Anthropology and What There Is. Reflections on Ontology

Last modified by John De Moss on 2021/12/29 11:54

Anthropology and What There Is

Reflections on ‘Ontologic'

Paolo Heywood, University of Cambridge

This piece reflects on two ‘ontological turns’: the recent anthropological movement and that occasioned earlier in analytic philosophy by the work of W. V. O. Quine. I argue that the commitment entailed by ‘ontology’ is incompatible with the laudable aim of the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology to take seriously radical difference and alterity.

Keywords: ontology, anthropology, analytic philosophy, Quine, multinaturalism, perspectivism

Willard Quine once declared that the philosophical notion of ‘ontology’ could be reduced to a single question: ‘what is there?’ and answered in a single word: ‘everything’ (Quine 1948: 21). Unfortunately, as he went on to point out, this is both tautological and unhelpful when it comes to disagreements over particular cases. To borrow an example from Evans-Pritchard (1940) and a recent GDAT (Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory) debate (Carrithers et al. 2010: 181), it does not tell us whether twins are twins or, in fact, birds. Yet one could be forgiven for assuming from the literature comprising anthropology’s recent ‘ontological turn'1 that it is an apt and appropriate answer to the question asked: ‘everything’ is ontological, from bird-twins to burning statues.2 But do we mean the same ‘everything’ as Quine? Or the same ‘ontology’?

The ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology is premised on the notion that anthropologists are fundamentally concerned with alterity and that this is not a matter of ‘culture’, ‘representation’, ‘epistemology’, or ‘worldview’, but of being. Associated with this premise are some important ideas: that the notion of a stable and universal ‘nature’ viewed through various ‘cultural’ perspectives is not shared by many of the people we study; that it would be a remarkable coincidence if concepts whose radical difference we acknowledge turned out to be as easily translatable into our own as we often assume; and that presupposing commensurability and a single ontology makes us unfaithful both to our own intellectual project of investigating difference and to our subjects as we fail to ‘take seriously’ what they tell us.3 Difference is to be understood instead as ontological rather than epistemological, as that between worlds and not worldviews. But is this a procedural question, one of method, which enjoins us to approach the world (or worlds) in a particular way? Or is it itself a kind of meta-ontology, as far from the non-Euro-American (and indeed from the Euro-American) understandings of nature and culture it seeks to encompass as the paradigm it endeavours to replace?

In the spirit of ‘taking seriously’, I will begin by asking what exactly is meant by ‘ontology’, and suggest that there is a difference of usage in the concept as it is employed by anthropologists and by analytical philosophers. Yet despite the fact that ‘Western philosophy’ usually figures as one of those things we are not supposed to take seriously, I will suggest here that we might learn something from its ‘ontological asceticism’: not, of course, the answer to Quine’s problem – ‘what is there?’ – but something else entirely: that perhaps this is not a question we should (always) be asking. Variants of the ‘ontological turn’, I suggest, have moved too far from the call to ‘take seriously’ other worlds, and started positing worlds of their own. It is hard to see how this kind of over- extended ‘ontological generosity’ squares with the original (and laudable) justification for bringing the word ‘ontology’ into our terminological canon – namely, an intellectual and political fidelity to our field(sites).

‘A Taste for Desert Landscapes’...

The story of the Valladolid controversy appears in the anthropological canon first with Lévi-Strauss (Lévi-Strauss 1952), is then resurrected by Viveiros de Castro (1998: 475, 2004a: 7), and is subsequently employed by Bruno Latour to make a very similar point (2004: 451). A brief summary here will suffice, therefore: in 1550–51, as two Dominican friars debated the humanity of Amerindians on the basis of whether or not they possessed souls, the inhabitants of the Antilles were conducting experiments on Spaniards with precisely the same object in mind, only their criterion was the possession of a particular kind of body.

The story is a wonderful illustration of Viveiros de Castro’s argument about multinaturalism (e.g., 1998). It exemplifies both the Old World assumption that nature is that which unites man and animal, whilst culture distinguishes them, and its inverse as ascribed by Viveiros de Castro to Amerindians. Proponents of the ‘ontological turn’ might trace the genealogy of contemporary anthropology back to the champion of the Amerindians at Valladolid, Bartolomé de las Casas, who insisted that regardless of differences in behaviour and belief the Amerindians’ possession of a soul was attested to by the fundamental, natural similarities between them and the Spaniards; (cultural) differences disguise a common (natural) humanity. From Franz Boas onwards, anthropologists have emphasized the former at the expense of the latter, with ‘cultural relativism’ remaining predicated on a universal, Western ontology: so many different worldviews, only one world.

