Ontological Collapse

My last post was of a particular example I used in my chapter attempting to produce a preliminary definition of ideology.  The idea was to give an example of an ideological practice that is both enjoyable enough to be enthusiastically participated in without any coercion at all and at the same time the cause of suffering not for others but for those who are participating in it.  It is easy enough to find ideological practices we participate in because they bring us enjoyment (romantic love or baseball, for instance); it is also easy to find ideological practices we participate in because they only bring suffering to others (slavery or investing in the stock market, for instance).  The goal was to demonstrate that it is conceivable to produce practices in which individuals enthusiastically produce their own suffering. As an alcoholic, this didn’t seem unlikely to me, but many other people seem to think such a practice would never succeed.  The responses I got on this example were enormously helpful, and I’ve attempted to incorporate the advice in my rewrite.

Now I want to move on to consideration of the next section of the book, in which I attempt to remove some conceptual obstacles to a more complete understanding of ideology, one that moves beyond the preliminary sketch I start with. Here is the introduction to that section:


We’ve had some preliminary discussion of the concept of ideology, but at this point there may seem to be several weak points in Althusser’s highly contested theory.  As I’ve said, almost nobody quite understands what Althusser meant, and as a result most critiques of his theory are simply pointing out errors in a misunderstanding of the concept: unable to grasp what is being argued for, most people will create a mistaken but easier to comprehend version and then proceed to point out the obvious errors in their own misconceptions.  We want to avoid that here, but it isn’t easy.
The reason it isn’t easy is that fully understanding this concept requires altering some of the most deeply held common assumptions of our world today.  Not just abandoning misconceptions, but actually replacing them with more adequate concepts of how things actually are.  The problem is sort of like building a Gothic arch.  All of the stones in an arch need the keystone in place to be held up, so the keystone is the crucial piece locking all the supporting voussoirs in place.  The paradox here is obvious: we cannot place the keystone first, but the supporting stones cannot hold up without it. So we need to construct a bit of scaffolding, inadequate and temporary, to hold up these concepts until they are all in place. That is the difficulty of writing this book, and why it requires a sympathetic reader.
So far, we have a rough scaffolding in place, as a substitute for the complete understanding of the concept of ideology we will, I hope, be able to develop when we return to it at the end of our efforts.
Now it is time to put some of these concepts in place.  Or, more precisely, to remove our inadequate concepts, the fundamental errors imbedded in our common sense, by replacing them with better (although not necessarily newer) ways of understanding reality.
I will begin with the one I mentioned at the end of the previous chapter: the idea that we cannot be motivated by anything that is not beyond our own capacity to change. That is, all our actions must be produced by some ineluctable cause, to which we can respond (somehow) but which we can never choose.  We cannot pick our motivations, only how we fulfill them.
The fundamental conceptual mistake supporting this assumption is so universal that I have only rarely seen it even mentioned.  I refer to it as the Ontological Collapse. Obscure term, I know, so let me explain.
What I mean by this is quite simple.  I am using the term “ontology” to refer to the study of what ultimately exists.  What are the fundamental kinds of things that can exist?  By “collapse,” I mean the tendency, in Western thought this goes back as far as we have written records, to assume that there can be only one kind of fundamental thing. That is, we assume, to put it crudely, that everything that is “really real” exists in the same way. Therefore anything that doesn’t “exist” in this way is not “really real,” but a mere effect, epiphenomenon, or illusion.  We “collapse” reality into one kind of thing, and then endlessly and repeatedly run into insoluble paradoxes and contradictions.  My argument is that this is because there is more than one kind of thing in reality; there is more than one way in which things can be real!
Our tendency, in Western thought, has been to cycle back and forth between idealism and materialism, ever since Plato and Aristotle.  The simple and obvious way to see this debate is between Plato’s idea that what is real consists of ideal forms and any material manifestation of a thing is a poor copy, and Aristotle’s idea that what is real is matter and its appearance as different things follows some determinate causal laws.   But I don’t want to follow this model, and not only because it involves a drastic oversimplification and misrepresentation of both Greek philosophers.
Instead, I want to examine the two ways in which we commonly instantiate the collapse today. These are two ways of thinking that, although radically opposed, many people today will hold simultaneously (or, perhaps, alternately, calling on whichever one seems best suited to a particular situation). Only once we have explored these two common assumptions, and discovered their limitations and contradictions, can we then set out to replace them with a more adequate understanding of ontology.
I am referring to reductionism and relativism.  These are not often set up as opposites, since their respective opposites would seem to be something like “holism” and “foundationalism”; however, I will try to show that reductivism and relativism both result from a shared conceptual mistake.
You may initially think you fall into neither of these two camps. Certainly you aren’t one of those vulgar reductionists who believe that everything was completely determined at the point of the big bang; and you couldn’t be like the extreme relativist who believes that the efficacy of antibiotics depends completely on our belief that they will work.  At least, if you are going to be able to follow what I will write in this section, I hope you are not one of these fools.
Nevertheless, for most of us, each of these positions are fundamental to our everyday conceptions of the world, in at least some limited way. So I will attempt to offer a (very) brief critique of each, to indicate what kinds of errors we need to avoid making. I’m hoping that once you see the errors in the limited examples I offer, you will begin to see them throughout most of how we (as a culture) tend to think of things today. You will be able to see through the mistakes of the multitude of versions of these two errors that inform our construal of the world.
I will use only what I take to be widely popular examples of reductionism and relativism, produced by respected and successful academics. But don’t worry, each of them has produced many popular books advancing their positions, and you can find a multitude of their talks on YouTube.  There’s no homework assignment here!
When I get to the third chapter in this section, however, you may need to do a little extra reading!


