FROM RELATIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY TO PLURALIST ONTOLOGY

One can talk about the experience of gods, or spirits, or demons, or ghosts, of supernatural entities in general; one can investigate the practice of sorcery, or divination, or witchcraft; one can study the historical movements of magic, or gnosis, or alchemy. Each time one can show that much of what appears primitive, naive, or superstitious in terms of our current technoscientific outlook can have a totally reasonable interpretation in terms of the sort of pluralist, diachronic, individuating, performative ontology that can be found in the works of poststructuralist philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, Foucault, and Michel Serres. If one adopts the broadly Deleuzian and Feyerabendian pluralist line that one can see in contemporary thinkers such as Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, François Laruelle, William Connolly, John Law and Andrew Pickering, then we can see that such phenomena are not just alternate perceptions and views to be  respected in some relativist gesture of tolerance.  They are in fact an integral though down-played and often un-noticed part of our own practices and experience.

In Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING, we can see a sort of evolving understanding of pluralism as more than just an epistemological relativism that can also be found elsewhere, sometimes more clearly (at least for some of the stages in the evolution of that doctrine), sometimes less. The overarching frame for that book is a Heideggerian vision of the succession of incommensurable “understandings of Being”, or “worlds”, from the Homeric world through the tragic culture of Aeschylus and the metaphysical culture inaugurated by Plato, through Dante and his poetic expression of onto-theology, up to Melville’s MOBY-DICK as a work of art that configures a pluralist understanding that characterises in part our contemporary world, but that is yet to come to full flourishing. This description of the historicity of our experience of Being as embodied in a plurality of worlds succeeding each other over time (and also across space, as in their lectures Dreyfus and Kelly consider the differences of our world with those of the Japanese and the Balinese) is only a first approximation, as no understanding of Being can ever be total. Such a total understanding would make communication between different worlds, and the passage from one world to another, not only incomprehensible but impossible.

So this “relativist pluralism” must be mitigated with the observation that we are not stuck inside an all-pervasive expressive totality that saturates every single word and deed, where everything is related to everything else, at least indirectly, by virtue of being related to the all-englobing world-understanding. As Andrew Pickering remarks, such seemingly “total” worlds are in fact only hegemonic, in the sense that there are many small-scale and marginal practices and understandings going on within whatever global world prevails at any given period, imposing its dominant significations and regulated behaviours on a marginal molecular mass of other meanings and acts.

A further mitigation of relativist pluralism lies in the fact that each world-understanding contains a multiplicity that is more or less restrained or displayed: the many gods of polytheism (Homeric, but also Balinese and Japanese polytheism), the profusion of saints and angels within Christianity, the pluralism of moods in the Melvillian cosmos (and in the phenomenology of Heidegger). The combination of these two mitigations to relativist pluralism, marginal practices and contained multiplicity, determine a position that one could call “realist pluralism”.

However even this vision gives too much ascendancy to the global understanding of being, or episteme or paradigm, said to define an epoch. Perhaps even its hegemony is more relative and more fragile than its self-advertising would have us believe. This interplay of the center and the periphery, of the norm and the margins, of the majority and minorities, is incomplete, as it creates sharp boundaries even as it seeks to blur them. It tends toward a reproduction of the same sort of expressive totality, only on smaller and smaller levels, a nesting downwards of subworlds within worlds. Nothing has changed except the scale, the molar relativism has been replaced with a molecular equivalent. Such relativism is not fine-grained enough: there is more to transaction and transversal commingling than the molecular interplay of power-relations and peaceful (or not so peaceful) compositions.

This is where Dreyfus and Kelly talk  in their podcast lectures of the Heideggerian concept of “things thinging”. This is Heidegger’s non-anthropocentric thing-paradigm, that replaces his world-paradigm in his later works. Things, including humans, assemble performatively, in more or less stable configurations, engendering and expressing local understandings and local worlds. One could call this “performative pluralism” to emphasise the active character of the elements of an assemblage, how they do not merely express an all-powerful sructure that determines their every feature. One could also call it “realist pluralism”, to emphasise the fallible nature of our paradigms, and their testability and revisability in the face of the multiple confrontations with the real world. Things are not imbued with their signification by an all-encompassing paradigm, rather they have meaning locally, provisionally, in contingent, fragile configurations. This is also the domain that Deleuze and Guattari are gesturing at with their pluralist ontology of “double-becoming” and “assemblages”.

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