Policing the real: the Pluralism Wars as a “police action”?

There seems to have been an explosion around the question of a realist pluralism, it’s possibility and desirability, with a variety of the post-SR crowd weighing in. The debate seems to have been triggered by Levi Bryant’s reply to Jeremy’s post on the value of the ontological turn in anthropology. In that post, Levi wrote that

I want to be pluralist and recognize that different groups of people have/propose different ontologies or different “theories of the world”. I think it’s deeply important to recognize this for a variety of reasons. However, as a realist and advocate of some version of the Enlightenment, I can’t, of course, believe that all of these ontologies are true depictions of being.

In this way the question of ontological pluralism is already presented as caught in or evidence of some prior dissonance in the semiological register that it is deployed within. When we talk about ontology, are we talking about the real or about modes of accessing the real or, that is, semiocognitive encodings of the real. In the first instance we are on the grounds of an epistemologico-ontological discussion about beliefs, or perhaps the symbolic scaffolding of those beliefs- how they are made to hold together, how that holding together is always a more or less formalistic enterprise, a series of heuristic coping-mechanisms aiming at the production of refrains that “buttress existence” (Guattari). In the second instance we’re talking about claims about the real, about what constitutes a part of the real, what can be said to exist or to subsist and thereby to be itself a organ of reality. Part of this dissonance in the metasemiology of “the ontological” is thus the movement, really a blurring, from talking-about-talking-about the real to the real itself. There is an anxiety at the heart of Levi’s comments above, an anxiety that goes hand in hand with his desire: I want to be a pluralist but I am afraid to be a pluralist. And I think this anxiety is pretty sensible given that the elision in question, generative of the anxiety, is effectively the undoing of a particular kind of coping-with-being.

Our coping mechanisms, of which our philosophies are no small component, are attempts to make manageable the chaos of what my friend Michael- calls wild being. Whether or not it is the case that we are poor information processors, our brains and bodies being relatively highly gated sensorimotor terminals, it is nonetheless the case that the limited amount of information that we work on and through, and as the expression of (DNA, for instance), is still enough to induce profound “psychic”- for want of a better word- distress. The transcorporeal abundance that we’re presented with is dizzying, and the rate of it’s vertiginous growth accelerates at every passing moment when we consider that we inhabit an increasingly dense and diffuse stereo-reality, symptomatically expressed in the dis-integration of media and the rapid expansion of the semiospaces and immaterial temporalities of the internet.

The desire to be a pluralist under these conditions is the desire to be able to grant a right to existence to all semiological machineries, all symbolic systems: let a thousand symbolic orders bloom! The problem though is the reduplication of the originary wilderness that our coping systems sought to tame. Semioproduction- sense-making, or meaning-production- is always about the crafting of manageable worlds with scales of intimacy and at least the hint of a cartographic limit. So what happens when their are as many of these spheres of signification as their are agents of significance? My coping style, my corporeal hermeneutics, is rendered once again just a particle in the storm. This is symptomatic of the anxiety of (we could say Oedipal) desire: what if I get what I want? Only punishment and castration can follow.

But my point isn’t to sit in the position of Levi’s analyst. I’m not the most sympathetic person to psychoanalysis- whether of the Freudian, Lacanian or some emancipated variety. My point is more to show that there is some kind of linguistic eruption from one register into another and to suggest that there is a very good reason for that eruptive force. If our corporeal existence can be spoken of as a materio-energetic metabolism then our cognitive hermeneutics should be described as an epistemic-discursive antimetabolism. It is in this epistemo-discursivity that the problem of depictions of the real takes place, but, if we are to avoid being idealists, this domain must be seen as an expression of the former material one, even as it seeks to put the brakes on, to slow down, and to otherwise domesticate; it is anti-metabolic not because it inaugurates some fatal metabolic syndrome but because it is an attempt to exercise control over the processes and events of the corporeal real such that they be rendered as static, contained, safe. To risk a pun, the process and event of our articulations in the linguistic sense really are articulations in the physio-anatomical sense, but they are closer to the formation of a blood-brain barrier than they are to the opening up of ion-channels.

