DRAFT Paper. Prepared for submission to SAAP 2008 Program committee. Not to be quoted or circulated without the author’s permission.

© the Author



In this paper, the problem of relativism is posed by Abraham Edel’s claim that indeterminacy is at the heart of relativism and that one of the sources of indeterminacy is what Edel calls field instability and complexity. This paper picks up on the latter and explores the implications of ontological parity and ontological complexity, two principles affirmed by ordinal metaphysics (developed by Justus Buchler), for the issue of validation. The paper aims to show that validity and objectivity are not hopelessly undermined, but are, rather, coherently grounded by ordinal complexity. Ordinality allows for appropriate specification of the location of any complex and of the respects in which validity is claimed.

Title: ‘Subjectivity is objective’: Relativism & Validation

Type of Submission: Discussion Paper (text, w/o notes, bibliog. = 5385 words)


“’Subjectivity is objective’*: Relativism & Validation”

(*Woody Allen, Love and Death 1975)

Abraham Edel suggests that the essence of the relativist doctrine lies beyond the description of things as “subjective,” but rather in the assertion that things like “subjectivity” (as well as variety, uniqueness, conflict) are ultimate and irreducible, that, in short, indeterminacy (“the fact of no definite answers”) seems to be the heart of the relativist position in ethical theory.[1] Drawing on Dewey Edel suggests that there are 3 sources of indeterminacy, (1) field instability and complexity, (2) inadequacy of conceptual tools and knowledge gaps, and (3) variation in aims and purposes. Edel goes on to argue that science can help to diminish, even if it cannot entirely eliminate, indeterminacy. 

In Edel’s taxonomy , the latter two identify epistemological and human historical sources of (ethical) indeterminacy.  The first identifies what I take to be the underlying ontology of value, namely,  what I would call irreducible complexity. However, this is not just a feature of value, but of being in general. In this paper I will use the work of Justus Buchler to explore the ontology of complexity, and then return to the bearing of that on questions of value and validation. Validation, I will suggest, is always “relative,” but that just means that the respect and scope of any claim, value, or experience has to be specified, not that “anything goes.”


Ordinal Ontology:  Intersectional Locatedness

Ordinal ontology was formulated by Justus Buchler.[2]   Ordinality connotes locatedness, or "positionality"[3];  every being is and is what it is in virtue of its locations or orders.  A being is an (unique) intersection of its locations or orders, is (indefinitely) determinate and irreducibly complex.

Take a concrete, ordinary object, for example, a house: qua physical object it is of a particular size in space and time; in ordinal terms this is the house in a spatial-temporal order.  The same house qua  legal and social entity is owned, is of a particular assessed value, is of a particular market value, etc.; in ordinal terms this is the house  in a social and legal order (of zoning rules, ownership rules, etc.). The same house qua object in a visual field is a visual object; in ordinal terms, the house is smaller in the order of vision than it is in the spatio-temporal order.

Of the perceptual experience, we typically talk in representational terms and say that the house appears smaller, but is not really smaller.  Ordinal ontology, on the other hand, takes a relational rather than representational view of perception: a perceptual experience of the house is a relational complex, e.g., house-in-perceptual-relation-to-observer or conversely, observer-in-perceptual-relation-to-house. As Campbell puts it, the object is a constituent of the perceptual experience.[4] 

Ordinal ontology would not deny the obvious, for instance, that in human vision a retinal image is produced. The retinal image is a constituent of this overall relational complex, the perceptual experience, not a “merely” subjective representation that stands between the perceiver and the object perceived.[5] In a visual order the house has some traits that it may not have in a strictly spatio-temporal order; and it also has traits in a legal order that it may have in neither a spatio-temporal nor a visual order.  Each of these locations (orders) is a constituent of (constitutes real traits of) the house.

The orders that are featured in conventional philosophical discussions are typically the physical or spatio-temporal and the perceptual, with the reality nod going to the former, even though both can be explained by systems of physical, optical and neurophysiological laws and principles. The house, by these laws, is of a particular size (spatio-temporally), but by these same laws appears to be of another size (visually). The seeing or “appearance” of the house is one way the house is, i.e., the house in a perceptual location.  On an ordinal interpretation, the house is one size in one respect (spatio-temporal), is another size in another respect (perceptual) and is the property of its owner in another respect (legal). There are different constituting and explanatory conditions for each, but all are equally real traits or constituents of the complex  that is the house. [6] 

That the visual and legal traits of the house are no less really about or of the house than its spatio-temporal physical traits is not to say that there are no differences between how traits constitute complexes nor is it to say that all traits are relevant to a complex in the same way.  Ordinal ontology categorizes the difference in terms of strong and weak relevance.[7]  The difference between strongly and weakly relevant is a matter of kind, rather than degree; weakly relevant traits are not a matter of less relatedness, but of a different kind of relatedness.

