david on radical alterity

when googling whitehead’s process and reality.. (why i was googling it explained on this page) and graeber .. got this from anarchist library – Radical alterity is just another way of saying “reality” – by david (2015) – [https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-radical-alterity-is-just-another-way-of-saying-reality]

notes/quotes (adding more and pages numbers from 36 pg kindle version via re read):


As a response to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s critique of my essay “Fetishes are gods in the process of construction,” this paper enters into critical engagement with anthropological proponents of what has been called the “ontological turn.” Among other engagements, I note that my own reflections on Malagasy fanafody, or medicine, are informed by just the sort of self-conscious reflections my informants make on epistemology, something that anthropologists typically ignore. After making note of the arguments of Roy Bhaskar that most post-Cartesian philosophy rests on an “epistemic fallacy,” I further argue that a realist ontology, combined with broad theoretical relativism, is a more compelling political position than the “ontological anarchy” and theoretical intolerance of ontological turn exponents. 

roy bhaskar.. david on bhaskar

Dedicated to my dear friend, Roy Bhaskar, who died before his time. May his time come soon

‘that we may all be free’

@davidgraeber died before his time.. may his time come soon from his sage radical alterity dedication: ‘to my dear friend, Roy Bhaskar, who died before his time. May his time come soon.’


he is, at least as I understand him, calling for a response; throwing down a gauntlet, as it were, but doing so in such an unusually gracious, good-natured, and friendly way that it strikes me his challenge does give us an opportunity to revive an old tradition in a new, more generous spirit. I must say I feel a little honored by the opportunity. I am a deep admirer of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s work, and I also see him as something of a fellow spirit and political ally, in that we both are activists who feel that the discipline of anthropology is not only uniquely positioned to answer questions of universal philosophical import, but also has something crucial to contribute to the cause of human freedom.

black science of people/whales law et al


Let me state the matter in brief. Viveiros de Castro has over the last decade become something of a standard bearer for what has come to be known in anthropology as the “ontological turn” (hence, OT;


This strikes me as important, and we might do well here to pause a moment and consider what’s at stake before proceeding. We appear to be in the presence of two quite different conceptions of what anthropology is ultimately about. Are we unsettling our categories so as (1) to better understand the “radical alterity” of a specific group of people (whoever “we” are here taken to be); or (2) to show that in certain ways, at least, such alterity was not quite as radical as we thought, and we can put those apparently exotic concepts to work to reexamine our own everyday assumptions and to say something new about human beings in general? Obviously I am an exponent of the second position. t In fact, it strikes me that the greatest achievements of anthropology have come precisely when we are willing to make that second move: to say, “But are we not all, in a certain sense, totemists?” “Is not war a form of ritual sacrifice?” “Does not knowledge of the logic of Polynesian taboo allow us to look at familiar categories like etiquette, or the sacred, in a different light?”

I should emphasize: carrying out this sort of analysis is not simply a matter of “Westerners” exploiting “native” wisdom to better understand themselves. Admittedly, we live in a violently unequal world, and existing structures of power will often ensure that things will turn out that way. But this is true of any intellectual project conducted within structures of violent inequality (including projects for the recognition of radical alterity, which can easily slip into becoming charters for some sort of moral or political apartheid: see Leve 2011; Graeber 2007b: 288–90). Anything can be made to serve the purposes of power. The political question (at least for me) is: which is the approach best suited to support those who are trying to challenge those structures of power and authority, and in what ways?.. t

gershenfeld something else law et al.. graeber min\max law.. et al


This passage is crucial because it lays bare the ultimately conservative nature of the ontological project—at least, in this particular iteration. Western science and common sense are “protected” from challenge—which of course, necessarily, also means the protection of those structures of authority that tell us that there is something that can be referred to as “Western science” or “common sense”—and what it consists of—in the first place. . t

lit & num as colonialism et al

history ness and hari rat park law et al

In other words, the diviner cannot tell us anything about human beings in general; neither can the anthropologist. We must all leave the world, as Wittgenstein once said, precisely as we found it.

in sea world.. oi.. dawn of everything (book) ness


What’s more, the existence of such arguments was the very starting point of my original analysis. Because this was one of the things that most surprised me when I started doing fieldwork; something I did not anticipate, and that did indeed unsettle my working assumptions. I went to Madagascar expecting to encounter something much like a different ontology, a set of fundamentally different ideas about how the world worked; what I encountered instead were people who admitted they did not really understand what was going on with fanafody, who said wildly different, and often contradictory, things about it, but who were all in agreement that most practitioners were liars, cheats, or frauds. Coming back from the field, I consulted with colleagues who had been in similar situations (in the Andes, Andaman Islands, Papua New Guinea … ) and discovered that such sentiments are actually quite commonplace. They also confessed they never knew quite what to do with them. And in fact, this is precisely the aspect of magical practice that is most often dismissed as unimportant, or simply left out of ethnographic accounts.