To explain a bit more, we can shrink this debate down a bit: theories of world can be seen as the large scale stand-in for the smaller scale notion that we each carry around a “theory of mind” (ToM). The idea with ToM, and it is an idea, is that we are inducted into a world where we are capable of making attributions of intentional states to ourselves and to others. In the two primary competing version of ToM this induction either goes via social interaction and the development of a folk-psychology based on that, or via the simulation theory that bases itself on the speculation that mirror neurons are triggered in us that provide an approximation in us of the intentional orientation of the actions of others. At any rate, ToM declares that in some form of other we all of us run some kind of representation-attribution machine that let’s us “get” that other people, and animals, are like us.

Scaling up to ontologies as theories of worlds (ToW) isn’t a simple process that provides 1:1 fidelity with the ToM model, but nonetheless it provides a precisely what is required here from a model- that it provide a skeletal schematisation of some ability to recognise that others have a ontologies like but different to our own. The ToM is clearly an idealist theory in its theory-theory formate, the folk-psychology one, insofar as it thinks that we each walk around operating various theatres or cinematographic images of what it is like to have a mind and how it is with other minds. This kind of hypercognitivist picture leans heavily on the epistemo-discursive side of things, imagining minds as metacognising engineers that weld together this picture of mind to that picture of “other person”, and that this cognitive effort is going on all the time, at multiple levels, targeted at multiple objects. The most popular variants of this ToM are actually modelled on a specifically literary, or at least syntactical mode. Popular theorists of this kind, like Baron-Cohen, figure ToM operation on the basis of a strictly syntax-symbolic system of sentence-like representations: the theory of mind is structured like a language. On the other side, leaving out the questionable turn to mirror neurons (which remain a kind of “explains it all” device), other’s picture the process as occurring via some naive-scientist manner whereby the child stumbles into and plays around with folk-psychology. Similar methods seems to be at work in some variants of talking about ToW: the ontologies of others are depictions of the real that follow a similar syntactical modality. Hence Levi goes on:

We need a pluralistic– a pluralism that also recognizes different animal worlds as phenomenologically described by Uexkull –to cultivate compassion and proper ethical regard for others; a big part of which involves recognizing the limitations of ones own conceptual schemes, attempting to understand others, or at least recognize that they might inhabit worlds of meaning (in Heidegger’s sense) that differ substantially from our own.

In his reply to this Phillip at Circling Squares points to Latour’s diplomacy and Stenger’s cosmopolitics as variants of a species that

grant, first, that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says. They thus shunt onto-political discourse off of the terrain of knowledge/belief in the sense of existence/non-existence. Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.

Without wanting to sound belittling to thinkers of more power and clarity than myself, I can’t help but think that if this is what is going on in Latour and Stengers then this “granting” of the existence of entities, whether or not it is done out of respect for otherness, is a kind of imperialism. How can I mean this? Well, just as the ToM indicates that the child “grants” that others have minds and intentional states, that they are, like itself, capable of interiority, so to does this attitude of granting existence come as a sort of sovereign decree. Like the child (there is no creature closest to the sovereign than a child) that has to learn that it is not the centre of the universe, this project resembles the child who begrudging comes to accept that, well, yes, there are other people in the world…and I suppose I will grant them their existence! To grant an entity it’s existence? What power is it that can assume this right?

This shunting from epistemology to the metapolitical is also no less an idealistic move than the disembodied syntatical model of representation found in the ToM. Just as ToM has to locate the experience and recognition of phenomenality in a representation-attribution cognitivism, so to does the ToW position operate from a position of a disembodied, fleshless ontology. In neither image do we get at the idea that all of this is occurring with bodies- it is all talk of minds and depictions as if what was at stake were solely an aesthetic disagreement.

All this is important to the original point because it follows from the attempt to keep competing ontologies at bay. The realist can’t believe that the other’s ontologies are true because they are depictions, they are representations, and as such can’t be true. Or at least, they can’t be the whole truth. They can’t be true because the real is a singularity- whether you call this a One or a Many- as a plane of the wilderness of immanence.

Still, a wilderness is a wildness and not a lawn. Here there are dense thickets forming a patchy threshold to a forest; a dense forest that is dark at it’s heart but where, at the top of the trees where the canopy breaks, some light can pierce, and it is full with life; animal, plant, mineral, and that life is distributed unevenly across the forest’s wild and irregular growth; and here is a swamp with it’s own flora and fauna, and- because people exist in so many places- there is evidence of tools, or, why not, the rusting and faded corpse of a coke bottle (is it still a wilderness? why not?); and the sun and the moon rise and set and everything is different according to which is in the sky; the quality of colour, of the lines, of the surfaces, all giving up different sensible affordances, calling up such varied ecological niches, each one populated by a diverse set of creatures, themselves populated by how many microorganisms, parasites, viruses, and so on…and over here, at the forest’s edge, the wilderness is open, a great expanse of desolation, but at the right scale still to be seen seething, furious with inorganic activity, as a cliff face is eroded by the unshielded blast of ice-winds, and the rain tramples down the wild flowers before the clouds clear and the sun blazes. Which is the wilderness proper? How to fix it in it’s place? Who is granting it’s right to exist? Who is able to say whether a biologist or a physicist would provide the correct ontology? Who can say on what day, in what conditions?

