Ontology and Cultural Isolation

Bayu Wikranta
7 min readOct 9, 2022
The Sentinelese, Andaman Islands/ by: Christian Caron.
Human understanding of the world is adaptive, and nothing they have done is far from that of violence, survival, and fear.

To question what it is to exist, in philosophical terms, is called ontology. The very praxis of ontology is culture. Based on that, ontology can also be understood as a formal and explicit specification of a shared conceptualization.¹ Shared conceptualization can be explained in various senses — e.g., culture, but it is bound to the agreement of subject matter in practical life, as a mutual influence between the world and man. Our world as fixed and completed represents itself for humans through their sensory and senses, then the representation of the world is presented again in the form of language. To provide a correct ontological question, we are not only asking what one means by a “shared conceptualization”, but what concrete relations affect someone to give such a term and definition. The ontological question that has dimensions of time and space is a culturized ontological question, and every knowledge we have about our world is the result of the construction of culture within changes.

In Foucault’s view, in history, we have always gravitated toward individual creation and put aside the fact that we are in the shadow of general and communal rules, which are vaguely manifested in every scientific discovery and innovation, even in philosophy.² Foucault wants to emphasize how the representational parties, the “frontier and the chosen ones” in influencing the social and cultural thought of the masses. Our understanding of anything is not ours. Personal thoughts are dictated by the collective life, one particular collective life is dictated by that of more dominant societies. It is the ever-present power relations, fear, and survival.

These days of modernity, the world looks even more complete over the collapsing barriers of understanding beyond our culture. In ancient times humans were born into a static culture and world. It is static because there is no comparison of “worlds” with adequate access and practices, so the community was cultural subjects who truly live “in the present” of time and space. Meanwhile, modern humans live in a complex kaleidoscope of representations and images that enable them to understand their world and to choose their actions “more intelligently”. The concept of culture is therefore political and contingent, and an attempt to explore its meanings is to trace the history of its use and the consequences that flow to it.³ To understand that there was a new continent mistaken as India, the European explorers called it a “new world”, a “new” ontological existence and understanding, as previously unknown or impossible. On another note, the change in language and definitions can be related to poststructuralism, an important type of social constructivism, a view that sees human activity as forming, not just finding knowledge.⁴

The change in our language is the change of our world, thus our act. Ontology only means something when humans are around because to understand the ontology before humans are to compare the basic question of ontology — “existence and absence” of anything through a binary opposition in the reality that is observable (reflecting on the “existence” of something, to grasp the idea of “absence”, or thing-in-itself) because the world before human existence is outside the range of language, which makes it inexplicable on its own or independent of human observation. Wittgenstein said, “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”, though he does not deny that things exist as other than facts. Wittgenstein says that the totality of facts is something above a collection of things; even if we are given the totality of things, this does not yet determine the totality of facts.⁵ Through these explanations, we define ourselves and the world depending on the facts we choose and immerse it in the things and language we use. From this, ontology can be at odds with everyday life and concepts, that of culture. For example, time is said to be an illusory entity, as an ontological fact in human construction. But in everyday-cultured life, time is traded via objects that represent “facts”. This difference in paradigm often corners philosophy as impractical and an esoteric realm, especially if philosophy is “guarding” its norms and academic scope. Language therefore can be a simplification tool for understanding the world, and in consequence, it is unfair in representing our ideas and understanding. When we cannot define something verbally, it does not mean that we do not know what we mean to mean, we just cannot utter them.

The limit of our language is the limit of our world, and vice versa. We can’t make blind people understand what the color red looks like — out of billions of words, even so, we still can’t explain certain things to certain people. We cannot explain to the Sentinelese who live in the northeast of the Indian Ocean, that the existence of gadgets and the internet can make them connected with the rest of the world. This doesn’t necessarily imply that they don’t want to, but because they don’t know. Nescience affects desire, and desire is absent because of nescience. This causal condition from a cultural perspective is not to invade itself with the definition of “shared conception”, and the “goodwill” of modernity.