But what is our ontology? Despite the facility with which anthropologists have divided thinking on this topic into categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘Western’ and ‘Other’, there is no single answer to this question. For the purposes of this argument however, I want to describe very briefly a recent resurrection of the notion of ‘ontology’ in analytic philosophy – needless to say, this is not to be taken as a review of the subject and is certainly not intended to reinforce the view that a ‘Western ontology’ actually exists (ontologically).4 Anthropologists have often in the past taken their cue from philosophers who avoided making ‘ontological’ distinctions. Whilst Geertz, for example, took his oft-quoted description of culture as ‘webs of significance’ spun by man for himself (1973: 5) from Weber, it could just as easily have come from the late Wittgenstein, whose influence he acknowledged (2000: xii), and who famously admonished philosophers against putting language to uses it was not designed for: rather than seek to abstract a general notion of ‘meaning’ from specific words or sentences, whether that meaning lay in Platonic forms or empirical objects, Wittgenstein famously argued that: ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ ([1953] 2009: 25). The philosopher’s task, much like that of the interpretive anthropologist, is that of ‘seeing’ the usage that language (or ‘culture’) gets put to, not in rooting it in any a priori truth about the world. Indeed, as far back as 1930, Wittgenstein was himself inveighing against the Frazerian tendency in anthropology to explain beliefs about magic as ontological statements about reality (1979).

I refer to the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations here because this understanding of philosophy differs significantly from that put forward earlier in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) which attempted to describe the possibility of a language austere enough to correlate with ‘simples’ that necessarily exist in all possible worlds. The importance of the Tractatus to the logical positivists is well-documented historically – it inspired Russell to write ‘The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’ (1918) – and there is an obvious conceptual link between these ideas and the analytic–synthetic distinction which they inherited from Kant.

Which brings us back again to Quine: in two of his most important and well-known essays, he not only collapsed the analytic–synthetic dichotomy but also resurrected the notion of ontology. This puts him in the rather odd position of being a potential ancestor both to anthropology as ‘cultural relativism’ (see especially Quine 1960; also Putnam 2002) as well as to the ‘ontological turn’ of recent years. Here, however, I will argue not only that this second genealogy is a false one but that we can learn from the failures of Quine’s discussion of ontology how not to follow in his footsteps.

In ‘On What There Is’ (1948), Quine is dealing with the problem Plato raises in The Sophist: how is it possible to speak of ‘non-being’ as an attribute without simultaneously asserting that its object does, in fact, exist? In other words, in asserting that Pegasus does not exist, am I, at the same time, making it clear that he does by referring to him? Quine’s response to this paradox was the notion of ‘ontological commitment’: employing Russell’s theory of descriptions (1905), Quine demonstrates that there is a crucial difference between ‘naming’ and ‘meaning’ and that arguments such as the above suppose that in order to have meaning a named object must exist. Russell’s example is the phrase ‘Scott is the author of Waverley’: this phrase does not require – in order to be meaningful – the existence of ‘Scott’; it requires that ‘something’ wrote Waverley and that nothing else did. Quine calls words such as ‘something’, ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’ ‘bound variables’ or ‘quantifiers’ which are, of course, meaningful, but do not refer to any specifically existing object. In the same way, the phrase ‘the author of Waverley is not’ becomes ‘each thing did not write Waverley or two or more things wrote Waverley’ which remains meaningful but does not imply the existence of ‘the author of Waverley’. To finally condemn Pegasus to inexistence, Quine turns his name into a description (‘is-Pegasus’ or ‘pegasizes’) and applies the same procedure.

To what then is Quine ‘ontologically committed’? The clue is in the term ‘quantifier’: as a firm believer in science, the answer for Quine is numbers. Or, more exactly, ‘sets’, since he argued that numbers (and indeed everything else) could be ‘ontologically reduced’ (1964) to ‘classes’ and ‘classes of classes’ and that this would leave us with the most economical and foundational of ontologies necessary for science to function: hence his famous ‘taste for desert landscapes’ (1948: 23).

The argument of ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (1951) is both well-known and complicated, and for reasons of space I will not delve into it in great depth here. In brief, Quine argues that the ‘two dogmas’ in question, namely the analytic–synthetic distinction and reductionism, both depend upon one another and are both false: for Quine, ‘our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but as a corporate body’ (1951: 38).

