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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Anthropology as a method for ontology

Roy Wagner has that anthropology is philosophy with people inside. In a similar vein, Viveiros de Castro talks about compared ontography and Latour wished to provide an inventory of the modes of existence (AIME, conclusion of part 2) for the purpose of compared anthropology and diplomatic negotiations. In my couse on Latour’s AIME we were discussing what was the best way to capture his ontology-anthropology amphibious approach. (Entitling the book An Investigation into Modes of Existence – An anthropology of the moderns” already gives an idea of the juggling he believes to be required to his endeavour.) I guess his take (together with Descola and Viveiros and maybe, to some extent, with Lévi-Strauss when he talks about the importance of native philosophy towards the end of his life) is that anthropology informs ontology. The thoughts and manners of other collectives make us look for ways to carve up the world so that we can make sense of their beliefs in a way that do justice to them instead of creating obnoxious conflicts. This is why naturalism (in Descola’s sense) is called into question and we are forced to re-examine the assumption that what is natural is not multiple – that there is only one nature, mirrored by us or not, accessible to us or not. On the other hand, it is a kind of naturalism (in the sense of naturalizing metaphysics) as it makes use of an empirical science becoming therefore informed by experience. The question then arises as to whether it is a genuine naturalized method in metaphysics – in the sense of making their judgments a posteriori.

Perhaps relevant to this question is that such a Latourian strategy is also somehow akin to the method of truth in metaphysics that was more insinuated than championed by Davidson (see the homonymous paper in his collected papers, vol 2). Davidson's idea was that one should maximize truths. In fact, he saw close connections between truth and interpretation and was concerned with radical situations as described by Quine (with no common language, no etymological similarities etc). But his was a method of using our home ontology (our descriptive metaphysics) to make the most of the languages of other collectives. His making the most was thought in terms of charity and for him other languages were crucially privileged in the act of interpretation because beliefs were conceived as structurally predicative. It was important, for Davidson, that there is no interpretation if there are beliefs that are outside our conceptual scheme for there could be no other. Now, Latour's method is indeed one of maximizing truth but only to the extent that relativity is true. For him, our home conceptual scheme maybe can find no other, but maybe it is only the tip of a large iceberg (where we place our conceptions of nature, of existence - and its modes -, of subjectivity, of our non-human collectives etc.). It is in the larger iceberg beyond the tip that the method of anthropology works in our ontology. It is revisionary metaphysics, indeed, but yet it is done through describing other people's metaphysics. Then again, are the judgments of such a metaphysics a posteriori?

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