But this isn’t just about the partiality of knowledges. This is about realisation, as William James has it, that

Pragmatically interpreted, pluralism or the doctrine that it is many means only that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related. Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely “external” environment of some sort or amount. Things are “with” one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes. “Ever not quite” has to be said of the best attempts made anywhere in the universe at attaining all-inclusiveness. The pluralistic world is thus more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom. However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.

A federal republic, or beyond that an anarchism. Prodhoun once wrote that whoever is a partisan of immanence is a true anarchist, and that anarchism involves a refusal of the ‘system of transcendence’. In the Jamesian perspective above we find precisely this kind of anarchism, an anarchy that doesn’t coincide precisely with revolutionary anarchism but which nonetheless goes beyond the various forms of liberalism that today masquerade as political anarchism (cf. Simon Critchley). What we also see here is a precusor to the Deleuzo-Guattarian insistence on the “and…”, and Eugene Gendlin’s “…”. What is going on in James’s metaphysical republic is a commitment to a “pluriverse” that is thoroughly metabolic: everything is a matter of the exchange and transformation of everything else. Things exist by way of their being connected to other things, and nothing can be understood or made contact with outside of a relating and a being related within and without itself. So what of the ToW? In the same essay as above James also points out that:

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.

An ontology, any ontology, is an instrument or a tool, a hand-hold for grasping the real, for making contact with the real. But there should be no mistaking the hand that grabs and the thing that is grabbed. Not even phenomenological ideas of reversibility allow for a complete coincidence of the touched and the toucher, and this proximity can only be more aggravated by the presence of the instrument that allows it; but an instrument mustn’t be reduced to a tool, to an extension of the human body, because an instrument is by itself also a kind of agency. In other words, our coping-mechanisms are already devices with their own capacities, materio-discusivities that set things in motion that we didn’t intend, that operate almost autonomously of the subjectivations or institutions that deploy them; for an example one need only think of the material effects that psychiatric diagnoses set in place. So ontologies aren’t depictions but ways of grasping the real that runaway from us, that interact with the world around us and that return to us, forcing us to remodel ourselves in their light. In this respect they are like Ian Hacking’s interactive kinds, looping back on us in unpredictable ways. This shouldn’t surprise us: how many seemingly straight forward coping-actions take on a life of their own? Deliberate self-harm, eating disorders and addictions all seem to begin as ways of coping with the existential register of the ecology of corporeal being.

Among the chief questions around pluralism and realism is that of the common world, and here we find that there is already a commons of being that each onto-specificity inhabits without lack. So when the debate turns to questions of constructing a common world, this can’t be read on the ontological register. This type of common is specifically a political common: a shared world in which all beings a coping-with one another in the dual sense that term implies: first, they are coping with being in a shared matrix, and second they are doing so in collaboration with one another. My own initial problem with problem with talk of pluralism is that it would fall back into the kind of theory of democratic agonism that was put forward by Laclau and Mouffe, a theory that was rightly critiqued as mirroring perfectly the bourgeois neutering of antagonism that rendered conflicts into negotiable disputes among a plurality of equal voices. Such an idealism of management is what is still presented to us as the image of democracy today, and while I wouldn’t call this an ideological image (mystification is a redundant concept), I would say that it is itself an interactive kind that attempts to model a pliant citizenry and a bureaucratised labour force. Negotiation might well mean finding passage, making one’s way in difficult terrain, but it can also mean making deals with capital and power. The problem is that pluralism can only exist in the attempts to autonomise from these processes. I’m tempted to suggest that pluralism can only work if it avoids the twin pitfalls of ghettoisation and what Marcuse’s thesis of intolerant tolerance sought to avoid.

