HORATIO
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

HAMLET
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Much ink has been spilt in anthropology recently about 'ontology' and the ontological turn. There is a shift in attention from seemingly 'old' framing concepts like society and culture to issues concerning the language/philosophy of 'being'. A great deal of of this discussion can be traced to three figureheads - Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern and Bruno Latour. What is the significance of this turn? Since there has always been a comparative cosmology entailed in anthropological debates, is there anything distinctive or surprising in this emphasis? What, if anything, has changed?

It has been suggested that I refer readers of this thread to the GDAT debate 'Ontology is just another word for culture'. This may help make sense of the issues at hand in a number of the discussion points.

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Try as I might, I have never been able to master the term 'ontology' in such a way as to use it myself credibly. Do you have suggestions for remedying this lack or am I better off as an ignorant dinosaur? When my old antediluvian mate, Chris Hann, suggested recently that we might consider using the word in something we are writing (without specifying why), I figured our side must have lost.
Well let us see; (was it?) the most recent GDAT debate argued that there is no difference between 'ontology' and what used to be called 'culture'. However, taking one side of the debate - a relativist anthropology that explores 'logics of being' from the inside out has a chance to say something challenging to anthropological orthodoxy (if it can be translated into comprehensible language) - but some of the 'downsides' are perhaps more obvious...

The ontologists would probably agree with the argument that ontology in the form of discussions about baloma or tallensi ancestors has always been with us.

Keith Hart said:
Try as I might, I have never been able to master the term 'ontology' in such a way as to use it myself credibly. Do you have suggestions for remedying this lack or am I better off being ignorant?
OK, but whom do you blame for the ontology plague, since Castro, Strathern and Latour rode a wave they did not originate? Heidegger? But then why should that old Nazi be in vogue? Maybe because he was good. After I got through the wording, I found some strong stuff in his late metaphysics, so maybe I am not a hopeless case.
Well, I have got a bit of a blind spot for Heidegger, though his 'What is a Thing?' is a clearly written exposition of Kant and doesn't seem to engage in any of the twentythreesyllablewords I associate with him (But maybe that was the translation). In terms of the phenomenological aspect I was recently very impressed by Simmel's Rembrandt (Routledge 2005) - though not so much by the editing; stuff like 'lead' for 'led', 'gotten' and so on.

I would say there are quite a few sources for the ontological turn, though some of them derive from the fact that culture and society disappeared and folk had to find a new smart sounding cover for what people were doing already.

Keith Hart said:
OK, but whom do you blame for the ontology plague, since Castro, Strathern and Latour rode a wave they did not originate? Heidegger? But then why should that old Nazi be in vogue? Maybe because he was good. After I got through the wording, I found some strong stuff in his late metaphysics, so maybe I am not a hopeless case.
From Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology

Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology_(information_science)

In computer science and information science, an ontology is a formal representation of a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. It is used to reason about the properties of that domain, and may be used to define the domain. In theory, an ontology is a "formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualisation".[1] An ontology provides a shared vocabulary, which can be used to model a domain — that is, the type of objects and/or concepts that exist, and their properties and relations.[2]

Ontologies are used in artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, software engineering, biomedical informatics, library science, and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it.
Thanks, John. I was being a bit playful for my mate Huon's sake. And, as he said, the word does have alternatives that once expressed something similar. But it is useful to have the connection with all these new sciences (as opposed to old philosophers and opportunistic anthropologists) pointed out.

John McCreery said:
From Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology

Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology_(information_science)

In computer science and information science, an ontology is a formal representation of a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. It is used to reason about the properties of that domain, and may be used to define the domain. In theory, an ontology is a "formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualisation".[1] An ontology provides a shared vocabulary, which can be used to model a domain — that is, the type of objects and/or concepts that exist, and their properties and relations.[2]

Ontologies are used in artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, software engineering, biomedical informatics, library science, and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it.
Thanks John, Calling our attention to this brief definition is useful and helps focus how the new comparative ontology is emerging. As I see it, what the Amazonian perspectivists (Castro et al.) and what is now called the New Melanesian Ethnography is reaching for, is a comparative ontology that explores 'what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences' in an Amazonian or Melanesian relativist frame.

