A conversation between empirical and theoretical ontology

The tendency for critical realists to get irritated when people talk about political/empirical ontology gets in the way of what has the potential to be a fascinating dialogue if constructed in an open and engaging manner. In my experience, critical realists treat this tradition as self-evidently absurd or simply insist “that’s epistemology, not ontology” without being able to get past the fact that people use words in different ways so as to converse about what is being said about (CR) epistemology. The reverse is true such that people from this other tradition often say “that’s just ontology” without recognising how far removed the CR conception of natural and social ontology is from the metaphysical connotations this style of theorising is seen to entail. A good place to start for a conversation like this could be this passage from pg 111-112 of Material Engagement by Noortje Marres:

The debate about whether non-humans ‘have agency’ misses the point, to an extent, because it assumes that the significance of non-humans to political and democratic life must be established once and for all. But non-humans do not play an equally significant role in different situations and in relation to different aspects of social and political life. Their contribution is both more dynamic and more specific than the general idea of non-human agency allows us to acknowledge. Non-human entities come to matter–and, sometimes, cause trouble–in particular settings and situations, and under such circumstances they become invested with specific normative capacities (or, as the case may be, dis-invested of them). It is then a task of social and political research and theory to attend to this circumstantial or empirical specification of the normative capacities of non-human entities (Marres and Lezaun, 2011; Marres, 2012).

It is precisely this question of where, what and how that the two positions meet. In CR’s case, it’s a question of the relational mechanisms through which X comes to embody certain capacities within specific situations. Could we call this ontologising the empirical i.e. invoking the real to explain the empirical? In the other case, it’s a matter of specifying why things unfold in the way that they do e.g. empiricising the ontological? As Noortje puts it later in the book, “if we are serious about ‘empiricising’ ontology, a move in the opposite direction is required as well, that of ‘ontologizing’ the empirical”. My point is that CR is well placed to assist in this endeavour, if it can overcome its slightly parochial tendency to stop trying in the face of other traditions speaking a different language to it.

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