08 February 2019

Analytic philosophy's fraudulent social ontology

Social ontology conceived as collective intentionality has become one of the burgeoning industries within the analytic philosophy establishment that has usurped hegemony over our age's mind. Spearheaded by early papers by John Searle, today there are even centres for social ontology, an International Society of Social Ontology and numerous journals dedicated to the topic. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Social ontology is the study of the nature and properties of the social world." The sociation of this social world is assumed to be captured by a collectivity of subjective intentionality. The human being cast as an individual, subjective, interior consciousness vis-à-vis an external, objective world is taken unquestioningly as the basis for collecting into a collectivity of subjective intentionality. The individual, interior, subjective consciousness directs its attention to objects in the external world. This is called intentionality, i.e. a directedness or straining-towardness of consciousness. The individual intentionalitiies are then said to become collective via the 'property' of each individual consciousness possessing language, by virtue of which it is able to agree, via coinciding will-power, on a collective intentionality through which it is thus sociated in a social world. The existence of money, for instance, is 'explained' 'causally' as a matter of agreement, i.e. of convention. This is anything but an ontological grounding of money in its conditions of possibility as a mode of being. It is not coincidental that the initiator of analytic social ontology, John Searle, made his reputation as an analytic philosopher of language. Needless to say, the causal intentionality of the willed subject is taken for granted as a bedrock fact, and not as a deep philosophical problem, as it was by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and perhaps one or two others.

The collective intentionality constituted by willed subjects of consciousness via the medium of language is the linch-pin for what is taken for granted as intersubjectivity. If the world is populated by individual subjects that (not who) come together in some sort of collectivity, this accounts for the inter- of intersubjectivity as something self-evident. No further questions asked about this inter- which already makes massive presuppositions starting with that the human being is cast as being, first of all, an individual, isolated subject of consciousness. Behind the prefix, inter-, however lies the question of being itself, the genuine ontological question that subjectivist ontology, subjectivist social ontology in particular, never poses. By assuming simple-mindedly that the collectivity of subjects is constituted by the use of language (thus evading the question of sociation as a mode of movement), the questions concerning the logos itself and its relation to being itself and the truth of being are obliviously skipped over. Truth itself remains located in propositions, rather than prelinguistically in the disclosure of phenomena themselves. Even those scholars claiming to work in the phenomenological tradition 'argue' for their 'positions', mostly by reference to other scholars and philosopher names, without ever seriously engaging with and interrogating the phenomena themselves. After presenting their 'arguments', these purported scholars of phenomenology then draw their 'conclusions', without ever having shed light on the crucial phenomena themselves, especially the phenomenon of sociation as a mode of movement sui generis demanding its own ontology. 

Any alternative approach to social ontology deviating from a naively and dogmatically assumed social ontology of intersubjectivity is tacitly declared to be out of bounds and thus ruthlessly suppressed by the simple expedient of making it abundantly clear to any up-and-coming philosopher that she or he will ruin her/his career chances within the academic establishment by stepping out of line from the accepted prevailing orthodoxy. Academia has its own brutal methods of enforcing conformity and young academics to toe the line. This I call the disparagement and depreciation of who-status through estimating the abilities of an individual lowly in the unceasing estimative power interplays over who someone is. On the philosophical plane, this unrelenting power struggle is ultimately over the hermeneutico-ontological casting of our age. This ontological cast, however, remains invisible for an historical mind that has 'forgotten' how to think at all ontologically. Instead, all sorts of flimsy surrogates and cheap substitutes for conceptions of ontology are abundantly in circulation in the contemporary, ontologically clueless mind.

The conception of ontology underlying social ontology, namely, is even cruder than the self-evident taking-for-granted of the willed subjective consciousness and its language-mediated collectivity in some kind of self-evidently assumed intersubjectivity. As one example among countless others, I take an article published in the first, 2015 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Social Ontology, by Lynne Rudder Baker entitled 'Human Persons as Social Entities'.

Baker writes by way of introducing what she understands by ontology, "Ontology simpliciter is a complete inventory of all the entities, kinds and properties that ever exist or are instantiated. ... Ontology at time t comprises all the entities and properties that have existed at time t or before." (p.77) As is usual in all analytic ontology, the meaning of 'existence', i.e. of being itself, is taken for granted (as meaning - what??). Entities just have to be "instantiated" as some kind of fact registered by subjective consciousness in order to 'be'. Note that Baker is not disturbed by adopting the mathematized conception of 1D-linear time t to include the temporal dimension into her one-line definition of ontology. This simplistic conception ignores the long history of Western thinking on ontology, starting with Aristotle's Metaphysics and its investigation of "beings qua beings", i.e. beings simply insofar as they are beings. The "qua" or (apophantic) "as" in this initiating conception of ontology, which represents the gateway to any ontology worthy of the name, finds no place whatsoever in either Baker's or analytic philosophy's understanding of ontology. The student of philosophy is thus defrauded and grossly short-changed by this repressive orthodoxy.

This situation does not improve when Baker moves on to consider the question, "What is a Human Person?" (p. 78) whose very formulation forecloses the question whether a person can be considered hermeneutico-ontologically as a what at all. There follows the statement, "A human person is a person who begins existence constituted by an organism, but is not identical to the organism that constitutes her." (p. 78) A human person, in an eminently circular definition, is asserted to be "a person who...". This is then elaborated as, "A human person comes into existence when a human organism develops to the point of supporting a first-person perspective at a rudimentary stage, a nonconceptual capacity for intentional behavior that requires consciousness and intentionality." (p.79) This statement reveals that Baker's (and not only her) understanding of ontology is ontogenetic through and through, and not ontological at all. To talk of developing a "first-person perspective" is merely an ontic statement vis-à-vis an ontological concept such as the Kantian transcendental ego which, if you like, is also "first-person". No wonder the category of efficient causality, applied ontically, is accepted without batting an eyelid. Furthermore it is presupposed that a human organism "develops" into a subject, i.e. into a what, not a who, with "a nonconceptual capacity for intentional behavior that requires consciousness and intentionality." The dogmatic, orthodox starting-point with the individual conscious subject is merely confirmed by the asseveration that an organism develops ontogenetically into one (without ever spelling out the ontology of subjectivity itself).

The recently awakened interest within analytic philosophy and the social sciences in a topic called social ontology reveals not only a despicable paucity of philosophical thinking, but a degeneration of mind in our age that has all but lost its grip on what ontology itself, with its rich tradition in Western philosophy, properly entails and demands. For any genuine social ontology, the hegemony of the tradition ontology of whatness (quidditas, essentia, Wassein) has to be thoroughly interrogated to unearth a hitherto unheard-of ontology of whoness (quissitas, Wersein). Only then can the question concerning the sociation of whos, rather than conscious subjects, be posed at all, along with the question concerning the peculiar ontology of the movement of sociation among whos, an ontology likewise hitherto unheard-of . Today's overbearing analytic philosophy with its handmaiden status to the modern-day sciences, both natural and social, and its interminable arguments over -isms in academic positionings and posturings is not going to take us there. Rather, it will do everything in its power to ruthlessly repress any alternative questioning, any alternative thinking, any alternative ontology, and this has repercussions not only within the prevailing mainstream philosophy and not only throughout the modern sciences, but even in that kind of discourse which goes under the catch-all name of Continental philosophy, setting itself up as the critical alternative to today's hegemonic Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition. 

Further reading Social Ontology of Whoness.