Hi Theorists,

Following on from the discussions of multiple ontologies and perspectivism, I'm trying to build an argument about the incommensurability of ontologies (in plain language, how people's assumptions about the nature of reality prevent them - at least at times - from getting through to each other, e.g. as observable ethnographically in 'first contact' situations, or indeed in much anthropological fieldwork in general).

In particular, I'm interested in how people actually go about forging intelligibility between each others 'worlds' - in whether and to what degree they are able to learn each others' 'ways of seeing' (ontologically speaking) - and what the 'mechanisms' might be for doing that.

In other words, how do people with different assumptions about the nature of reality get on (where and when they do), and how do ontologies change?

Aside from my own ethnography, Quine seems useful, but on the other hand there must be some basic reasons as to why he doesn't seem to feature very prominently in anthropological discussions, despite his own interest in the subject (gavagai's etc.)

So here I'm curious to learn, from your perspectives, what's wrong with Quine, as far as anthropology is concerned?

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OK, I'll bite. As the devil's advocate, and someone who makes his living as a translator and copywriter in Japan, I'll suggest flat out that ontological incommensurability is rarely a problem. Having radically opposed interests may be. I mention once again a remark I heard as a Telluride summer scholar at Cornell studying the history of the labor movement in the U.S. Innocent as only a high-school junior raised in a Virginia could be, I piped up and proposed that a lot of trouble could be avoided if people would only take the time to understand each other. The professor responded—a zennish whack on the head for me—that people frequently understand perfectly the situation that they are in, in which they are allied with opposite sides in a fight. 

As Phil said, these are great comments, Chris (and sorry for the delayed response, due to being offline for the past few weeks). I'm going to have to do some homework before I can weigh in with any authority. Actually, having got to a certain point with Quine here (final pre-publication draft downloadable here), thanks to participants in this discussion, I'm soon to delve further into Quine in a forthcoming paper for Hau. For now, a couple of initial reactions:

CW: it seems to me that the indeterminacy argument becomes largely irrelevant if you take seriously the later Wittgenstein - of Philosophical Investigations.

I don't know Wittgenstein well enough to say, but it appears that whole books have been written on the relationship between his and Quine's philosophy, e.g. Arrington and Glock's Wittgenstein and Quine (1996). I'd better get reading.

CW: If a word's meaning largely derives from use, and apart from as part of Philosophical conversations, doesn't take place outside a practical context, then it seems like the notion of langue - the system of language to use Saussure's terms, becomes a potentially unhelpful abstraction - of parole or actual language in practice. It is an academic model, like the anthropological idea of a culture, but doesn't really exist out there in the world.

According to my reading of Quine (though I would still claim no expertise), he too had no truck with things like langue (though see Patrice Maniglier's 'Processing Cultures: "Structuralism" in the History of Artificial Intelligence' for a brilliant representation of what structuralists really meant by that). Quine's beef, as I understand it, was with langue construed as purely psychological internal phenomena (hence his longstanding enmity with Chomsky) since, if it ain't empirically observable, it might as well not exist, at least as an object of study, no?

If, as you say, in Wittgenstein's language games the rules are not formulated but figured out in practice, and if someone starts playing differently - by picking up the ball rather than kicking it - then this can become a game changer - ie. rugby, then I suspect Quine and Wittgenstein might have inadvertently (?) found themselves playing for the same team as it were, (though I'm not sure that Quine's main preoccupations were really about language in this sense).

"Inadvertently" because I think perhaps for Quine the point would not be that people are playing different games on different pitches, but that the question of whether a game in which other players one might come across are engaged is 'the same' or 'different from' one's own is not immediately (if ever) completely clear - that one simply muddles on through, taking cues from others' [linguistic] behaviour (and assuming, charitably, that this must make some sort of sense) since no neutral metaposition from which to observe the diversity or multiplicity of games [or languages] is possible. I may be putting words in his mouth there, but this is something like what I get from his statement that "radical translation begins at home".

CW: If my understanding of Wittgenstein is right, then language games don't have books of rules and associations that enforce these (apart from the Academie Francaise). Instead they are more like the old fashioned football games that would range across villages involving all sorts of people piling in for fun. Everyone pretty much knows what is going on, but no-one is quite sure. This means that there is lots of scope for improvisation, innovation and fun, but also for some pretty serious misunderstanding.

This sounds like something with which my Quine might concur.

CW: In terms of multiple ontologies, I don't think this is very helpful, because I think it suggests that Quine's problem of indeterminacy is true even between speakers of the same language.

Yes, absolutely it applies to speakers of the same language - which is precisely why I regard it as helpful in terms of multiple ontologies, since these of course cannot (at least should not) be mapped onto 'language worlds', 'cultures' or similar.