So I decided to take my informants seriously, and by doing so, to rethink my theoretical assumptions..t

usefully ignorant and intellect ness.. et al

black science of people/whales law – we have no idea what legit free people are like


The bizarre thing is that this principle was utterly, completely, contradicted by practice. Everyone would agree to it, but no one ever acted as if it were true. If you got sick, you went to a curer.


Most were quite aware of these paradoxes as well, and played around with them in endless ways. A teenage sister and brother, Nivo and Narcisse, whose parents had moved from the city to the countryside, once explained to me that as soon as they arrived in the village, their neighbors started using harmful medicine to try to cause them to fall ill, just so they would be forced to submit themselves to local healers who also happened to be figures of political authority. “Oh course it didn’t work on me,” Narcisse assured me, “I don’t believe in that sort of nonsense.”

His sister looked slightly annoyed. “Well, I thought I didn’t believe in it either,” she said, “But I guess I must believe in it, because ever since I got here, I just keep getting sick all the time.”


I would reply that this all turns on what one actually means by “ontology.” The meaning of the term is in no way self-evident. Many anthropologists have come to use it very loosely, as little more than a synonym for “culture” or “cosmology.” OTers have something much more specific in mind. Before responding, then, it well be necessary to delve a little more deeply into what that actually is.


Anthropology seems to believe that its paramount task is to explain how it comes to know (to represent) its object—an object also defined as knowledge (or representation). Is it possible to know it? Is it decent to know it? Do we really know it, or do we only see ourselves in a mirror? (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 92)

This all-too-familiar question, “how can I know the Other?” is, absolutely, an epistemological question in the philosophical sense of the term. They go on to cite Viveiros de Castro’s conclusion, that this reflects a trap created by Modernist thought:

It seems to me that Viveiros de Castro’s assessment here is substantially correct as well. Obviously, the soul/body, mind/matter division was hardly the brainchild of Descartes; it goes back at least to Pythagoras. But Descartes introduced a much more radical version of the dichotomy, largely, I would argue, by eliminating the old Stoic/Neoplatonist category of imagination, which for the Scholastics had served as a quasi-material intermediary between the two. As a result, philosophy did turn away from questions about the nature of the world, which were increasingly relegated to science, and toward questions about the possibility of knowledge..t Humean skepticism, and Kant’s apriorist response, were obviously crucial turning points in this respect.

intellect ness and embodiment et al

Viveiros de Castro goes on to argue that as a result, social sciences have tended to focus on questions of mind over body, intellect over lived reality..t This is a somewhat tougher case to make (there’s an awful lot of resolutely materialist social science) but surely there are strong currents pulling in this direction. What I want to emphasize here though is that as he makes the argument, one can already observe the term “epistemology” shifting from its classic philosophical meaning (“questions about the nature or possibility of knowledge”) to “questions of knowledge,” and then to simply “knowledge.” Structuralism itself, to take one fairly random example, is hardly a form of “epistemology.” It might have involved an epistemology, a theory of the nature of knowledge, but when Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958) proposed a structural analysis of the Oedipus myth as a story about eyes and feet, he was in no sense elaborating on that theory. He was simply applying it, engaging in that sort of social science one would engage in if one assumed that theory was true.

aka: whalespeak ness


Instead, the authors conclude that what’s needed is not to examine how human projects of action, or for that matter, non-human projects, problematize these divisions (body/mind, nature/culture, material/ideal, etc.) but rather, to rethink the very idea that one can speak of a single, undifferentiated, natural world at all. Our insistence on the unity of nature (and therefore, as a corollary, our assumption that all difference can only be cultural) is, they say, a product of our own Western, dualist ontology. We should not impose it on others. In fact we should not even impose it on ourselves—at least, when we are thinking about others. In the presence of genuine alterity, we must speak not of people who have radically different beliefs about, or perceptions of, a single shared world, but of people who literally inhabit different worlds. We must accept the existence of “multiple ontologies.”

on re read.. now i think this is showing unconnectedness.. rather than ie: discrimination as equity .. idiosyncratic jargon.. et al

today .. that’s not a binary possibility (for a way out).. we can facil both extremes.. in order to get back/to the dance

Note here how in the course of this argument, the meaning of “ontology” has also undergone profound changes. After all, if “ontology” simply means a discourse about “the nature of being in itself,” one could hardly assert that Western philosophy is particularly monolithic: most philosophers considered “great” are considered great largely because they came up with a different ontology, and even OTers draw much of their conception of what a non-dualist ontology might be like from the work of Gilles Deleuze, who never claimed to be doing anything more than writing his own creative synthesis of ideas derived from such post-Cartesian philosophers as Leibniz, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Whitehead. So “ontology” drifts from being an explicit form of philosophical discourse to referring to the—largely tacit— set of assumptions underlying the practice of natural and social science (which do tend to remain stubbornly fixed, whatever philosophers say about them), and from there, to being the tacit assumptions underlying any set of practices or modes of being of any kind at all.

gilles deleuze.. friedrich nietzsche.. process and reality..


