Making Ontology Practical10 min read

Questions of ontology have gathered an audience in sociology over the past decade, particularly as galvanized (pro or con) by the critical realist movement (Gorski 2013). Such an influence is to be welcomed: ontology constitutes an improvement in the way that traditional issues are discussed and debated in the field. In this post, I will critique a general problem in these discussions and then sketch out a different way of approaching ontology that draws it together with action.

The problem with many discussions of ontology is that they have the tendency to engage in what Charles Taylor (1995) and others call ontologizing. The fallacy here is not fundamentally different from identifying a rational procedure of thought and then reading this into the very constitution of the mind (a la Descartes or rational choice). Ontologizing means that questions of ontology, definitions of what there is, are resolved first. Ontological commitments are made prior to research activity, which then constrain both choice of method and the range of legitimate knowledge claims (Lizardo 2010). The ontologizing tendency thus “[runs] the question of ‘what there is’ together with the question of ‘what properly explains’” (Tsilipakos 2012).

It could be argued that not resolving ontological questions in such prioristic fashion means that we will not ultimately be able to distinguish between what “something is” and what it is “for us.” The inclination will then be toward deflationary claims or toward various species of antirealism, skepticism and relativism. However, this fear only arises because we still have not cleared a mediational (inside/outside, transitive/intransitive) picture of our grasp of the world.

In this post, I will argue that sociologists do not have to make ontological commitments a priori while still making ontological claims nonetheless. Ontologizing can be avoided, but to do so requires that we take account of certain ontological arguments that have been neglected in these conversations, ones that reframe questions of ontology around motor functioning, action and “being-in” a world.  

The first approach is drawn from neuroscience. For Vittorio Gallese and Thomas Metzinger (2003), it is the the motor system that constructs goals, actions and intending selves. It self-organizes these distinguishable ontological parts in alignment with the requirements of motor function. This serves as the building block for a representation of the intentionality-relation which organizes higher level forms of social cognition and the first-person perspective. The surprise is that all of this is rooted in “an ‘agent-free’ type of subpersonal self-organization.”

What this means, in other words, is that traits or predicates (goal, self, intention, action) that are often treated as irreducibly “personal … have to be avoided on all subpersonal levels of description” because they are only one way that the “subpersonal functional module” that is the brain can interpret a world in terms of a functional ontology. As Metzinger and Gallese continue, this involves “explicit and implicit assumptions about the structure of reality, which at the same time shape the causal profile of [our] motor output and the representational deep structure of the conscious mind arising from it (its ‘phenomenal output’)” (2003: 366).

Fundamentally, it is our motor system that gives us this phenomenal content, not because the brain interpreting the world involves an epistemic task in which, presumptively, a “little man in the head interprets quasi-linguistic representations” (Metzinger and Gallese 2003: 557). There is not a more basic conscious agent nor a transcendental subject, more basic in the sense that either one precedes motor function. Rather, it is our “dynamical, complex and self-organizing physical system” involved in moving our body that feeds directly into the higher-level phenomenal experience that we and others are selves with goals, who act intentionally in a world, and that this all “actually belongs to the basic constituents of the world” (Gallese and Metzinger 2003: 366).

Gallese and Metzinger call this the brain’s “action ontology.” What I want to argue is that this perspective on ontology as the “brain interpreting a world” through recourse to motor function not representation aligns with an ontology that emphasizes “being-in” a world as giving the best insight into its social constitution. The key linkage is the association between ontology and action.

The second, and parallel approach, is philosophical. For Martin Heidegger, the problem starts with his mentor and rival Edmund Husserl whose famous insistence on “phenomenology” indicated his concern with how things appear to consciousness and not things-in-themselves that lie hidden behind appearance. This introduces a profound dualism in the phenomenal realm because Husserl rejects the basic empiricist claim that what something is is simply a bundle of qualities. Rather, for Husserl, objects are always intentional objects that are never perfectly identical with the qualities through which they are represented.

