Reader Letter: Ontology and the anthropological butter knife

[The following is an anonymous reader letter I received in response to some of the recent discussions about anthropology & the ontological turn.]

I don’t get the ontological turn, to be honest.  Oh, I get it intellectually, this struggle to understand how we can understand the other yet also incorporate that into our philosophy, and to open up our thinking beyond just a mentalese version of culture (rules, symbols, etc.).  We’re material beings, we’re agents, the world is a material place, other people think differently than we do… You think that would all be common sense at this point for anthropologists, rather than a big existential crisis all over again.

Oh, I do think the ontological turn is doing interesting intellectual work; I like theory after all, and this is a struggle on the sociocultural side, a bit of an identity crisis about the loss of culture and the expansion of ethnography to just about everywhere.  But I also see it as doing a fair amount of disciplining work, of promoting a high-intellectual agenda, of saying there’s serious stuff going on, and that’s what really matters.

It would be simpler to say, philosophers, we love you, you’re really smart, well trained, good at debate.  But you’re also royally screwed, and experimental philosophy, that won’t really save you.  And then just to claim philosophy as our own.  I’ve often thought that, that anthropology is really an empirical, grounded philosophy, an investigation of how people think and act based on what they actually do and say.  It’s like going back to the Greek philosophers.  But we’re not doing that.  Rather, the new ontologists are trying to act daring enough to claim that ground, but really don’t seem well-versed enough to get into that fight.

Claiming the ground philosophy has so often staked out, and which science in its many forms also wants to try to take of late, that in itself would be enough.  I really wish the ontologists would just stop there, at the “screw you, we’ve got this” statement.  But after that it often becomes about academese, because that’s the main thing they know.  And in that particular arena, it’s like the anthropologists bring a butter knife to what’s at least a knife fight (if not a gun fight), and that butter knife doesn’t cut through much and smears everything around anyway.  Sure, a lot of rich, creamy language, but it’s the same brown as the philosophers when it comes out the other end.  At least they’ve got precision on their side.

So, what do the ontologists miss?  One, they kinda think they’re solving the nature-nurture debate, because they’re talking “ontology,” the nature of being.  But all they’re really solving is how to try to talk about the nurture side of ontology; it’s like Geertz all over again.  Oh, yes, we’re these biosocial beings, and then the systems of symbols take precedence, and the best way to understand those systems is to treat them as malleable texts.  Problem solved!

Or not.  It’s as if they equate “being” with consciousness, the same classic mistake of Western philosophy.  Try being hungry for awhile.  Or someone trying to make ends meet in coastal Mexico, tourism moving in, the old ways getting displaced, and you got two kids to feed, and you know that what the government is doing isn’t quite right, but it’s so ordered, sounds rational, and it’s bringing a lot of money, and how the heck are you supposed to wrap your head around that?

Those sorts of pragmatic questions could be of more use in anthropology.  So could an empirical philosophy that, even as it insists on materiality and trying to dissolve the nature/culture division, treats both of those as more than ideas, as more than Western traditions hampering our present understanding.

So let’s listen to some Samuel Johnson on Bishop Berkeley:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – “I refute it thus.”

It comes down to three things for me, (1) the ontological turn betrays a larger holistic anthropology, (2) the ontological turn reinforces the Ivory Tower, mistaking sophistry for relevance and doing little about present plights faced by students, adjuncts, and research participants alike; and (3) it limits our anthropological bad-assery, which should just claim “everyday philosophy” as our own.

-Anonymous.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

6 thoughts on “Reader Letter: Ontology and the anthropological butter knife

  1. Those sorts of pragmatic questions could be of more use in anthropology. So could an empirical philosophy that, even as it insists on materiality and trying to dissolve the nature/culture division, treats both of those as more than ideas, as more than Western traditions hampering our present understanding.

    I wonder if by ‘materiality’ Anon means Daniel Miller style materiality? The ontologists have nothing on the materiality crew as far as high-intellectual agendas go!

  2. Not being conversant with ontology at the academic level, I’d be interested on the finer points of your take-down of this branch of philosophy, some examples of Ivory Tower irrelevance to the day-in, day-out goings on of the average man. In my own pondering, I often find that I am able to locate ontological assumptions in the make-up of those around me which definitely appear to inhibit their experience, both in their private moments and how they cope with their essential psychological atomism, and how they relate to the world around them, especially other people. Looking behind the curtain of the ideological OZ, there lurks any number of ontological conceits, as if assimilated from the socio-cultural environ, which few ever bother to unpack and examine, which then has a determinative affect upon how people pretend to understand their experience, mostly in line with their given cultural context and not often autonomously arrived at. I think that’s deeply unfortunate, and can serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of lazy psychological conformity. But then again, my friends have commented that I’ve long ago went off the deep end where they care not to follow; perhaps, after all, it’s better to be ignorantly happy than wisely sad, yes?

