as over his life in search of better times, in search of an age which perhaps never was, when freedom and harmony prevailed over hypocrisy and prejudice, the search will be seen to be for that harmony which survives repression.

Our conception of the negative, it seems to me, will depend ultimately on the degree of legitimacy with which we can consider ourselves separate from the one world of which each of us forms a part.

What the mystery of negation comes down to in the end is the mystery of our own humanity.

Note: This text is an extract from Domenico Pacitti, The Nature of the Negative: Towards an Understanding of Negation and Negativity. Giardini, Pisa, 1991 (pp.77-78).

In the same series of philosophical readings from the published work of Domenico Pacitti