Centre for Historical OntologyZentrum für historische Ontologie – Centre d’ontologie historique

Heidelberg – Helsinki – Leuven

Some General Remarks on the Research Profile


The Centre supports research in historical ontology. Exchange in research (and teaching) between the directly involved and other countries will be stressed. The Centre explicitly defends several scientific languages and English, German and French are thus the languages of publications and events. The international structure of the Centre has several advantages and is apt to create intensified collaboration between the institutions involved. It will add to the cultural exchange in research and deepen similar orientations in the European context. The initial phase of the activity (during the first research period) has its focus on 1) Fundamentals of Historical Ontology and 2) research concerning nature as historical experience.

The first main event besides research and smaller conferences is a larger international congress series in 2016. This congress will also be a sort of presentation of the Centre and contribute to its future profile and networks. The initial event will stress Aristotelian tradition and its continuous actuality (Aristotle Today – 2400 yeras Aristotle).

One major event besides research and smaller conferences is a larger “multiple” congress in 2016-17, which stresses the Aristotelian tradition and its continuous relevance (Aristotle Today   Aristoteles heute   Aristote aujourd’hui – 2400 years anniversary).


General Description of Research Orientation

There is today a tendency to accord something like a metaphysical status to cosmological theories with mostly physicalist presuppositions. Historical phenomena thus become secondary. From an ontological point of view this is not evident, as there would be no scientific areas to discover without the history that has rendered science itself possible. Some of the connected problems have been treated in different disciplines, in the theory and history of science (Koyré, Canguilhem, Kuhn, Toulmin, Hübner…), in the sociology and archaeology of knowledge (Mannheim, Scheler, Foucault and in a certain sense Hacking who, like Foucault, is also using the concept of historical ontology) and in philosophical hermeneutics and the so called new phenomenology (Gadamer, Ricoeur, Schmitz…). The concept of effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte, histoire efficiente) is without doubt crucial when it comes to the fundamental questions of historical ontology and contributes to the understanding of determining influence in thought, language, knowledge and in cultural activities in general. There is of course also a general background in the awakening of historical consciousness in the 19th century, but historical ontology is not bound to the idealistic presuppositions of this tradition. It rather aims to clarify the general “cultural” settings of different epistemic and other domains and to reflect on the philosophical sense of these presuppositions. The Centre takes all the above mentioned orientations into account, but with a continuous stress on the historical precomprehension, which lays the basis of every meaningful orientation in the world. The focus of historical ontology is thus not only on historical events, but rather on their correlation with the historical dimension of experience itself. In this sense historical ontology is always an issue about what collective and personal life means for those involved in events that matter.


Culture and Nature – a valid Distinction?

Since C. P. Snow it has been common to speak of “two cultures” in intellectual and academic research, the “humanistic” orientation dealing only with cultural phenomena whereas natural science has created a separate field of its own, the world of natural objects. Snow was not happy with this cultural dichotomy. Stressing the importance of bridges between the two domains does not, however, seem sufficient as answer to the increasing difficulties of communication between these scientific and cultural orientations. As the recent technical evolution of natural science shows, there are strong immanent tensions even in this specific scientific area, for example between modern genetics and ethology or even classical biology, between experimental science and field studies, between applied and theoretical science… On the other hand some methods of natural science have been introduced in the human and social sciences. It is further evident that culture is to a high degree dependent on natural conditions and this both on the long scale evolutionary level and in the case of personal lived experience. One can thus pose the question if we have new dividing lines going inside the different domains and which make it urgent to rethink both the thesis of Snow and the general distinction between explanation and understanding, but without reanimating the fruitless idea of the unity of science.

A crucial question concerns the historicity of experience and the kind of self-reflection it demands. In instrumental science this dimension can rarely be included, even if natural science evidently springs forth in a historical process. History of science has more to offer, but with a special focus that does not necessarily stress how the scientific evolution is embedded in a larger historical setting. The sociology and archaeology of knowledge contributes with some of these themes, but is not particularly concerned with the related ontological issues. Collaboration with research institutions of these profiles would nevertheless be valuable and welcome.

A contribution which is mainly rooted in the classical conception of the human sciences with its stress on understanding (Verstehen, a concept that allows several declinations going from Schleiermacher over Neokantianism and Dilthey to Gadamer and Ricoeur) still seems fruitful in this context, but should be articulated, not as something corresponding to a different ontological domain, but as a way of dwelling on implicit substructures of every form of experience and knowledge. The Centre has this general orientation, but with special focus on the ontological questions related to historical experience and thus covers an area, in which there seems to be an evident need for co-ordinated research. The ambition is to give the classical tradition of human sciences a multiple place in Europe to cultivate questions related to historical ontology.


History as Narrative and Event

History is partially a story which is told. These narrative aspects are not only subjective interpretations which are transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation, but also real functions that influence the course of history. The corresponding epistemological problem is to decide the ontological status of the influential function and its relationship to the reality of which the stories are told in the narrative tradition.

