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The Ontological Turn

I situate myself squarely within what has been characterized by some as an ontological turn in anthropology (though, it’s difficult to say if it deserves the moniker “turn” since few have actually taken it up as of yet).  For the past few decades, anthropologists (and philosophers and sociologists, and others) have concerned themselves primarily with the question of how do we know the things around us?  An epistemological question.  Can we truly know these things (objects, animals, other people, ideas, cultures, societies, etc.)?  Can we know them fully?  Is our knowledge about them real or is it an artefact of social processes such as discourse or ideology?  For me, these questions are not that important – we know things by the way they alter and affect us.  Only partially, it’s true, and in relation to our particular situatedness, but our knowledge of them is not reducible to social construction in the sense that many post-modern thinkers would argue.  Rather our knowledge is constructed by a complex interaction between our own (heterogeneous) beings and the (heterogeneous) being of the things (objects, people, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) we encounter (contact).

And here is where we turn.  For knowledge in this sense, is only one case among many of what is constructed.  Knowledge is constructed, but so too are we, and so too are those things we attempt to know.  The ontological turn takes the idea of constructivism not to its logical conclusion, but to its radical extreme.  Beings are constructed just as much as knowledge is constructed (in fact, I think of knowledge as a being itself in many ways).  It’s a radical anti-essentialism that rejects any kind of transcendent cause (though it would recognize the possibility, I think, of an immanent god, or soul).  The problem with positivism is that it rejects God as a transcendent being, but it fails to do away with transcendent essences that underlie all being.  The problem with post-modernism as characterized above (and it’s unfair, because post-modernism is a term that is applied to a lot of different people and ideas) is that it fails to engage any ontological commitments, preferring to remain safe within the epistemological sphere.  Ontological constructivism (as I’ve sometimes called it to differentiate it from social constructivism) rectifies these problems by proposing that all being is constructed – not simply knowledge of being – but constructed heterogeneously by many different kinds of beings (not just humans engaged in social discourse).  Levi Bryant’s onticology is just just the kind of constructivism that I’m talking about.

What does this mean for anthropology?  I’m working on a paper in which I discuss these issues, but I’ll briefly explain some of what I’ve been thinking.  It means that anthropology becomes a practice, not merely of understanding others, but of constructing a world of relations with others.  Understanding – knowledge – is one kind of relation that we may construct, but there are many other kinds  of relations as well – social relations, ecological relations, idea relations, etc.  Explicitly, we cannot help but construct these relationships – knowledge and beyond – so we ought to be thinking about the kinds of relationships we’re constructing and, as a result, the kind of world we are bringing into being.  It forces us to think, then, of what kind of world we can work to construct.

This is the kind of anthropology I wish to bring into existence – one that behaves as if the world is not given, that recognizes the presence and active participation of all kinds of beings, and that is reflexive with respect to the kinds of relations and worlds it brings into existence.  I don’t know if anyone else is with me (though I suspect there are many), but it’s where I come from, and hopefully where we’re headed.

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  1. dmf wrote:

    this is an important line of inquiry, just would ask you to keep in mind questions of how we decide what, in all of the complexity, is to be attended-to/included in differing circumstances and how we should attend to them since most of ‘them’ can’t tell us what they want or how things should proceed.

    Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  2. dmf wrote:

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  3. D wrote:

    This post would be clear if you actually said what you mean by the term construction.

    How is construction itself not an essence?

    When you say “we can construct X (relationships, or other things)” how is that leaving the epistemological turn?

    Construction sounds artificial and anthropomorphic. Does this idea mean building? Does it imply a creator, or even an immanent constructing activity in being? If so, what is this force, and what is it constructing with or from?

    Do things construct themselves? If so what constructs the relationships between them? Do relations between things construct things? If so how are these things original?

    I like the idea you’re talking about but the idea of construction is, at least, vague and undefined, and, perhaps worse, loaded with conceptual problems.