Here is where I think the question of pluralism requires us to be careful. One must be a partisan of immanence to be a pluralist; the capitalist and the one who take up the position of sovereign aren’t such partisans; they are on the side of transcendence. Where antagonism exists in a class society, a sexist society, a racist and transphobic society, it isn’t for those who are oppressed to relinquish their right to accelerating that antagonism. Anarcho-communist politics is certainly centred on the construction of a common world (from the shell of the old), and for the overcoming of all the separations and segregations that enforce problematic and oppressive partitions in the sensible order, but it does so from the sober realisation that such a common world can’t be negotiated with one’s class enemies, and all those other enemies. My point is that sometimes, for the vast majority of us, war has already been declared. The ontological commons already exists but it has been carved up, not just by philosophy but by capital and power too.

Does God exist? Do demons exist? Or, alternatively, are they just delusions? But this question can be asked of any of our attempts to grapple with the transcorporeality of the real. How are we to figure existence? Are we the police of the real, granting reality to that but withholding it from this? From what position can we do this, in the last instance? I prefer to ask the questions I can answer. Does God exist? I don’t know. Does the idea of God interact with people, groups, institutions, histories? If so, in what ways? These are questions I can answer, and they are questions that make a difference. So does God as a materio-discursive machine, or a semiological world exist…yes. I feel Levi might feel that is an evasion, but I don’t know. As to the existence of supernatural entities as such…I can simply say there is no evidence for them and that I have an opinion on the matter. But then, as Foucault once put it, having a position of authority doesn’t permit me to express every opinion I have. I am a pragmatist, and as such proceed tactically and in a piece-meal fashion. The point of talking about a realist pluralism, as far as I can see, is to point towards the idea that no isolated theoretical discourse, no one system of cognitive biasing or neural heuristics, will be able to act as the Master discourse that finally unlocks or decides on the real, or on how the ecological field should be organised. In the end this kind of pluralism remains fundamentally pragmatic because it points toward the need for a multiplicity of tactically deployed ways of coping that include deploying different models of those ways of coping.

Such a realist pluralism isn’t about providing a singular model of the real that would shape it ahead of time, or as a means to producing a finished theory of everything. Still less is such a pluralism a new mode of accessing the real. Instead it might be about moving between models as one goes, picking up and putting down instruments, and so being able to grasp this or that aspect of the flesh. Perhaps, to take up the language of onto-cartography, this would be less about the mapping of existent realities and more the production of prototypes for new ways of assembling the world; less about depiction, and more about enactment.

26 responses to “Policing the real: the Pluralism Wars as a “police action”?

  1. Working on a response, but this post was pretty much right on (I mean, I express not following the ToM stuff, but the bottom two-thirds of this post is pretty much everything I have been thinking).

    • The ToM stuff might not actually work. I felt a bit “why am I writing this again?” during it…but I’m like a Hulk when I get going: brainless and unstoppable.

  2. Yikes! This is a pretty ugly post about why someone might find ontological pluralism problematic. It has nothing to do with imperialism or anxiety about the chaotic abundance of the real. Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that getting things right is important and getting things wrong can have severe consequences. Our ontology is related to the public policy we pursue, the sorts of solutions to economic and environmental problems we propose, the treatment of people in medicine and psychiatry, etc. Getting it wrong can have pretty serious effects on all of these things. Take the example of the great plague in England. One hypothesis was that it was the work of demonic forces in cahoots with witches. Based on this ontological premise, people went about and killed all the cats they could find as cats were believed to be familiars of witches. This, of course, exacerbated the problem because those cats hunted the rats that were carrying the fleas that carried the bacteria.

    When Jeremy and others make claims like “no ontology is true” he’s basically making the claim that we should place all ontologies on equal footing and engage in no process of investigation as to whether or not these claims are true. Let’s take an example that you gave. Given Jeremy’s thesis or the pluralistic hypothesis as it’s been outlined in these discussions, one is ineluctably led to the conclusion that one should have no preference for whether treatment proceeds by ignoring and refusing to discuss the patient’s delusion or by entering into the patient’s delusion. These two models of treatment would just be two different ontologies without any criteria as to which should be preferred in treatment. Of course, as you so nicely argued over at enemy industry, treatment based on the first model (ignoring the delusion) had very little efficacy and led patients to be brutally abused in all sorts of ways.

