Hauntology or Ontology?
That Is the Question
The French writer Jacques Derrida coined the word “hauntology” for his variation on the philosophical term “ontology.” Since the initial “h” is silent in French, the two words are the same in sound. For my purposes, the general sense of “hauntology” is about revealing the absences that haunt, or are present in, all presences.1
Whereas ontology is the study or knowledge of being, presence, or reality, hauntology concerns non-being, absence, and unreality. From the perspective of hauntology, to be absent-minded becomes a positive virtue.
This seems especially relevant, or should I say revenant, to the Buddhist insight about the nature of reality as characterized by emptiness, impermanence, no-self, and dependent origination. And to Whitehead’s observation about an actuality—that “it never really is.” Dogen spoke of “Not’s thinking” and of course Martin Heidegger famously said, “Das Nichts nichtet—The nothing nots.2 By this logic, or the metaphysics of absence, when someone is talking, what is heard is not his voice, not the “personal” voice, but the voice of the ventriloquist. Each voice comes trailing clouds of spectral voices. All houses are haunted, or unheimlich, and all stories are populated with ghosts and spirits. There is a ghost in the machine. All identity is an alias. Every “original” text is a mosaic of ghostly citations. All writers are ghost writers. Counterfeit is key. And, as time goes by, not only is time out of joint, as Hamlet said, but time itself is haunted by multiple temporalities.
There is an element of linguistic play in this, of course; but, in a presence haunted by a real absence, it is quite sane to be a little loco, or jocoserious, to use a word that James Joyce coined. Dogen was supremely gifted at linguistic play and so sanely loco that he once remarked, “My life has been one continuous mistake.”3 Taking a hint from the title of Johan Huizinga’s seminal book, Homo Ludens, this deployment of language could be called lingua ludens, or language at play.
This is levity: buoyancy or light-heartedness.
A ghost plays a key role in Shakespeare’s most famous play—Hamlet. Indeed, as the story unfolds, the absent king makes his presence felt throughout the play. And in the subtle play of words in Prince Hamlet’s most memorable line—To be or not to be—we have the whole issue in a nutshell.
The ont- in ontology4 derives from the Greek root on-, meaning “existence” or “being,” and on- is the present participle of the verb einai, meaning “to be.”
This yields what Whitehead would call two ideal opposites:
Ontology — to be
Hauntology — not to be
To be or not to be—that is the question.
Going beyond its Greek derivation, onto- can be traced all the back to a Indo-European root es-, meaning “to be,” and is it not interesting to learn that not only “present” but also “absent” derive from this root; and from the participial form sont- derives an unexpected word: “Bodhisattva,” and from the suffixed form esti- comes “swastika,” ( 卍 ) one of the most pervasive and ancient symbols. Other family members include—entity, essence, yes, soothe, sin, interest, proud, and Parousia. Juxtaposing the last word, which refers to the “Second Coming,” with Bodhisattva, we forge a link between Christianity and Buddhism. I place “forge” in italics to indicate, at one and the same time, both senses of the word, as there are forgers, and then there are forgers.
A contrast between Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian tradition can be clearly seen by comparing two sentences from respective scriptures:
The end of the conceit “I am”—this is truly the greatest happiness of all.
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.
1. Derrida coined this neologism in his book Specters of Marx.
2. In regard to Heidegger’s jeu d’esprit, Charles Hartshorne observes: “True, none of the Americans or English had said that the ‘nothing nullifies,’ das Nichts nichtet, and I do not wish to say that this adds “nothing” to our wisdom!”
Charles Hartshorne, Reality as Social Process, p. 21
3. Dogen’s remark can be found entangled in the vines of the “Katto” (葛藤) fascicle of the Shobogenzo.
Norman Fischer comments on Dogen’s remark: “In our practice, the process goes on forever. Continuous implies that. We don’t come to the place where we say, Now, I’ve got it. I’ve got the whole thing down. It’s perfection. The sense of an ever more subtle, ever more refined understanding and development without end is what this saying implies. It always unfolds in front of you. I wouldn’t want any other way of practice.”
4. Please note that the three letters that spell “ont-“ also spell “not.”