As the German word for history suggests, Geschichte is not only narrative, but also an event reaching beyond interpretations. What happens (geschieht) can be received and modified in various ways, but the reception itself is always a further event and if it possesses modifying capacities, they concern the future only. When something does not happen anymore, but has already happened, we can only interpret and understand, but not influence. This givenness, which implies more than only the impossibilty of retroactive causality, seems to be ontologically crucial and it appears important to understand how past unchangeable reality is related to other forms of the real. The question partly conducts to a research strategy with focus on those given aspects, which precede the distinction between the subjective and the objective.


Historical and Natural Conditions of Experience

Insofar as the bygone lives forth it can determine future. Narrative is only one example of this. Past events influence us on several different levels. Conditions of life can be radically changed in many ways, through losses, traumas, new surroundings, environmental catastrophes, evolving technical possibilities… It seems obvious that these conditions are partially of a kind that we would call natural. This does not mean that they coincide with the objective realm of natural science. Even our own organism is constituted in a way that determines our behaviour, experience and capacities, but in a sense, which as meaningful embodiment transcends those aspects, which are today studied in for exemple the neurosciences. Nature is in this respect the source of personally significant incarnation and not the presumably neutral object of intersubjective knowledge. The psychosomatic correlations are continually experienced by sensitive and active living beings. There are aspects of experience to which our only access is mediated by meaningful relationships. The corresponding question concerns the relevance of a hermeneutic perspective inside psychology and philosophy of nature.


The Instrumentality of Natural Science

One aspect of modern science is closely connected to the role of experiment. This orientation has several presuppositions: possibility of formalisation and intersubjective confirmation, creation of experimental situations corresponding to relevant questions, a meaningful theoretical network, practical research skills, importance of correct predictions, possibility of detecting lawful relationships… This framework has its meaning inside a methodological orientation that itself cannot be questioned without impeding the research itself (cf. Polanyi). The objectivity of the results owes its validity to certain research interests, in the case of experimental science, mainly instrumental ones. Instrumental and technical relevance is possible because of the open future that still can be influenced. The ontology of historical givenness must in this context remain bracketed in order to enable the functionalist orientation towards the future.


Cartesian Tradition and the Revival of Aristotelianism

The distinction between culture and nature seems to presuppose the difference between the psychical and the physical. The main tenor of many books on the question mind – body in the last decades (from Ryle to Rorty and Dennett and so many others) is directed against something called “Cartesian dualism”. It seems after the discoveries in the sciences of life of the last 200 years quite obvious that the thinking subject (the cogito) has to be regarded as a natural being, marked by its biological evolution. Another reaction against the primacy of consciousness came from the rediscovery of the unconscious. The unconscious was intended to differentiate between the conscious apperception and other aspects of the psychological. The notion of the unconscious, present already in the writings of Schelling, Carus and E. von Hartmann and widespread mainly through psychoanalysis, is however no discovery of the 19th century, but deeply rooted in Aristotelian psychology and philosophy of nature where psyché means something like vital organization.

However, the traditional alternative to a Cartesian philosophy of consciousness, i.e. the idea of an animated body which possesses its life through the soul, still appears dubious to many scientists as it is embedded in the premodern Aristotelian tradition. The parallel refutation of both Cartesianism and Aristotelianism entails a problem that is closely connected with the question of teleology. The concept of end (telos) remains unattractive in modern science of nature and the scientific world view has during centuries articulated itself as a critique of teleology. In this respect modern science remains tributary to Cartesian epistemology which precisely strived to regard nature without teleological commitments. Thus an anti-Aristotelian tendency was for decades extremely strong in the sciences of life, but frequently without any sympathy for the Cartesian separation of mind from body. On the contrary, the emphasis was on the natural and physiological conditions of the psychological dimension. However, if the existence of ends is a psychological fact and the living being with its psyché is part of nature, it seems to follow, that there are ends in nature. Not astonishing is therefore that many biologists and theorists of science today incline to a reintroduction of the concept of end in biology – either using the traditional word teleology (Ayala) or a slightly modified version called teleonomy (Pittendrigh, Mayr).

In order to understand this teleological renaissance in the sciences of life, it is necessary to avoid some misunderstandings that were frequent in the older critique of teleology. Widespread was the presupposition that ends would imply an intelligent planning instance. This conception found among some theologians is not that obvious in Aristotle’s writings, where an end is primarily linked to desire or striving (orexis) and the end itself is something like the desirable.


Medieval Conceptions of History

In this context the medieval tradition has to be re-examined as it comports several quite different strains, which are often neglected in general descriptions of more well-known philosophical positions. One immanent tension, which remains present through the middle ages, is that between Augustinian and Aristotelian presuppositions. This is evident in theology, psychology and in the philosophy of nature, but also in other areas. The focus will be especially on conceptions of history, from Joachim of Fiore to later major figures, who establish a new way of conceiving the human condition.


