Ontology and/or epistemology

One of the central problems I wish to address in my doctoral thesis is the relationship between ontology and epistemology. Traditionally (in the correlationist tradition) ontology and epistemology have been taken as not having anything to do with each other. Since archaeology is a discipline of things, I think it is important to tie ontology and epistemology together. I see no other way for a scientific archaeology to exist. There are, however, certain principles that need to be laid out before setting out on this venture. First of all, knowledge is not an activity that is in any way restricted to a mind or a brain. Knowledge is something that the activity we call human thought is only one manifestation of. As Peirce (CP 4.551) put it, [t]hought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colours, the shapes, etc. of objects are really there’. Knowledge is formed as a relationship between things. It is ability to anticipate through interaction. Second, I, as someone who is in a multitude of relationships with other things, am not separable from the reality that will also exists independently of my brain (or any other part of my body). I have to assume that the relationships in which I am with things, is to a particular degree a relationship between me and the thing as it would exist regardless of my existence. In other words there is no point in maintaining that the world can only be known in relation (or as correlative) to my mind, and, furthermore, there are qualities to other things that do not reveal themselves to me at any given instance but reveal themselves through time. Even the inaccessible in things can be accessed. It is a realist position to maintain that things have essential qualities that exist regardless of me but can, however, be known by interacting with things. The whole enterprise of ‘knowledge formation’ is based on that. It may also be important to note that my idea of ontology is essentially object-oriented. Since there is no unchanging relation between mind and reality, my relationship with things is changing all the time as I change and all the objects that make up me and the things with which I am in relationship with change. That, I think, is one irrefutable argument in favor of an anti-correlationist position. Since my relationship with things is changing all the time, it is meaningful to speculate as to the nature of the possible relationships between what I call me, and other things, as well as on what I can know about the relationships between things, say a bat and a moth for instance.

There is a passage in Harman’s Prince of Networks that explicates this position nicely:

Just as Latour teaches, there are countless actors of different sizes and types, constantly dueling and negotiating with each other. But objects are not defined by their relations: instead they are what enter into relations in the first place, and their allies can never fully mine their ores. In Heideggerian terms, objects enter relations but withdraw from them as well; objects are built of components but exceed those components. Things exist not in relation, but in a strange sort of vacuum from which they only partly emerge into relations.

In his recent article Jay Foster provides a brief dealing on the connection between ontology and epistemology from an object-oriented point of view:

Given that Latour and Harman have very different philosophical projects, I suspect that Latour’s interest in object-oriented philosophy probably does not stem from a concern that it provides a metaphysics that ANT lacks but needs. Instead, his interest is that OOP is a thing-philosophy that faces some of the same quandaries as ANT, another thing-philosophy. That might be an uncharitable reading (I do not intend it to be), but it explains why Latour tackles Harman’s criticisms of plasma indirectly. Latour‟s reply, such as it is, is to entangle OOP in precisely the same problem that Harman identifies for ANT. Latour points out that if objects themselves are ‘beyond all relations,’ then all we have to go on to understand them is their relations. As he says, ‘it’s because things are irreducible that the relations have now center stage.’ Latour does not deny that things have properties that are not manifest, and might never be manifest, but he is just enough of a positivist to ask: if a thing is completely unrelated to us, if it does not manifest itself in some way, then how we even know that it is a thing? Things may have cryptic, hidden qualities nestled in the core of their being, but we only come to know the way things are by way of relations. Now, Harman finds this question muddled since it asks a question that is simultaneously about epistemology and metaphysics. Harman declares himself to be a ‘traditional’ philosopher insofar as he thinks that metaphysical issues are ‘separate’ from epistemological issues. Latour does not entertain this traditional distinction between metaphysics and epistemology, or ontology and epistemology. Questions about how scientists know objects via acquaintance with some but not all their properties are an indispensable part of Latour’s work. Latour does agree with Harman this far: scientific acquaintance with an object does not involve discovering its nature or essence. Even if there are such things as essences, it is not clear that scientific methods make them manifest. With access to the inner nature of objects barred, Latour answers his question about the relationship between knowledge and objects by developing a detailed account of the techniques that connect statements with things.

The remainder of Foster’s article is dedicated to explicating that ‘answer’. Foster writes that

[c]ontra Russell and Wittgentstein, Latour does not hold that the world is made up of facts. For Latour, the world is very much made up of things. What those things are, and what those things can do, is neither mysterious nor obvious. There are facts about things to be learned, but those facts about things are made not found. Laboratories are places where scientific facts are made. In labs, scientific facts are constructed which is to say that they are built-up with techniques and practices. Saying that facts are constructed or constituted need not entail anti-realism or skepticism about facts. Computers, teapots and nails are all constructed and they are all perfectly real. A fact‟s quality or state of being a fact—what is sometimes unhappily called its facticity—depends not on any specific configuration of matter and form, but on the techniques that sustain it. Thus, Guillemin and Schally did not receive a Nobel prize for their miraculous discovery of the fact of TRH. They did not, so to speak, discover TRH by painstakingly dusting away sand to reveal the hidden fact of TRH—they were, after all, endocrinologists not archeologists.

I don’t share the same idea about the differences between lab work and archaeology. Although many archaeologists would claim that the past is made not found, I think the making part is more connected to the process of making the findings visible and understandable to others than those who can interpret the data that comes out of microscopes and mass spectrometers.

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