Photographs and the Ontology of the Real

Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles (1999)

Guy Rohrbaugh
Auburn University
This essay begins with a puzzle in metaphysics, the unity dilemma . The enduring debate between monists and pluralists can be understood in terms of a single problem, the supposed impossibility of including the bulk of our naive ontology in a single, all-embracing ontological category. Either one insists, as the monist does, on a unified ontology at the cost of surrendering much of our naive ontology to reduction or non-existence, or one accommodates the bulk of our naive ontology by accepting more than one fundamental ontological category. ;For a suggestion of how we might resolve the dilemma, we turn to the case of photography. Because photographs---like symphonies, novels, words, and species---have occurrences, there is a temptation to think they must belong to a different ontological category from paintings and other central members of our ontology. I investigate a received view about such 'multiple' works of art, that they should be understood within the framework of types and tokens. I argue that the type approach fails to correctly account for photographs precisely because it ignores a sustained analogy between photographs and paintings. Unlike types, both photographs and paintings are temporal items, subjects of change and modal possibility, and are ontologically grounded in the physical world. ;I then generalize the lessons of photography and formulate a distinction between real and idealized objects. Real objects are genuinely historical objects, those which exist temporally, are subject to temporal and modal alteration, are susceptible to causal interaction, and are ontologically grounded in the physical world. Idealized objects lack one or more of these features, either because they lack a genuine history or because their existence is cut loose from any ontological grounding in this world. I argue that this distinction is independent of traditional distinctions between physical and mental, concrete and abstract, and particular and universal, and suggest that there are examples of real objects in all these categories. The category of the real is a promising candidate for resolving the unity dilemma because it shows us how seemingly disparate members of our naive ontology turn out to category-matcs after all
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