Thus, suppose I am a resident of London.  I am not relevant to understanding the cultural and social significance of London; that is, my relation to London does not evidentially support or improve a particular interpretation about (an aspect of) London.[8]  But, still I am a resident of the city and no less related to it (and it to me) than Big Ben is related to London. In ordinal ontology, I am part of the scope of London, a weakly relevant trait of London, that by itself may not enable identification of the complex.  Suppose the only information that one had about London was that I was a resident of it.  By itself, while that trait is still really a trait of London, as weakly relevant it would probably not connect with other strongly relevant traits of the city in a such way that the complex, London, could be accurately described and identified.

 To return to our house example, let us suppose a passerby is fleetingly perceptually related to the house and her perception of the house does not bear on its legal status.  That the house is so perceived is a weakly relevant trait of the house.[9] What ordinal ontology affirms, however, is that the house is a complex of all its traits, even weakly relevant ones. The house-in-relation-to-human-beings-with-binocular-and-color-sensitive-vision is the house in so far as it is an object of human perception.  The house qua  physical, spatio-temporal object is "square-structure-located-at-a-particular-street-corner-built-of-brick-in-some-year-still-standing-in-current-year". Continuing with the admittedly awkward hyphenated linguistic construction in order to capture the ontological point:  the relational complex, "square structure," could be characterized as "wood-beams-in-perpendicular-and-parallel-relations-to-one-another-some-horizontal-in-relation-to-ground-some-in-vertical-relation-to-ground-and-said-beams-covered-with-sheet-rock-insulating-material-and-exterior-siding".  This is of course a simplification, but the point is that the house itself is a complex of traits, each of which is itself another complex of traits.[10]

The conventional way of thinking about the house would be to think of it as primarily, essentially, or really the physical material thing -- that is what we tend to identify as "the house".   Other traits, like legal ownership and whether, when and by whom it is perceived, we tend to think of as optional to its being.  "It" will still be there, the object that it is, "the house" whether it is perceived or not and whether it is owned, never mind by whom, or not. Its physical, spatio-temporal traits, are taken to be relatively invariant traits that persist through all its other locations and therefore are what the house "really is."[11] According to ordinal ontology, these traits would be classified as strongly relevant traits of the house. But, even if the house as a physical object is a necessary condition for the prevailing of any of the other traits, such as the traits of visual perception and legal ownership, still, a trait that is a necessary condition is no more really (no more “a fact of the matter”) about the house than other traits, some of which may be strongly and some weakly relevant.[12]


            One person sees the house as colored, another person sees it as a shade of gray.  Whose perception is correct?  Is there an “objective” perspective that determines what is "really" the case? 

In some sense, each perception, each judgment is valid, in some respect, in some perspective.  Consider normal versus achromatic perception of the house.  The first is correct about the house in a particular order, that is, the house-with-surface-reflectant-traits-in-relation-to-full-spectrum-light-in-relation-to-human-beings-with-binocular-and-color-sensitive-vision; the second is also correct about the house in another order, that is, the house-with-surface-reflectant-traits-in-relation-to-full-spectrum-light-in-relation-to-human-beings-with-binocular-and-color-blind-vision.[13] We regard the former as what the house "really" is, as the correct description of the color trait of the house in the widely shared and shareable predominant order of normal human vision.  However, on the ordinal interpretation, the achromatic perception is no less really a trait of the house than the former.  The achromatic perception would not be valid as a description of the relation between normal human vision and the house, but it is valid as a description of, it is a fact of the matter of, the house in relation to achromatic human vision.  When we say that the color-sensitive perception is the valid one, meaning that it tells us what the house is “really” like, we are taking as the relevant context the order of identifiability to color-sensitive human beings.  It is a distinguishing trait of the house that is more readily accessible to most human perceivers in most (shareable perceptual) contexts than the color-blind perception is.  Color-sensitive perception also serves to more accurately distinguish surface reflectant traits of objects than color blind perception does. 