The Sentinelese show that the conception of global cohesion (at a higher level than their own togetherness) can be rejected. They tell the modern world regarding the definition of the sacred, mystical, and magical in a more concrete ontology, or not onto-theology, through their experience of finding objects on the shores of their islands like plastic waste, or when there is a plane or helicopter passed over them. The Sentinelese not knowing the outside world is not hyperbole. In a way, it represents us again to the idea of the thing-in-itself, as to convey and understand what outside of their world, the Sentinelese has no choice but to reflect on their pinched world. To be clear, the Indian government has restrictions on anyone who wants to approach the Sentinelese territory.⁶ Despite the rules, there are still people who violate them and get killed by the Sentinelese. From this, two contested responses were generated, between condemning them as a savage and backward primitive civilization or simply not blaming the Sentinelese — because they do not know that they are part of India and the applicable laws. The first response is to refute the literary myth of the noble savage, or that humans were inherently good before the touch of modern civilization. Every culture will always be followed by aggression, terrible in its own way. The second response states how cultural differences affect the definition of ethics. It’s easy to criticize other people’s cultures when we judge them by our cultural standards. The differences are so disturbing that we present an urge to generalize the concept of culture, and in the case of the Sentinelese, is to apply what is modern, liberal, and “humanist”. The rest of the world and the Sentinelese are lost in ethics, with the modern still as the coercive and the dominant side.

The Indian government has done the right thing, namely respecting and protecting the existence of the Sentinelese by leaving them with their own world. This protection is not only related to health, with modern viruses the violators might bring to the island but also the potential for “cultural destruction”, as one case of the government’s good efforts to provide food rations and assistance, caused one of the smaller Sentinel tribes to lose knowledge of traditional ways of fishing and hunting⁷. There are long-term consequences for the Sentinelese for what the modern world has conceived as being helpful. The Sentinelese live in the “aloof togetherness” in contrast to modern humans who are now drained with their collective and cultural intimidation — proceed to existentialism for the fulfillment of spirituality and meaning. The understanding of cultural conceptions in ontology is so that ontology is not only purely idealistic, and brute philosophizing but also practiced for more pragmatic goals, such as survival. After all, the dominant conception in culture shall respect those who don’t want to be together, don’t want to be adaptive, and are keen to live in the past. We as cultural subjects should seek the point of lesser consequences, considering our culture is a history full of aggression and conquest for the sake of curiosity, desire, and a “sturdy” collective life.

References:

  1. Guarino, N., Daniel Oberle and Steffen Staab. 2009. What Is an Ontology?. Handbook on Ontologies, pp. 1–17.
  2. Foucault, Michel and Noam Chomsky. 2006. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate, On Human Nature. The New Press (Ed). New York: The New Press.
  3. Barker, Chris. 2004. The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies. London: Sage Publications
  4. Bush, Stephen S. 2009. Nothing Outside the Text: Derrida and Brandom on Language and World. Contemporary Pragmatism, 6(2), pp. 45–69.
  5. Speaks, Jeff. 2007. Wittgenstein on facts and objects: the metaphysics of the Tractatus. Semantic Scholar. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Wittgenstein-on-facts-and-objects-%3A-the-metaphysics-Speaks/1e5c153ce733577e12e1bc29e5e92b8765828dd2
  6. Press Information Bureau Government of India Ministry of Home Affairs. 2019. “Sentinelese Tribe”. PIB Delhi. https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1562728
  7. Petruso, Micheala. 2019. The Sentinelese: Indigenous Tribes. Globalism, and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. University Center for International Studies. https://ucisportfolios.pitt.edu/michealapetruso/wp-content/uploads/sites/370/2020/09/The-Sentinelese-Indigenous-Tribes.-Globalism-and-the-Preservation-of-Cultural-Heritage.pdf

--

--