Let’s unpack this. So: ontology begins as a mode of academic theory-making, a form of discourse, but its object is not discourse (since that, presumably would be Epistemology2) but “experiences and understandings of the nature of being itself.” “Understanding” sounds a lot like knowledge, but let’s say for the sake of argument that we are speaking of the tacit understandings underlying certain forms of “experience.” Arguably this might escape the charge of Epistemology2. But that leads to the question: How exactly is it possible to have an experience of “the nature of being itself ”? One can certainly have experience of specific manifestations of being (toothpicks, oceans, bad music coming from a party upstairs … ). But normally that’s just called “experience.” Perhaps a mystical experience, such as might have been had by Jalal al-din al-Rumi or Meister Eckhart, might qualify as an experience of “the nature of being itself ”? But presumably, this is not the sort of thing the author is talking about either. It only really makes sense if “being itself ” is simply whatever “understandings” people might be said to have of it. In which case all “itself ” is really doing here is pointing to that familiar anthropological object, the tacit assumptions about the nature of time, space, action, personhood, and so on, that underlie what used to be called a particular cultural universe—just, now constructed as an “as if,” the sort of Ontology1 one imagines the people one is studying would construct, were they the sort of people who spent their time engaging in speculative philosophy.

What OTers are arguing, unless I very much misunderstand them, is that when in the presence of assumptions, or as they put it, “conceptions” that are sufficiently foreign to the ethnographer’s own (e.g., that stones are persons, or powder is power), the ethnographer must act as if those conceptions are—for the speakers, and anyone presumed to share their Ontology2—constitutive of reality, and therefore of nature, itself.

eisenstein i know you law et al


If things really are different, as we argue, then why do they seem the same? If “different worlds” reside in things, so to speak, then how could we have missed them for so long? Why, when we look at Cuban diviners’ powders, do we see just that—powder? [Because] the very notion of perception simply reiterates the distinction that “different worlds” collapses. The point about different worlds is that they cannot be “seen” in a visualist sense. They are, as it were, a-visible. In other words, collapsing the distinction between concepts and things (appearance and reality) forces us to conceive of a different mode of disclosure altogether.

the little prince – see with your heart .. magis esse quam videri.. et al

At first glance, this seems to make no kind of sense. If one dissolves away the distinction between appearance and reality as so much false Cartesian dualism, shouldn’t that mean that things are what they appear to be, and therefore, that things that look the same are the same and that’s pretty much that? But what the authors are really saying is very different: that we shouldn’t pay too much attention to what things look like, but should instead listen to what people say. Moreover, [authoritative] statements must be treated as a window onto “concepts,” and concepts treated—through a form of “radical constructivism”—as if they were themselves realities of the same ontological standing as “things,” or indeed, constitutive of the world itself

endnote: 23] Just in case the reader thinks I am exaggerating:Though Foucault would say that discourse creates its objects, he still works from the presumption that there is some real-world fodder out there. For example, while a body may not be male or female until a discourse of gender invokes this as an operative distinction, there is still a body to which the discourse refers. By contrast, what is advanced here is, if you like, an entirely different kind of constructivism—a radical constructivism not dissimilar to that envisaged by Deleuze Discourse canhave effects not because it “over-determines reality,” but because no ontological distinction between “discourse” and “reality” pertains in the first place. In other words, concepts can bring about things because concepts and things just are one and the same” (Henare, Holbraad, Wastel 2006: 13).Apparently there’s virtually nothing, no matter how obviously crazy, a contemporary academic can’t get away with if they find some way to attribute it to Gilles Deleuze. (And in this case the authors themselves admit the link is fairly tenuous.)

binary ness et al

endnote: 24] OTers will no doubt object that this is unfair, since they are trying to dissolve away the very dualism that makes an opposition between Materialism and Idealism possible: but pretty much everyone claims that nowadays. The question is whether they are trying to dissolve Materialism into Idealism, Idealism into Materialism, or both Materialism and Idealism into something else. All evidence points to the first. For example, in Henare, Holbraad, and Wastel’s text (ibid.), words like “material” or “physical” regularly appear in scare-quotes, but words like “concept” (aka “idea”) or “conception” never do.


