Moving Ontology 1

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Moving Ontology
1






Final

Paper

Moving Ontology


Kurt Stuke

Franklin Pierce University





Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of

BA 740

Mastering and Guiding the Process of Change

Kirk Buckman, PhD


25May2010




Moving Ontology
2






Days


Daughters of Time, the
hypocritic Days,

Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,

And marching single in an endless file,

Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.

To each they offer gifts after his will,

Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.

I, in my pleached gard
en, watched the pomp,

Forgot my morning wishes, hastily

Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day

Turned and departed silent. I, too late,

Under h
er solemn fillet saw the scorn.



Ralph Waldo Emerson




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What does it mean to assert that “time matters” within

the social sciences? Pierson, in his
Politics in Time
, employs an analogy to illustrate
one possible interpretation
. He supposes a
restaurant (
cleverly
named “The Modern Social Scientist”) in which the head chef

asserts that
good cooking “
amounts to
having the perfect ingredients, perfectly measured
” while ignoring

the cooking process itself is, including the sequence, pace, and specific manner in which the
ingredients are to be combined
” (Pierson,
2004, p.
1).
Obviously, the chef is wrong.
The
argum
ent
,

by means of

analogy
,

is that we cannot fully understand the issues under scrutiny
through the examination of the ingredients (variables)

alone;
we must
seek to
understand how
time can influence the growth and development, i.e. the cooking, of the issu
e
(s)
.
Pierson’s
positi
on is that time and its impact i
s introduced through mechanisms such as path
dependency, critical junctures, and timing and sequence. Given the explanatory power (both
ontologically and methodologically) the aforementioned mechanisms
offer, Pierson warrants
that the addition of time will enable the social sciences to move from a “snapshot” view o
f
political life to a view
akin to moving pictures. (Pierson,
2004, p.
2)

This essay shall
agree
that time
does matter

(
as
Pierson argues)
but

will
disagree that
the
additions of the aforementioned mechanisms actually
accord

time
its full and proper
importance
.
To be fair,
Pierson’s mechanisms do move social science
forward;

i
nstead of having one
static “snapshot,” multiple “snapshots” are now available.
The
amount of
information
accessible

via
multiple “snapshots”

is, of course,
greater than the
amount of
information
conveyed

through

a single

“snapshot.”
T
he

analogue of the “s
napshot” and “moving pictures
,


however, betrays

a “
naïve


realism

and epistemology at work within Pierson’s approach.

Abstraction, a phenomenon by
Moving Ontology
4



definition that is
out
of time, is central to such naivety

(whether expressed ontologically or
epistemologic
ally)
.
The basic permutations

for the centrality of abstraction
are: either the
knower is
in some way
abstract
, e.g. an atemporal spectator, and
is
therefore
out
of time
; or,
knowledge is in some way based on an action of abstraction that is
out
of

the reality of

time
,
e.g. a

correspondence between internal and external
formal
reality
, etc.
; or, both the thing
known and the knower are, in reality, abstract
, e.g. the Cartesian model
.
More examples,
of
course, within each category

are possible.
Hence,

Pierson’s
goal of placing politics

in
time
cannot truly be reach
ed

as
his use of the analogue of “snapshots” and “moving pictures”
demonstrates his subscription to a “naïve” approach and such a
n

approach will always be
separated from time due to its relia
nce (in some way) upon abstraction.


Pierson’s restaurant
argument

is easily revisable in order to illustrate
,

in a less technical
way,
the
quiet barrier to time constructed by abstraction and “naivety.”
Imagine a restaurant
(cleverly named
“The Modern
Social Scientist”), in which the chef has a complete and exhaustive set of recipes
that incorporate time as well as listing ingredients (Pierson’s recipe for success). Unfortunately,
the head chef has never cooked a meal in her entire life. She will be rea
ding the recipes
(including detailed instructions on sequence and timing) but has no experience in the
preparation of any meal

or in any of the processes or techniques used within the recipes
.
We
tend to prefer chefs who actually have
experience
in cooking

for good reason; there is
something about the fullness of reality and experience (whether we are discussing cooking or
social reality) that exceeds the boundaries of a recipe


even those recipes that in some way
Moving Ontology
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include time.
As William James writes, “
Kn
owledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a
place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another” (James,
1987, p.
438).