What then of the ‘desert landscape’, and our necessary ontological commitment to sets in the cause of science? As Putnam points out, it was only Quine’s scientism that allowed him to distinguish between ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ conceptual systems and argue that the former (exemplified by logic and mathematics) necessitated ontological commitment whilst the latter did not: ‘he simply ruled that only our first- grade conceptual system represents an account of what the world contains that we can and must take seriously’ (2004: 83). Quine himself seems to acknowledge this: ‘Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind’ (Quine 1951: 41).

Speaking of ‘taking seriously’, we can now make some attempt to answer the question of whether the ‘ontology’ of the ‘ontological turn’ bears any resemblance to the notion of ontology I have so far outlined.5 The answer, as we will see, is ‘no’: it certainly seems unlikely that an anthropologist would ‘ontologically commit’ to Quine’s ‘desert landscape’ of sets, sets of sets, and so on. Furthermore, of course, the notion of ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ conceptual schemes simply reiterates the distinction of a ‘real nature’ versus a ‘representational culture’ that the ‘ontological turn’ was designed to take us away from.

But there is, I would argue, something to be learnt from Quine’s ‘ontological asceticism’, which is that at some point or another along the path traced by the ‘ontological turn’ we will have to start deciding what is, and what is not. We can be ‘stingy’ or ‘generous’, but sooner or later discussions of ontology will find themselves having to ‘commit’ – even if inadvertently. Holbraad and others use the word ‘ontology’ precisely because of the connotations of ‘reality’ and ‘being’ it brings with it;6 yet they neglect to acknowledge that insisting on the ‘reality’ of multiple worlds commits you to a meta-ontology in which such worlds exist: what Quine would call ‘a bloated universe’.

...Or a ‘Bloated Universe’?

Bruno Latour provides a slightly different spin from Viveiros de Castro on the story of the Valladolid controversy and its Amerindian equivalent. In addition to the principal characters whom we have already met, Latour introduces another figure to the narrative, one who exists in an entirely different dimension: the time-travelling ‘constructivist’, who appears on the shores of the New World to persuade both parties to the dispute that if only they thought about the word ‘ontology’ a little differently they might both be a lot happier (Latour 2004: 460).

The ‘different dimension’ in this case is one which intersects with ‘perspectivalism’ and ‘perspectivism’. The ‘constructivist’ sees neither a difference of bodies, nor of souls; or rather, the constructivist sees no ‘fundamental’ difference, since both are constructed. As Latour – following others – had remarked elsewhere, ‘fabrication’ does not mean that the things fabricated do not exist (1999: 115, 2005: 112). Both bodies and souls exist precisely by virtue of having been ‘made up’ – in Henare et al.’s terms, this is not ‘social constructivism’ but ‘radical constructivism’ in which the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘constructed’ is itself collapsed (2006: 13). This, broadly speaking, is the sense in which anthropologists of the ‘ontological turn’ have used ‘ontology’. There is no fixed and stable concept posited here, to which everything else can be reduced (as with Quine’s ‘sets’), but products of a process of ‘construction’, ‘performance’, or ‘invention’.

Yet Henare et al. are wary of the normative dimension of Actor-Network Theory, and suggest that Latour comes close to positing a ‘meta-ontology’ that erases the kinds of differences with which they are concerned (2006: 7); in a similar vein, Holbraad (2004) argues that because of Latour’s ‘messianic’ bent, he is unable to account for the explanations his ‘fundamentalist’ informants actually provide him. Latour himself describes on a number of occasions how scientists often do not appreciate being told that they ‘make things up’, even when informed that this does not make the ‘things’ in question any less ‘real’ (1999: 3–19, 2005: 92–93). So our benevolent constructivist landing in the sixteenth century would perhaps succeed in achieving the peace Latour hoped he might – but one suspects it would be a temporary one, enduring only long enough for both sides to unite in making clear how unwelcome was his intrusion into their symmetrically fundamentalist ontologies.

But what of the ‘ontological turn’ itself? We return to a question I posed in the introduction: does it also imply a ‘meta-ontological’ position or not? Henare et al. reflect carefully on this problem in the introduction to Thinking through Things: they argue that their approach is heuristic rather than interpretive, and methodological rather than normative, the point being to allow classificatory schemes to be products, not preconditions, of analysis. Distinguishing themselves from Latour, they call not for ‘a new meta-theory’ but for ‘a methodology where the “things” themselves may dictate a plurality of ontologies [and] a multiplicity of theories’ (2006: 5–7).

