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Ásta — Nothing about us without us!: Metaphysics, social science, and liberatory politics

There has been considerable new work on the metaphysics of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. How is this work related to qualitative and quantitative work in the social sciences? How can it increase our understanding of our social world? In this essay I carve out a conception of the relationship between work on the metaphysics of social categories and social identity and work in the social sciences on these topics. I also argue that there is a better and a worse way of doing social metaphysics. The social metaphysician has ethical duties as well as epistemic ones, as captured in the demand “Nothing about us without us”. The social metaphysician needs to keep front and center what the theorizing is for and they need to be attentive to the potential harm of theorizing about these topics. Because of the potential harm of the theorizing, social metaphysicians need to explore the potential harmful effects of their work and engage with work by people who are the subject of the theorizing.

Esa Diaz-Leon — The meta-metaphysics of gender, race and sexuality

Meta-metaphysics is the sub-discipline of philosophy concerned with questions about what debates in metaphysics are about, and what the best methods are in order to answer questions in metaphysics. Social ontology is the sub-discipline of philosophy that examines questions about the nature and existence of the social realm. However, unfortunately, most debates in meta-metaphysics have not paid enough attention to issues raising from social ontology, and many discussions in social ontology proceed without sufficient attention to meta-metaphysical questions. This paper is part of an attempt to correct this situation. In particular, I aim to argue for two claims: (i) further attention to ontological debates about the existence and nature of gender, race and sexuality can provide further justification for an influential thesis in meta-metaphysics, namely, metaphysical deflationism, and (ii) further attention to questions about what the debates in the metaphysics of gender, race and sexuality are really about, and what the disagreements are really about, can help to move the debates forward. In particular, I will argue that paying attention to the prospects of metaphysical deflationism can help to justify a version of pluralism about the nature of those human traits.

Michael Esfeld & Guillaume Köstner – Normative Relations, Mind Points and Social Ontology

Super-Humeanism is a proposal for a parsimonious ontology of the physical domain based on matter points that are structurally individuated by the distance relations in which they stand and their change. This paper proposes an analogous ontology of persons as mind points that are structurally individuated through the normative relations in which they stand and the change in these relations. The paper develops this idea into a parsimonious, social ontology of persons. It thus makes a contribution to applying the methodology of naturalized metaphysics to the domain of the social sciences without, however, definding a physicalist ontology.

Michel Grossetti — How to build a ‘robust’ ontology for the social sciences?

Since their emergence in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the social sciences have produced numerous systems of categories to designate what they study, without always explicitly defining them or integrating them into a reflection on ontologies. The proliferation of categories thus created has been very effective in exploring the full diversity of social phenomena, but, in the long run, it ends up creating increasing difficulties of understanding between disciplines and theoretical currents, making any cumulation extremely problematic.

One solution to overcome these difficulties is to develop a “robust” ontology, i.e. one that is capable of working on very different objects, even if in some cases it has to be integrated into more sophisticated ontologies. Such an ontology must strike a balance between broad compatibility with other ontologies and respect for the complexity of social phenomena.

The proposed article presents possible principles for such an ontology. The first principle is to take into account entities, processes and relationships at the same time without making any of these types of categories a “last instance”. This avoids some of the limitations of ontologies centred on one or other of these types. The second is based on the inscription of social phenomena in a three-dimensional space (mass, duration, generality) which makes it possible to manage the problems of mereology. The third is the adoption of an “emergentist” approach which makes it possible to account for the constitution of entities at a given level without overwhelming the other levels or reifying the entities, processes or relationships considered. The fourth and most important principle is the requirement to base, as far as possible, the proposed categories on social science methods of enquiry. Such an ontology should formalise research practices and not a priori categorise elements of the social world. It would therefore be a kind of “methodological naturalisation”, an ontology for social science practitioners, which would apply mainly to this activity and would not claim to be more general.

Having developed these principles, the article presents an ontology built on the basis they constitute. It first defines categories describing respectively entities, activities and relations between entities at the most “elementary” level of the social world in terms of mass and duration. It then discusses the level from which this ontology has been developed, the “intermediate” level of phenomena between the most “elementary” level and that of large masses and long durations. In particular, the article develops four central categories of this ontology: collectives, networks, spheres of activity and institutions. Finally, it shows succinctly how these categories can be mobilised to analyse larger phenomena.

Francesco Guala & Frank Hindriks — The Nature and Significance of Social Ontology

How, if at all, are the social sciences relevant to social ontology? And what, if any, is its moral and political significance?

