Responding to one of my comments over at his blog, Jeremy Trombley writes:

“All views are partial and contingent – that’s the lesson of pluralism, and you say as much yourself when you say that we must be attentive to ways our own knowledge might contain superstitions. But it’s not discourse that determines whether one view works and another doesn’t – it’s a confrontation with non-discursive (non-human) agencies.”

I wonder if part of the issue here is that we understand pluralism differently.  For me this doesn’t sound like pluralism at all.  Rather, it just sounds like our epistemological condition.  We [hopefully] come to understand those portions of existence we question or investigate.  The reason we come to investigate them is largely contingent.  Finally, the accounts of these features of existence we give can be mistaken.  All of this is perfectly consistent with a monism.  I’m not sure why what he outlines above is the lesson of pluralism.  It seems to me that every realist knows this.

It seems to me that ontological pluralism is something quite different.  Ontological pluralism is the thesis that there are many different worlds inhabited by many different entities.  Thus, for example, you would have one world, say that of Lucretius, that’s only inhabited by atoms and their combinations.  You would have another world, say the world of the Mongolian shaman, that’s inhabited by spirits that do all sorts of things.  The ontological pluralist is saying that these spirits are, that they exist, that they’re real.  This is something quite different than merely saying that there are partial and contingent points of view on the world.  It’s this saying that these entities are rather than that some person or group of people believe that they are that is the nub of the issue.

Now, I think part of the issue here is that there’s an ambiguity in the term ontology.  An ontology can be one of two things.  On the one hand, an ontology is a group or persons set of beliefs as to what is.  Here it’s trivially true that there are a plurality of ontologies and the realist readily recognizes this.  This is the whole reason there are debates over ontology.  Mongolian shamans have their ontology, Europeans theirs, Christian fundamentalists theirs, materialists theirs, etc.  When striving to understand and communicate with others it’s vital to understand these ontologies because, as rhetoricians like Burke point out, our beliefs about what is are among the things that motivate our action.  Despite having never seen bacteria I was my hands because I believe there are bacteria and viruses on door handles and whatnot and don’t want to get sick.  My belief about a particular thing existing is what motivates my action.  And who knows, perhaps this belief is as superstitious as the belief that the crops failed because God was displeased with my community.

On the other hand, an ontology is a theory about what is.  It is making a claim that something exists.  This is where the rubber hits the road.  The ontological pluralist seems committed to the thesis that every groups set of beliefs about what exists is sufficient for granting the existence of those entities.  This is what I find objectionable in Latour.  Obviously I’m not bothered by Latour’s suggestion that we should take into account the role that nonhumans like speed bumps, rivers, microbes, etc., play in the form that social assemblages take.  But this is not all that Latour claims.  Latour also claims that we ought also to include those spirits posited by the Mongolian shaman– for Mongolian shaman’s see this great article on the Ontological Turn by Morten Pedersen –among our inventory of what is.

This is precisely where the philosopher might balk.  Unlike the ethnographer, the philosopher is not interested in what people believe exists, but rather philosophers– at least of the realist variant –are trying to figure out what is.  In other words, the realist philosopher begins with the premise that not all of these beliefs about what is are true.  So for the philosopher, recognizing that Mongolian shaman’s believe in the existence of shamans would only be the first step.  The next step would consist in determining whether there’s good reason for thinking such entities really do exist, i.e., whether there’s good reason for believing these entities have mind and culture independent reality.  Lest readers think that I’m just picking on the supernatural here, we can ask similar questions about strings, subatomic particles, galaxies, etc., etc., etc.

I guess the question really comes down to what exactly we mean by ontological pluralism.  When we talk about ontological pluralism are we defending the thesis that people have different theories of being?  If so, then ontological pluralism is trivially true.  If this is what is meant, then I certainly share Jeremy’s view that it’s valuable to understand the different worlds people believe in.  Certainly when I was practicing as an analyst I didn’t get in ontological debates with my patients and it was necessary to understand their theory of being or their ontology to properly attend to them.  Or, when we talk about ontological pluralism are we defending the thesis that all these ontological theories are true and refer to really existing entities?  That’s quite a different claim and is not one I would defend or endorse.

Now someone might object that “in both The Democracy of Objects and Onto-Cartography you defend the thesis that there are multiple worlds.”  This is true.  Because I hold that not everything is related I’m led to the conclusion that there are diverse worlds.  However, I also hold that however many worlds there might be, these worlds are nonetheless composed solely of material entities.  Within the framework I propose I wouldn’t suggest that there’s one world where there are spirits and another world where there are souls and yet another where there are only material entities.  My view is that there aren’t spirits or souls in any of these worlds.

One of the things I keep hearing in these discussions is that somehow the realist adopts a view from nowhere.  I honestly don’t understand this criticism.  Investigation always occurs somewhere and requires all sorts of mediations involving technologies, experiments, etc.  It’s that labor of gathering evidence, conducting experiments, using technologies to observe the world, etc., that gradually gives us a body of data that allows us to say there’s good reason to believe that such and such a thing exists and has these powers.  Another charge seems to be that the realist refuses to recognize that their claims about the world are fallible.  I find this charge particularly strange because it’s precisely because the realist recognizes the difference between our theories of the world or what we say about the world and the world itself that fallability is built into the core of his position.  Realism doesn’t mean one holds they have special access to the world, that they know all truths, or that they have the truth in hand, only that there are truths to be known and that we can be mistaken about things.