[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.