The first chapter in this section, then, sets out to use Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene to demonstrate the basic conceptual structure of reductionism.  I won’t spell out this entire argument here, but it is similar to the argument I’ve made about Thomas Metzinger’s “Self-Model Theory” here: Metzinger essay

What I want to outline right now is the structure of this reductive strategy in the abstract.

First, the attempt is made to assert that certain kinds of things do not “really” exist, in the sense that they have no separate existence or causal power.  They are merely epiphenomena or illusions or errors, but the “real” entity is something somehow more material, and we can translate these illusory things into those more real things. That is, we can explain how those apparent entities are really effects of the thing that is real and causal.  The obvious example here is reducing the mind to the brain.

Second, that thing that is asserted not to exist is required in within the theory in order to make sense of any of the phenomena the theory is supposed to account for.  The classic example of this is Hume’s attempt to produce a thoroughly empiricist model of the human subject, and his need to assume the existence of a non-material and unified “self” to make the explanation coherent.

Third, the theory then gets caught in a cycle, continually working to deny that it is in fact assuming casual powers for what it is asserting does not have them.  Hume, of course, did not go this step—and remained baffled by how we could account for moral behavior in a strictly empiricist world.

The result is that something is excluded from consideration.  Usually (always?) what is excluded is some real causal social practice, such as the economic system in which people produce what they need, or the political system which subjugates some individuals to others by creating different kinds of subjects (some of which are fully real and others of which are not).  The important point here is that some social practice with real causal powers must disappear from consideration, so thoroughly and naturally that when someone tries to introduce it into the conversation the response seems easy and obvious: that’s just not what we’re discussing here.  This produces the mistaken belief that this social practice does not have any causal effect in the phenomena being discusses. Again, a good example would be Hume’s inability to consider that capitalist economics could in any way be causal in producing our supposedly innate moral values.


As I said, I’m using Dawkins as an example, but this could be done with any of the hundreds of versions of reductionism popular today, from Wright’s absurd evolutionary psychology to the Churchlands to best-selling books like Thinking Fast and Slow and the ubiquitous neuro-cognitive cult taking over university departments today.

What I’m concerned about here is whether this outline, in the abstract, of the general form of the reductivist instantiation of the ontological collapse is clear enough. Would it be possible for the average college grad to take this model, with just a few examples as guidance, and extend it to a critique of the many other forms of reductionism we encounter today?



Leave a comment


  1. Tom: I like where this is going. Some thoughts:

    1) I’m still somewhat unclear about who the intended audience is. When you ask whether it is clear enough for the average college grad to grasp, are you assuming this college grad has taken a philosophy course or two, or has thought about these issues at some length?

    I know a lot of average college grads, and I know some college grads who have taken a couple of philosophy courses. I’m undecided as to whether it would be easier or harder for someone with a philosophical background to grasp what you’re trying to do here, given the “thicket of views”, if you will, that as you point out is implicit in pretty much all of philosophical discourse. In any case, I ask because I’m currently reading Althusser’s Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, and it’s made me think about the importance of bringing the kind of discourse you’re producing here into the “general public”.