I know this is a bit unfair. Such proposals are not really meant to be taken in this kind of programmatic way. More than anything else, OT is a theoretical framework designed to open space in order to engage in a particular form of ethnographic practice. And this form of practice is not without its merits. Having said much that is critical, let me end, then, on a positive note. I think the real strength of OT..t lies in the fact that it encourages what might be called a stance of creative respect towards the object of ethnographic inquiry. By this I mean first of all that it starts from the assumption that since the worlds we are studying cannot be entirely known, what we are really in the presence of is—as Viveiros de Castro (2015: 13) puts it, borrowing language from Deleuze, “the possibility, the threat or promise of another world contained in the ‘face/gaze of the other,’” a possibility that can only be realized through the ethnographer, even as the ethnographer, in trying to describe—let alone explain—this other world, inevitably betrays that promise, or, as he puts it, “dissipates its structure,” at least to a certain extent. Yet despite the inevitability of betrayal, the task of the ethnographer is nonetheless to try to keep that possibility alive. Radical alterity can never be contained by our descriptions, the argument goes, and we cannot understand it through deductive reasoning; rather, the ethnographer’s task is a creative, experimental, even poetic project—an attempt to give life to an alien reality that unsettles our basic assumptions about what could exist.. t Insofar as there is a war going on here, it is a war the ethnographer should never win.

naming the colour and paul know\love law

What if the world did exist but we just couldn’t prove it?

If the greatest strength of OT is its willingness to embrace the limits of human knowledge (that is, as a form of Epistemology1); its greatest flaw, to my mind at least, is that it doesn’t take this principle nearly far enough. Radical alterity applies only to relations between cultural worlds. There is never any sense that people existing inside other Ontologies2 have any trouble understanding each other, let alone the world around them; rather, out of respect for their otherness, we are obliged to act as if their command of their environment were so absolute that there were no difference whatever between their ideas about, say, trees, and trees themselves.

It strikes me that by doing so, and especially, by framing this attitude as an ethical imperative, OT makes it effectively impossible for us to recognize one of the most important things all humans really do have in common: the fact that we all have to come to grips, to one degree or another, with what we cannot know.. t

usefully ignorant.. not yet scrambled by intellect ness .. know\ledge ness .. et al

graeber can’t know law

huge huge huge

that’s why.. no prep.. no train.. et al.. so important.. graeber unpredictability/surprise law et al

that’s why.. our days would be best spent on ie: imagine if we just focused on listening to the itch-in-8b-souls.. first thing.. everyday.. and used that data to augment our interconnectedness..

a nother way for all of us to live.. aka: org’d around legit needs


In philosophical terms, what OT is proposing is simply an anthropological variation of the transcendental method, an exercise that sets out to deduce the “conditions of possibility” for human experience: essentially, to ask, *what would have to be true in order for experience to be possible? Immanuel Kant most famously used the transcendental method to produce his list of a priori conceptual categories of thought (the opposition of unity and plurality; the notion of cause and effect, etc.), along with such basic frameworks as the notion of time as a relation of past, present, and future. All these, he argued, could not be derived from experience, since they already had to be present, in the mind, for us to experience anything the way we do at all. For Kant, these were not ontological categories. Kant rejected the very possibility of Ontology1, as he did not believe we could say anything about the nature of things in themselves.

*conditions sans any form of m\a\p.. to get us out of sea world.. hari rat park law

The only things about which we can have absolute and comprehensive knowledge are things we have made up... t

ie: sea world

huge – graeber make it diff law

Now, there’s always been a strain in anthropology that has sought to apply a similar analysis to particular social or cultural forms of experience, and thus, to seek to find cultural categories using the same approach Kant used for conceptual categories. After all, this is very close to what ethnographers invariably do— i.e., ask, “what would people have to think in order for all these statements to be true?” Often this leads anthropologists to conflate the two, which is a problem, because Kantian categories and cultural categories are in no sense the same thing. Or even the same sort of thing. A typical (and I’ve always felt, slightly embarrassing) early example is Durkheim and Mauss’ essay Primitive classification ([1903] 1963; cf. Schmaus 2004), which argues that Kantian categories are best viewed not as prior to experience but as the products of social organization, and therefore different in differently organized societies—conflating, in this case, the arrangement of time into a particular sequence (e.g., summer, fall, winter … ), with the very notion that it should be possible to arrange anything in a temporal sequence of any kind at all. This is obviously a basic category error, as generations of first year graduate students forced to read the essay have regularly pointed out. Yet the temptation to make similar arguments never seems to go away. OT, from this perspective, might be considered an extreme radicalization of such an approach: one that argues that reality is knowable, since concepts are reality, and then deploys a more elaborate mode of transcendental argumentation: instead of proceeding directly from experience to concepts, it starts from certain sorts of verbal statements (“powder is power”) and proposes one must employ the transcendental method to derive from these statements the “concepts” (again, a certain kind of time, a certain mode of causality) that must be treated as if they were constitutive not just of experience but of reality itself.

In other words, this is not just Idealism—it is about as extreme a form of Idealism as it is possible to have.


