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2019FHAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 9 (1): 172–178


Turning to ontology in studies

of distant sciences
Nicholas J A R D I N E , Cambridge University

Drawing on contributions to the conference Science in the Forest, Science in the Past, and on exemplary works of Annemarie
Mol and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, this article offers reflections on the opportunities and challenges for historians of the sciences
that are presented by the “ontological turn.” It notes how this approach leads to recognition of plurality in the sciences, not only
with regard to content but also with respect to the personae adopted by their practitioners, and how it encourages attention to
aspects of the sciences embedded in everyday and routine practices. In conclusion some suggestions are offered on the problems
of accessing and communicating to others distant sciences of the forest and/or the past.
Keywords: Annemarie Mol, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, ontological turn, pluralism, dividuals, embedded knowledge, responsible inter-

Until quite recently I was inclined to be dismissive of logical” approach, focusing on the embodiment of per-
the so-called “ontological turn” currently sweeping into sons in their environments and on their prereflective
science and technology studies (STS) from anthropology. engagements and attunements with things, traces back
My supercilious attitude sprang in part from incompre- to the works of, among others, Alfred North White-
hension faced with its pervasive jargon—“obviation,” head (2011), Martin Heidegger (1999, based on lectures
“dividuals,” “infrastructural fractals,” et cetera—and with in 1923), Jakob von Uexküll (1926), and James J. Gib-
such wondrous pronouncements as “ontology, as far as son (1979). Further, its more specific recommendations
anthropology in our understanding is concerned, is the seemed to me (wrongly as I now believe) to have been
comparative, ethnographically-grounded transcenden- already accomplished through earlier “turns” in STS:
tal deduction of Being (the oxymoron is deliberate) as its focus on practice rather than theory, and on inter-
that which differs from itself (ditto)” (Holbraad, Peder- play with tools and instruments, being anticipated by
son, and Viveiros de Castro 2014: 1). I was baffled also the “practical” and “material” turns of the 1970s and
by passages that appeared to imply that anthropologists, 1980s; and its recognition of the “hybrid” agency of com-
having “gone native,” should (figuratively) stay out there plex alliances of humans and nonhumans being central
rather than returning in order to communicate their to Actor Network Theory (ANT) from its outset in the
findings in terms comprehensible to us. As for aspects early 1980s.1
of the ontological turn that I felt able to grasp, it seemed Crucial for my eventual grasp and present appre-
to me that it brought to our field of science and technol- ciative view of the ontological turn was my reading of
ogy studies little real innovation. Its insistence that in Annemarie Mol’s The body multiple, a work whose case
interpreting others we should set aside our own “worlds”
in order to immerse ourselves in theirs has a history in 1. On the practice and material turns, see Law (2010) and
theory of interpretation going back at least to the eigh- Soler et al. (2014), and on ANT, see Callon (1986) and
teenth century (see Szondi 1995; Venuti 1995). Its “eco- Latour (1987).

HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Volume 9, number 1. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/703874

© The Society for Ethnographic Theory. All rights reserved. 2575-1433/2019/0901-0016$10.00

