Three Types of Pluralism
February 21, 2014 § 18 Comments
Over the past few weeks there has been extensive discussion over the so-called “ontological turn” in anthropology. Many of these commentaries were written either in direct response to a recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), or were aimed at the rising tide of “ontology” in anthropology more generally. I first came to learn of the AAA’s shift to ontology through friend and colleague Jeremy Trombley (see here and here). Like so many “turns” this one has inspired seemingly equal parts enthusiasm and dismay, and that’s not surprising. Initiating any kind of “turn” within any discipline is always problematic. Disciplines are by their nature very conservative institutions, and any attempt to initiate change within them is often met with resistance (and this is as it should be, I think, since most “new” ideas just either aren’t very good or aren’t very new). Thus to some “turns” reek of opportunism, confusing and competing claims, and unnecessary jargon. To others they breathe fresh air into a discipline confronted with new problems not solvable with existing methods. Most of the time “turning” is a tangled mixture of both. We shouldn’t be surprised then that the turn to ontology in anthropology has both harsh critics and proud defenders. You can find a general appraisal of the action written a few years ago here, and a much more vague though contemporary response here. For a more positive endorsement — as well as a very specific bibliography — head over to Somatosphere here and here where you can find resources for grappling with many of the figures in question. (Thanks to Joe Henderson for pointing me to some of these larger conversations.)
Closer to home many of Jeremy’s initial posts — and the discussion and links surrounding them — have initiated several rounds of responses from a philosophical perspective. Scu gives us a good roundup of the action here. Much like the arguments occurring within anthropology the philosophers find themselves at odds with one another, and especially with regards to the term “ontological pluralism.” While discussion has been heated at times I have to say that it has been one of the more interesting debates I have seen online in a while. However, I also see quite a bit of room to increase the conceptual clarity of the dialogue, which may also shed some light on the debates in anthropology as well.
One issue that has emerged amongst both the philosophers and the anthropologists surrounds just what, exactly, one is to make of the notion of ontological pluralism — or “multiple ontologies” as I’ve heard it called more than once. My view is that we cannot answer the question of what ontological pluralism is without also discussing epistemic and worldview pluralism. In order to untangle the situation, then, I propose we distinguish three types of pluralism — worldview pluralism, epistemological pluralism, and ontological pluralism. In his response to Jeremy, Levi Bryant has already begun making some of these distinctions (see here). My aim is to further parse some of these distinctions and put a finer point on each one, which I think will help clear up some of the confusion and hopefully move us forward. To do so I distinguish each mode of pluralism from its monistic alternative, hopefully so that we can get a better sense for what’s at stake philosophically at each rung of the ladder.
1. Worldview pluralism / monism. A worldview is simply a set of fundamental beliefs and values that help determine, guide, or constitute a group of people’s collective outlook on life. It’s a very abstract category, and it’s not clear to me that worldviews are necessarily consistent, unified, or intentional schemas. Each one is more like a pragmatically constructed bricolage that results in the rendering of a certain set of evolving and pre-reflective aims. Nevertheless, we can say a worldview consists of, even if only unconsciously or tacitly, a set of descriptions about what being is (an ontology) the different ways we can know about it (an epistemology) and a set of rules or principles for relating to others (an ethic). Worldview monism would then be the view that there is only one set of comprehensive beliefs and values that organize the collective of humanity. Basically, no one is a worldview monist; it’s even banal to point out that different groups of people hold different collective value structures that produce different kinds of effects, and it’s even more banal to talk about psychological pluralism / monism — the question of whether other individuals interpret the world differently than you do. There’s no reason to even debate the claim. There are, however, plenty of worldview fundamentalists out there — people who acknowledge that multiple worldviews exist, but insist that theirs is the only true and correct one. Thankfully, in everything I’ve read from both the philosophers and anthropologists no one is advocating for worldview monism or fundamentalism. However, there are some unresolved issues with regard to the relation between worldviews, epistemology, and ontology. Thus we have to talk about epistemology next.
2. Epistemological pluralism / monism. Here our first real sticking point arises. “Worldview” and “Epistemology” do not necessarily refer to the same set of cognitive structures (though they might be related in complex ways). What do I mean by that? Epistemology is concerned with examining the structures, methods, and practices that ground the possibility of knowledge and knowing. Here I don’t mean just the theory of knowledge philosophers try to generate, but also the actual structures by which philosophers try to ground their claims. We should also add that epistemology is never just a human question: Whether the human cognitive apparatus is universal or plural, it is always the outcome of multiple species acting from both within and without the human organism (the human first-person perspective being the outcome of a unified ecology of beings housed in and around the human skin). This much is true for all living things. Each organism possesses its own intuitions of space, time, and causality that help situate that organism in its ecology. There is also evidence that many organisms besides humans deploy structures of belief, intentionality, and concept-use (see here). That all organisms feel and experience affect is no longer any point of debate, but it also needs to be mentioned in this context. Thus we can say epistemological pluralism is true in a multispecies sense, though our concern here is with humans in particular. Epistemological monism in the sense I am using the term then simply means that the structures by which human beings cognize experience are universal (i.e., are invariant across cultures, geography, and historical periods). Epistemological pluralism on the other hand is the thesis that multiple modes of human cognition — multiple ways of structurally experiencing experience — are possible.