It is possible, however, to deploy the same sort of transcendental method in the opposite direction: to apply it, that is, to problems of Ontology1, to questions concerning the nature of reality itself. This is the approach taken by Roy Bhaskar and others of the Critical Realist tradition 31..Bhaskar’s philosophical position is far too complex to sum up in any detail, but it sets out from the same observation as Viveiros de Castro’s: since Descartes, Western philosophy has shifted away from questions of ontology and toward questions of epistemology. He parts ways, though, when he adds: in doing so, it has tended to confuse the two. The result is what he dubs “the epistemic fallacy”: the question “does the world exist?” has come to be treated as indistinguishable from “how can I prove the world exists?” or even “is it possible for me to have definitive knowledge of this world?” But this implies a false premise: that if a world did exist, it would therefore be possible to have absolute or comprehensive knowledge of it. There is simply no reason to assume one follows from the other. There’s no intrinsic reason there could not be a world configured in such a way that philosophers living in it could not come up with absolute proof of its existence, and when it comes to definitive and comprehensive knowledge, the premise actually seems not just wrong but backwards. It makes much better sense to define “reality” as precisely that which we can never know completely; which will never be entirely encompassed in our theoretical descriptions. The only things about which we can have absolute and comprehensive knowledge are things we have made up..t

yeah that.. only things we can know are false things.. know\ledge ness of history ness perpetuating sea world ness.. graeber can’t know law.. graeber unpredictability/surprise law.. et al

endnote 31: it was starting point for argument in my value book as well

Bhaskar applies the transcendental method to ask not just about the conditions of possibility of everyday action and experience, but above all, of the conditions of possibility of contemporary science. Here he focuses particularly on practice, asking not only why scientific experiments are possible (why is it possible to contrive situations with regularly predictable results?), but also why they are necessary (why is it not possible to have predictive knowledge of events unless one has devoted enormous labor into creating such contrived situations?). To answer those questions, he proposes a “depth ontology” that identifies ultimate reality with “mechanisms” and “tendencies” that operate on a series of emergent levels of complexity. How these mechanisms will interact, outside the context of scientific experiments, is inherently unpredictable. This last, CR holds, is true for two reasons: partly, because it is impossible to know how tendencies (“laws”) operative on different emergent levels of reality will affect one another in open-system (“real world”) situations; partly too because, on every one of those emergent levels, starting with the subatomic, freedom is to some degree inherent in the nature of the universe itself.

again.. graeber unpredictability/surprise law.. can only predict dead things

Critical Realists argue—compellingly, in my view—that most contemporary philosophical positions are simply variations on the epistemic fallacy. To take one particularly salient example: both Positivists and Poststructuralists tend to agree that if there were a real world independent of the subject, it should be possible (at least in principle) for the subject to have absolute and comprehensive knowledge of it. Positivists argue that such knowledge is possible; Poststructuralists, in most cases at least, argue that since such knowledge is impossible, one must conclude there is no independent reality at all.

critical realism


These are exactly the sort of questions that motivated Roy Bhaskar—himself a political activist—to turn to the philosophy of science in the first place. One of his primary interlocutors was Paul Feyerabend, an anarchist philosopher of science (e.g., Feyerabend 1975). Feyerabend did indeed take the position Viveiros de Castro endorses, though since he was using traditional philosophical language, he therefore concluded that ontology1 is unnecessary, and that any contemporary scientific theory is just one of any number of *incommensurable perspectives, 34 all of which to some degree construct their ostensible objects, no one of which has any privileged purchase on truth. He referred to this position as “Epistemological Anarchy.

endnote 34: Feyerabend was in fact largely responsible for introducing the word “incommensurability” into academic discourse.

*having no common ground of measurement

Feyerabend’s was a crucial intervention and the notion of incommensurable perspectives has been enormously influential on social theory. On politics as well. Most radical social movements nowadays have come to accept that democracy necessarily means accommodating a diversity of incommensurable perspectives. I have myself tried to incorporate this spirit in my work, long before I was entirely aware of its history.36 But I also find Bhaskar’s response to Feyerabend compelling. 37 Rather than reject the notion that different theories or perspectives largely construct their objects, and are often in many ways incommensurable, Bhaskar argued that this was true—but it did not mean one needed to reject Ontology1.

endnote 36 –  For instance, the first two theoretical essays I published (Graeber 1996, 1997) were quite intentionally meant to represent different, and to some degree incommensurable, perspectives on overlapping problems. The same might be said of my work on value (2001, 2013b) and on debt (2011).

endnote 37 –  I’m actually in possession of a marked-up copy of Feyerabend’s Against method that Bhaskar once plucked off his office shelf to give to me. “Feyerabend is great,” he assured me, “he was a genuine anarchist, and the book is just wonderful. You should read it! Of course I totally disagree with it myself.”