However, being "more readily accessible to most perceivers" is not the criterion for distinguishing what's really important about objects from what is not.  Criteria for distinguishing depend on both the object and the context of inquiry or location from which distinction is to be made.  In a context of scientific inquiry, what is ordinarily "accessible to most perceivers" may not serve to make the important distinction if it is only experts working with sophisticated equipment to whom the relevant or decisive evidence would be accessible.  Or, in a context such as war where camouflage based on color is used to disguise or hide movement it is the achromatopic rather than the color-sighted person who may have access to what is "really the case," the former being able to distinguish form and movement independent of color.  Color-based camouflage doesn’t affect the acuity of the achromatic person’s vision since that doesn’t depend on or process color in discriminating the world.[14] 

Objects have ordinal locations independent of human perspectives, and therefore are as they are independently of human experience.  However, in so far as they are in relation to human experience, through perception, observation, abstraction, inference, hypothesis, or whatever the specific form of judgment, they are located in human perspectives.  That does not entail that their independent ordinal locations are reducible to human perspectives. But when those independent ordinal locations (traits) of objects are accessible to or in human experience, they are neither wholly independent of human experience (and “objectivity” does not require that they be) nor are they wholly dependent on/constituted by human experience or mind.  This is not a claim that in principle or in fact everything is related to human experience; rather, it is the claim that when such relation occurs, the object in question cannot, on pain of contradiction, be said to be wholly independent of human experience. 

Independently of human experience, the house may be "colored" in so far as its surface reflectant traits are located in the order of full-spectrum light; "colored" in this context means "reflecting-a-certain-wavelength-of-light."  That trait ("reflecting-a-certain-wavelength-of-light") is also accessible to (can be related to) normal color-sighted human vision.  However, also independently of human experience, but in relation to/in the order of a limited-spectrum of light, the house may be a shade of gray.  Independently of human experience but in the order of full-spectrum light and in the order of feline vision, the house may be a shade of gray.  In the order of achromatic human vision and in the order of full-spectrum light, the house may also be a shade of gray.  There are specifiable mediating relationships (commensurability) between these traits of the house; they do not contradict one another, nor is one more really about the house than any of the others. 

But, an empiricist might press, suppose a representation or an image of a physical object is perceived.  For example, one perceives an image of a star in a telescope and attributes traits of size and luminosity to the star on the basis of  the perceived image and what is known about light, distance, etc..  Is the perception of the image a relation of the star? What if the star no longer exists in its original space-time location?[15] But, some of its traits do and therefore, the image is of and traceable to an object that existed in the past.  The persisting traits are strongly relevant ones that allow for identification of an object that may no longer exist in space and time.[16]  Thus, we may not perceive the star, but we do perceive (or observe) surviving identifying traits of the star.[17] 

 Validation is a process of appraisal of human products, be they assertions, judgments, perceptions, art works, moral choices, whatever. All validation must specify in what respect, that is, in what order or perspective the product is being validated.[18]  If the object of knowledge is the house qua physical object, then the physical, spatio-temporal orders in which the house is located are the relevant ones.  If the object of knowledge is the ownership of the house, then the legal order is relevant. Suppose that instead of knowledge one seeks to discriminate apt aesthetic traits of a domicile to be featured in a film or a painting.  The house may validate an aesthetic judgment, not in the sense of verifying a proposition as true, but in the sense of satisfying the sought for  aesthetic traits.

Validation is a matter of determining what relations between complexes (some of which are human products) are secured in the relevant sense.[19]  In its most general terms, validation involves determining the relevance of some aspects of the world to other aspects of the world in some human identified respect or perspective (which perspective is of or in the world as much as anything else is). Fiction is presumably irrelevant to (is not related or does not contribute to confirmation/disconfirmation of) the evidential validation of hypotheses in (the order or perspective of) science, not because fiction is not comprised of real complexes, but because fictional complexes are not the kind of complexes that evidentially verify or test a hypothesis about physical or social complexes.  On the other hand, it is possible that fiction could psychologically motivate a scientist's mental movement to an insight or hypothesis and in that respect it might play a role in some particular scientist's scientific practice.  That fiction normally  has no evidential contribution to make to verification of a scientific hypothesis would not entail that it couldn’t validate in some other way some factor that contributes to scientific thinking. 

The "Abnormal"

Perhaps some of us are prepared to admit fiction and aesthetic judgments into the realm of validatable judgments in at least some respect.  But what about hallucination, delusion and the like? A shopping-cart man living on the hot air vent at the corner of my block  hallucinates having conversations with someone named Winston Churchill.  I cannot be sure that his utterance of the name Winston Churchill means the British Prime Minister during World War II, but let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it does.  Let us also suppose that he is not simply “replaying” a memory of a personal  conversation because he never met Winston Churchill and couldn't have met him having been born after his death. 