    As Althusser points out, people have this idea that “philosophy is something done by philosophy teachers”. But of course, the truth is that everybody is always-already doing philosophy. I think it’s extremely important to produce a discourse that allows “non”-philosophers—that is, ordinary people—to recognize that they are already in ideology, not just when they talk politics at the bar, but even when they engage in the simplest of social practices such as holding the door for someone, or hitting the breaks at a red light (they might not even think of those things as social practices at all!). These popular books, like Thinking Fast and Slow, create the illusion that this kind of exploration and understanding is happening, when in fact the same ideology is being reproduced.

    You’ve mentioned in another comment that you are mainly speaking to those who already recognize these errors in the abstract, but are still unable to abandon them in practice. In that case, I think this outline is quite clear. The smartphone piece, on the other hand, reads to me as speaking to those who don’t even realize that anything is “off” at all.

    Sorry if this question doesn’t make any sense, or if it will become more clear in further posts. I may be seeing a divide where there is none.


    I’m hoping that once you see the errors in the limited examples I offer, you will begin to see them throughout most of how we (as a culture) tend to think of things today. You will be able to see through the mistakes of the multitude of versions of these two errors that inform our construal of the world.

    This, in my view, is fundamental, and I hope you plan on devoting a good deal of time to formulating such examples. I want to be able to notice these errors on my own out in the world while I am going about my day, rather than knowing them just abstractly. Have you given any thought to techniques, strategies, etc, to make oneself more succeptible to seeing them? Would you say it is entirely a matter of “getting it” and then having this ability, or is it a skill that can be cultivated in a particular way?

    3) Call me a cynic, but I suspect that it is quite literally impossible for philosophers to get past the materialist/idealist dialectic. They seem incapable of comprehending any alternative. I maintain that reductionists are actually closet dualists, and they don’t realize it themselves. But anyway…

  2. Thanks for your comments. The audience problem is a tricky one. I so suspect that it may actually be more difficult for someone with a “philosophical background” to see what I am arguing. They will have been trained to become oblivious to many of the most absurd things that philosophy as a discipline assumes. Much the way English majors have to become incapable of seeing the historically and ideological basis of all of their assumptions about what Literature is.

    My imagined audience, to be frank, is my own daughters after they have graduated college. This is years away, and I’m not sure I’ll still be able to write this book at all clearly at that point, so I’m trying to do it now. I’m assuming, though, that there will be at least some others like them, who will graduate from college dissatisfied with what they have learned, and still looking for answers to bigger questions (at least, I hope that years from now my daughters will still be the kind of people who think about such things—that college doesn’t successfullly squash their intellects—but that remains to be seen).

    As for being able to do this kind of thing, to notice the errors we make in our everyday assumptions, that is what I have always argued to be the purpose of my particular kind of Buddhist practice. It is also the goal of the Socratic method in the earliest of Plato’s dialogues. It is something we can learn to do only as a discourse, a social practice, that we engage in every day. I’ve always been accused of failing to suggest an “alternative” to the x-buddhist practices I critique, but in fact I am just demonstrating the alternative: critique is the practice. It is the only practice that can enlighten us. And it needs to be done socially, among others who are also engaged in similar critiques. I’ve read your blog, and it seems to me you are capable of engaging in this practice. Perhaps what is missing is the social-discursive component? That is what I feel is missing from my own practice, at any rate.

    On the third point, yes, it may be impossible for philosophers to see outside of this—I wouldn’t call it dialectic, because it is not one—but problematic. The discipline of Philosophy, is structure by this assumption, and to be outside of this assumption is just to fail to “do” philosophy. I hope to fail to do philsophy well—to remain the imbecile who cannot accept the philosophical assumptions as obvious.

    Yes, my argument is also that all reductionists are dualists, blind to their own idealist assumptions—that’s what I argued about Metzinger, for instance, and it is true of Dawkins as well. On the flip side, all relativists are working hard to deny their passionate reification and naturalization of the current state of the World. That is, all relativists want to deny, without admitting to doin so, the relavism or constructedness of the current social formation. Just as reductionism seeks to preserve our idealist fantasies while pretending to vigorously denounce them, relativism seeks to naturalize capitalism by diverting our attention to all the other things they are asserting are contingent, refusing to discuss the contingency of the economic system. All of which is to say there is a motivation for the errors I am trying to put in relief in this section of the book—but the motivation is the topic of the next section.

