IS THE ONTOLOGICAL TURN A USELESS DETOUR?: Feyerabend on Ontological Critique

We have seen that in his encounters with interlocutors Feyerabend tends to function like a zen master, trying to get people to change their attitude, to get them to « sense chaos » where they perceive « an orderly arrangement of well behaved things and processes » (cf. his LAST LETTER). A very instructive example of this can be seen in his correspondence on military intelligence networks with Isaac Ben-Israel, over a 2 year period stretching from  September 1988 to October 1990.

Ben-Israel sent Feyerabend a paper on the logic of estimate process in military intelligence in which he applied Popperian philosophy of science to the intelligence process to improve its results. Feyerabend responded quite favorably to Ben-Israel’s general remarks on an open critical attitude that recognizes both the usefulness of methods and the necessity to avoid any single exclusive or dominant method. However Feyerabend rejects the idea that it is necessary to pass through the academic discipline of the philosophy of science to arrive at this conclusion, calling it an unnecessary detour.

Though Feyerabend mainly refers to the philosophy of science, after all it was his domain of specialisation for many long years, he gives sporadic indications that his remarks apply to all philosophy, to all « school philosophies », and not just to epistemology and the philosophy of sciences. So it is possible to see in a very general way what Feyerabend’s ideas on ontology are in this epistolary dialogue which begins with considerations of school philosophy as a useless detour (Feyerabend’s first letter, L1: p5-6), goes on to consider in a little more detail what an unacademic critical philosophy would look like (L2: p11-14)  goes on to plead for the « non-demarcation » of the sciences and the arts-humanities »  and for the need to see epistemology and ontology as parts of politics (L3: p21-23),, and culminates in L4-5 (p31-33) with a sketch of Feyerabend’s own views on ontology. This is an amazing document, as the dialogue form takes Feyerabend into a domain that he has not discussed before (intelligence networks) and permits  a concise yet progressive exposition of his later ideas and of their « fruitful imprecision ».

(NB: in what follows I shall talk principally about ontology, thus adapting Feyerabend’s explicit text to the reading I have been elaborating of Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE. Feyerabend begins by talking about the philosophy of science, then widens his theme by indicating that he is talking about all philosophy, and then concludes with his discussion of ontology.                                                                                                                                          I have been talking about Harman’s OOO, because I don’t think OOO exists in general, and much of its unity is merely apparent: an agreement on a certain terminology and set of themes, expounded  and policed by a small yet heterogeneous network of « buddies ». I have seen too much « channeling » where people talk about « what Harman thinks » or « what OOO says » without a single quotation, as if we were meant to accept their simple say so as authorities on the matter. So I have voluntarily limited my discussion to precise quotations in one particular text, though I do hope to branch out in the near future).

It emerges from my discussion of THE THIRD TABLE that Harman is practicing a form of ontological critique that has both relativist and dogmatic elements. This has been noted by Kacem too, where he describes Harman’s relativist treatment of science as just one « type of prehension » amongst many, while implicitly presupposing a set-theoretic vision of objects. Levi’s use of Bhaskar is suggestive in this respect. We have seen that far from asking the transcendental question of what must the world be like for science to be possible? (this is an ideological cover-up for the real historical stakes of Bhaskar’s intervention) Bhaskar proceeds to an ontologisation of insights and advances in epistemology, and so constrains future research with an a posteriori ontology projected backwards as if it were an a priori « neutral » precondition of science. At the explicit level of content, Harman is far freer, far more « feyerabendian » than Levi Bryant because he does not enshrine science as queen of cognition.

Feyerabend tells us that ontological critique, or the detour through ontology, is unnecessary, because a more open and less technical approach is possible. He gives various figurations of that unacademic approach: the educated layman, discoverers and generals, certain Kenyan tribes, a lawyer interrogating experts, the Homeric Greek worldview, his own minimalist ontology. The advantages he cites of such an unacademic approach are:

1) ability to « work in partly closed surroundings » where there is a « flow of information in some direction, not in others » (p5)

2) action that is sufficiently complex to « fit in » to the complexity of our practices (p11) and of the real world (p12)

3) ability to work without a fixed « theoretical framework »,  to « work outside well-defined frames » (p22), to break up frameworks and to rearrange the pieces as the circumstances demand, to not be limited by the « undue constraints » inherent to any particular framework (p13)

4) ability to work not just outside the traditional prejudices of a particular domain (p5) but outside the boundaries between domains, such as the putative boundary between the arts and the sciences (p21)

5) an awareness of the political origins and consequences of seemingly apolitical academic subjects: ontology « without politics is incomplete and arbitrary » (p22).