The mistake here, according to Bhaskar, lay precisely in the assumption that a single reality necessarily means acceptance of a single “transcendental point of view.” This, he pointed out, was a perfect example of the epistemic fallacy. The fact that the object of science is, to some degree, constituted by the theory and practice of science itself, does not mean that reality is entirely so constituted; rather, he argued, it is impossible to account for many aspects of scientific practice (experiments, again) without appeal to what he called an “intransitive dimension” of reality—i.e., aspects of the world that would remain the same even if science, scientists, or for that matter humans of any sort, were to disappear entirely. 38 So it’s not the perspective that’s transcendental (that would indeed be a contradiction in terms) but the most fundamental aspects of reality—in the classic sense of “transcendental” as something which can have effects on us, but we, on the contrary, cannot affect. However, once again, it is one of the defining qualities of reality that it cannot be completely known, let alone encompassed within any one particular perspective.

endnote 38 – Anyway it’s not my impression that OTers would actually deny this; they just declare it “illegal” to point it out.

Accepting this makes it possible to say that scientists can say things that are true, and by the same token, they can say things that are false. (It’s quite possible—indeed, I would say, likely—that a significant percentage of what currently passes for scientific knowledge is, in fact, incorrect..t) It also makes it possible to say that other, incommensurable perspectives on reality, whether common sense, technical expertise, Maori cosmogonic myth, Vedanta, or stand-up comedy, can be able to say other things that are equally true that science cannot say—or indeed, would never think to. All these perspectives are to a certain degree incommensurable. Nonetheless, without a realist ontology1, and without some way to anchor values in it, 39 one would have no solid basis on which to argue either that all contain truth, or that a diversity of incommensurable perspectives is in any way desirable.

like data from whales in sea world

endnote 39 – Hence the “critical” element in “Critical Realism.” A key part of the CR intellectual project is to find a sold philosophical basis for overcoming the Humean fact/value distinction—since simply waving a magic wand and declaring it abolished, as so many try to do, really does not suffice. Bhaskar’s argument, again, cannot be laid out in detail, but he begins by pointing out that “fact” is not a synonym for “reality.” A fact is a statement about reality, which has the quality of being true. Simply accepting that certain things are “facts” and others aren’t assumes a value: that true statements are preferable to false ones. Any number of other values can be derived from this one: for instance, Bhaskar argues that any form of social organization (he gives capitalism as an example) which can only reproduce itself by representing itself falsely, is therefore less desirable than one that would not. Others working in the CR tradition have tried to root values in reality itself: for instance, Andrew Collier’s Being and worth (1999), which begins with a Spinozist argument that all forms of existence with a tendency to persist in their being (Spinoza’s conatus) can be considered values to themselves. As this example shows, CR is hardly a theoretical straightjacket: it includes Marxists, Spinozists, Augustinians, Buddhists, Whiteheadians, and many more besides.

(to me) rather .. fact is a statement about sea world


After all, the mere assertion of a value means nothing in itself: that is, unless, as some of my Malagasy friends would no doubt hasten to point out, you manage to convince others that the value is based on something other than its mere assertion. It seems to me that taking one’s interlocutors seriously means, not just agreeing with everything they say (or even, picking out their most apparently strange or contradictory statements and trying to imagine a world in which those statements would be literally true) but starting from the recognition that neither party to the conversation will ever completely understand the world around them, or for that matter, each other. That’s simply part of what it means to be human..t Most of what obviously and immediately unites us across borders of every sort, conceptual included, is the recognition of our common limitations: whether that be the fact that all of us are mortal, or that none of us can never know with certainty how our projects will pan out.

paul know\love law.. graeber unpredictability/surprise law.. et al

What’s more, if one goes slightly further and argues not just that reality can never be fully encompassed in our imaginative constructs, but that reality is that which can never be fully encompassed in our imaginative constructs, then surely “radical alterity” is just another way of saying “reality.”..t But “real” is not a synonym for “nature.” We can never completely understand cultural difference because cultural difference is real. But by the same token, no one Iatmul, Nambikwara, or Irish-American will ever be able to completely understand any other because individual difference is real too. The reality of other people is the degree to which you can never be quite sure what they’re going to do. 40 But finally, all of us are indeed faced with the stubborn reality—that is, immediate unpredictability, ultimate unknowability—of the physical environment that surrounds us...t

graeber unpredictability/surprise law

endnote 40 – It also means recognizing their freedom. In the afterword of Lost people (2007a: 379–92), I make the argument that our recognition of others as human is grounded above all in their unpredictability, in the limits to our possible knowledge of them. . tThis was largely inspired by my own engagement with Malagasy Epistemology1.

