On the Very Idea of Ontologies

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In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but reestablish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false. – Donald Davidson, "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"

I've been enjoying the discussion on our last couple posts (here and here), and wanted to break it out via a different vein of American philosophy and science: the history of the idea of the "conceptual scheme." It was suggested to me when Lukas quoted W.V.O. Quine's "On What There Is" to clarify what philosophers mean by "ontology." As Lukas (and Quine) suggest, ontology has long been a metaphysical problem about what there is and the categories that apply to it.

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000

This problem changes, I think, if we move a few years later and look at Quine's most famous paper: 1951's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." Without going into Quine's indictment of the analytic-synthetic distinction or the reductionism of Carnap's Der Logische Aufbau der Welt, let me highlight a claim I think will shed light on our ongoing discussion of ontology:

"As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries -- not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer" (41, emphasis added).

Here we have an articulation of the "conceptual scheme," a philosophical term of art Quine (and others) credited to Lawrence Henderson but which I think I can show originated, in something like its modern sense, by William James. “The conceptual scheme,” he wrote in his Principles of Psychology, “is a sort of sieve in which we try to gather up the world's contents" (I.482). 

Interestingly, it's still somewhat unclear what a "conceptual scheme" is. For James, it's a "sieve" for gathering "the world's contents"; for Quine, "[p]hysical objects are conceptually imported" into it. Its name suggests that it's some sort of mental web through we interpret the physical world, but telling a compelling story about its constitution remains confusing.*

It's this general framing with which Donald Davidson took issue in what might be his most famous paper: 1974's "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme." In it, Davidson introduced the conceptual scheme as "the third dogma" of empiricism, since it mediated unnecessarily between ourselves and the world (as expressed succinctly in the quotation with which I began).

Donald Davidson, 1917-2003
Davidson argues, against "conceptual relativism," that "the very idea of a conceptual scheme" implies multiply points of view on a given, pre-schematic (or pre-scientific) reality. What's wrong with that? It seems, to Davidson (and to many of his readers), that we have no basis for comparing or even differentiating such schemes, since to do so requires an interchangeability the foundation of which belies the implied differentiation from the start. 

What's this got to do with the ontology of blood and bones (and brains)? I think Davidson's expansion of Quine's holism–and the resulting blurring of the boundary between "scheme and world"–sits in an interesting relationship with the sorts of claims Lukas and Joanna were making vis-a-vis the ontology of scientific specimens. 

While that holism seems to buttress their shared suspicion of Hacking's division between natural and social kinds, it also implies that the very idea of "ontologies" still distinguishes theories and things in a problematic way. In brief, resurrecting this midcentury conversation  might force us to ask what assumptions lie behind a view that takes for granted the multiplicity and material impact of ontologies today.

*I have more to say about how James framed his version of the "conceptual scheme," and how his close attention to brains provided him with a (partially unintentional) material account of what such a scheme might consist in and how it might interact with physical stimuli. Suffice it to say, here, that it suggests a way brains and minds differ profoundly as objects of inquiry and ontological kinds from either bones or blood. 

**Extra note: The images come from Steve Pyke's wonderful gallery of twentieth-century philosophers. Check them out starting here


This is very good. I think this is a discussion that scholars of our generation should have, though you may disown me as being of the previous generation. If our peer group is to have its own theory and not fall completely prey to an anti-theoretical, empirical- (or archival-) turn, then we must work through issues like this. I firmly believe that this will likely lead us away from the anthropology-inflected work of the last 30 years.

Perhaps we should relate Hank's post on Davidson more directly to the work and *uses* of people in STS, including the history of science and technology.

It seems to me that many people in these related fields still use the scheme-content dualism to do much of their work. For instance, they will try to spell out why different people, cultures, nations, whatevs, have different schemes and how that leads them to do different things or create different policies or what have you. This is OK, I suppose, but mostly I dislike it because it is BORING.

So the question becomes, how do we replace the scheme-content dualism in STS (broadly construed)? What do replace it with? What do we gain by replacing it? What do we lose? Does the replacement lead us to different research regimens and give us new insights?

So, one thing this forsaking would do is challenge any notion of incommensurability, which was one of Davidson's bugbears, of course. I'm not sure where HoS sits on this issue anymore. Hank, you once told me that someone had "proved" incommensurability in the 1980s. The time was not opportune for me to say that I have no idea what that could mean. But I'd love to hear more. Incommensurability has always irked me because of how people use it to talk about inter-cultural dialogue and social pluralism, which is another topic altogether.

If we throw out scheme-content dualism, how do we deal with the fact that historical figures had, what people used to call, "different world-views"? How do we address how Maxwell's religious views shaped his theories (Crosbie Smith again) while Einstein's religious attitudes may have taken him in a different direction?

As a person who tries to focus on doing instead of knowing, I don't have a terrible problem throwing out the scheme-content dualism. I have no trouble saying that things we call humans and things we call artifacts interact in various ways to produce something we call "the world." In this view, even religious views become something like different ways of knowing how to approach wood grain to achieve different effects through carpentry. (I say this as a deeply religious person; I don't believe this view detracts from "faith.") Thus, Maxwell's and Einstein's religious views lead to different styles of thought and potential "insights."

But, as a scholar, I am only interested in science to the degree that it is one (human) force that shapes things. Perhaps, the onto-epistemological view that I've just espoused is not at all appealing if you are a person who wants to study science as a series of propositions about the world, which may or may not be "true" or more or less "accurate."

(I apologize for all of the ugly scare quotes in this comment. I feel like I'm treading on dangerous territories here, and so the plague of inverted commas should be seen as a symptom of my anxiety.)

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