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  4. D, Your comment comes off as overly harsh – critique for the sake of critique rather than a genuine engagement with the ideas. The purpose of this post was to state a position with regard to anthropology, and not to define the concepts. If you were to read the body of my work rather than isolating a single post and expecting a complete philosophical exegesis, then you would probably get a sense of what I mean by the term. What’s more, if you were to read the philosophers and theorists I cite (e.g. Latour, Haraway, Stengers, Bryant, etc.), then you would have an even better understanding. You don’t have to do that, but if you’re not clear on the term, it’s generally a better approach to ask than to just criticize.

    That being said, I would be happy to attempt to clarify the term. It’s true that “construction” comes with a lot of baggage. I’ve seen a lot of different terms used in its place, and I’ve used several myself in different circumstances, but in this case I wanted to emphasize a continuity with but also an extension from a particular philosophical/theoretical tradition – constructivism. What I mean by “construction” is simply an historical and social (where “social” includes human and non-human beings) process of change. Construction is contrasted with “essence” because “essence” suggests a fundamental transcendent, and ahistorical substance that underlies all existence. Traditionally, constructivists have focused on the ways that knowledge, meaning, beliefs, values, norms, ideas, etc. are constructed. This is epistemological constructivism because it only goes so far as to say that the way we see and experience the world (i.e. the cultural screen through which we view things) is constructed (that is, the result of historical, social processes). Ontological constructivism goes a step further saying that all existence is constructed (the result of historical and social processes) including, but not limited to those cultural factors mentioned above. Thus, buildings are constructed, organisms are constructed, ecosystems are constructed, social systems are constructed, and so on.

    “Construction sounds artificial and anthropomorphic”
    It does sound artificial, perhaps, if by “artificial” you mean that it was assembled over time – I would only remove the implication of the dominance of human agency because I would argue that it’s not only humans that construct. If by “artificial” you mean “fake” then I would ask what the “real” is that you would use as a reference? As for “anthropomorphic” again, I would say that this suggests that only humans can construct – which does a severe disservice to the many other types of beings out there.

    “Does it imply a creator? … Do things construct themselves?”
    The answer is yes and no on both counts. The process is, as I said, social, which means that it’s always done in association with other beings. That means that there is no single being that could be said to be the “creator” – rather things are the result of an interaction between many different beings with no one being dominating or totalizing the process or product. Furthermore, the process can be more or less internal (autopoeitic) or external (allopoeitic), but it always happens in association with others so nothing can be said to be wholly self-created or wholly other-created.

    Does that answer most of your questions? I think I covered everything, but I’m not sure I understand some of what you’re asking.

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  5. ishi wrote:

    skimming this, i read this as saying ontology is an epistemology—-eg essences are themselves constructions. this is a big topic in science as well—are there really any universal laws of physics (or math for that matter). roger penrose mentions this in a recent paper on arxiv for example.
    i dont think anyone can know (which is also why i have a problem with bryant—his approach claims to try to do away with ‘gods’ , ‘father figures’, ‘theories of everything’ or other totalizing sources, but he really is just proposing another one (which like the others becomes a religion/business). its a relabeling, claiming to get away from say ‘original differences’ (axioms but i think the new axioms (meet the new bosses) actually are the same as the old.

    that doesnt say chaning the management is useless—evolution does that (the theory of everything).
    i would like to see maybe, (eg following debs) havign future changes in managment follow something other than pareto/power laws, so that all involved might get to give some input into the process. (in a sense, rather than having someone write a book, constitution, or law explaining the Creator, the crestor can be constructed in a morwe general participatory way—eg the priests might have to build the church too.)
    but, perhaps not everyone is chosen to be a Creator, which is why nowadays one has automated AI systems to help the graduate admissions process determines the ouctome.

    the ontology/epistemology thing (and i forget the 3rd cateogy of equal importance which i’ll look up) is interesting in science also when one looks at stuff like ‘eprigenetics’/lamarchianism (how essences become constructs (eg genetic engineering…) and the reverse).
    one can also add ‘constructal theory’ as a form of overdetermined constructivism.

    Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

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