The shopping cart man's hallucinatory conversation is a complex, which might be described as an intersection of psychic-disturbances-produced-by-neuro-chemical-and-neuro-physiological-events-in-relation-to-acquisition-of-historical-information-his-genetic-and-interpersonal-history-and-expressed-in-English-linguistic-utterances. Under this description, it is uncontroversial to assert that the shopping cart man's hallucination is "in" the world.  What we resist is the idea that it is about some aspect of the world. What we are inclined to say is something like this:  the event -- that he is hallucinating -- is in the world but what his hallucination is about is not; it is not about any fact, but is only something in his mind.  Of course, in some sense this is true -- his hallucination is almost certainly not about Winston Churchill in any meaningful sense. But, there is some respect in which a trait of Churchill has entered into his mental experience and some respect in which his hallucination is a trait of Churchill.[20] It is also about some aspect of the world, minimally, about that aspect of the world that is his experience and perhaps also about that part of the world that is mental illness and about how historical figures can be assimilated into the processes of mental illness.[21]  

But, it might be objected, any idea is about, in some sense, the mental state of the person having the idea. What we want to know is whether, how, and to what extent ideas and beliefs are about what they purport to be about.  Do they refer to, are they true (about the world that they report) or not?  How is it helpful to insist upon the point that hallucinations (imaginary playmates, paranoid delusions and the like) are in some sense about some aspect of the world if they are not about what they purport to be about?

But, is there some single thing that a human experience is or purports to be about? Philosophers, scientists and historians might want to know whether and to what extent some belief or statement can be relied on as an accurate report of an empirical state of affairs, past or present.  This is what is typically meant by epistemological justification, that there are discernible evidential or causal grounds for a belief.  But that might not be the only thing such mental states could be about.  A psychologist or psychiatrist might want to know not only or primarily that, but also what the shopping cart man's statements or beliefs tell her about the shopping cart man's mental state in particular or about how that mental state illuminates mental illness more generally.

An analysis of the respects in which hallucinations (as well as imaginary playmates, paranoid delusions and the like) are valid (insightful, revealing, useful...whatever the relevant standard of validity) and of those in which they are not doesn’t jeopardize more standards views of validation.  The shopping cart man's hallucinatory conversation would not be a valid source of historical information about Winston Churchill.  But, it might be a valid source of information about mental illness, or it might simply be valid as a sign of the extent of his particular mental disorder.[22]

The shopping cart man's own first-person perspective cannot validate truths about Winston Churchill or whether he is having a conversation with him.  Whether a first-person perspective is sufficient for validation depends on the complex to be validated.  For example, only the subject can report what her/his sensations and thoughts are; the neurophysiologist may be able to say which neurons are firing or which part of the brain is active, but only the subject, the first person, can report and validate what the thought or sensation is.[23] But, validation of whether a conversation took place between persons located in spatio-temporal, social and historical orders would include validation of the prevailing of persons in those orders.  Validation of whether an event occurred/is occurring between two people in a historical, social and space-time order is accessible in principle to third person validation, even if in some particular case(s) a nonparticipant can not get as far as validating its actual occurrence but only whether it was possible or consistent, or not.  Winston Churchill is not prevailing in the orders that constitute a person with whom the shopping cart man could have or is having a conversation, nor did the shopping cart man ever prevail in the orders that would constitute a person with whom Winston Churchill could have had a conversation.  

If the shopping cart man is not credible as a potential, or actual, validator of the evidential warrantability of his experience qua a true belief, at least in so far as that purports to refer to a socially, historically, spatio-temporally located person, that is because in light of his impaired cognitive abilities he does not have access to the relevant orders.  Nor would I be a credible validator of a proof of Fermat's theorem for I do not know enough mathematics; in other words, I do not have access to the relevant mathematical orders (consisting of concepts, proofs, and the like).  The shopping cart man cannot discriminate between imagined or hallucinated persons and persons occupying social, historical and spatio-temporal orders; he does not have access to the relevant validating orders, he cannot distinguish what is related to what and how.[24] There is nothing ontologically different between myself and the shopping cart man as non-credible validators of, respectively, Fermat's theorem and whether he is having or ever had a conversation with Winston Churchill, however different they may be psychologically, socially and methodologically – he is ill, and I, presumably, am not, but am untutored in mathematics.[25]

Most of the time, we are interested in what “really” happened or who is “really” living and is someone with whom one can “really” have conversations, meaning by "really" to refer to that which prevails in the orders of space and time and shareable social and historical perspectives. Perhaps it is also the case that we can only understand and even have aberrant experiences in a context of at least some shared and shareable signs and truths.[26]  All I am suggesting is that we should aim for a theory which provides room for thinking more precisely about the ways and respects in which human products are both in and about the world and about the ways and respects in which they have validity, rather than being forced to dismiss the aberrant ones as inexplicable or unreal.