Heidegger’s concern with ontology appears from his break on this very point in Husserl’s thinking. For Heidegger, the way in which we deal with things in the world is not by holding them in our consciousness but by taking them for granted as items of everyday use. This means that these entities are not Husserl-style phenomena that are lucid to our view, but instead hidden and withdrawn realities that perform their labors for us unnoticed. This is why whenever we turn our attention to these hidden entities, they are always surrounded by a vast landscape of other things still taken for granted.

Heidegger calls this fundamental ontology and it effectively means that any ontology must start from the reference point of “being-in” a world (Heidegger 1996[1927]: 49-59). This gives a lot of latitude to ontology because, as Heidegger concludes further, the history of philosophy is constantly guilty of reducing reality to some one form of presence, what some call an “ontotheology” in which one privileged entity serves as explanation for all others: like forms, God, monads, res cogitans, power, subjectivity, deep structures as examples. To single out one entity as the explanation of all others amounts to treating one entity as an incarnation of all being, which it cannot be because entities are only encountered in our practice, as something “that we [have] to take account of in our everyday coping” (Dreyfus and Taylor 2015: 144). For Heidegger, we must not predefine a relevant ontology and omit any appreciation for how reality is hidden and withdrawn and never fully manifest to our view, though we rely upon it in our action.

Bourdieu (1996 especially) is one who can best grasp the transition of Husserl to Heidegger as a move toward ontology because he makes no specific ontological commitments a priori while still making ontological claims nonetheless. He does not, however, subscribe to a metaphysics of presence, with the notable exception of embodied agency (recapitulating the same move from Mauss to Merleau-Ponty). A field, then, is a device of “methodological structuralism” (Lizardo 2010) that allows an analyst to recover ontology through its association to action, in a way that parallels subpersonal self-organizing in action ontology and “being-in” in fundamental ontology. By focusing on agents’ lines of action, the construction of a field is the analysts’ practical activity that brings to light the landscape of real things whose otherwise hidden labors enable the action in question. Field theorists in sociology draw attention to bundles of relations as the hidden and withdrawn reality relied upon for action (Martin 2011).  

The difference between this claim and Metzinger and Gallese’s action ontology is that the “dynamic, complex, self-organizing” system that morphogenetically appears in a field does not have to assume the phenomenal properties of selves with goals who act intentionally in a world, even if that intentionality-relation is folk theory. Rather, action ontology (and “being-in”) means that being is only in a world, meaning that it is integrated and interindividual, and its emergent forms vary as much as the world varies. Field theory is powerful tool for capturing that variance by making social ontology matter without, however, committing to an ontologizing project.

In a follow-up post I will discuss field, apparatus and totality as different methodological structuralisms that capture the variability of worlds.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1996). The Rules of Art. Stanford: Stanford UP

Dreyfus, Hubert and Charles Taylor. (2015). Retrieving Realism. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Gallese, Vittorio and Thomas Metzinger. (2003). “Motor ontology: the representational reality of goals, actions and selves.” Philosophical Psychology 16: 355-388.

Gorski, Philip. (2013). “What is Critical Realism? Why Should You Care?” Contemporary Sociology 42: 658-670

Heidegger, Martin. (1996[1927]). Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Lizardo, Omar. (2010). “Beyond the Antinomies of Structure: Levi-Strauss, Bourdieu, Giddens and Sewell.” Theory and Society 39: 651-688.

Martin, John Levi (2011). The Explanation of Social Action. New York: Oxford UP.

Metzinger, Thomas and Vittorio Gallese (2003). “The emergence of a shared action ontology: Building blocks for a theory.” Consciousness and Cognition 12: 549-571.

Taylor, Charles. (1995). Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge: Harvard UP

Tsilipakos, Leonidas. (2012). “The Poverty of Ontological Reasoning.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 42: 201-219.

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