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studies of clinical, surgical, and pathological “enact- to microhistory. For the materials, practices, and com-
ments” of an illness are accompanied by a subtext spell- munications studied are connected to varying degrees
ing out central theoretical and practical tenets of the on- with those elsewhere, some in adjacent rooms, some in
tological turn (Mol 2002).2 Guided by Mol, and helped other Dutch hospitals, some worldwide.
also by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The mushroom at Likewise exemplary in its exploration of interactions
the end of the world (Tsing 2015), I was able on second of local and global worlds is Tsing’s The mushroom at
reading to come to grips with works of such avatars of the end of the world. The mushroom in question is mat-
the turn as Marilyn Strathern (1988, 2004), Tim Ingold sutake, inhabitant of ruined northern hemisphere co-
(2000), Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009), and Phi- niferous forest and a highly valued delicacy in Japan.
lippe Descola ([2005] 2013). So, as a prelude to my ob- The local worlds of forests, fungi, foragers, sellers, buy-
servations on the ontological turn as manifest in contri- ers, dealers, and consumers are presented in detail, and
butions to “Science in the Forest, Science in the Past,” let it is shown how these worlds are linked and sustained
me run through some of the main points raised by Mol through international commerce in the mushroom. As
and Tsing. with communication within Mol’s Dutch hospital, so
In the opening chapter of The body multiple, Mol de- in these worldwide dealings Tsing shows how produc-
clares the general principle of her ontological approach: tive collaboration and coalition often involve not con-
“It is possible to refrain from understanding objects as sensus but friction and compromise.3
the central points of focus of different people’s per- Before considering how these aspects of the ontolog-
spectives. It is possible to understand them instead as ical turn as highlighted by the works of Mol and Tsing
things manipulated in practices. If we do this—if in- figure in the conference contributions on history and
stead of bracketing the practices we foreground them— anthropology of mathematics, a moment’s reflection on
this has far-reaching effects. Reality multiplies” (Mol the general principle of the turn is needed. Proponents
2002: 4). The following chapters explore the multiple re- of the ontological turn are almost unanimous in break-
alizations of an illness/disease, atherosclerosis, within a ing with the nature/culture division. In doing so they
single hospital in different settings: clinical, pathological, break with both strong realism, belief in the existence
and surgical. It is shown in detail how complex are the of a single coherent and exclusive truth about the world,
interactions of persons, bodies, body parts, instruments, and strong relativism, belief in the existence of many
reports, et cetera, in the processes that realize atheroscle- equally valid but radically different perspectives on the
rosis in these different settings, and how much of the world (Paleček and Risjord 2012). Instead they are plu-
knowledge involved is embedded in these practices. As ralists, prepared to recognize many worlds or many “di-
Mol notes, this recognition of complex networks of per- mensions” of reality. Precisely how such pluralism is to
sons and things is in line with Actor Network Theory; be spelled out and whether it is tenable as a general phil-
but where ANT tends to focus on conflict and closure, osophical position are contentious issues. However, there
Mol’s emphasis is on “non-closure,” on difference and are domains in which some such pluralism seems emi-
mutual accommodation without conflict. Rather than es- nently plausible. The subject of Mol’s book, the diagno-
tablishing any general correlation of findings as symp- sis, treatment, and study of illness and disease, with its
toms of a disease, communications between the different complex interactions of scientific, practical, psychologi-
settings are partial, involving context-dependent matches cal, social, and ethical issues, is one such domain. Math-
and mismatches. On the issue of scale, Mol follows other ematics is another. There are, indeed, those who main-
new ontologists in rejecting any straightforward spatio- tain that unique numbers and measures exist entirely
temporal scaling. Though devoted to practices in a single independently of us, our languages, and our practices.
Dutch hospital relating to a single (though multiply en- But pluralism about numbers is a well-established po-
acted) disease, the book cannot, Mol insists, be consigned sition; and it is relatively uncontentious to regard the
lengths embedded in the practices of Liberian tailors as
2. I am indebted to Jennifer Bangham for alerting me to
Mol’s book. On the connection of the ontological turn
with study of the material practices of the sciences, I 3. On friction, compromise, and collaboration, see also Tsing’s
was helped also by Klein (2005), the articles in Woolgar (2005) study of the communities and organizations involved
and Lezaun (2013), and Boris Jardine (2017). in exploitation and defense of Indonesian rainforests.