When encountering people playing a game with unfamiliar rules, whether at home or abroad, you can either join in and have a go, refuse to participate, or try and get them to change the game - all of which you find in early contact situations. I think Marilyn Strathern's Artefacts of History paper is pretty good on this, but I don't think it is just Melanesians who respond in the way she suggests.

Yes but I take the point of her piece to be that you might find that what appear as other 'game-players' to you are in fact doctors, politicians or international peacemakers, if you catch my drift? Or gods or ancestors. In other words, beings who might regard themselves and what is happening rather differently from how you regard them and what they are doing (and indeed take umbrage at being thought of as 'playing a game').

What would any of us do if an alien space craft arrived on earth - probably try to blow it up if Hollywood films are to be believed, but if that didn't work we might try to give them something impressive as an experiment to test their intentions. Such prestations (to use Mauss' term) are tentative, experimental and uncertain - but then aren't they always?.... Once people start exchanging things - words, gifts, services etc. you don't have separate games anymore, even if no-one can tell you what the new rules are yet.

Well yes and no. Do gifts always forge connections?

..and, just to follow up on Phil's comments, I would say that Davidson is not necessarily a brilliant translator of Quine (at least of "my" Quine!) Here's my take on him, in a paragraph from the article mentioned above (though Phil's point about the paucity of empirical examples stands in both cases, even if Quine did quote Malinowski):

Here it may be timely to expand briefly on what is meant by 'ontological incommensurability' within social anthropology, especially as this has been a topic of recent debate. Davidson's well-known critique of 'The very idea of conceptual schemes' (Davidson 1974) is perhaps what springs to mind for many when ethnographers talk of their informants as occupying 'different worlds', but his formulation is misleading in important respects, notably in implying a conflation of 'cultures', languages and 'ontologies' qua 'conceptual schemes'. On the contrary, most anthropologists deploying the term 'ontologies' do so precisely in attempts to avoid the problems associated with 'the culture concept' and to seek more productive ways of thinking about difference than those offered by cultural relativism. As a term that is still up
for grabs within the discipline, however, it is used differently by different people. Whereas for Holbraad, for example, 'ontologies' are categorically not 'phenomena out there to be found', but rather artefacts of anthropological analysis, others at least appear to defend a more substantive view of ontological difference. Viveiros de Castro (2003: 14) for instance speaks of his own anthropological project as one that seeks to advance the 'ontological self-determination of the world's peoples', and has described Amazonian thought, according to Latour (2009, 2), as 'a fully domesticated and highly elaborated philosophy'. Despite divergences in language, what these projects have in common is a concern to move beyond the image of a world made up of 'cultural packages, coherent inside and different from what is elsewhere' (Mol 2002) that has dominated anthropological thinking for over a century. Instead of assuming forms of difference that map neatly onto groups, institutions and communities that are often in turn geographically circumscribed, ontology takes over 'the difficult problem of how this difference is to be located, situated, delimited' (Candeia in Venkatesan ed. 2010). This is not of course to say that people living in the same place or participating in relationships of various kinds have nothing in common, nor that all differences between them are incommensurable. Rather, it is to point out that, were we to ask those we regard as other what it is that they share, and what makes them different from us, we might be surprised by their
answers, which ought in turn to inspire us to re-think our own assumptions about sameness and alterity.

Thanks for these comments Amiria - hope you had a good trip.

I have been waiting for your return and response - but have also been finalising a full draft of my thesis, which has kept me pretty busy over the last few weeks.

From what you say, there seems to be more overlap between Wittgenstein and Quine than I allowed for, if as you say he suggests that 'radical translation begins at home'. However, I am not entirely clear about the theoretical work you want Quine's notion of incommensurability to do. I guess what concerns me is that it seems like some of the contemporary deployments of the notion of ontologies involve attempts, as you say, to move away from the notion of 'cultures' or 'cultural packages', but at the same time to retain the sense of radical alterity with which these have sometimes been associated. While I understand the political work that strategic essentialism plays in a world that is still dominated by the political imaginary of the nation state, consisting of a geographically circumscribed group sharing a common language and set of practices, I can't really see what it adds that much to the anthropological imaginary.

That probably has quite a lot with where I am coming from. Having learnt my anthropology in Oxford, where there was a strong emphasis on the legacies of Mauss, I don't really recognise your picture of anthropology as dominated by an understanding of the world as dominated by 'cultural packages. coherent inside and different from what is elsewhere' over the last century. Mauss' work on categories such as 'The Gift' or 'The Person' emphasise the degree to which there are many overlaps between both the practices and concepts deployed by people in different places, as well as at different periods in time. Mary Douglas' work is also important in this sense, but one could add Victor Turner, and perhaps to a lesser extent Max Gluckman.