    Now you might come back at me and say “wait, given that you’re defending the second model of treatment, doesn’t that mean you’re an ontological pluralist?” No, because there are true and false claims to be made about delusions. The psychiatrists that argued we should ignore the delusion and refuse to discuss it at all were making additional claims: 1) that acknowledging the delusion further reinforces it, and 2) that these delusions are meaningless. Based on investigation and evidence we can evaluate whether or not these claims are true (and it turned out they weren’t). We got better treatment when we got a better ontology of delusion. At any rate, the stakes of our ontological commitments are, in my view, very high and whether or not we get things right has tremendous real world consequences. This, not some sort of ontological anxiety or imperialist desire to control, is why I find pluralistic ontology as it’s been articulated in these discussions a deeply pernicious position.

    • I didn’t intend it to be ugly or attacking, but I can see why it’d come over like that…and while that anxiety is linked to you at the top of the post, I’d hoped the emphasis on coping would have made it obvious I think this is a more general phenomena. In fact, it’s even observable in experimental psychology with a number of studies confirming it in the work of the Terror Management Theory school. I can dig out references if you want. At any rate, I always appreciate your work and the encouragement you’ve given me…so it certainly wasn’t meant as a personal slight.

      As an anarchist, I’m in favour of decisions about the administration of things being made by those whom those decisions effect. I’m an anarcho-syndicalist in regards to the workplace, a communist in regards to the community and so on. In the psychiatric context I’ve already written that it’s for some kind of council of patients and workers together to hash out how the clinic should be organised. Like Guattari, I’d take this to mean that no two clinical settings need be the same. My sole criteria for the acceptance of an ontology has little to do with it’s truth value in it-self. I’m concerned with coping. So any collective decision making, formed via the collaborative efforts of subject-groups with a variety of ontologies, will have to be judged based on their efficacy for promoting the ability to cope with being alive in such and such a condition. All ontologies are on an equal footing…until we apply our criteria. This is partly why I’m saying that the capitalist’s ontology is antagonistic to the reappropriation of a common world. The ontology of capital- an ontology of value, real abstraction, labour power and so on- is real, is on an equal footing with a communist ontology qua ontology… but it’s not as ontologies we’re judging and deciding between them.

      I think that I seem to be somewhere between your position and the pluralists in this discussion. But as a pragmatist I don’t need to make a final decision. This isn’t about choosing a transcendental system.

      As to the imperialism, I was actually locating that with what I see as the very broad gestures people are reporting in Latour & Stengers, rather than with your position.

  3. I’m an anarchist as well so I have no dispute with what you say about collective deliberation. One point I’ve tried to make repeatedly is that knowledge of the real is not something we have but something we’re striving towards and may never attain. There seems to be this impression that one first advocates an ontology and then imposes it on everything else. But that’s not how it works. Inquiry into the real is a collective enterprise that involves giving reasons, people collectively evaluating those reasons, and gradually arriving at consensus. The reason that realism is so important as a premise of such collective deliberation is that it carries with it fallabalism or the possibility of being mistaken. What is is not simply up to what we believe, but rather is decided by an external referent of some sort. The problem with pluralism as it’s been articulated in these discussions is that this moment of fallabilism isn’t there because what is just is whatever people happen to believe. Trying to get at the real, coming up with reasons for positions, evaluating the adequacy of reasons giving for positions and so on is not a form of imperialism. There seems to be this idea that if someone says “I think you’re theory of treatment is mistaken or false” they’re being some sort of authoritarian police officer. I find this very peculiar. Authoritarianism consists in forcing others to obey without any reason whatsoever. Striving to persuade others and listening to their reasons seems the exact opposite of authoritarianism and is, I think, the very condition under which an anarchist community and form of governance is possible.

    • “Striving to persuade others and listening to their reasons”, it might be helpful to look at some actual decision making processes/events and see how they actually do or do not play out, part of the problem for me in these kinds of comment-exchanges is that they don’t have something like set goals/projects/timelines and are so quite different from many (most?) of our usual day to day attempts at co-operation.

      • dmfant,

        I take it that this discussion is unfolding at a high level of abstract that then needs to be refined for more specific contexts. At any rate, I wonder what’s presupposed in your remark about the need to “look at some actual decision making processes/events…” Everyone here works, participates in the governance of their institutions, and is involved in politics. This seems like a rather peculiar suggestion, as if those involved in this discussion exist in some void or frictionless limbo where they’ve never encountered others or deliberated with them. Are you really suggesting that deliberation with others doesn’t involve attempts to persuade and the give and take of reasons?

