Flat Ontology and the Onto-epistemic Stance

I have been working on an idea for a seminar, entitled “Unity of Science,” which involves collapsing epistemology and ontology into one branch of philosophy.  The paper is called, “Abstraction as Dissection of a Flat “Ontology”: The Illusiveness of Levels” (click this sentence to view paper).  One of the motivations for doing this is that I think pragmatism and theory-ladenness call for it; and the two notions, themselves, seem to be naturally married by van Fraassen’s pragmatics of explanation —not to mention having been sort of suggested by Peirce.  I say “sort of” because theory-ladenness hadn’t been thought of, back then.

For the project at hand, deciding whether levels that exist in scientific explanation exist, I needed to develop an argument by consilience, because I couldn’t figure out how to develop tightly packed linear argument.  It seemed easier to present the bases of each notion being embraced by the paper, and then show how it all weaved together to present a flat ontology, which, then, illustrated that levels are not a part of it.  Overall, most of what I wanted to bring together is there, but all of its contents are not nearly woven together to the degree that I would like.  I wonder whether it won’t take another 15 pages to get it all to come together, maybe 20 pages.  To the end that I argue levels are illusive, I think an acceptable job has been done, but the paper lacks any kind of polish, and will need much work on the prose.  Wildly abstruse, the paper also needs to have some uniformity brought to the language; I know what I mean, but others may not.

My future plans for this project is to further develop the psycho-cognitive foundation for this paper, and possibly present it to a graduate conference.  Afterward, if that works out, auguring well for this project, I will revisit this paper and decide whether to rewrite it completely, or simply make extensive revisions.  This will also give me time to read Giere’s, Cartwright’s, Longino’s and others’ works on related subjects, which this paper has not been properly informed by; and, at the time of writing, I am not nearly familiar enough with Quine’s work to properly make judgments regarding the interplay of his ontology and the idea of an onto-epistemic stance.

If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave comments below or email me.


Filed under Epistemology, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science

5 responses to “Flat Ontology and the Onto-epistemic Stance

  1. Nathan

    Hi David: I found your blog after reading your review on Amazon of Robert DiSalle’s book Understanding Space-Time, and I share your high regard for that book. I just skimmed through your “flat ontology” paper here and it confirmed my (provisional) aesthetic judgment that I formed after reading your review of DiSalle’s book: You have great taste.

    So many thoughts occur to me about your paper that it wouldn’t be prudent to try to convey them all. Let me start with one thing we have in common: our mutual regard for DiSalle’s Understanding Space-Time. One of the many strong aspects of that book is the coherence of its story. As DiSalle writes: “It is therefore no less than the story of the movement of physics toward a kind of philosophical maturity — toward a state of clarity in fundamental concepts, and of self-consciousness concerning the ways in which fundamental concepts acquire their empirical meaning.” You may remember how DiSalle presents Arthur Eddington’s and Hermann Weyl’s explanations of “world-structure” as the culmination of his story of the philosophy of physics that runs through Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Helmholtz, Riemann, Poincaré, Einstein, and Minkowski. It seems to me that in this paper you too are trying to tell a story about a movement toward “a state of clarity in fundamental concepts, and of self-consciousness concerning the ways in which fundamental concepts acquire their empirical meaning.” Maybe it would be helpful for you to revisit DiSalle’s account of Eddington and Weyl in relation to the philosophy of space-time to help you decide how best to tell your story of a movement toward clarity in fundamental ontologies and of self-consciousness concerning the ways in which ontologies acquire their meaning.

    I just read a recent article by Ermanno Bencivenga exploring the difference between analytic, dialectical, and gradual logics. To quote the abstract: “Analytic logic structures its organization of discourse around negation, contraries, and hence arguments forcing a conclusion to follow (under threat of inconsistency) from some premises. Dialectical logic’s main tool is the construction of narratives, hence the attempted incorporation of interlocutors within one’s own story. The third option, here labeled gradual logic, sees sorites (which are recalcitrant anomalies for the analytic approach) as ideal cases, since the bleeding of a predicate into an alleged contrary points the way to reaching an agreement among initially conflicting parties: to them eventually coming to regard themselves as stressing different aspects of one and the same thing.” If I were to classify your paper using Bencivenga’s taxonomy, I would say that your paper’s strength is its (roughly) gradual logic. I wonder if your paper would benefit from adding more dialectical logic as well, making your story less ahistorical and more historically coherent, like DiSalle’s book (bearing in mind, as DiSalle writes, that “the talk of dialectic is quite straightforward and unassuming, implying nothing particularly Hegelian — especially, nothing about the philosophical necessity or the historical inevitability of any of the developments I have discussed”).

    I’ve read a lot of Ronald Giere’s work and I agree that some of his ideas would fit well into your story. Another idea that you may want to incorporate is the concept of “homology” discussed by philosophers of biology. If you’re unfamiliar with that literature, one way into it is through Marc Ereshefsy’s work, especially his recent paper “Homology Thinking.” Notice that homology thinking is also historical thinking (or what Bencivenga would loosely classify as dialectical logic): as Ereshefsky says in the abstract to that paper: “Homology thinking explains the properties of a homologue by citing the history of a homologue.” I see that Ereshefsky has an even more recent paper titled “Consilience, Historicity, and the Species Problem,” which sounds relevant to your paper (though I haven’t read it).