    One more point: I would disagree about your assessment of the smartphone piece. Maybe I’m just thinking of it in the context of the longer chapter, though. But my guess is it would not be at all successful with those who do not yet see there is anything wrong. It would only work with those who are dissatisfied in some way, but have not yet noticed how they are, in practice, doing what they object to in principle. Most people who are content with teh world as it is would be unable to read that piece at all—as I found from some of the emails I got about it.

  3. It would only work with those who are dissatisfied in some way, but have not yet noticed how they are, in practice, doing what they object to in principle.

    Yes, that’s fair enough. In fact I’ve always been amazed at how our culture, especially within universities and corporate settings, have embraced and incorporated “social justice and diversity” into our ideology. The good faith is maybe there, but there is also a failure to notice ourselves doing what we object to in principle. I’ve tried to point this out to people who, for instance, lament cultural appropriation. I would ask them if they are as concerned about celebrating a Chinese holiday as the fact that their electronics, and probably most of their wardrobe, are the result of Asian slave laborers and murder in other parts of the world. This elicits a defense instinct, and somehow by the end of the conversation they’ve managed to justify and defend obvious atrocities in the name of “progress”. What I like about your writing is that it really hammers into the reader’s skull the resistance to perform such flinches.

    Yes, I would say absolutely that my problem is that the social-discursive component is missing; this is the most urgent problem I’m facing now. That’s what makes it difficult for me to write often, and what makes the little writing I do feel extremely unsatisfactory to me afterward.

    I can read and talk to myself all day, but that brings me not much closer to the actual fruit of Buddhist practice (using your conception of Buddhism, which I endorse): waking up.

    The issue, as I’m sure you know, is that the further you go with this kind of thinking the harder it becomes to find people who are willing and/or capable of engaging with you. This isn’t meant to be a grandiose claim about how smart or awake one is, it’s just a matter of fact: the vast majority of people have not given much critical thought to their ideologies, let alone are aware that ideologies exist.

    I’ve been trying to find people close to me enough geographically, to form some kind of group, but it’s been much harder than I anticipated. First, how do you advertise such an initiative? I certainly wouldn’t say I’m looking to form a Buddhist group; that would be a disaster. I can only imagine the catastrophic irony that would result.

    There are times when I get into conversations with people and I start to think we’re getting somewhere, but most of the time, somehow, the conversation takes a sharp veer into some iteration of neoliberal idealism:

    “Oh yes, critique. Resisting subjugation. Articulating the atrocities that we engage in every day through our ideological practices, even if it means having to give up our most cherishly held beliefs and assumptions. I’ve never thought about it like that. Right. Good. So we have to strive for self-transcendence. Have you ever read Alan Watts? He talks about this kind of stuff in his work.”

    Perhaps I’m just not very good at articulating myself. Or maybe people really do hear what they want to hear. In any case, finding people to engage in serious critical social practices has been a dead end for me, so I’m falling into a state of intellectual stagnanation. How do you cope with this lack?

  4. I don’t cope with it very well, frankly. But I keep trying.

    I’ve had many similar experiences to what you describe. Talking to someone who seems to get what I’m saying, and to share my concerns, only to have them enthusiastically suggest that I would just love Jordan Peterson because what he says is exactly the same as what I’m saying. I sigh in despair and give up.

    Forming some kind of network would be essential, but this is particularly difficult because what you are after seems to have no profitable outcome. That is, there will be nothing in the end you can sell to get rich. Even environmental collectives usually depend on the fact that someone involved is selling something and getting rich off it.

    My hope is that this doesn’t make it impossible. So let me suggest something. What about following the model of the early Buddhists or even early Christians: work tirelessly and with little real effect to spread the word for free, even in terrible isolation most of the time, and then periodically come together with like-minded people to recharge, discuss, and share experiences? I’m quite serious about this. It wouldn’t take more than three or four people to start–just decide that once a year for a week or two we’ll all camp at the same campground, discuss some pre-chosen text, present writing we’er working on, maybe produce a text that can be freely distributed or sold online for the cost of printing…and then return to pursuing the spreading of the word in the everyday world.