        I’ve also gotten the sense that the pluralists think, to use a technical term, that the realists are assholes. The picture of the realist presented by the pluralists seems to be that the realist would walk into the Maori village and say something like “all your gods, rituals, and beliefs are bs, here’s the truth!” This is an incredibly strange thing to suggest, because everything depends on why one is there in the village in the first place. If one were a realist ethnographer, the goal is to understand what the Maori believe so the issue wouldn’t come up at all. If the issue were about governance relations in the area, it’s likely the issue wouldn’t come up. If they were your neighbors, it’s unlikely it would come up either (realists aren’t evangelicals bent on spreading the news of what they believe they’ve discovered to everyone else). However, if the issue were an epidemic disease, we can imagine members of Doctors Without Borders diplomatically encouraging those who are sick to take this or that drug in addition to their rituals.

        A lot boils down to goals and the specific problem that’s being dealt with in this or that context. There are situations where it’s reasonable to get in knock down, drag out fights about what’s real (e.g., the place women should have in society according to religious believers) and other places where it’s just not relevant at all.

        The more I think about it, the more I think it’s probably impossible to be an ontological pluralist (almost all of us are “worldview pluralists”). In writing and discussion one can be an ontological pluralist, but the moment one chooses to go to a particular doctor rather than another doctor, or washes their hands, or shrugs their shoulders after their home is destroyed in an earthquake rather than sacrificing their daughter, etc., they reveal what their ontology is and that they distinguish between things they believe to be real and things they don’t. In our day to day life all of us are ontological realists, I suspect.

      • That is also true. Part of the problem is we’re speaking about decision processes from an ideal perspective- we’re leaving out the messy infrapersonal, interpersonal and affective investments.

      • hey Levi, wasn’t suggesting that the people/lives are lacking such factors (in fact was appealing to them!) but that these conversations can be and so just go around and around in what are now very familiar lines of thought, no?
        Yes of course we are always already trying to manipulate/persuade each other (acting out/for our interests as Stengers might say) and some of the ways include reason-giving but I’m interested in what in particular works or not (obviously these won’t be universal solutions/prototypes and will need reworking or just scrapping from assemblage to assemblage).
        I’m not for ontological pluralism (but than I’m pretty happy using the “hard” sciences and such as needed & leaving meta-physics behind in general), and not sure that we are all “ontological” realists but developmentally certainly have acquired skills/response-abilities like object-permanence so I have no real use for say doubts the existence of the physical world, even my most floridly hallucinating patients could find their way around the furniture…

        • As I said, I think the point here is less about ontological pluralism per se and more about an onto-methodological pluralism. There is the real, but there are many ecological praxes to approaching it.

    • My comments on authoritarianism are more about policing what can and can’t be said as real. Jeremy put forward the idea that in order to evaluate ontologies they have to be speakable- in order for them to appear on our semiological horizon we have to first grant that they are articulable, that they are operative and in some way guide the action of the other who is announcing them… indeed, that they are part of the ecology of the existential matrices that form part of the subjectivation that is speaking it and coping through it.

      To say “I think your ontology is false” is a different claim to “I think your ontology is false and should therefore be eliminated or otherwise removed”. This is where the pragmatics come in- in the clinical example, what matter if you think you can heal people’s illnesses, give them new organs…sure, you’re ontology is wrong…but it doesn’t matter.

      The idea of giving reasons, of persuasion and so on…yes, this is anarchist, this is where consensus comes in, and the production of safe spaces. But the production of safe spaces is also about the allowance of speech. This is a Rancierian point: how am I to announce from the outset how the sensible should be distributed.

      I don’t know how a pragmatic pluralism couldn’t say “you’re wrong…here is why…” but also maintain that the other’s ontology is perfectly acceptable insofar as it isn’t itself authoritarian, noxious, or otherwise dangerous.

      It’s almost as if pluralism is being taken as a kind of “anything goes”, just as on the other side some people are tempted to see realism as a “view from nowhere”.

      If science gives us the protocols and procedures for rational dissensus then it’s important that we recognise that science also operates via an experimental pluralism.

      Incidentally, I think this conversation is related to recent discussions of intersectionality- can’t a pluralism also be integrative or convergent? Isn’t that how evidence itself works?

  4. The thing is, “pragmatism” doesn’t have a univocal meaning. There are many different pragmatisms. I’m quite partial to the pragmatisms of Dewey, Peirce, and Brandom; but all of these pragmatisms have a rich place for truth. Jamesian pragmatism, really is an “anything goes” framework. For him, anything that confers some sort of usefulness or benefit to the believer is true and real. Thus, as Bertrand Russell put it, James is committed to the thesis that Santa Clause is real. That’s not a position I’m willing to accept.