A concrete example (given here in brief) is Holbraad’s discussion of Ache (Holbraad 2006), the powder employed in Cuban divinatory rites, which, he claims, is literally equated with power by his informants. Holbraad’s solution to the problem of how adequately to describe powder as power is to proceed from the assumption (common to the volume as a whole) that there is no distinction between concepts and things. This leads him to the conclusion that the way ‘powder is power’ is in its capacity to effect transformations in the ontological statuses of the deities it is supposed to summon: powder is literally the potential for the gods to move from transcendence to immanence (2006: 216–217). On the face of it, there are no immediate indications that Holbraad intends this as a description of the world; or, in so far as he does, it is purely a description of one world – because, of course, there are many.

Were a determined Quinean to appear in the midst of this discussion he would now point out the first problem with this account: ‘there are many worlds’ is an ontological commitment, a meta-ontology in which ‘many worlds’ exist. I want to emphasize that I would not consider this logical objection of our neo-Quinean enough in and of itself were it not supported by an idea, implicit within Holbraad’s work, of what particular form that meta-ontology takes. Consider the way in which Holbraad’s sophisticated description is able to take into account the ontological status of both transcendence and immanence and transformations between the two; it does so by making ‘ontology’ stand in this context not only for existence but also for ‘potential’ existence (‘becoming’). Again, one might respond that this is perfectly legitimate since as a description it remains confined to its own context. Yet in a response to an article by Latour, we find Holbraad (2004) making a remarkably similar argument with regard to the belief of Christians in a transcendent God: Holbraad attempts both to critique Latour for his inability to take into account those who do distinguish between ‘construction’ and ‘reality’, and to formulate a way of doing so which does not betray the principles of ‘non-representationalism’. In attempting to resolve the problem by subsuming ‘fundamentalism’ within ‘radical constructivism’ through the same notion of ‘potentiality’ which we find in his Cuban ethnography, Holbraad inadvertently reveals just how transposable he considers this notion. Finally, in a number of recent articles (2009a, 2009b), Holbraad has argued that anthropology’s fundamental task is what he calls ‘ontography’, or ‘defining’ new truths. By this point it should be clear what the nature of this meta-ontology is: ‘truth’ for Holbraad is something which can be ‘invented’, ‘performed’, or ‘constructed’, in line with the ‘radical constructivism’ of Thinking Through Things and Latour.7 By now, however, it is impossible to claim that this is simply a question of approach, given that we have travelled from Cuba through Christianity all the way to anthropology as a discipline, all without the significant alterations in our classificatory scheme the volume’s introduction promises us (2007: 6); and when Holbraad goes as far as to assert that his ‘new’ definition of truth is an instance of itself – it ‘invents’ or ‘performs’ itself into reality (2009a: 82) – it becomes clear quite how far we have moved from the ‘worlds’ of our ethnographic subjects.8 Whether anthropology should or should not be in the business of ‘inventing’ new truths, this is hardly in accord with the aim of taking our informants seriously.

Quite apart from the ethnographic problem of the relation of this understanding of ontology to the actual ontologies of our informants, there is an inherent contradiction between the worthy aim of taking difference seriously by treating it as a difference specifically of being, and the practice of redefining the word ‘being’ until it really does encompass – to return to Quine’s joke – ‘everything’. This critique is only applicable if we claim to be ‘describing’ a world or worlds as if they themselves are found objects – however, for obvious reasons, it is precisely what differentiates the word ‘ontology’ from, say, ‘culture’ that leads to the sense that a reality is indeed being described. And as soon as we invoke description we are forced into either a Quinean ‘desert landscape’ in which one ontology inevitably takes priority over all the others, or what he terms ‘a bloated universe’ in which ‘existence’ covers everything both actual and potential. If we are to remain true to the goal of ‘taking seriously’ our ethnographic subjects we will have to admit that whilst the latter alternative (‘a bloated universe’) may seem attractive it cannot be given any ontological priority over the former, as it is in Holbraad’s meta-ontology: many of our informants (and this may be particularly true for anthropologists who work in Europe and America) prefer his ‘desert landscapes’ to ‘bloated universes’ and we ought to be able to ‘take them seriously’ too.


Quine’s ambition in resurrecting the discipline of ontology in analytic philosophy was to take back ‘the good old word “exist”’ (1948: 23) in order to discover a properly ascetic answer to the question ‘what is there?’. I want to emphasize again that my intention here has not been to espouse his answer to this question; rather, I have tried to argue that this is perhaps not a question we, as anthropologists, should (always) be asking, and that the choice Quine lays out for us is in fact a false one: we do not need to choose between ontological asceticism and generosity if we keep in mind that ‘taking seriously’ is a question of approach, and not of description. Anthropology is not the science of the ‘ontological autodetermination of the world’s peoples’ (Viveiros de Castro 2011: 128) if it involves telling some people (even logical positivists) they have it all wrong right from the beginning.

