Ontological Priority, Fundamentality and Monism

Winner of the 2008 dialectica essay prize



In recent work, the interrelated questions of whether there is a fundamental level to reality, whether ontological dependence must have an ultimate ground, and whether the monist thesis should be endorsed that the whole universe is ontologically prior to its parts have been explored with renewed interest. Jonathan Schaffer has provided arguments in favour of ‘priority monism’ in a series of articles (2003, 2004, 2007a, 2007b, forthcoming). In this paper, these arguments are analysed, and it is claimed that they are not compelling: in particular, the possibility that there is no ultimate level of basic entities that compose everything else is on a par with the possibility of infinite ‘upward’ complexity. The idea that we must, at any rate, postulate an ontologically fundamental level for methodological reasons (Cameron 2008) is also discussed and found unconvincing: all things considered, there may be good reasons for endorsing ‘metaphysical infinitism’. In any event, a higher degree of caution in formulating metaphysical claims than found in the extant literature appears advisable.