In relation to worldviews there are two options here: (A) Worldviews are multiple and variant across culture, time, and geography, but the underlying cognitive structures that support the possibility of forming a worldview are invariant regardless of circumstance. (B) Worldview pluralism and epistemological pluralism are true: People hold multiple comprehensive beliefs about the world (true) in addition to their existing multiple kinds of epistemic structures (probably true, but this is not entirely clear as far as I can tell). My sense is that philosophy and science alike are moving towards grounding the possibility of epistemological pluralism — which, again, is something quite different from worldview pluralism — and thus I think epistemological pluralism will also end up being true. (From philosophy consider, for example, Foucault’s analysis of the historical a priori or John Protevi’s work on developmental context and cognitive plasticity — all of which, I think, point to the variable and ecological nature of cognitive apprehension. The question here is what kinds of factors constrain cognitive plasticity; pluralism seems to be the case, but that’s not the same thing as saying any kind of cognitive mode of apprehension is possible, or that each is equally successful at apprehending the real.)
3. Ontological pluralism / monism. The distinction between ontological pluralism and monism is perhaps the most difficult to explicate, and I think much of the confusion (as Bryant points out) results from an inconsistent and / or un-transparent use of these terms. Ontological monism in brief is the idea that reality ultimately consists of a single principle, being, force, or substance; another way to say this is that only one kind of being actually exists even if there are many varieties of that kind of being floating around. On this account materialism and idealism are both kinds of monism. In the case of the former only Mind or Idea exists, and in the case of the latter only Matter exists (though of course there are multiple variations of each depending upon what we mean by “Mind,” “Idea,” and “Matter.”)
On this view a traditional materialist is not a pluralist but a monist; there are quarks, protons, electrons, galaxies, planets, plants, and people — all very different things, though they are all, in the end, different kinds of material things. What of ontological pluralism, then? In my understanding ontological pluralism is not the thesis that whatever people say or believe exists actually exists, but that the variety of entities that do exist are so diverse so as to make the monistic title “Materialism” basically useless. There is no matter as such; no unformed matter waiting to be given shape and property by outside forces or forms, and thus no capital “M” “Materialism.” Bryant — who argues for a non-reductive materialist monism — is also aware of this and has discussed the problem of conflating the concept of materialism with materiality itself. (As he says, “In reducing matter to the concept, we authorize ourselves to ignore the things of the world” see here.) Bryant believes that through the concept of emergence we can secure both irreductive materiality and still maintain an ontological monism. While I agree with much of what Bryant says I find it difficult to synthesize the diversity of irreducible materials with the idea of monism. Perhaps we will hear more about how he deals with this issue when his new book is published later this year.
Reducing materiality to the concept of matter is also a problem Bruno Latour has argued against in the past. (As he comments, “Materialism, in the short period in which it could be used as a discussion-closing trope, implied what now appears in retrospect as a rather idealist definition of matter and its various agencies.” See here.) Contra Bryant, Latour’s latest work An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (“AIME”) gives an account of an ontological pluralism; here Latour argues that the beings that actually exist are so diverse that we need multiple languages and modes of causation to account for them. (Terence Blake gives us a short summary of that kind of pluralism here). AIME is an example of an ontological pluralism opposed to traditional materialist / idealist monisms that does not smuggle in the kind of relativism Bryant is right to be concerned about (Latour attempts this by suggesting publicly observable rules and constraints — “felicity conditions”— through which each mode operates). This to me is quite different from saying that every human perspective results in an entirely new world created out of human perspective taking; it is rather a more empirically adequate way of dealing with the complexity and diversity of the actors that make up the cosmos.
Outlining a few of theses approaches to worldviews, epistemic structures, and ontology hopefully gives us some language to discuss some of the issues surrounding the concept of ontological pluralism, and the way ontology is used, in multiple ways, in anthropology. The primary issues arise, I think, when we try to collapse worldviews into epistemic structures, or both into ontology. For example, if we collapse worldviews into epistemology then we lose any ability to define the real limits to human plasticity, and the ability to publicly evaluate and assign value to competing claims is lost. Here personal opinion can be exchanged with the structure of experience as such, and this makes grounding any kind of normative knowledge claim basically impossible. Even worse is the tendency to collapse both worldviews and epistemic structures into ontology. This results in a kind of extreme solipsistic idealism. Here the real is collapsed into what human perception of the real is (ever heard anyone say, “Reality is what you make of it?” this kind of insidious statement is evidence of a collapse of epistemology into ontology).
As far as I can ascertain all three kinds of pluralism — worldview, epistemic, and ontological — are true; however, each one operates as a distinct though nested set of entangled operations. What does that mean? When we’re talking about multiple humans from multiple places and times we are dealing with an interlocking ecology of epistemes delimiting various and diverse cognitive capacities (the constraints placed upon worldview diversity by epistemic boundaries). At the same time these multiple modes of embodied cognition are themselves cognizing another ecology of mind-independent entities that delimit the structure and flow of space, time, and causality (where the cognizer is itself one of the entities being cognized). There are thus multiple modes of cognition capable of bringing to presence a variety of different kinds of beings, and a variety of different kinds of beings impressing themselves on the plasticity of an array of cognitive structures. This is the central contribution something like actor-network theory makes to our understanding of worldviews: What we call worldviews need to be re-thought not just in terms of epistemological structures, but also in terms of material technologies (media ecologies) and more-than-human conditions. If we can keep track of these distinctions without collapsing one into the other I think we have a viable research program for philosophy and anthropology. If however we begin collapsing any one mode into the next I think the game is basically up and we need to start over from the beginning.