It is possible to read the work of Viveiros de Castro as exemplifying an attempt to approach the world in a particular way, not to describe it: ‘To maintain the values of the other as implicit ... means refraining from actualizing the possible expressions of alien thought and deciding to sustain them as possibilities – neither relinquishing them as the fantasies of others, nor fantasizing about them as leading to the true reality’ (2011: 136–137).9 In other words, ‘taking seriously’ involves ‘a self-imposed suspension of the desire to explicate the other’ (Candea 2011: 147), not a recategorization of difference from ‘culture’ to ‘nature’. That this is a question of method is evident from the fact that ‘taking seriously’ involves ‘controlled equivocation’ and ‘asymmetry’ (Candea 2011; Viveiros de Castro 2004b): one cannot take everybody seriously at the same time. Taking Amerindian cosmology seriously means (at least temporarily) not taking other cosmologies seriously. And, of course, the distinction between what one does and does not take seriously is far from being ‘ontological’ itself; there are no ‘Western ontologies’ or ‘Amazonian ontologies’ out there to be discovered in the world. Rather, ‘each person is a people unto him- or herself ’ and ‘within “a” people there are always other people and anthropology should take them seriously too’ (Candea 2011: 148–149). Where one locates this boundary is a matter of methodological choice.

In these brief reflections, I have endeavoured to ‘take seriously’ Quine’s concept of ontology in order to make clear the difference between this understanding of ‘ontology’ and that of the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology. I have also attempted to take seriously the ‘ontological turn’, but challenged the ‘meta-ontology’ to which it inadvertently commits. Quine went to great lengths to take the word ‘ontology’ back from those whom he thought had ‘ruined’ it (1948: 23) and I suggest that it is very difficult to use the word and avoid making commitments to which our informants would not subscribe; perhaps we should let him keep it.


  1. The phrase ‘ontological turn’ here will refer largely to the contributions to Henare et al. (2006) and to some more recent work by Martin Holbraad, where the injunction to think ‘ontologically’ is explicit. I briefly discuss some of the differences between the ‘turn’ and the progenitors it claims for itself such as Viveiros de Castro and Latour, but for brevity’s sake I do not deal with others who might plausibly be included – e.g., Evens (2005, 2008) or Ingold (2000, 2011). 
  2. Although not, as Candea notes, ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ (2010: 4). 
  3. See, e.g., Carrithers et al. 2010: 4; for a different understanding of ‘taking seriously’, see Willerslev 2007:
  4. Since they are not particularly germane to the arguments here, I will not discuss the contributions of
    continental philosophers to the notion of ontology (e.g., Husserl and Heidegger). 
  5. If called upon to defend the choice of Quine to bear the weight of ontology in ‘Western philosophy’ I would cite Putnam, who argues that his notion of ‘ontological commitment’ is what made ontology ‘a
    respectable subject for an analytic philosopher to pursue’ (2004: 78–79). 
  6. Despite the simultaneous and somewhat paradoxical claim that they are not ‘describing’ the world(s)
    but ‘approaching’ it. 
  7. Scott (2011), noting a similar yet broader meta-ontology, includes ‘relationalism’, ‘post-pluralist
    anthropology’, ‘the study of human-nonhuman interactions’, and ‘open-ness’ within this paradigm, as well as Ingold’s ‘flux of continual generation and transformation’ (2011: 24), and Evens’ ‘between-ness’ (2008: xx). 
  8. Citing Henare et al. (2006: 10–16), Scott points out how this radical constructivism positions the anthropologist as ‘an almost god-like conceiver of new worlds’ (2011: 23). 
  9. Cf. the argument Putnam makes in Ethics Without Ontology (2004) for abandoning ontology in favour of attention to various modes of possible existence. 


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——— 2011. Endo-Exo. Common Knowledge 17, no. 1: 146–150.

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——— 2009b. Ontology, Ethnography, Archaeology: An Afterword on the Ontography of Things. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19, no. 3: 431–441.

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——— 2004a. Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformations of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies. Common Knowledge 10, no. 3: 463–484.

——— 2004b. Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipiti 2, no. 1: 3–22.

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Paolo Heywood is a doctoral student in the Division of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, working on the connection between masculinity and politics in contemporary Northern Italy. His ‘reflections’ piece published here has been awarded the Emrys Peters Prize, University of Manchester.


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