Jon Bialecki

Home » Uncategorized » Ontology without grounds: ontology, ethics, and the anthropology of religion

Ontology without grounds: ontology, ethics, and the anthropology of religion

As a little bit of fall cleaning, I just posted a talk-length essay on the ontological turn and its critiques over at This talk was the result of a ‘two birds, one stone’ series of invitations last spring. The first was a request from UCSD’s Center for the Humanities Research Group on Politics, Ethics, Ontology: An Inquiry into the Ontologies of Nature. I was told I could talk on whatever I liked, but there was a request that if possible, it might be nice for me to fold in an explanation of what in hell’s name was all that ontology-racket being made in anthropology. The second was a very kind invitation by the BYU anthropology department to give a talk on ontology and ethics. I was already coming to Provo be a part of 2016 Mormon Transhumanism annual conference (as part of my larger field project on Mormon transhumanism), so it was remarkably good timing (though I would have accepted the invitation more or less anytime, to be honest). Here, they were asking me to talk about ontology and the ethical turn. I had a wonderful time at both places, and the hospitality at each was exquisite. I also had the very head-spinning time (in the positive sense of the word) staying at the “Brigham” room of the BYU guest house, but that’s another story…

Since this was a talk to outsiders (non-anthropologists at UCSD, and mostly undergraduates at BYU), it was an opportunity to do some ground-clearing and some basic introductory work as well. The shared challenge to talk about it in the light of the ethical turn was useful. Pairing ontology with ethics was beneficial for two reason. First, many of the people advocating for an interest in local ontologies see a political element to their project (and in American academics at least, all politics is the politics of ethics and virtue). But second, there is an ethics grounded critique of the ontological turn that hasn’t been given much attention, or for that matter thought through rigorously by someone who might be more charitably inclined towards what it was that the ethical turn was ‘wanting.’ It turns out that not only can that ethical critique of ontology be built on in positive ways, but if you ask not only what it means to think of the ontological turn as an ethical imperative, and if you read an author that heavily influenced the ontological turn as an ethicist instead of as an ontologist, you get something novel.

There is a final personal reason why this talk means something to me. At the UCSD presentation, my friend John McGraw unexpectedly appeared in the audience, and we had a pretty energetic, though still quite fun, exchange of ideas during the Q&A, and a pretty good talk afterward. That was the last time I saw John alive; I like to think that some of the intelligence and enthusiasm he brought to that conversation rubbed off on me, and is somehow transmitted in this talk.


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