    You write:

    This is a Rancierian point: how am I to announce from the outset how the sensible should be distributed.

    Notice that again you’re eliding the dimension of temporality in inquiry. You’re treating ontology as something that precedes, not something we’re building to. Generally I find this to be a problem with pluralists across the board. They seem to think of an ontology as something we just have, not as an ongoing project, subject to growth and all sorts of revision.

    That said, I do think 1) we are always in some partition of the sensible (even though the sensible can grow and expand and other elements can be abandoned), and 2) that rejecting other partitions of the sensible or having established partitions of the sensible is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I take it that naturalism and materialism are the only legitimate partitions of the sensible today. Does that mean I think we should lock up people who don’t work within that partition of the sensible? No, but I also don’t think we should take them seriously (e.g., the creationist in discussions about biology). To take a more mundane example, we have all sorts of established medical knowledge about various diseases. This is a good thing and in many of these instances (not all) there’s no reason to explore rival theories. I would also argue that our models for how medical research ought to be conducted are pretty sound and that it’s good that we treat these as now established at the outset of further inquiry. Does that mean I’m opposed to any possible revisions of that model of research? No!!! It does mean, however, that the bar would have to be pretty high.

    I don’t know how a pragmatic pluralism couldn’t say “you’re wrong…here is why…” but also maintain that the other’s ontology is perfectly acceptable insofar as it isn’t itself authoritarian, noxious, or otherwise dangerous.

    There was never any disagreement on this point. The fact that my neighbor believes in astrology and thus has an ontology where the stars somehow govern our lives is really a matter of indifference. When my neighbor becomes president and begins making decisions about economy and international affairs based on astrology is a matter of concern and is where it becomes important to begin debating ontology (is there any good evidence supporting the thesis that the stars impact economy? If not then you shouldn’t be making governmental decisions based on the stars). Throughout these discussions I’ve repeatedly pointed to instances where ontology and truth matter and where we can’t really be pluralists. From the very beginning I’ve never suggested that all interpersonal interactions are situations where truth and getting ontology right matters. Recall my original post where I talk about my friendship with the Catholic Bishop, for example. I’m a naturalist. He’s a dualist of some sort insofar as he believes there are supernatural things and material things. I think he’s wrong. He thinks I’m wrong. But it doesn’t really matter. We both share largely the same ethical and political commitments (he’s a liberal catholic, not a roman catholic) and both have largely the same views on governance.

    Regarding your remarks about experimental pluralism, you have to remember that this discussion is about something very specific: ontological pluralism. Worldview pluralism, perhaps experimental pluralism (I’m not sure what you mean by the term), etc., are different things. The ontological pluralist is arguing that 1) anything anyone believes in is real, and 2) that what is real in one world can nonetheless not be real in another world. That’s the thesis that’s being disputed. It’s important not to elide the term “pluralism” with the term “ontological pluralism”. Yes, obviously there are many worldviews (epistemological pluralism). Yes, obviously there are many scientific forms of inquiry. Neither of these claims gets you to an ontological pluralism. You can still think many of these worldviews are mistaken while acknowledging they exist. You can still think there’s a way reality is while believing that we need a variety of different experimental methods for discovering reality. Ontological pluralism really is saying “anything goes”.

    • ‘You can still think many of these worldviews are mistaken while acknowledging they exist. You can still think there’s a way reality is while believing that we need a variety of different experimental methods for discovering reality’

      But wasn’t this Jeremy’s point to begin with?

    • To reply to one particular part of this: I routinely talk & write about biomedical psychiatry & psychiatric nosology as ontologies. They are ontologies that I would call wrong. They are damaging but they are also false. But this falseness is because they are incomplete.

      When you mention the creationist, I think this is often a point where you & I part ways in terms of motivation. This kind of thing just doesn’t appear on my radar as a problem…it’s just not as important a political problem in the UK as it is in the US.

      Perhaps in part then, I’ve not even bothered to declare war on things like astrology. I’ve just ignored them…which may be just as dangerous as buying into them.

      As to temporality: I think we all have an operation ontology, regardless of whether we go on to schematise this as an ontology proper. So it’s true that we’re developing an ontology, that we’re moving towards it, but we’re also taking leave from an ontology, coming back to it, moving through it.