According to some proponents of ‘analytic metaphysics’, the sciences are all but irrelevant to ontology. In contrast, a naturalized ontology may seem to leave little room for philosophy. We develop a third alternative for social ontology on which both philosophy and the social sciences have significant contributions to make. We start from Wilfred Sellars’ claim that one of the tasks of philosophy is to reconcile the folk image of the social world with the scientific image, insofar as possible. The two images can be integrated by unifying them, which often requires integrating theories from different scientific disciplines first. Unified theories have explanatory virtues, such as breadth and depth, that are of value to social scientists as well. Hence, this conception of social ontology does not only reveal how the social sciences can be useful to philosophy but also the other way around. This bidirectional approach differs not only from radical analytic metaphysics and naturalized ontology, but also from the way the relation is conceived of by prominent social ontologists such as Epstein, Haslanger, Searle and Sugden.

An important advantage of unificationism is that it illuminates how social ontology can have moral and political relevance. In fact, it does so in a way that enriches the proposal. The folk image features moral concepts such as discrimination, equality, freedom, justice, oppression, responsibility, right and solidarity. Applying these concepts requires conceptions of collective action, collective agents, communities, cooperation, identity, ideology, institutions, nationalism, social construction, social groups and social mechanisms. While such concepts are often available in the vocabulary of social science, the latter does not always match the folk concepts well enough to be used directly. If there is a mismatch between them, philosophical analysis in general and conceptual engineering in particular is a fruitful method for developing conceptions that have moral and political relevance.

Sally Haslanger — Pragmatism, Explanation, and Social Ontology

Social Theory is an interdisciplinary project that provides language, concepts, and other tools to understand the social domain. It draws on social science – including sociology, anthropology, history and psychology, and constructs frameworks for understanding social phenomena.  These frameworks bring with them substantive ontological and moral presuppositions. For example, a framework that treats race as an illusion, or that assumes gender to be binary, is not only ontologically deficient, but also provides a buttress for unjust structures.  Theory becomes ideological to the extent that it masks injustice.  In this paper I will suggest how we might engage in objective but also emancipatory social theory by drawing on an erotetic approach to explanation according to which explanations are answers to questions and both our questions and our answers can be evaluated empirically, ontologically, and morally. 

Harold Kincaid  — Naturalism and social ontology

I begin in Section 1 by discussing general issues about naturalism and metaphysics, focusing on the distinction between speculative and naturalized ontology. There are various attempts to draw a clear line (e.g. Ross and Ladyman 2007), but I argue they fail for basically Quinean reasons related to the continuum between the empirical and conceptual in science. In addition to this point, I argue that (1) there are defensible versions of naturalist pluralism about ontology and (2) sketch issues around quantifier variance defenses of instrumentalism against standard Quinean accounts of existential commitment (Kincaid 2020).

With this framework in mind, I then in Section 2 look at some work in social ontology, arguing that it is misguided on naturalist grounds, even a on moderate naturalism that allows for empirically relevant conceptual analysis. Some current social ontology seeks to provide a conceptual ground to the general ontological structure of society. That enterprise is misguided, though with revised pretentions, it may have contributions to make.

Section 3 looks at concrete examples from social research using the frame work developed in Sections 1 and 2. I look at debates over individualism, race, class, collective agents and revealed preference theory and Dennettian real patterns, all of which involve ontological issues. I build on Kincaid (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019). The argument in each is that the ontological issues are 1.) empirical, though conceptual innovation plays a role, 2.) local in that the defensible social ontology claims are about specific places and times, 3.) that multiple, compatible ontologies may be possible, and 4.) that deflationist and Quinean realist interpretations are sometimes empirically indistinguishable.

Kathrin Koslicki & Olivier Massin — A plea for descriptive social ontology

Naturalistic approaches to social phenomena hold that one of the primary tasks of social ontology is to understand how social entities can exist within a physical world. Given such an approach, social phenomena — quite like mental states in philosophy of mind— are regarded from the start as potential troublemakers for the naturalistic order. In this paper, we propose to bracket this naturalistic constraint for the purposes of developing a descriptive social ontology. Descriptive social ontology, as we shall conceive of it, is not incompatible with naturalist social ontology, but prior to it. If social phenomena are to be reduced to non-social phenomena —psychological or physical ones— we need first to be clear on the kind of candidate for reduction that they constitute. While such a descriptive or naïve approach to metaphysics has been influential in general metaphysics (see Fine, 2017 for a recent reassessment), it has so far not been developed in analytic social ontology (though things are different outside of analytic philosophy, see esp. Reinach, 1913). We shall outline the contours of a descriptive approach by arguing, on the negative side, that pressing issues about physical reduction and social individualism need to be bracketed if one is to reach a non-biased description of social phenomena. On the positive side, we shall maintain that an essentialist framework, which tries to trace essential connections between social phenomena, is best suited for arriving at a useful description of social phenomena.