  3. (3) it limits our anthropological bad-assery, which should just claim “everyday philosophy” as our own.

    It’s not about tribes. Or, it shouldn’t be. It should be about being right about things, not about who is right about things.

    I find some of your (ahem — Anon’s) objections to this ontology thing a bit strange. There are better reasons for being suspicious of it, chief among them being that it is based on a bizarre and unsupportable anti-realism that has somehow passed muster among anthropologists. Whether it leads to Ivory Towerism or not, it is philosophically unsophisticated and bizarre, and Anon is right to raise Johnson’s objection.

    You know, most philosophy departments in the world – and literally all of the good ones – are dominated by analytic philosophers who have nothing to do with this continental stuff and who avoid impenetrability and obscurity like the plague. Might be a good idea to check out, say, Dan Dennett – not his atheist writings, but his stuff on human thought and action (e.g., The Intentional Stance) – or Donald Davidson.

    We’re material beings, we’re agents, the world is a material place, other people think differently than we do…

    As Anon points out, this is obvious and should serve as the basis for literally any realistic approach to human culture and society. The world is material, human reason and action is material, and humans can have wildly different beliefs and, therefore, reasons. This should be obvious and not a source of any contention whatsoever.

    Oh, I get it intellectually, this struggle to understand how we can understand the other yet also incorporate that into our philosophy, and to open up our thinking beyond just a mentalese version of culture (rules, symbols, etc.).

    Which would be fine, except that a) culture and society are mental things, and they have their material existence in human brains, and b) there’s really no reason to adopt the ideas of other societies into our views of the world, especially if they can’t be independently supported. There’s no point in taking demons as real just because some communities believe in demons. Some beliefs are just beliefs, no matter how fervently they’re believed. Unfortunately for Latour’s view, and other’s, believing something to be true doesn’t make it true.

  4. Re Latour: Graham Harman observes that Latour is called an idealist by materialists, a materialist by idealists, and is, in fact, neither. His attack is not on materialism, but rather on reductionism. The thrust of his attack is anticipated by Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World, where, on page 23, Whitehead, who has been discussing the 17th century revolution in science that gave rise to scientific materialism says,

    “There persists, however, throughout the whole period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ’scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived. It is not wrong, if properly construed. If we confine ourselves to certain types of facts, abstracted from the complete circumstances in which they occur, the materialistic assumption expresses these facts to perfection. But when we pass beyond the abstraction, either by more subtle employment of our senses, or by the request for meanings and for coherence of thoughts, the scheme breaks down at once. The narrow efficiency of the scheme was the very cause of its supreme methodological success. For it directed attention to just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation.”

    Note that “It is not wrong, if properly construed.” While the physics of light and the neurophysiology of sight can both be shown to have definite relations to the colors of the sunset described by a poet, they aren’t what the poet is talking about. We do not understand the poetry by talking about the physics—and, of course, the reverse is true.

  5. Graham Harman observes that Latour is called an idealist by materialists, a materialist by idealists, and is, in fact, neither.

    I was going to say that this is correct: Latour is, in fact, a solipsist. But actually his thinking is deeply confused and I’m sure he has a range of mutually contradictory beliefs..

    It’s clear that reductionism isn’t Latour’s target when you actually read what Latour has written (and even if it were his target, it’s a bad one to choose). He has said that Ramesses II couldn’t have died of tuberculosis because the bacillus hadn’t been identified in his time; he actually died from what was locally believed to have killed him, which cannot possibly have been tuberculosis. He has said that whatever you believe to be true is true, and that we need to ‘take seriously’ the idea of total ontological relativism, with the implication that if I believe that p and you believe that ¬p, then we’re both right and they’re both true statements. And if two contradictory things are both ‘true’, then there can be no real world and no truth.

    I’m sure he claims to be a materialist, and I suppose he sees no contradiction between this and his view that there is no real world and no truth. It’s easy to hold a range of contradictory higher-order beliefs if you don’t believe in a real world.

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