Naive realism, because it
is, by definition, a cognitive and abstract attempt

to frame reali
ty,
simply cannot
stand

in the dynamic currents of life. It is an abstraction, necessarily removed from life’s
dynamic currents.
It is the noted distance between abstraction and reality that prevents any observation
embedded in
naivety

from accurately conv
eying time.
At best, any “snapshot” afforded through such a
mindset is a “post
-
mortem dissection” (James,
1987, p.
403).
More importantly,
even if we could reach
“moving picture” status (perhaps by revising the epistemology or the ontology or even both),
the goal
itself is an artifact of the approach. In actuality, the state achieved, i.e. “moving picture” status and the
benefits of reaching such a state would be fleeting


obsolescence would be as imminent as the dynamic
im
pact of time upon/within the ob
served phenomenon/reality
.

Ultimately, it is not the ontology or the
epistemology that is at fault; somewhere in the heart of the naivety is a mindset
/impulse

that seeks to
flatten or two
-
dimensionalize reality. It is due to this mindset that “being” is
understood as
representable in “stills” (albeit one “snapshot” or many) and “meaning” is understood as univocal,
static, and
out

of time.

If we really
want to insist that “
time matters
,

we ought
to seek an alternative
m
indset as

a
starting point
.
William

James

offers
one possible
alternative
.
Within James’s approach, the point of
thought transitions from adequately capturing
and reporting
reality to adequately exploring and
creating reality. Accordingly, the key terms, e.g., logic, meaning, the self are n
ot staticized but are
irreducibly fluid, purposive and
in
play:

The objects of our thought now
act

when given in experience. They change and develop.
They introduce something other than themselves along with them: and this other, at
Moving Ontology
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first only ideal or pot
ential, presently proves itself to be actual. It supersedes the thing
at first supposed, and both verifies and corrects it, in developing the fullness of its
meaning. (James,
1987, p.
403)

Instead of relying on frozen “snapshots” taken at some previous poi
nt (most likely “taken” by an earlier
knower), the Jamesian approach forces the doer to constantly engage, create, and interpret in order to
stay within the dynamic current
s

of life
.

Because experience is
in
time, some of the attributes with the highest a
mount of “cash value”
for the social sciences
are rejected by James (irony intended). Static essences, antecedent meanings,
well
-
defined rules of causality, and of the unbounded ability of reason to lay bare the very ontological
depths and philosophical my
steries upon which the universe rests


the very building blocks of
comparative and standard regression models


are rejected. Naïve realism’s attempt to superimpose a
giant and unchanging Cartesian grid upon reality is dismissed. Lost with the
dismissal o
f the
grid are the
ubiquitous and unchallenged assumptions of predictability,
complete
knowability, and quantifiability.


Given what the social sciences stand to lose, why should we accept James’s approach and reject
the alleged mindset underlying Pierson’
s text
?
James would argue that we should

reject the naïve
realism
and
its bastard mindset
because such an approach
does not
reflect reali
ty but staticized
abstractions (
“snapshots” if you will
)
, of that which, in actuality, is fluid and
in
the making
. The
aforementioned assumptions of predictability, complete knowability, and quantifiability are
phantom
predicates built upon the
illusory

sand of abstraction
.
Theories and observations built upon abstraction
are necessarily specious because abstraction will a
lways
remain a
t some distance from reality; the
distance is unavoidable
.
It is t
he distance between the
two that

is the limiting factor of a
ccuracy

and
explanatory value.
In short, we believe we can adequately express reality statically precisely because of
the naïve realism and its aforementioned assumptions. But it is precisely the
dogmatic faith in naïve
Moving Ontology
7



realism

and its
erosive tendency to deflate lived experience
that p
revents applied ontologies from
interacting meaningfully with the very reality they observe
.