Validation, again.

 If everything is "in" the world,  including perceptions, fiction, hallucinations, illusions and false beliefs, then how would we begin to sort out what's real, what's really the case, from what isn't?   If validation is just a matter of matching things up, then couldn't everything be valid in some respect?  How would correction ever be explained?  Could correction be evaded by simply substituting a different perspective and challenging the legitimacy of the perspective from which a correction is offered?  What would legitimate one perspective over another?  Couldn't something which is false in one order be true in another? 

The issue is not that what is true in one order is false in another.  Consider again the house.  It is true to say that in the specified respects the house has one surface reflectant trait in one order and another in another order.  But, it is not the same thing that is true in one order and false in another.  Rather, it is true that the house has different traits in different orders. 

The questions posed point to a feature endemic to human experience, not unique to ordinal ontology.  We may be able to establish that the scientific perspective provides rational and evidential grounds for believing its descriptions to be true and its predictions accurate, and thus it is superior to the perspective of literary invention or of religious dogma in achieving control, predictability, accuracy of belief and so on.  The question whether science or religion is right about the nature and origin of the world, is not so much a question about which one is superior as far as evidence and prediction go, but a matter of what perspective it is better to occupy and in what respect. The religious option might mean to assert that psychological, emotional, or nationalistic considerations, for example, are decisive:  that it is better for human beings to believe religious beliefs than it is for them to engage in scientific inquiry and believe the established results of that inquiry. 

But, one might argue that these two perspectives are in conflict over the method and criteria for determination of truth; the religious believer might argue for the superiority of religious texts as sources for explanatory truths about the world.  But in so far as the issue concerns explanatory truth, then the criteria and method for determining truth as well as the conclusions reached would be located in a common, wider perspective which is characterized by commitment to inquiry and the discovery of truth, and to common standards of evidence, truth and adjudication of interpretations.  If one perspective or method prevails as better at arriving at the discovery of truth, then the other, in so far as it shares the common commitment, would have to concede.  The other alternative would be to opt out of the common perspective and assert an alternative, even alternative cognitive, value and commitment... but then they would not be competing for pride of place in the same respect.

Moral Validation

 In its most general terms,  a choice between perspectives is a moral one, by 'moral' meaning that the choice must ultimately enact a selection of something on the basis of what better realizes the relevant goals and purposes at hand.  

Resolution may not admit of a single right answer, right for all time, in all circumstances, in all respects.  In time of great instability or war, a religious perspective may have moral value in so far as it helps people get through the daily scourge and terrors of merely surviving.  In another context or another respect, the scientific perspective may be the better perspective to occupy.  The point is not that during instability and war religion has become true and science false, but rather that a dominant aspect of human experience in a particular context may be better served by a religious perspective than it is by a scientific one (it might not be, too).  It may also be the case that during instability and war, there is another respect in which science may be a better perspective to occupy, for example, as the perspective from which a people seeks to develop reliable weapons to defeat its enemy or to develop reliable medical treatment for injuries. 

Moral validation is usually thought to concern a more restricted range of choices or features of human life, the justification of an act as right or as a duty required by moral law or by some overarching conception of the good for human life.  Ordinal ontology does not provide the basis for formulating specific guidelines as to how to conceive the moral law or as to what would be an overarching conception of the good in human life.  But, I think that it does have several important implications for moral philosophy:

First, consistent with a naturalistic approach, it entails that values and moral criteria are real even if they are dependent upon, are produced by, or are judgments of human beings.  Therefore, moral judgments are, ontologically, no less "objective" than any other judgments.  Whether they are morally valid depends on whether and how they meet the standards defining of moral perspective.  As with propositions offered as true, their validity will depend on testing according to the relevant criteria.  

Second, it is possible that the relevant criteria or standards for moral validation may be a function of different normative ethical approaches (deontological, consequentialist, virtue).  In other words, each may have some relevance in assessing the moral validity of an action, choice or other type of moral judgment, or some may be relevant or dominant in one context and not or less so in another.  Mill and others have argued that there must a single ultimate standard (in Mill's case, happiness) by which to judge moral choices. But, I think the ordinal approach is more sympathetic to the Deweyan approach.  The implications of ordinality, at least as I understand them thus far, is that no standard has absolute priority in every context or perspective.  And if that is true, then moral judgment may require not only being able to apply criteria and principles correctly in any given situation, but being able to select those most appropriate in any given situation.   