    Too many other thoughts and connections come to mind (e.g., the whole literature on extended and embodied cognition in cognitive science, Karin Knorr Cetina on epistemic cultures, Tim Ingold on the anthropology of ontologies), but I have spent enough time on this response already, so I will leave it at that. I would reiterate that it might be interesting to look again at the role of Eddington and Weyl in DiSalle’s book, since your statement “there is no such thing as a strict dichotomy between epistemology and ontology” sounds to me like it could have been lifted straight out of Eddington’s The Philosophy of Physical Science. I hope this is helpful.

  2. Hello Nathan,

    Thank you for your insightful comments. You really seemed to cut to the heart of the project, which is the role of “negation” in science and cognition prior to science. I think you are right, that bringing dialectic to the paper will make it more historically coherent. As suggested in the second end note, this paper has an eye toward the history of science. Time constraints notwithstanding, the foremost reason for developing the paper as I did was simply that it isn’t clear to me how to write this paper without just emptying out my concepts onto the page, and trying to organize them from there. Maybe the suggested method could work out. I will take a look at the cited Bencivenga article, and see if I can’t do something with it.

    Additionally, thank you for the suggested literature. I think you are right that Ereshefsky’s work will end up being helpful. I was not familiar with, being that my experience has been much more geared toward physics. I had recently suggested to me the work of Karin Knorr Cetina, so it looks as though this is another recommendation that will likely prove fruitful.

    Feel free to drop me a line, whenever it pleases; don’t let the Cat get your tongue.


  3. Nathan

    David, I was thinking some more about my response to your paper. I still stand behind what I said about DiSalle’s book (and the role of Eddington and Weyl in DiSalle’s story) and its relevance as a potential model that you could use to help you clarify your story, but in retrospect I was a little sloppy in my application of Ermanno Bencivenga’s categories of analytical, dialectical, and gradual. (But maybe I can be forgiven for being a little sloppy since the title of Bencivenga’s article is, after all, “Fuzzy Reasoning”!)

    Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther recently published an article on “Part-Whole Science” that mentions three varieties of part-whole explanation (mechanistic, historical, and structuralist) that are roughly analogous to Bencivenga’s analytical, dialectical, and gradual logics. To quote Winther: “(1) Mechanistic explanation aims to provide an account of the whole in terms of the causal properties of basic parts. Its explananda are system behavior and development, or the mechanisms themselves. (2) Structuralist explanation intends to furnish an account of the system in terms of (i) structural parts found at many levels [i.e., forms or kinds] and [or] (ii) the realization of formal mathematical laws in emergent processes [i.e., generative processes]. Its explananda are emergent system form and development. (3) The goal of historical explanation is to present a narrative, a biography, of a temporally-changing organism-part, or species qua part, by placing it in its contextual whole. Its explananda are the long-term temporal changes of organism-parts, species qua parts, and their respective wholes.” In the section of the article titled “Relationships among the explanatory projects,” Winther provides an illustration of “partial ‘spotlight’ projections of complex reality” which is the same as the orthographic projection metaphor that you borrow from Colin Allen. (I’ve seen this same metaphor used in other texts as well, but I can’t recall where.) These three varieties of explanation (and Bencivenga’s three logics) are applicable not only to scientific stories about the world, but also to philosophical stories about science. Does the story you’re trying to tell in this paper need more of what Winther calls “historical” explanation (and what Bencivenga calls “dialectical” logic)? That depends on exactly what story you’re trying to tell, which is an issue you may want to clarify.

    You might also enjoy Winther’s recent article “Interweaving Categories: Styles, Paradigms, and Models”, which asks: “What would we learn about the practices and theories, the agents and materials, and the political-technological impact of science if we analyzed and applied styles (à la Hacking and Crombie), paradigms (à la Kuhn), and models (à la van Fraassen and Cartwright) simultaneously?”

  4. Hello Nathan,

    Not a problem. I had not yet had the chance to read Bencivenga’s article. I have a number of projects on the table right now, so I am backed up a bit. The story I am trying to tell in the article is definitely one that has historical implications, but I have a very marked reason for avoiding entering into an historical discussion. The reason is that the salient features of cognition, those found in the subject’s phenomenal plane, may change, or, at least, they certainly seem to —and this bears some relation to the DiSalle article you excerpted on the Kantian blog post. Theory-ladenness, being grounded in cognition, and determining the salient features of the subject’s world, determining how he or she can explain (as it is dependent upon what is salient), suggests that there is a kind of microevelotion of consciousness. This seems to me an Hegelian result (categories change over time), and I think this line of thinking can make much sense of the history of science, especially when interest-dependence of science is taken into account. (This is one of a couple of items I simply have had time to work into the article.) What I should like to say is that all knowledge is grounded in the phenomenal plane, that anything that extends out from the phenomenal plane (names, what we would call type and token ideas, and so on) are all results of some kind of measurement omission. By “measurement omission,” I mean the same kind of abstraction that is done in science, where much of what is the case is ignored to arrive at principles and “laws.” The paper becomes impossible to manage, if I include the historical aspect, as the historical aspect comes to emphasize cognition, which would require many, many more pages. As it is, I could not avoid talking about cognition in this paper. I will give some thought to your remarks, and see what I come up with. My thinking, right now, is that I should write a paper on the cognitive foundation of this idea, and then revisit this one. My impression is that I can split this paper into two, one talking about levels and the unity of science, a second talking about the history of science. All in all, I think this paper represents an addition hundred pages of immediately necessary work that has not been done.

    Thanks again for all of the stimulating comments.


  5. Pingback: “Kenotype”: Meillasoux and the Meaningless Sign | noir realism

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