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Nicholas JARDINE 174

different from those grounded in the standard meter in tended Wari’ language in which numbers are emotion-
Paris or the speed of light.4 As for the various fields of ally and morally loaded—for example, with 1, conveying
“science,” the plausibility of pluralism depends heavily loneliness, hunger and ineptitude. She also notes the “al-
on the ways in which science and its disciplines are de- ternation” of personal identity involved as Wari’ teach-
fined. If, as in Manuela Carneiro da Cunha’s contribu- ers, trained at an intercultural university, and their stu-
tion, agricultural science is taken to include all practices dents switch between our register and their own. Keller
of plant cultivation and harvesting, then a pluralist view comments on the long history of interaction between
of that science is in order. Similarly with chemistry, if high and low Tamil mathematics. And Cuomo contests
that science is taken to cover the skills involved in indig- Marcus Asper’s assignment of ancient Greek theoretical
enous practices of pigment preparation. If, by contrast, and practical mathematics to distinct cultures, empha-
science and its disciplines are more strictly defined, rad- sizing the mathematicians’ capacity for “code-switching”
ical ontological pluralism becomes deeply problematic. between the theoretical and practical registers required
Consider the Wikipedia definition of chemistry: “Chem- in different settings (cf. Lave and Wenger 1991; Burke
istry is the scientific discipline involved with elements 2005; Asper 2009). In Strathern’s terms (Strathern 1988),
and compounds composed of atoms, molecules and ions: the Wari’, Tamil, and ancient Greek mathematicians
their composition, structure, properties, behavior and are not individuals but “dividuals,” persons who assume
the changes they undergo during a reaction with other different identities in different settings.
substances.”5 On this definition, a modest pluralism with As recommended and put into practice in the works
regard to current chemistry, as with many other strictly of Mol and Tsing, these studies focus on knowledge em-
scientific disciplines, is appropriate (cf. Dupré 1993; Cart- bedded in material and social practices: the uses of rods
wright 1999; and Kellert, Longino, and Waters 2006). on calculating surfaces (Chemla); estimation of the fine-
Indeed, it has even been argued on historical and exper- ness, purity, and value of gold (Keller); the establish-
imental grounds that phlogiston could be resuscitated ment of kinship relations (Almeida). Again in line with
(Chang 2012). But the world of alchemical elixirs and the approaches of Mol and Tsing, though focused on
the philosopher’s stone has obviously gone forever. particular mathematical practices, they cannot be classed
Guided by Mol and Tsing, let me now turn to math- as microhistories. For many of these practices are and/
ematics in the forest and the past. All of the relevant or were widely spread, either through direct communi-
contributions move away from classification of mathe- cation or indirectly through their involvements in trade
matics according to the mentalities, styles, symbolic and commerce; and, as shown in the contributions of
forms, et cetera of different cultures. Rather than priv- Keller and Chemla, certain of them have extensive his-
ileging explicit theoretical knowledge, they attend closely tories of transmission and commentary.
to the mathematics embedded in everyday transactions The central methodological issues raised by contri-
and material practices—that is, to what in her contribu- butions to the conference concern interpretation and
tion Strathern calls “invisible ontology.” Further, there translation. How, as historians, sociologists, and anthro-
is a general opposition to the overgeneral categories so pologists are we to gain access to, and communicate to
prevalent in cultural anthropologies and histories. Thus, others, the sciences (or analogues thereof ) of the forest
Karine Chemla and Serafina Cuomo resist the lumping and/or the past? As G. E. R. Lloyd, Keller, Strathern, and
together of “ancient Greek” or of “ancient Chinese” math- others make clear, the types of evidence—oral, textual,
ematics, and Agathe Keller contests the notion of a uni- material—differ widely according to the type of science
fied “Hindu/Indian” mathematics. in question, whether it is past or present, and whether
There is opposition also to stereotyping of persons. our encounter with it falls into a history of encounters
Aparecida Vilaça, for example, considers translations or is a first. So the question arises whether, in the face
of our impersonal arithmetic into an adapted and ex- of such diversity, there can be any general guidelines
and criteria of adequacy for interpretation and transla-
Philosophers have proposed a range of general con-
4. On Liberian tailors see Lave (1988); on standard lengths, ditions of adequacy of interpretation under the head-
see Zupko (1990). ings of “principle of charity” and “principle of human-
5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemistry. ity” (Fitzgerald 2008). Donald Davidson, for example,