While James treats compassionately the
desire for an “All
-
inclusive, yet simple… noble, clean, luminous, stable” modeling of
reality of so
-
called
naïve approaches

as a refuge for those “spirits vexed by the muddiness and accidentality of the world of
sensible things” (James
, 1987, p.

389


390), he argues that, in reality

(
in

time)
, things are not so simple
and clean:

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact
well up into our lives in ways that exceed
verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that
glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late.
No one knows this as well as the philosophe
r. He must fire his volley of new vocables
out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry, but he
secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy. His formulas are like the stereoscopic or
kinetoscopic photographs seen outsid
e the instrument; they lack the depth, the motion,
the vitality. (James,
1987, p.
409)

In spite of our need for clarity and certainty, James is calling for us to consider a reality and
ontology(
ies)
that is/are not merely reflective of the philosophical “c
loth
ing” of our time (James,
1987, p.
388). Any
attempt to constrain reality
in
time

in terms of one clear and simple essence, or to attempt to
appreciate the vitality and fullness of that reality perhaps in terms of multiple “snapshots” (or even
moving pi
ctures) reflects a
n untenable
bias.

Perhaps the most cogent argument in defense of
accepting
James’s
experiential
approach
is the
fact that many social scientists are already employing approaches
,
such as

James’s experiential
approach,

that seek to move b
eyond the noted bounds

and limits of cognitive
-
based
approach
es
. An
examination of recent treatments of
the “agency and structure” d
ichotomy

offers multiple examples of
Moving Ontology
8



the dissatisfaction with an abstract approach
. Within this
issue
, the question of

how
is change
introduced into a social reality


is considered.

At the most generic level, the issue can be stated as: is
change the result of agency or the result of institution/structure.
One observable recent trend is the
hybrid
type
response in which both
agency and structure are admitted as causal agents of change
. The
former tendency to approach the issue in terms of an exclusive disjunction, i.e. it is either agency or it is
structure, is rejected

by the hybrid approach
.
Within this
hybrid

approach, both

agent and structure are
included at the explanatory level as the
observed phenomenon,
in
time and experience, is neither
strictly agent nor strictly structure.

Sewell and his

duality


of structure is one example

of the hybrid response to the
agency/stru
cture question
. Sewell asserts a duality of structure in that both the web of meaning in play
and the agent in play can rightly be understood as efficacious, i.e. as agents of change (Sewell,
1992, p.
12)

Lieberman, while adopting a hybrid response
, favors

agency over institutionalism as he believes the
institutional approach is fixated on “finding order and stability” (Lieberman,
2002, p.
698).
Lieberman,
however
, joins an ideational approach with a structural
understanding
in order to gain the advantages
that each offers. In other words, if we stop the artificial abstracting of concepts and start
harvesting
them from the organic unity subject and object display
in
time, we experience them not as we would
abstract them but as they are
in transaction.

Such a

blending resonates within an experiential
framework and is, in fact, an appeal to move beyond abstraction and its artificial limits.
James likens the
difference between observing a thing abstractly and observing a thing
in
time to the difference
found in

“looking on a person without love, or upon the same person with love” (James,
1987, p.
424); moving
beyond abstraction allows us to become connected to the observed and, as a result “the expressions of
meaning in it [become] alive” (James,
1987, p.
424). J
ames concludes, “In the latter case intercourse
springs into new vitality” (James,
1987, p.
425).

Moving Ontology
9



References

James, W.
H
.
(1987).
William J
ames: W
ritings, 1902
-
1910

B. Kuklick, (Ed.)
. New York, NY: Library
of America.

(Original work published in 1902).

Lieberman, R
.
C. (2002). Ideas, ins
titutions and political order: E
xplaining political change.
American Political Science R
eview
,
96
(4), 697
-

712.

Retrieved from docsharing.

Pierson, P
. (2004).
Politics in time: H
istory, institutions, and social analysis
. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.

Sewell, W
.
H
. (1992). A
Theory of structure: D
uality, agency, and transformation.
American
Journal of S
ociology
,
98
(1), 1
-

29.

Retrieved from docsharing.