To everything there is an ontological season

I’ve recently been reading about the ontological turn in anthropology. The movement so-called is little more than a decade old but has nevertheless generated an extensive literature.1

The turn is aimed against a view according to which people in different cultures can have different worldviews. Worldviews are understood to be perspectives or views of a single underlying world, which the anthropologist takes to be the natural world as described by the the sciences. That kind of multi-culturalism recognizes all cultures as having a certain dignity perhaps, but only recognizes science as the arbiter of deep, underlying truth. It treats culture as merely epistemological (a layer between people and the world), and it presumes an ontology consisting of one natural world and an array of different cultures which are lenses for viewing it.

The ontological turn aims to take seriously the otherness of other peoples’ lives. Instead of treating culture as a lens on the world, it treats the accounts given by locals as describing how things are for the locals. The upshot is that the people studied live in a different world.

I’ve only read a bit of this literature, but it doesn’t really sound like anything new to me. There are citations to Bruno Latour, but not (that I’ve seen) to other literature in post-Kuhn science studies. Kuhn famously spoke of different worlds, and there’s been plenty of subsequent clarification about what that could mean and whether it could make any sense. There are worries about the “recursivity” of the ontological turn, but there were discussions of “reflexivity” that surrounded the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.

First, maybe this forgetting is OK. Maybe every field forgets the past so that it can have something new to say. It is possible to tell the story of philosophy so that all of the problems are posed by Plato and we’ve been juggling his hot potatoes ever since, but it’s not necessarily the most salient or useful way of telling the story.

Second, this may be evidence of the analytic/continental divide. Even in science studies, there was a divide between people for whom Latour was the central figure and people who primarily looked to anglophone figures like Barnes, Bloor, Shapin, and Collins. I would have thought Kuhn crossed that divide, though, so it’s odd not to see him even mentioned.2

Regardless, I get the feeling that the ontological turn overshoots its mark.

In the history of philosophy and the history of science, it is important to take actors’ categories seriously. Just as that’s important when trying to understand past people, it is important when trying to understand contemporary people in different parts of the world. In a book review that is ultimately critical of the ontological turn, James Laidlaw writes approvingly:

[T]he anthropologist should take seriously the concepts and theories embodied in the ethnographic data, as concepts to think with and use in ethnographic analysis, rather than supposing that we already have all the concepts we need…. We should be open to the possibility that what we learn from our ethnography can tell us something we don’t already know about what kinds of things there are in the world.

One ought not begin with the condescending project of translating everything into ones own set of categories, especially not with the presumption that ones categories are fundamentally correct. Yet, as Laidlaw writes, “[N]o post-anything overarching theory is needed to practise [this] precept.” What is needed are healthy measures of modesty and charity. One can take actors’ categories seriously without treating them as being the world in any richly ontological sense. One needn’t treat any ontology as fundamental when trying to understand ordinary practice and daily life.

  1. Primary champions of the turn include Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen. There’s a readable encyclopedia entry by Paolo Heywood, who’s a critic of the movement.
  2. If the divide were doing all of the work, I’d expect more invocation of Heidegger’s rejection of world pictures. But maybe Heidegger is passe.

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