      On the distribution of the sensible: I’d agree that materialism & naturalism are indisputably the operation kings…but I’d also want to place them into an aesthetico-ethical framework, as Guattari puts it. This doesn’t trump science, but works within it. My point is less about whether we regard x, y or z as the viable trajectory for ontology and more about whether or not we recognise the existence of other ontologies.

      Ontologies are theories of the real; they aren’t themselves the real. In the end I remain more interested in what they do than what they are.

      • AJ, I don’t think that those actors (clinicians and all) are acting out of “ontologies” (not sure how they could, how would that actually work?) but of assemblages of habits/response-abilities not unlike our kluged together neurosystems and our patch-worked institutions/ protocols.

        • The clinicians perhaps not, but biomedical research and nosology are ontologies in the sense of theories of the world. They do make claims about what schizophrenia is, for instance. This is part of the structuration of those assemblages.

      • I think we all agree that it’s important to recognize the existence of other ontologies. I find it peculiar that this wouldn’t be taken as given or wouldn’t be obvious. When I use religious examples like creationism, it’s not that I necessarily think they’re pressing problems, but because I think it’s easier to see what I’m getting at in my objections to a pluralist ontology. If you’re a naturalist or a realist you just can’t be an ontological pluralist for the very simple reason that you think that at the fundamental level there’s only one type of thing (nature/matter; whatever they turn out to be) and that there’s only one type of legitimate explanation (naturalistic explanation).

        The naturalist, of course, recognizes that other people have different ontological beliefs but thinks they’re mistaken and for good reason. Above you ask “how am I to announce at the outset how the sensible should be partitioned.” Naturalism is a partitioning of the sensible. What warrants that partitioning? I suppose I can only say it’s success so far as an explanatory model that gives us real predictive power. Of course, even within naturalism we encounter a variety of different theories of nature and matter. Those have to be worked through as well to see which one is right.

        • That there is one type of thing- nature/being/wilderness- doesn’t mean that that being is uniform throughout though, surely? That is why I invoked Michael’s idea of wilderness…can one ontological framework grasp the ontospecificity of each part of that landscape?

          Everything is natural- there are no supernatural entities. Okay, but now we have to explain that nature. In the end I would also want to refute the existence of angels or Aztec spirits.

          But there again, like I said…I think my position here is onto-methodological. Maybe I’m trying to have my cake & eat it?

          Of course, as Scott said on one of these threads, we’re all of us still speaking in intentionalist terms…so it might end up that arguing about (beliefs about) the real and (beliefs about) beliefs about the real is all part of the problem.

      • From my end this whole discussion has basically been about whether or not those involved are naturalists and materialists. As I said, you can’t both be a naturalist and an ontological pluralist. You have to choose: One or the other. You either think the Aztecs are right to believe spirits animate a person’s body when they are in a trance state or you believe these trance states are psychological and neurological states brought on by chemical interactions with drugs or the production of particular brain-wave patterns. It’s an either/or, not a both/and.

        Of course, when you’re talking to Aztecs you speak their lingo and use their frame of reference because that’s just what polite people trying to work with others do. Still not ontological pluralism though.

      • I don’t doubt that they would offer such after the fact justifications for something they have done, and that for instance such speech-acts (if you will) were part of their socialization processes, but I see nothing that shows me that these are vital/controlling/rule-ing factors in such assemblages, would be interesting to think about whether or not we could test such a hypothesis. Isn’t this part of what the “micro” sociology of lab-life and all was supposed to be investigating?

  5. Not that I could see. He directly said that no ontology is true and that they’re all on equal footing. If that’s what he means he needs to drop the term “ontological” and use a term like “epistemological” “doxatic” or “worldview” ontology.

    • ” If that’s what he means he needs to drop the term “ontological” and use a term like “epistemological””
      -that was my suggestion, back to the rough-ground, one would hope that this would appeal to ethnographically minded people, time will tell I suppose…

  6. That there is one type of thing- nature/being/wilderness- doesn’t mean that that being is uniform throughout though, surely? That is why I invoked Michael’s idea of wilderness…can one ontological framework grasp the ontospecificity of each part of that landscape?

    Everything is natural- there are no supernatural entities. Okay, but now we have to explain that nature. In the end I would also want to refute the existence of angels or Aztec spirits.

    Yes, of course there are many different types of things but they’re all still material. For this reason you’re not an ontological pluralist but a naturalist/materialist.

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