If the 'culture' concept has been associated with the dominance of the nation state in the political imaginary, an essentially geographically defined entity, then it seems that empire, and perhaps particularly the French and British Empires, were associated with the concept of 'civilization', a largely historically defined one. This perhaps explains why 'Culture' had the salience in German and American anthropology, that I don't really think it ever really had in Britain or even France. I have attempted to explore some of the permutations in civilisational thinking, and the different political dimensions these had during the nineteenth century in some of my work on Tylor over the last couple of years (Tylor seems to have regarded Culture and Civilization as synonyms, so his use of the word Culture is not suggestive of the way it came to be used in the 20th c.).

Nevertheless, in many ways the post-imperial world of the twenty-first century has a strong resemblance to the imperial world of the 19th, and I wonder whether there are elements of thinking associated with the notion of 'civilization' that may have as much to offer a move away from 'culture' as the embrace of 'ontological incommensurability'.

There is obviously a political dimension to these words and their deployment, and I have to admit that as someone who spent the early part of my life in apartheid South Africa, I have a considerable difficulty stomaching an emphasis on alterity and incommensurability. For me this carries too much of a whiff of apartheid as a political project of purification. Nevertheless, I recognise that the political situation in New Zealand, for instance, is quite different.

In answer to the question about whether gifts always forge connections, I think the answer has to be no. But - prestations in the Maussian sense, are probably always attempts to establish relations, though these relations can be ones of distance and avoidance. I begin my thesis with the arrival of the missionary John Williams on the beach at Erromanga in Vanuatu in 1839, where he tried to establish relations with local people by handing out beads, mirrors and cloth. While this strategy worked for him in many parts of the Pacific, it didn't prevent him being killed at Erromanga. The Erromangans, however, were not responding to Williams' gifts, but rather to the negative reciprocity (in the Sahlins sense) of other Europeans, who had killed a number of men a short time previously.

If you are interested in the way I have attempted to grapple with this example and related issues in a more extensive way, I have loaded onto academia.edu a draft of the first chapter of my thesis 'The Moving Objects of the London Missionary Society: An Experiment in Symmetrical Anthropology':


Comments or suggestions gratefully received. I will be submitting (god(s) willing) in January.

Chris, the first few pages of your thesis look very interesting, indeed. I admire the breadth of your symmetrical vision. You mention Mauss, but I wonder if you have had a chance to look at Simmel. The following is a citation from my notes that you might find interesting.

Source: Donald N. Levine, ed.(1971) George Simmel: On Individuation and Social Forms. In the Heritage of Sociology Series, Chicago University Press.


The picture of another man that a man gains through personal contact with him is based on certain distortions. These are not simple mistakes resulting from incomplete experience, defective vision, or sympathetic or antipathetic prejudices. They are fundamental changes in the quality of the actual object perceived and they are of two types. We see the other person generalized, in some measure. This is so, perhaps, because we cannot fully represent to ourselves an individuality which deviates from our own. Any re-creation of a person is determined by one's similarity to him. To be sure, similarity is by no means the only condition of psychological insight, for dissimilarity, too, seems required in order to gain distance and objectivity. In addition, aside from the question of similarity or dissimilarity, an intellectual capacity is needed. Nevertheless, perfect cognition presupposes perfect identity. It seems, however, that every individual has in himself a core of individuality which cannot be re-created by anybody else whose core differs qualitatively from his own. And the challenge to re-create is logically incompatible with psychological distance and objective judgment which are also bases for representing another.

All relations among men are determined by the varying degrees of this incompleteness. Whatever the cause of this incompleteness, its consequence is a generalization of the psychological picture we have of another, a generalization that results in a blurring of contours which adds a relation to other pictures to the uniqueness of this one. We conceive of each man—and this is a fact which has a specific effect upon our practical behavior toward him—as being the human type which is suggested by his individuality. We think of him in terms not only of his singularity but also in terms of a general category. It is this peculiarly incomplete coincidence which distinguishes the relation between a human category and a human singularity from the relation which usually exists between a general concept and the particular instance it covers….

This leads to a further step. It is precisely because of the utter uniqueness of any given personality that we form a picture which is not identical with its reality but which at the same time does not coincide with a general type. The picture we form is the one that the personality would show if the individual were truly himself, so to speak, if he realized, toward a good or toward a bad side, for better or worse, his ideal possibility, the possibility that lies in every individual. All of us are fragments, not only of general man, but also of ourselves. We are outlines not only of the types "man," "good," "bad," and the like but also of the individuality and uniqueness of ourselves.

It strikes me that you are well on the way to a deeper understanding of, assuming that Simmel is right, how the fragments of which we all are made are woven into the bricolages we call either "cultures" or "ethnographies."



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