Explanation and Understanding

If there is something like subjectivity, it can be conceived of as a specific way of inhering in an already organized but more or less changeable field. The individual does not connect or construct data but participates in processes that to a high degree transcend his individuality. Reality is given through existence and does not need to be constituted by a subject. It is there without appearing as an object and its determinative power by no means must be conscious. The organization of reality expresses itself in collective and personal life and these expressions are both historical and vital facts.

Every access to reality has its starting point in a belonging to this same reality. In some cases the meant, the intentional correlate, transcends all our hermeneutic possibilities and appears accordingly, i.e. as something that simply evolves in a certain way. For the chemist it is impossible to figure out how the involved substances in a chemical process experience their belonging to this same process. In biology the case is different, even if there are some scientists of life, who tend to prefer purely objectivating explanation to understanding. The debate on animal consciousness shows, however, that meaning is no human privilege.

In short, reality is more or less accessible to understanding. Where it is not understandable at all, it appears only as a more or less predictable process. This inaccessibility permits no ontological conclusions concerning the existence of meaning in the process. The only thing we can say is that some areas of reality are that distant from what we understand, that only the objectivating approach remains possible. This approach is in fact, as the history of science shows, extremely important, as it allows us to master what is not understandable. Through definite predictions the capacity to find one’s orientation in a transcending world is improved for a certain form of life like the human. Understanding has another purpose.

The concept of historical ontology stresses the importance of access and belonging to reality and does not only concern a limited sphere of cultural phenomena, but all aspects of reality that are possible to understand through their immanent meaning. This orientation aims at a deeper presence in what happens, not mainly in order to master phenomena, but with a systematic will to acquire perspectives and a deeper sense of the possibilities involved in historical existence.


Ontological Aspects

Neither knowledge nor understanding would be possible without implication in the historical process which evokes meaning, questions, problems… What happens is to a high degree indefinite and beyond sense, but we are able to reach out to this reality because of our particular behavioural tendencies and attitudes, our enabling historical finitude. Finitude in this sense is not a hindering limitation, but an enabling condition. Without a certain determinate way of being, our existence would be empty and senseless. Only through finitude do we have capacities, possibilities, interests, specific sensations, in short, a world that appears and matters.

Even if a perspective on the world from nowhere (species aeternitatis) would be possible, this in no way emancipates from influence, and where there is influence one should not speak of a disinterested view, allowing to see things as they are in themselves. (Cf. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere.) Influence there is and this is no spatial fact, not depending on which point in space you occupy or, if you are nowhere, you don’t occupy, but something completely different. Influence means being affected in one’s way of seeing things, quite independently of spatial situation. Even if you could be nowhere, it would be impossible to see anything at all without a mode of perception – and a mode or way of perceiving is always finite. In this context historical traditions are crucial ontological functions as they offer us exactly this, a finite mode of being.

Time is irreversible and the past conditions us mainly on a subconscious level that we do not even notice. Narration, the stories of history, is one way to cope with this dimension and it compensates for the impossibility to influence past events, it mimes the course of things, turns back to the beginning and slightly (or radically) shifts the accent, chooses one story, but suggest different ones. The fact that stories can also gain a reality as extremely influential cultural functions and affect the future course of things is an essential part of what we call history. Linear time is thus mnemically transformed into a circular movement back and forth.

Through narration and understanding man tries to cope with his destiny, attributes meaning to what happens and renders his sufferings endurable. He integrates events in cultural patterns in order to understand something of what he is doomed to fulfil. The temporal direction from past to future acquires accents, meaningful shape, affective importance of a particular mnemic kind that allows those who move forwards to turn backwards and thus creates the movement hence and forth in time that constitutes historical phenomena with their inherent cultural memory. These patterns also offer the meaningful background of experience and provide the general context for more specific questions about things, objects, facts, places, values and other constitutive aspects of human existence. The challenge for historical ontology is to understand the precise relationship between these meaningful patterns and the historical process as event.


Initial Research Areas

1) Fundamentals of Historical Ontology

 2) Nature as Historical Experience

2a: Nature from the Point of View of Historical Ontology

  • The Concept of Life in the Rise of Historical Consciousness in the 19th and early 20th Century
  • The Conceptual History of Matter
  • Philosophy of Nature and Philosophical Hermeneutics

2b: The Ontology of the Modern Concept of Nature

  • Theological Aspects of Early Modern Science
  • The Historical Context of Darwinism
  • Habit: Natural, Personal and Social Organisation

 2c: Philosophy of Nature and Historical Ontology in Contemporary Discussions

  • Meaningful History, Lived Embodiment and the Inherent Limits of Neurosciences in Philosophy of Mind
  • The Cultural Conditions of Experimental Science
  • Aristotelian Perspectives on Modern Problems


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Heidelberg – Helsinki – Leuven