So Feyerabend’s general argument is that the ontological turnn if it involves the elaboration of an ontological system, is useless, a hindrance to thought and action. However if the ontological turn is not crystallised into a system and a set of principles, but limits itself to a rather open set of « rules of thumb » and to the free study of particular cases, then it is both acceptable and desirable.

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10 commentaires pour IS THE ONTOLOGICAL TURN A USELESS DETOUR?: Feyerabend on Ontological Critique

  1. Bill Benzon dit :

    Latour always insists that we cannot philosophize from raw first principles but must follow objects in action and describe what we see. Empirical studies are more important for him than for almost any other philosopher; later in his career he will even speak of ‘experimental metaphysics.’

    J'aime

    • terenceblake dit :

      Yes, but Feyerabend has said right from the first that our ontology is a matter of empirical research. This is what he calls « cosmological criticism » and it goes back at least to the essay version of AGAINST METHOD, published in 1972, where he calls it a « general methodology » but in fact it is a minimalist ontology with methodological import.

      J'aime

      • Bill Benzon dit :

        First, just so others are clear on this, my comment was, in fact, a quotation from Harman, which should be clear in the full version below.

        Second, if Feyerabend was there first, that’s fine by me. The more company the merrier, especially if there’s some degree of independence among them. If a student agrees with his teacher, or one colleague with another, well, that’s fine. But on certain matters it’s more interesting to find that Maria over here agrees with Kenichi over there, and they never met, nor knew of one another, nor studied under the same masters.

        J'aime

  2. Bill Benzon dit :

    Whoops! — That previous comment was a mistake. Here’s the real one.

    + + + +

    Thanks for this, most interesting. I’ve taken a brief look at the intelligence correspondence and like it, thus (p. 31):

    My argument is a metaphysical argument: reality (or Being) has no well-defined structure but reacts in different ways to different approaches. Being approached over decades, by experiment of ever increasing complexity it produces elementary particles; being approached in a more ‘spiritual’ way, it produces gods. Some approaches lead to nothing and collapse. So I would say that different societies and different epistemologies may uncover different sides of the world, provided Being (which has more sides than one) reacts appropriately.

    Yes.

    It seems rather Latourian. And so you conclude: « However if the ontological turn is not crystallised into a system and a set of principles, but limits itself to a rather open set of “rules of thumb” and to the free study of particular cases, then it is both acceptable and desirable. »

    The study of particular cases is very important, and I note that Latour has emphasized the importance of description, asserting at one point in Reassembling the Social that nothing is more important than description, description, description. And Harman noted in The Prince of Networks (p. 14):

    Latour always insists that we cannot philosophize from raw first principles but must follow objects in action and describe what we see. Empirical studies are more important for him than for almost any other philosopher; later in his career he will even speak of ‘experimental metaphysics.’

    Maybe there’s a lesson here.

    J'aime

  3. terenceblake dit :

    Yes, and I think Harman has already unduly constrained this idea by reformulating it in his own terms of following « objects » in action.

    J'aime

  4. terenceblake dit :

    Yes of course the rhizomatic lateral connections are more important than the genealogical tree. The problem arises when their are proclamations of radical newness, and the historical record is distorted. Besides, Latour was influenced by Michel Serres, who was producing similar ideas at around the same time as Feyerabend, without being influenced by him. (Though he did confirm in conversation with me that he had read Feyerabend, presumably AGAINST METHOD, and was in agreement with him. However, Serres claimed that these ideas could be traced back to Diderot, as did Lyotard. Feyerabend himself says he is saying nothing new and traces his ideas back to Ernst Mach and John Stuart Mill (with a little Hegel in the background, but Feyerabend finds him too constrained).

    J'aime

  5. Ping : FEYERABEND ET LATOUR: la portée cognitive de la religion | AGENT SWARM

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