graeber unpredictability/surprise law et al

lost people


Perhaps the one expression I heard the most, when people talked about spirits, was simply “I don’t know.” Spirits were inherently unknowable. (The spirits that possessed mediums were ultimately unknowable as well.) I ended up concluding this lack of knowledge was not incidental; it was foundational. To put it bluntly, while OT would encourage me to privilege the fact that I will never fully understand Malagasy conceptions as to act as if those conceptions were simply determinant of reality, I decided to privilege the fact that my Malagasy interlocutors insisted they did not understand reality either; that nobody ever will be able to understand the world completely, and that this gives us something to talk about. It also gives us the opportunity to unsettle one another’s ideas in a way that might prove genuinely dialogic..t

paul know\love law et al


What I’d really draw attention to is that what Malagasy people seem to be doing in many of these cases is strikingly analogous to what OTers suggest for the practice of the anthropologist: they are engaging in an imaginative, poetic process to come to terms with a reality that they know they can never entirely understand. One of the qualities of this imaginative process is that it always tends to linger on the border between artistry and simple fraud. Recall the Malagasy cosmogonic myths mentioned earlier. They grapple with the most fundamental questions of life, love, death—the deepest mysteries of human existence. They are also obviously jokes; people laugh at them, call them “the lies of our ancestors”—though most also feel, on some level, they are also true. Just not true in any literal sense. In fact, for every great existential question there are usually half a dozen mythic answers that plainly contradict. One could, certainly, ask “what would these people have to believe?” or “what would reality have to be like for them?” in order for all these different stories not to contradict, then treat the resulting “concepts” as determinate of a reality we will never fully understand. But doing so would not be a matter of “taking our interlocutors seriously.” As pretty much any one of those interlocutors would be happy to point out, the real point is the tellers don’t really understand such matters either, nobody does, the ethnographer doesn’t either, and that means ultimately, we’re all in the same boat..t


To give an illustration of the kind of analysis this perspective opens up to us, let me return to hasina. The word is often employed where an English speaker might refer to “luck,” “chance,” or “fortune” (though in the latter case it overlaps with another word, vintana). It took me quite some time to understand this usage. How did it fit with the notion of “invisible efficacy” or “sacred power”? Was everything, even everyday events, ultimately caused by spirits? Then one day it occurred to me: my Malagasy friends, even those who did speak European languages, were equally puzzled whenever I applied the language of statistical probability to everyday events: e.g., “what’s the chance the van will leave in the next ten minutes?” let alone “I say 10-to-1 it’ll turn out you left it in your other bag.” Such statements made no sense to them. On reflection, it occurred to me that our own application of statistics to everyday events is really just as peculiar as purportedly mystical concepts like manahasina, or sakti. We are, effectively, quantifying the exact degree to which we don’t know what’s going to happen.. t

of math and men.. graeber unpredictability/surprise law et al

Ultimately, human beings are all in the same existential dilemma. We can almost never predict future events with any accuracy; but at the same time, the more time passes since something does happen, the less sense it makes to speak as if anything else “could” have happened instead..t This is equally true of social scientists, who make a specialty of writing about past events as if they could have been predicted, even though when they actually do turn their hands to predicting the future, they almost invariably get it wrong. Whenever we encounter an “apparently irrational” belief, we are likely to be in the presence of an existential quandary, a puzzle which no one, really, will ever be able to completely figure out.

dawn of everything (book)

A final note on the political ramifications of theoretical ideas

It should now be clear that we do, indeed, take almost diametrically opposed metatheoretical positions. I am an ontological realist and theoretical relativist.[45] I value the development of a rich diversity of (at least partly) incommensurable theoretical perspectives on a reality that, I believe, can never be entirely encompassed by any one of them—for the very reason that it is real. Viveiros de Castro, in contrast, takes a very different approach to ontology, and (unless I misread him) finds previous theoretical approaches (e.g., Hermeneutics, Dialectical Materialism, or classical Structuralism), insofar as they are so many forms of Epistemology, to be profoundly wrongheaded in their approach.

endnote 45 – for anyone curious (i’m not sure if anyone is) i tend to combine a broadly critical realist framework w marxian spinozist and whiteheadian elements


The problems, it seems to me, arise largely when OT begins making explicitly political claims, and therefore, setting itself up as a metatheory that can legislate what anthropologists should and should not say.

people telling other people what to do et al

But the moment relativism became a political principle, let alone a guide to legislation—the moment some began to say that no one had the right to stand in judgment over any statement or action carried out within a cultural universe different from their own—problems arose. First of all, who gets to define what counts as a “cultural universe”? Can Nuer not judge Dinka, or are all Nilotic speakers close enough that they can be considered members of the same moral community? In drawing borders, one can’t simply follow “native categories” because you need to have those borders to know who the relevant “natives” are. So there needs to be an external authority who decides on borders. But then the same problem crops up again when you have to decide who, inside those borders, gets to define what should be considered “Nuer ideas.” Chances are there’s next to nothing that every single individual you have just defined as “Nuer” will agree on. So the relativist must appeal to authoritative views. But how are the local authorities to be identified? One cannot use “Nuer ideas” to identify them because that’s just circular again: you need to know who the authorities are, first, in order to know what “Nuer ideas” about authority actually are. 48 So, oddly, if you are a cultural relativist, authority is the one thing about which you can’t be relativistic. Finally, the moment one decides one cannot stand in judgment over the views of someone residing in a different cultural universe (someone who is Nuer, Dinka, etc.), one immediately develops the need for a special supercategory—such as “modern” or “Western”—in which to include those views one feels one should be allowed to disagree with or condemn. This category therefore tends to balloon endlessly, until it encompasses everyone from Malaysian scientists to Sinhalese anthropologists, Creole plantation-owners, or Iraqi politicians—i.e., pretty much anyone a relativist might possibly wish to say is in any sense wrong about anything—until it looks nothing like any of the other categories in any way. 49