So perspectivist ontology is the theory of how entities are organised within an Amazonian 'multinatural' regime and the relations theory of the NME explore has to do with how, for example, within the field of exchange, human agency can appear in 'individual' or 'dividual' forms. So, this comparative ontology tends to be distinguished by its emphasis on defining a logic of interaction. The problem may be that as we try to reduce the 'gaps' and contingencies in these theories of being as well as the possibilities for creativity, the logic begins to look a little rarified.

As I say, we have met with these ideas before in terms of how, e.g., 'baloma' in the Trobriand islands is both an entity and an organising principle with regard to matrilineal relationships.

John McCreery said:
From Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology
Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology_(information_science)

In computer science and information science, an ontology is a formal representation of a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. It is used to reason about the properties of that domain, and may be used to define the domain. In theory, an ontology is a "formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualisation".[1] An ontology provides a shared vocabulary, which can be used to model a domain — that is, the type of objects and/or concepts that exist, and their properties and relations.[2] Ontologies are used in artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, software engineering, biomedical informatics, library science, and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it.
Maybe relativist is a peculiar label for arguments that usually proceed on the binary basis of us vs them. It is not accidental (as the Stalinists used to say) that the two areas epitomize for some the primitive object of an anthropology that has mainly lost that focus in most places. We have plural cultures and singular nature, they the opposite. We have commodities, they have gifts. The two schools you identify flourish in western academia, but are highly contested as being abstract, ahistorical and overgeneralized, especially in Papua New Guinea/Australia and Brazil/Ecuador.

Latour has joined both Strathern and Viveiros de Castro as a way of articulating his own fight with French big think sociology. Since abandoning ANT and Callon, he has taken up the label 'pragmatism' for this opposition of late, building bridges to the American pragmatists and attacking the Durkheimians through Tarde. His drift over the years has been systematic, but the labels change. The same with Strathern.

So I guess my query is what is gained by making this hinge on 'ontology' and how is it 'relativist' compared say with Simmel's use of the term?

Huon Wardle said:
What the Amazonian perspectivists (Castro et al.) and the New Melanesian Ethnography are reaching for is a comparative ontology that explores 'what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences' in an Amazonian or Melanesian relativist frame.
'Monism leads on to dualism or to pluralism, but they again create a desire for unity.' (Simmel).

Keith Hart said:
Maybe relativist is a peculiar label for arguments that usually proceed on the binary basis of us vs them. It is not accidental (as the Stalinists used to say) that the two areas epitomize for some the primitive object of an anthropology that has mainly lost that focus in most places. We have plural cultures and singular nature, they the opposite. We have commodities, they have gifts. The two schools you identify flourish in western academia, but are highly contested as being abstract, ahistorical and overgeneralized, especially in Papua New Guinea/Australia and Brazil/Ecuador.
Latour has joined both Strathern and Viveiros de Castro as a way of articulating his own fight with French big think sociology. Since abandoning ANT and Callon, he has taken up the label 'pragmatism' for this opposition of late, building bridges to the American pragmatists and attacking the Durkheimians through Tarde. His drift over the years has been systematic, but the labels change. The same with Strathern. So I guess my query is what is gained by making this hinge on 'ontology' and how is it 'relativist' compared say with Simmel's use of the term?

Huon Wardle said:
What the Amazonian perspectivists (Castro et al.) and the New Melanesian Ethnography are reaching for is a comparative ontology that explores 'what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences' in an Amazonian or Melanesian relativist frame.
Is this an example of the maxim that metaphysics leads inevitably to mysticism?

Huon Wardle said:
'Monism leads on to dualism or to pluralism, but they again create a desire for unity.' (Simmel).

Keith Hart said:
Maybe relativist is a peculiar label for arguments that usually proceed on the binary basis of us vs them. It is not accidental (as the Stalinists used to say) that the two areas epitomize for some the primitive object of an anthropology that has mainly lost that focus in most places. We have plural cultures and singular nature, they the opposite. We have commodities, they have gifts. The two schools you identify flourish in western academia, but are highly contested as being abstract, ahistorical and overgeneralized, especially in Papua New Guinea/Australia and Brazil/Ecuador.
Latour has joined both Strathern and Viveiros de Castro as a way of articulating his own fight with French big think sociology. Since abandoning ANT and Callon, he has taken up the label 'pragmatism' for this opposition of late, building bridges to the American pragmatists and attacking the Durkheimians through Tarde. His drift over the years has been systematic, but the labels change. The same with Strathern. So I guess my query is what is gained by making this hinge on 'ontology' and how is it 'relativist' compared say with Simmel's use of the term?