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has claimed that “charity is forced on us; whether we are the opportunities provided by serendipitous match-
like it or not, if we want to understand others, we must ings and analogies. Almeida, for example, notes the anal-
count them right in most matters” (Davidson 1974: 19). ogy between Tamil kinship structures and a form of
Richard Grandy has proposed as a principle of human- non-Boolean algebra; and Lloyd points to the successful
ity “the condition that the imputed pattern of relations prediction of eclipses by the Babylonians as a way into
among beliefs, desires, and the world be as similar to our their mathematics/astronomy.
own as possible” (Grandy 1973: 443). And David Wig- Since the 1960s there has been ever more general rec-
gins has urged us in the name of humanity to so inter- ognition of the varying degrees of openness of texts to
pret others as to “diminish to the bare minimum the multiple interpretations and appropriations, and of the
need for the interpreter to ascribe inexplicable error or often-complex dependencies of texts on earlier ones.7
inexplicable irrationality to them” (Wiggins 1988: 146). Proponents of the ontological turn go along with this,
Sensible as they may sound, such principles are prob- opposing the identification of works with unique orig-
lematic on several counts.6 They are applicable to forms inal texts and recognizing rather their multiplicity as
of interpretation that engage primarily with systems clusters of texts, variously related to each other and to
of belief rather than actions and material practices; as their readerships. The practical implications of this view
such, they align with cultural rather than ontological are at once mild and onerous: mild in releasing us from
approaches. They yield to what in his contribution obsessive quests for lost originals and unique best read-
Lloyd calls “the temptation to legislate,” inviting us to ings; onerous in requiring meticulous attention to tex-
impose on the beliefs of others what we know to be true, tual reception and appropriation.8 Close concern with
right, and rational. Thus they “familiarize,” where what reception and appropriation is evident in the contribu-
is often needed, at least at the outset of our interpreta- tions of Keller and Chemla, and an excellent example
tive enterprises, is “defamiliarization”—that is, recogni- of its fruitfulness is Michela Malpangotto’s study of the
tion of the distance from ours of others’ practices, norms, history of diagrammatic representation in versions of
and beliefs. Further, they offer little in the way of practi- Theodosius’s Spherics (Malpangotto 2010).
cal guidance, Wiggins’s principle of charity being gen- In accord with the ontological turn, the contributors
erally unworkable, since negative existential claims are show a marked move away from general schemes, sys-
largely unverifiable, and the others being at a high level tems of belief, epistemes, et cetera to close engagement
of generality and abstraction. with specific utterances, activities, and material practices.
Building on Lloyd’s contribution, let us turn to more In this connection, let me conclude by offering an alter-
down-to-earth guidelines, useful to ourselves as inter- native to the principles of charity and humanity of inter-
preters and to our audiences. As just remarked, there pretation. This is the principle that when we so interpret
is the general requirement of preparedness to recognize the actions, declarations, and material productions of
radical otherness. Consequent on such recognition is the others as to attribute to them success, whether practical
problem of access; and on this score the contributors’ or cognitive, it is incumbent upon us in cases where it
approaches to the sciences and mathematics of “others” is not obvious how it is achieved to provide explanation
are highly instructive. Keller and Mauro Almeida dem- of that success.9 Consider, the following attributions: to
onstrate ways in which our own nonstandard forms of Babylonians, successful prediction of eclipses; to Cam-
mathematics can provide keys to understanding the math- bodian immigrants in Oregon, successful harvesting of
ematics of others. Chemla, Strathern, and Vilaça variously
indicate ways in which indirect encounter, through en-
gagement with the history of communications, interac- 7. The classic work on such openness is Eco ([1962] 1989).
tions, and appropriations, may facilitate access. And, 8. For reflections on the philological and philosophical im-
taking “others” to include software systems, Alan Black- plications of pluralist conceptions of works, see Gurd
well and Willard McCarty consider the grounds on which (2005).
we understand and explain findings of artificial intelli- 9. Compare with the passage in Cicero’s De divinatione, in
gences. In evidence also in several of the contributions which Cicero’s namesake Marcus, faced with Quintus’s
endorsement of testimonies of remarkable divinations,
6. For a characteristically brisk and effective debunking, see chides him for his failure to produce “arguments and
Williamson (2007: chap. 8). reason” (Cicero 1927, II: 27).

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Nicholas JARDINE 176

matsutake mushrooms; to ancient Chinese mathemati- Acknowledgments

cians, successful calculations using rods, blocks, and di-
agrams. In all such cases, those who make the attribu- My thanks for guidance to Jenny Bangham, Boris Jardine,
tions should follow the example set by contributors to Marina Frasca-Spada, Lydia Wilson, the participants in the
this volume in explaining how those remarkable feats conference and, especially, Aparecida Vilaça and Geoffrey
were achieved. Lloyd.
As for the practice of translation this principle is con-
sistent with “foreignizing,” exploiting the flexibility of
our language and the admissibility of neologisms, as References
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Nicholas JARDINE 178

Nicholas JARDINE is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of the Sciences at the University of Cambridge.
His books include The scenes of inquiry: On the reality of questions in the sciences (revised, 2000), La guerre des
astronomes (3 vols., with Alain Segonds, 2008), and Christoph Rothmann’s treatise on the comet of 1583 (with Mi-
guel Granada and Adam Mosley, 2014). He is currently preparing a collection of essays on the historiography of the
Nicholas Jardine
Emeritus Professor
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge

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