Third, contextualization is not necessarily incompatible with some moral requirement of universality. There may be universal experiences, goods, evils and some notion of universal rights and obligations that can be given meaningful interpretation so as to be appropriately applicable to any specific version of human life.  Any requirement of universalizability or universality of values or rights would have to be conceptualized in such a way that allows for difference, (difference itself being understood as the occupying of different ordinal locations). For example, suppose a universal principle, e.g., that the arbitrary infliction of pain is wrong. For such a principle to be meaningfully applied, the meaning of “arbitrary” is going to have to be specified, and it is possible that there is some latitude, depending on the context, in what counts as “arbitrary” such that the same action in one context would be an arbitrary infliction of pain and hence, wrong, while in another it would not be. Thus, suppose a woman has an abortion, knowing that doing so causes psychic pain to her partner, her parents and her partner’s parents, because she is not prepared to take on the responsibility of bringing a child into the world. While her action inflicts pain, it is not arbitrary and therefore, not wrong. But suppose she has an abortion because it gives her pleasure to cause psychic pain to her partner and parents. In this case, her action is inflicting pain arbitrarily and is in that respect wrong.[27] There might be other actions (e.g.,inflicting cigarette burns on an infant just for the sake of burning) such that in every context it counts as arbitary, and hence wrong; in other words, no contextual (ordinal) differences would render it non-arbitrary.

Fourth, if every judgment is valid in at least some respect, then the obvious question for moral philosophy is, does that mean we have to recognize that there is some validity to the moral choices of the burner of the infant, of the Nazi, or of the disgruntled employee who guns down co-workers?  On pain of contradiction, the ordinal approach would have to answer in the affirmative... but not necessarily in the sense supposed. To say that a judgment is valid in some respect, does not necessarily imply that it is morally valid, meaning defensible by any moral criteria.  Nor is moral validation established simply in virtue of an individual's or a culture's belief that it is; moral validation, like epistemic validation, depends on identification of the relevant norms. (I have not here given any theory about how norms are generated and validated, and recognize that that would be needed to further flesh out this approach.)  However, a choice that cannot be validated as morally right or good may also be located in some other validating perspective.  For example, the rise of National Socialism may, in a historical context, validate, that is secure or establish, the conclusion that a scorched earth policy in human affairs is unwise.  The consequences of National Socialism may validate a judgment that a harshly retributive policy exercised against a vanquished enemy is likely to be disastrous in human affairs. Does that entail a kind of Panglossian perspective, that whatever happens, is for the best? Not at all, for that would overgeneralize the point, which is that there is some perspective or respect, which may be very limited, in which it is validated. That there is something to be learned from the rise of National Socialism does not entail that the human beings directly affected by it are, or that humanity overall is, better off for it having occurred.

“Subjectivity is objective” doesn’t mean that anything goes (the implication of Allen’s parody). What it means is that validation, moral and otherwise, requires specification of the appropriate ordinal location and of the respect in which “objectivity” or “validity” is being claimed. The comments I have made on the examples are not offered as definitive, let alone defended on normative grounds.  The intent was, through vivid example, to identify some of the implications of ordinal ontology for the meta-ethical issue of what moral validation might consist in. 





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Sider, Theodore. 2001. Four Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time. Oxford University Press.


Singer, Beth J.. 1993. "Systematic Nonfoundationalism: the Philosophy of Justus Buchler," The Journal of Speculative Philosophy VII, no. 3 (1993), pp. 191-205.


Singer, Beth J.. 1994. "Basing 'Ought' on 'Is'," Metaphilosophy 25, no. 4 (1994), pp. 304-315.


Wallace, Kathleen. 1982. "Review of Stephen David Ross, Transition to an Ordinal Metaphysics," The Journal of Philosophy 79:4 (1982): 222-227.



[1]Edel, 1950, p. 30.

[2]See Buchler 1990 (originally published 1966).  See also Buchler's earlier works which develop the ordinal theory of human nature or process: Buchler 1979 (originally published 1951); Buchler 1985a (originally published 1955); Buchler 1985b (originally published 1961); and Buchler 1974.


[3]  Alcoff proposes conceiving subjectivity as "positionality" which would "allow for a determinate though fluid identity of woman that does not fall into essentialism:  woman is a position from which a feminist politics can emerge rather than a set of attributes that are "objectively identifiable." (Alcoff 1997, 350) Buchler's notion of ordinality is a wider and more abstract concept, but as I see it Alcoff's work and terminology point in the direction of ordinal ontology.

[4] Campbell rejects what he calls the common factor approach to perceptual experience and argues that because perception is “relational experience” it is capable of referring to an object. It entails that perception is qualitatively distinct from hallucinatory and illusory experience, of which an object is not a constituent. See Campbell 2002.