Huon Wardle said:
What the Amazonian perspectivists (Castro et al.) and the New Melanesian Ethnography are reaching for is a comparative ontology that explores 'what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences' in an Amazonian or Melanesian relativist frame.
Pure metaphysics and mysticism are the same thing aren't they - so one can't very well lead to the other, or can it? No, it was a rather elliptical and mystical answer to Keith's question about how the new ontologists are 'relativist' compared to Simmel. They are setting up a dualism along Keith's lines, but Simmel would say that this dualism is likely to have only a very temporary consistency (unless it becomes a deeply rooted dogma) because there will inevitably be a further pluralisation and or search for unification - all knowledge is relative to this push and pull ad infinitum.

John McCreery said:
Is this an example of the maxim that metaphysics leads inevitably to mysticism?
Huon Wardle said:
'Monism leads on to dualism or to pluralism, but they again create a desire for unity.' (Simmel).

Keith Hart said:
Maybe relativist is a peculiar label for arguments that usually proceed on the binary basis of us vs them. It is not accidental (as the Stalinists used to say) that the two areas epitomize for some the primitive object of an anthropology that has mainly lost that focus in most places. We have plural cultures and singular nature, they the opposite. We have commodities, they have gifts. The two schools you identify flourish in western academia, but are highly contested as being abstract, ahistorical and overgeneralized, especially in Papua New Guinea/Australia and Brazil/Ecuador.
Latour has joined both Strathern and Viveiros de Castro as a way of articulating his own fight with French big think sociology. Since abandoning ANT and Callon, he has taken up the label 'pragmatism' for this opposition of late, building bridges to the American pragmatists and attacking the Durkheimians through Tarde. His drift over the years has been systematic, but the labels change. The same with Strathern. So I guess my query is what is gained by making this hinge on 'ontology' and how is it 'relativist' compared say with Simmel's use of the term?
Huon Wardle said:
What the Amazonian perspectivists (Castro et al.) and the New Melanesian Ethnography are reaching for is a comparative ontology that explores 'what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences' in an Amazonian or Melanesian relativist frame.
I've only read the Latour and Viveiros de Castro bits of this literature (the only Strathern I've read is No nature, no culture: the Hagen case, which does a beautiful job of destroying the n/c distinction on which Ortner built her is female to male as nature is to culture argument but oddly leaves unexplained why Hagen women too end up on the "rubbish" side of the equation, which seemed like the original point of Ortner's inquiry),

but my sense is that while that they are really interesting intellectual exercises they aren't particularly anthropological. It matters less, I think, with Latour, who is interested in philosophical inquiry for its own sake but with Viveiros de Castro it seems to me it matters very much whether in fact Indians do in every case think the exact opposite of what white people think & whether Indian and white ontologies are mirror-inversions of one another (and I use the phrase "white people" & "white" advisedly; oddly for a Brazilian, de Castro writes as if there were two and only two kinds of people in the Americas).

Latour's arguments are not empiricist, exactly: although he cites anthropologists and lately, Viv de C particularly, mostly he grounds his arguments in his own cleverness (which is fine by me -- the Latour-hating bandwagon is so po-faced while Latour is so funny, so as far as I'm concerned he wins every time on witty points). By contrast, Viveiros de Castro's should be empiricist, since he's a proper anthropologist who has done fieldwork and he anchors the force of his points in ethnographic material. But his philosophical Indians are kind of unrecognizable, and I think it's because they are ideal anti-types. Which, again, is fine as a kind of thought exercise. But the more his work gets generally taken up, the more it gets invoked as "here is how actual Indians actually think". At that point it's not only not persuasive it's a little, I dunno, insular or something because the inconvenient fact that everyone human thinks in a variety of uneven ways & untidy ways becomes a gauche point to raise (sort of the way that once Strathern demolished the n/c distinction it became gauche to say, hey, wasn't the thing we were originally talking about "why women are considered rubbish" and your argument has nothing to say about that?).

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