    This sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m not. I’ve suggested this to people before, but few want a “retreat” without a celebrity involved and profit to come out of it. But real change will never happen that way.

    Just a thought.

  5. If I witnessed someone “enthusiastically suggest” Jordan Peterson to you, I would probably have them drug tested. I mean, seriously now? Is this person a student of Shinzen Young? Cause it’s possible that they were being so mindful of their inner experience, and of their need to validate their ideology, that they forgot to pay attention to what you actually said…

    Kidding aside, I think that model you’re proposing is great, and it’s definitely one that I’d participate in. Imagine if everyone who attends a silent meditation retreat would spend that time thinking, really thinking, instead of suppressing thoughts and following one’s breath for ten hours a day. Then we’d get somewhere. But I love this idea of an old-school retreat for the purpose of thinking rather than having a spa week.

    An important piece of that model would need to be to make explicit that each member is responsible for pointing out ideological blindspots or errors if they think they spot them, don’t you think? That’s is the biggest flaw in dominant “retreat” models. The last thing the world needs is a contemplative think tank. So it’d have to be a safe space, but not in the sense of forgoing critical rigour in exchange for right speech and wisdom fetishism. Rather, a space in which it is mutually agreed that it is safe to offer critique, and nothing is off limits for critique.

    That would be excellent.

  6. Yes, that would be my idea of what it should look like. No silence, no worrying about politeness or right speech, and definitely no holds barred on pointing out ideological assumptions—like talking with three Socrates at once. The value for me would be exactly in having someone who can point out my unexamined asssumptions and blndspots, which by definition I can never see on my own.

    Seriously, I have gotten the Joradan Peterson thing more than once, and the Alan Watts thing many times over the years. Often readers on this or Glenn’s blog will think they are agreeing with me until they are shocked when I say something dismissive of Watts or Rorty, and then they become puzzled. It baffles me how I could be understood to be agreeing with both Rorty and Jordan Peterson at the same time…

    But the point is, such discussions are never of use to me—I doubt I even do much to raise the awareness of others around me much of the time. I certainly cannot expect someone who is enamored of Jordan Peterson to help point out my ideological blindspots!

    And certainly no “wisdom” allowed. I couldn’t tolerate ever again listening to some revered teacher who met the Dalai Lama tell a tired old story about the glass being always broken, then look around the room with a superior and smarmy smile expecting to be praised for his profundity. I’ve heard that talk about ten times too often over the years.

  7. I’ve read many of those comment threads. To be honest, they were kind of a guilty pleasure on the SNB blog and I was somewhat disappointed at the comment policy here. Some of them even helped me see my own blind spots: I’d read a reader comment that I thought was pretty benign, and then my own assumptions were made explicit in your response to them. But I take your point that these kinds of exchanges are rarely useful, and it would only add clutter. One has to genuinely be willing to challange themselves in order to make any progress.

    If you’re completely serious about that retreat idea, I’m game. Unfortunately, there aren’t any other people I know (outside of the SNB universe, at least) to whom this would be of interest.

  8. Patricia

     /  March 11, 2019

    So, I mentioned to you that I’m a little behind in the reading of the posts on this blog. But I’m starting to catch up. The collapse of the “reals” is the hardest part of this project, in my view. I think you have great examples, and you explain the positions very well of, let’s say, the relativists and reductionists (is anyone really a relativist though?). It strikes me that I think the issue that will plague you in writing this is actually what “practice” means. We make a distinction between “ideas” and “reality”: ideas “construct” our reality in the social constructivist model (some might say “language” or “discourse” does that, and then reality “changes” based on those ideas. This leads to a reductive notion of social change (ie. history). I’m being really, really simplistic here, but I think you get it. But Althusser’s notion of “practice” is radically materialist: it joins the two realms in a way that seems counterintuitive to most people who want to believe that what they do has nothing really to do with what they believe and value. That’s been the problem, the blockage, always with using the term “ideology.” It is in the material practice that shows what we believe, what we value, how they exists in our lives and how they have causal power. Most like to keep those two “realities” are separate (both ordinary people and academics): there’s an idea here and a material reality there. But in the idea of “practice” they must come together. That is where Althusser is most radical in my view. That’s why people can quote the first part of Althusser’s definition of ideology, and they conveniently forget about the second part of his thesis. I hope this makes sense, and is helpful.

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