[5] The production of image is a commensurable trait of the perceptual experience, meaning there are mediating routes between conscious attention, brain processing, ocular activity and so on. (See also Campbell, 2002.)

[6]  This is the principle of ontological parity  which affirms the equal reality of whatever is.  Perceptions are as real as objects perceived, fictional characters as real as material, physical objects, representations as real as what they represent, social conventions as real as the laws of physics or of mathematics. See MNC, Ch. 1.  Thus, when the term 'objective' is used to mean "really real" and when this is meant, not in metaphorical or rhetorical terms, but in literal ontological terms to assert a genuine distinction between reality and non-reality or lesser reality, it is not a distinction which can be meaningfully made in ordinal ontology.  'Objective' and 'subjective' could be used to mark significant distinctions, although not a distinction of degrees of reality or of reality versus nonreality.


[7]For the precise definition and discussion of relevance see MNC Chap. III, pp. 104-128.

[8]f course, there may be individuals who are strongly relevant to, determining of, the cultural and social significance of London.  Such a fact is not precluded in principle.  The example is simply of someone who is not.

[9]Since every relation is reciprocal (although not necessarily symmetrical), the perceptual relation between the observer and the house is a trait of each. A passerby's perception may be a fleeting and perhaps unimportant trait of the house (house-is--->was-seen-by-passer-by-at time-t), even though, for the passerby the perception of that house may be strongly evocative of associations, important, say, to a psychotherapeutic process.  Similarly, as a resident of London I would be a trivial and dispensable trait of the city (London would still be recognizably the same complex with or without my residence, even though in principal it would be [very slightly] different), while at the same time my residing in London would be strongly determinant of me.  The ontological claim has two parts.  One is that a relation, a location, is reciprocal, i.e., mutually determining of trait(s), although not always symmetrical.  The second is that even trivial, unimportant or fleeting traits are still traits and just as real and just as really (albeit weakly relevant) constituents of the respective complex(es) as are important (strongly relevant) ones.  The first part asserts the principle of ordinality, the second the principle of ontological parity. Which traits are related to other traits of a complex and how they are related would be determinable through specific analysis of the complex. There would be mediating relations between traits of a complex even though not each is related to every other, exemplifying what Gelber and Wallace call the principle of commensurateness (Gelber and Wallace 1986).

[10]Buchler uses the term 'natural complex' as the generic term of identification and 'complex' for short. The complexity of traits is not just at the micro-level, so to speak, as the inclusion of perceptual and legal traits was meant to suggest.  The exact boundary of a complex may be difficult to define, but the theory does not entail that everything is a trait of everything else. Even “within” a complex, there may be properties of the molecular structure of some of the material of which the house is made that are not traits of the house, even though they are traits of a trait of the house.  (Ontological relations then are not necessarily the same as logical relations of entailment and transitivity.) See MNC 95 ff. and Appendix II, "Notes on the Contour of a Natural Complex."

[11]This assumption is related to the “realist: version of  objectivity, expressed, for example, by Nozick who argues that invariance through all possible transformations is the underlying ontological condition of objectivity. (Nozick 1998)

[12] For example, legal ownership may be a strongly relevant trait of the house in many contexts, even if it is not a necessary condition of the house existing at all as a physical object.

[13]Each perception is also constitutive of the perceiver, so the same experience or relation is also about the perceiver as well as the house qua  object of perception.  I limit the discussion to taking the house as the reference point for the sake of simplicity, but in ordinal ontology since every relation is reciprocal even when not symmetrical, the matter is actually more complicated ontologically.  We simplify it in everyday life, for the most part justifiably.

[14]This would be a case in which the third of Edel’s sources of indeterminacy – variant aims and purposes – would contribute to the explanation of the validity of the achromatropic’s perception. Also, see Roberts, 1997 for a discussion of the heightened sensitivities of an achromatic perceiver.

[15]The attributed size and luminosity of the star are observed, according to Brown (1979), although they are not perceived, since the image that is actually seen does not have either that size or luminosity.  Brown also argues that the properties of the image are not the properties of the star.

[16]On a four-dimensionalist view (a view not necessarily inconsistent with ordinal ontology) the star consists of temporal parts and what we observe is a temporal part of the star. The temporal distance of the star is no different in principle from spatial distance. Thus, past objects are no less real than present ones. I can’t pursue this issue here, but there is a fascinating contemporary literature in analytic metaphysics on four dimensionalism. (See, for example, Sider 2001.)

