Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ontology in Play

Levi Bryant has a recent post in which he acknowledges two senses of “ontology.” Thus “On the one hand, an ontology is a group or persons set of beliefs as to what is.” Yes. In this sense ontology is a category of thinking. However, as Bryant notes, that is not what philosophers mean by ontology: “On the other hand, an ontology is a theory about what is. It is making a claim that something exists. This is where the rubber hits the road.”

Ontology in the first sense, ontological thinking, has been under investigation in the cognitive sciences for the last three or four decades. I have a good many posts on that subject under the heading “ontological cognition.” But what about ontological thoughts AS thoughts? What kind of reality are we going to admit for those thoughts as thoughts? Do those thoughts not have some kind of real existences?

THAT’s the kind of thing I was grappling with in talking about realms of being in my own pluralist speculations. At this point, though, keeping track of what’s going on is very difficult. Something’s got to collapse.

It’s clear to me, however, that Bryant hasn’t caught up to cognitive science in his conceptualization of mental processes. It’s one thing to point out that we have ontological thoughts; it’s quite something else to objectify those thoughts and study how they work.


  1. This is a draft attempting to give some specific content to a debate on the relation between pluralism and realism that tends to go in circles, as one can put all sorts of contents under such generic terms. I try to distinguish pluralism from its relativist shadow, and to elaborate, both abstractly for its own sake, and in relation to a concrete example of a pluralist thinker, the concept of a realist pluralism. The concrete example is the pluralist metaphysics of Bruno Latour as it is expounded in his book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. I take Bruno Latour’s realist pluralism as it is articulated here and find that it does not correspond to Levi Bryant’s reductive stereotype of Latour as "relativist":

    1. I've been reading a bit of that. Very interesting. I think that's an important issue to explore, differentiating pluralism from relativism. One can, of course, admit all sorts of worldviews to scrutiny, but one must still choose and justify one's own worldview.

  2. I think that we can distinguish "ontological thinking" from "ontological thoughts". A realistic study of ontology would have to include both thinking ontologically about all ontologies, including one's own, and studying ontological thoughts. Ontology, in other words, is both subject and object in such a study. Bryant, in separating the two, poses his ontology as valid a priori, and studies ontological thoughts only as wrong beliefs about the world. The result is that he implicitly poses boundary conditions on possible evolutions in the sciences and on possible interactions between people of different ontological traditions. The idea, that you advance, that ontology itself could be a valid object of empirical research does not occur to him, as he wishes at least the broad outlines of the "correct" ontology to be known in advance;

    1. One line of empirical research is about the development of ontological thinking in children. For example, when do they differentiate between living and non-living, and by what criteria?

      It's not at all clear to me that we can, in fact, study our own ontology. We can assert the need to do so and we can make ironic gestures in that direction, but it's not clear that we can objectify our own thought processes in the way that we can (more or less) objectify the thinking of young children.

  3. "Do those thoughts not have some kind of real existences?"

    I came across this notion in a philosophical work last year. Sort of played with it myself for years.

    Not particularly concerned if it is a valid philosophical notion. Its creatively useful and low cost, if it dies and is replaced by something else its not any big deal.

    Not explored the philosophy in any depth.

    But the notion in John Andersen's Mind as Feeling that their is enough correspondence between mental and non-mental realms/ natural and social worlds. I certainly find it useful. But then it supports how I was thinking anyway.