again.. people telling other people what to do et al.. any form of m\a\p.. siddiqi border law et al

endnote 47 – (didn’t copy line it came from) – so marshal sahlins: ‘relativism was not and should not be a vulgar moral relativism.. it was always a mode of assessing the conditions of possibility of the cultural practices of others.. hence of comparative ontology.. in that sense.. ontological investigation was built into the discipline: a condition of the possibility of anthropology itself’ (via personal communication, sept 2015)

endnote 48 – This is not just playing games with logic; one of the first things one usually learns, on settling into an anthropological field site, is that opinions about who can speak with authority are sharply divided. To return to the Nuer: obviously local elders (“bulls”) have a certain authority—almost everyone would agree with that. But what about prophets? And if prophets count, do we include all of them, or just the ones that seem to have the least controversial views? If prophets and local elders disagree, whose views take precedence? And what about leopard-skin priests/chiefs?

endnote 49 – The first part of the argument about relativism I’ve developed at greater length in an essay called “Oppression,” and the second, in one called “There never was a West” (both in Graeber 2007b).

there never was a west.. oppression? – can’t find it in anarchist library..


Does OT, or introducing the Deleuzian notion of radical alterity as a political principle, actually improve this situation? It seems to me it makes it even worse. The only major difference I can myself make out with the relativist position, in regard to these specific problems, is that some advocates (e.g., Holbraad 2011) take the conservative implications of classical relativism even further, and propose that OT protects even authoritative views within “the West.” What’s more, not only does it appear to continue to require universal standards for recognizing legitimate authority (even across “worlds”), it proposes that those authorities be granted authority over determining the nature of reality itself, within their designated territory, whether or not the individuals in question actually wish to be granted such authority! This, to my mind, is the ultimate irony. Having been accused of introducing Marxist theories “behind the natives’ back” I cannot help but turn the question back again: do OTers really think that most of the people who anthropologists study would actually agree with the proposition that they live in a fundamentally different “nature” or “ontology” than other humans—let alone that words determine thing

The problem with cultural relativism is that it places people in boxes not of their own devising..t As a mere intellectual problem, it’s not a big one. The moment relativism becomes a moral or political position, however, it becomes very big indeed. Ontology2 just substitutes a deeper box.

Some people like deep boxes. There seems every reason to believe that those Viveiros de Castro works with, those with whom he struggles for rights to “ontological self-determination,” count among their number. But by that same token, one must respect the desires of those who wish for their boxes to be shallower, or do not wish to be placed in any sort of box at all.

left off 31


An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. – oscar wilde

In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think of social theory as a kind of game, where one of the prizes is to see who can come up with the wildest, most shocking, most dangerous-sounding idea, that still does not offer any meaningful challenge to existing structures of authority. And that we have become so used to playing this game that we no longer recognize what a genuinely dangerous idea would even look like.

What I am saying is perhaps there are at least some cases where the practice of fanafody, or other forms of what anthropologists are used to calling “magic,” involve causative mechanisms we simply don’t yet understand. There are, after all, plenty of alternative traditions in science, uniformly treated with violent hostility by the intellectual mainstream, that speculate about such possibilities. (Some involve investigating ideas originally proposed by philosophers like Peirce, Whitehead, or Bergson, but the moment one makes such ideas out of the lecture-halls and uses them as the basis for scientific experiments, one is cast amongst the flakes.) No doubt many of their exponents are every bit the cranks and lunatics they’re regularly made out to be. But what if some of them were right?

crazy enough ness.. crazywise (doc) et al

What I’m effectively asking, then, is “what if Ravololona really could prevent the hail from falling on people’s crops?” I must confess it still strikes me as unlikely. When I had to call it, I definitely came down on the side of the skeptics on this one. But maybe, just possibly, I was wrong. Still, of one thing I am certain: we’ll never have any chance of finding out if we commit ourselves to treating every statement our informants make that seems to fly in the face of accepted ideas of physical possibility as if it were the gate to some alternative reality we will never comprehend..t Engaging in such thought experiments does not really open us to unsettling possibilities. Or, anyway, not the kind of unsettling possibilities that are likely to get anyone fired from their jobs. To the contrary, it ultimately protects us from those possibilities, in just the way Holbraad suggested OT protects Western science and common sense

..who knows, maybe there actually is something going on here that we just don’t know about? Since after all, if someone that no-nonsense tells you there might be something happening that science can’t account for, one has to confront the possibility that he might actually be right..t

ie: there’s a nother way


m of care – apr 21 is on whitehead as influencer of david