[17]What about photographs of events or persons from the past, events that no longer present, persons who are now dead?  If human perception of the house is a location of and therefore a trait of the house, then is a photograph a location, a trait, of a past event, object or person? If the photograph represents or intersects with other strongly relevant traits of the event or person, then I think, on pain of contradiction, ordinal ontology would have to answer in the affirmative. If a person is not reducible to bodily existence but also consists in legal, social, interpersonal, intentional and other locations (relations), then traits of a person may continue to occupy or have the possibility of occupying new ordinal locations.  This is not an entirely bizarre idea when one considers that we routinely acknowledge that a person's intentions survive her death (for instance, via the legal instrument of a will); or that a person's reputation can be altered, for better or worse, well after her death. These are complicated issues, that I can’t pursue here. On boundaries of complexes, I refer the interested reader to MNC Ch. 1, Appendix II ("Notes on the Contour of a Natural Complex"); and among the secondary literature to: Miller, 1976, 1980;  Ross 1980; for a rejoinder to Ross see Wallace1982.

[18] Baxter’s “aspect theory,” and Fine’s  “qua objects” bear some similarity to the ordinal approach. (Baxter, 1999, 2001;  Fine 1982, 1999)

[19]Singer puts it as follows: "[M]y focus will be on justification in the broad sense in which, in ordinary language, we may ask whether a judgment of any kind, factual, evaluative, prescriptive, etc., is supported by the conditions to which it is relevant; a sense in which it can be warranted, if not proof against all challenge.  In this sense of the term, justification is always relative to a situation and a perspective of judgment, and may be stronger or weaker." (Singer 1994, p. 311.)  And,"[V]alidation is always ordinal and conditional.  To validate a judgment is to validate it in a particular respect and in a particular evaluative perspective." (Singer 1993, p. 202.)

[20]The latter would be a weakly relevant trait, a part of Churchill's scope and as an individual trait, it would not alter Churchill's integrity, something like an individual being a resident of London would be a weakly relevant trait of London).

Note, also ordinal ontology might part ways with the approach taken by Campbell who argued that  the object is a constituent of perception and that perception and hallucination are qualitatively subjectively different experiences. Hallucination is not an instance of “relational experience,” by which Campbell means perception. (Campbell, 2002.) However, Campbell doesn’t make the distinction between strongly and weakly relevant traits that Buchler does, and that might be a way of reconciling Campbell’s point with ordinal ontology.

[21]Some of these might fall under what Buchler calls "proceptive validation" (or validation of experiential processes). For a discussion of proception (sic) and proceptive validation, see Buchler TGT.

[22]This way of putting it is, of course, from a third person perspective, looking at the shopping cart man's experience in the context of what is to be learned that is useful to others seeking to understand mental illness.  It is also possible that from the first person perspective, that is, in the order of the shopping cart man's personal experience, a conversation with Winston Churchill has a very different function and meaning.  Normally, we discount this as having any validity, but what we mean is that it has no meaning or function in the orders which normally matter and which concern shareable truths.  

[23]"Some perspectives, involving unique and possibly unrepeatable situations, may carry with them unique appraisals relative to individuals...When assertive judgments are privately validated, it is not because the circumstances are unique; it is because they are restricted.  When I judge the character of a momentary feeling, I alone am in a position to confirm the assertion, to appraise its adequacy.  But the mode of confirmation can always be reproduced; the situation can be reenacted so far as the validation is concerned" (TGT 150-1).

[24]I am not here pursuing the question of how a knower (or knowers) justifies the claim that s/he does have access to the relevant orders. 

[25]My lack of credibility with respect to Fermat’s theorem is, at least in principle, alterable in ways that the shopping cart man’s may not be. Presumably, a person of normal intelligence could learn the requisite mathematics so as to have access to the validating orders of Fermat's theorem; whether the shopping cart man's impairment is correctable such that he could access the relevant validating orders is perhaps questionable.

[26]The shopping cart man, too, has at least some of the same background historical knowledge and linguistic competence as other similarly educated people and he may even share in the disposition to believe his own ideas, in this case, hallucinations.  That he himself would be mistaken about the truth or evidential warrantability of his beliefs in this respect is not necessarily inconsistent, of course, with their being beliefs.  It is also possible that what appears to be a belief might not be. His statements and apparent beliefs could be what Buchler calls exhibitive judgments, that is, signs exhibiting the scope of his mental illness and not beliefs at all.  In that respect, they would not be about what they purport to be about and it might be the interpreter who misunderstands what they are about.  The point is just that we need a more generous notion of validation in order to properly recognize what the shopping cart man's experience might be about.

[27] There could be other considerations that one might bring to bear about the morality of abortion; I am here only using it as an example of and evaluating it as an action that is or is not arbitrarily inflicting pain on others