What We Talk About When We Know What We’re Talking About

with apologies to Raymond Carver

Ontology is, famously, the study of what there is. In philosophy, especially after Kant, this question has been approached by way of epistemology, so that we now ask what is there to know. As academic writers, it can be useful to distinguish the act of knowing from the facts we know, and so it can be useful to think independently about what there is and how we know it. That’s what I want to write a few words about this morning.

Willard Van Orman Quine has been cropping up a lot in my thinking and reading lately. He had a strong influence on me when I was younger (channeled largely through the work of Donald Davidson) and revisiting his writing has been a good way to gauge whether my own thinking has gotten deeper and richer with the years. I think it has. For example, Quine suggests that we think of ontology always in relation to a theory, not as some general metaphysical project of discovering what “the world” is really “made of” (though he’d be happy to let us do that too, relative to, say, our whole language.)

The other day, for example, I wrote about the ontology of the library, our archive of scholarly discourse. I said it consists of “sources” of particular kinds, like “books” and “periodicals”, “chapters” and “articles”, but also databases and their data and metadata. And when I talk about writing, I’m talking about words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, papers, dissertations, etc., which some would say are covered by the general term “texts”. The point (today) isn’t whether these terms are the exactly right ones but just that these are things I “know something about” as a librarian or writing instructor. They constitute the universe of my knowledge. They indicate my ontology. They are the “things” I can “refer” to because I am a “knowledgeable” person.

Notice I can refer to them without saying anything about them, without really making a knowledge claim. At best, I’m claiming that books and paragraphs exist. And that’s the whole theme of ontology. What things exist?

I said that Quine suggested we always relativize our ontology to our theories (or our language). We should ask, “What is this theory about?” when we are looking into its particular ontology. Notice that the two examples I sketched were not really theories, but what we could well call practices: archiving, writing. All we have to do now is realize that our practices can be theorized and that when we theorize our social practices what we’re actually doing is taking what people are doing as “subjects”, driven around by “necessities” (what they must and mustn’t do), and construing them as “objects” in a space of “possibilities”. We’re taking an “objective” view of “subjective” experience.

In so doing, we’re going to construct theoretical objects and these will constitute our ontology. At one level, we can say that we know something about “people”. But we might also be studying groups or classes of people, or we might be studying their motivations or their identities. Or we might not really be studying persons at all: maybe we want to say we study decisions in organizations (populated by members), or transactions on markets (for goods).

As a preparation to write key sentences for paragraphs I often suggest that people take a few minutes just to make a list of the things they know something about, without yet thinking about what they want to say about them. Just name the things that populate your world. The world you are studying. The objects of your theories.

Tomorrow we’ll think of things to say.

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