Fine, K. (2017). Naïve metaphysics. Philosophical issues27(1), 98-113.

Reinach, A., (1913), “Die apriorischen Grundlagen des bürgerlichen Rechtes” in Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung 1: 685–847.

Raphaël Künstler — Microfoundational Essentialist Social Ontology

According the the essentialist metametaphysics of social ontology (ESO), social ontologists should aim at providing real definitions of social entities, i.e, description of their essences. According the the microfoundationalist metametaphysics of social ontology (MSO), social ontologists should aim at providing the microfoundations of social entities. Microfoundational essentialist social ontology (MESO) is the metametaphysics resulting from the association of these two views. I claim that MESO is a highly desirable target for social ontologists. However, five arguments undermine the belief that MESO is feasible: the existentialist objection, the ‘folk impossibility theorem’ (Hodgson 2007), the regress argument, the multifunctionality argument and the multirealizability argument. I claim that in spite of these objections, the conclusion that MESO is not feasible is premature: taking into account the metaphysical revolution that happened with the reintroduction of dispositions and of mechanisms in the philosophical landscape leads to a new conception of MESO. Real definitions, formulated in mechanical terms, are feasible, contextual, naturalistic and ontologically holist.

Ron Mallon — Metaphysics, Method and Politics, the Case of Race

In this talk, I consider the methodology of metaphysics of social kinds by considering the case of race.  I argue that contemporary debates over the existence and nature of race are largely a verbal dispute, and I consider three ways of resolving such a dispute: a semantic strategy, an engineering strategy, and a third, little discussed, political strategy.  I suggest each of the three may explain some of the methodology of contemporary metaphysicians of race, and the third deserves more attention. 

Douglas V. Porpora — The Metaphysical Issues in Social Science and How Social Scientists Debate Them

Philosophers are currently debating what is called “naturalistic metaphysics,” that is, metaphysics less a priori and more tied to scientific findings and adoptive of scientific methods of adjudication. If, as it should, this project is to be extended to the social sciences, philosophers ought to be aware of the metaphysical issues social scientists already debate among themselves and how they go about adjudicating them.

       Toward that end, this paper will review the major metaphysical issues current in the social sciences, such as ontological realism; the nature of causality; agency; structure; culture; and what Peter Winch called “the very idea of a social science.” Among the social scientists, the so-called critical realists have been the most tied to analytical philosophy and the most metaphysically oriented. Thus, to exemplify the metaphysical issues in the social sciences and how social scientists debate them, this paper will examine how, against their opponents, critical realists argue for ontological realism; anti-relativism and value-laden inquiry; a non-nomothetic understanding of causality rooted in mechanisms and powers; a humanistic understanding of agency and personhood; a position on social structure in between methodological individualism and sociological holism; and for a post-positivist understanding of the unity of science.

       Along the way, it will be seen that in the social sciences, metaphysics is neither a priori nor posteriori, but both. Social scientists initially approach phenomena in their domain with a priori metaphysical presuppositions, which run into trouble or clash with rival views, giving rise to metaphysical questioning that must itself be settled in part by appeal to empirical findings. Throughout, the paper will also explicitly address current philosophic positions on naturalized metaphysics.

Don Ross — Naturalistic vs. Analytic Social Ontology: what are the ground rules?

Recently, philosophers have developed an extensive literature on social ontology that applies methods and concepts from analytic metaphysics. Much of this is entirely abstracted from, and unconcerned with, social science. However, Epstein (2015) argues explicitly that analytic social metaphysics, provided its account of ontological ‘grounding’ is repaired in specific ways, can rescue social science from explanatory impasses into which he thinks it has fallen. This version of analytic social ontology thus directly competes with naturalistic alternatives. I consider this competition and marshal considerations against the value to social science of analytic metaphysics.

Jonathan Schaffer — Feminist Essence?

Following Barnes (2014), a debate has brewed about the best metaphysical tools for feminist metaphysics and social ontology. There has been debate over whether or not to invoke fundamentality, grounding, and/or essences, with Passinsky (forthcoming) arguing that a Finean toolkit invoking reality, grounding, and essence together is especially apt. I argue that the notion of essence is not helpful for social ontology or elsewhere, but should be replaced with the notion of a grounding principle (or “law of metaphysics”). This is part of a more general metaphysical project critiquing the invocation of essences.

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