On the significance of distinguishing
ontology and epistemology

contributed by Neville Spencer upon request, March 2000
See also Critical Realism and Reality by Andy Blunden, 2009.

The muddling of issues of ontology (the study of being - essentially studying questions of what kinds of entities exist) and issues of epistemology (the study of knowing - essentially studying what knowledge is and how it is possible) has been one of the key confusions in philosophy. This has been the case with numerous general schools of philosophy, almost always taking the form of ignoring ontology in favour of epistemology.

In currently fashionable postmodernist trends, it is usual to either deny that reality exists apart from our knowledge (usually understood as our linguistic representations) of it or to deny that our knowledge in any way 'reflects' the world as it exists in and of itself.

Take this quote from post-Marxists Laclau and Mouffe:

...even if we assume that there is a strict equation between the social and the discursive, what can we say about the natural world, about the facts of physics, biology or astronomy that are not apparently integrated in meaningful totalities constructed by men? The answer is that natural facts are also discursive facts. And they are so for the simple reason that the idea of nature is not something already there, to be read from the appearances of things, but itself is the result of a slow and complex historical and social construction.

Here they move between epistemology and ontology without even recognising the difference. They raise a question about the natural world (an ontological issue) but then give an answer about ideas about the natural world (an epistemological issue) as if it were the same thing. Given the point that they suppose themselves to be making here all they do in fact is beg the question.

Roy Bhaskar has identified what he calls the epistemic fallacy: that questions of ontology are reducible to questions of epistemology. Hence, the epistemic fallacy would assume that for any question of whether or not such and such exists, we should substitute the question of how we know that such and such exists.

However, for any theory that we have about what knowledge is, we must have a presupposition about what the world is like. That is, we must assume that the world exists in such a way that it makes our theory of knowledge possible. There is no escaping having a theory of ontology, it is only a question of whether or not it is consciously acknowledged and studied or whether it is left as an implicit presupposition of one's theory of epistemology. In the case of postmodernists, the dilemma of relativism always auto-subverts their philosophical position. Whilst they deny that there is such a thing as truth (clinging to the realm of epistemology and denying that ontology is even a legitimate subject) any argument they make must surely be making an assertion about the way things are (hence having a theory, albeit implicit and contradictory, of ontology).

Another interesting case of confusion of ontology and epistemology is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics tends to concentrate on the study of society rather than nature, usually abandoning the field of nature to positivism. They assert that the study of society is radically different from the study of nature. This, they say, is the case because in society people's reasons, their conceptualisations of what they are doing, are the cause of anything that happens. Unlike the concepts we use to understand nature, in the case of our efforts to understand society it is concepts themselves that we are trying to conceptualise. This demands an interpretive understanding of society where we try and grasp others' thoughts with our thoughts.

This mistakenly, however, makes the study of society a matter of basically epistemology rather than ontology. Whilst it is correct to recognise that societies are a unique kind of entity, in that ideas can be causes, it is incorrect to reduce the study of society to understanding those ideas. There is much about society and the causes of things that happen within a society that is not simply ideas or caused by ideas.

Whilst, when I go to work everyday, it is indeed by virtue of my ideas and reasons that this happens - that if I do I will earn money with which to eat, pay rent etc. - it would be poor social theory to reduce the situation to this. Also at work here is the social relations of capitalism which require that I do this in order to continue to exist and these are not reducible to the reasons that individual capitalists and individual workers have for interacting with each other in such a way.

So, though it is correct to recognise that a society is a unique kind of entity in that its existence and operation involves concepts, society is not reducible to these concepts and the study of society should not be reduced to matters of epistemology. There remain ontological questions about society since much of society lies outside the realm of thought itself (e.g. social relations or even just solid socially produced objects).

Furthermore, when it comes to thought, we need to distinguish between studying thought as a question of epistemology (looking at it as some sort of reflection of and about the world) and looking at it as a question of ontology (asking what kind of thing thought is and how it is possible). Naturally thoughts would not exist had they not an epistemological function, but we can still look at them and ask what in general they actually are. Though there may be some kind of correspondence between ideas and reality (just what kind it is the task of epistemology to discuss), ideas are radically different things to what they are ideas about (unless they are ideas about other ideas).

Hegel is a unique and novel case of confusion of issues of ontology (especially social ontology) and issues of logico-epistemology. His overall scheme is to demonstrate that history is process of thought, of the absolute idea. His Logic is an attempt to show that all other categories with which to understand the world can simply be reasoned out of the original category of being.

Hegel carries off this scheme to a degree which at first thought would seem improbable. The manner in which he does this essentially comes down to melding together questions of conceptual necessity with questions of natural (although, since society is also included in this, better to say ontological) necessity. Hence, Hegel discusses issues of logic and epistemology, and argues that issues which would otherwise be issues of ontology, correspond as a matter of course.

That such a thing could be carried out is not that surprising on deeper reflection. Conceptual necessity does tend to match ontological necessity, but then, that's the very point of concepts. Concepts which don't capture something about the ontological nature of something are usually rejected for that very reason. The correspondence between the two is something that has been worked at, not something which could have emerged simply on the plane of pure ideas. Also, there are a number of processes and issues of thought that are analogous to processes and issues in reality which Hegel is able to take advantage of in constructing his philosophy.

As an example of the former issue, we can see both the parallel and the disjuncture of conceptual and ontological necessity in Marx's Capital - a conscious attempt to use Hegel's method of reasoning but without the idealist reduction of reality to ideas. Marx's starting point, like Hegel's with being, is the commodity. From this he reasons out the necessity of money. He then also goes on to reason out the existence of surplus value created through the existence of labour power as a commodity.

But these moves are not acts purely of pure reasoning alone. In the transition from the commodity to money, there is an element of empirical input into the reasoning here. The existence of money cannot be discerned by conceptual entailment alone since commodities were produced and exchanged by barter for an extended period before the development of money. Rather, what there is here is a conceptualisation of the commodity which is sufficient to show that it contains the tendency to cause the creation of money. That this tendency has indeed been actualised could not have been determined without some empirical input.

Likewise, in the transition from these categories to the category of surplus value, it is the case that petty commodity exchange existed for thousands of years without surplus value arising through it. So if one were to simply deduce the existence of surplus value from commodity exchange this would in many cases prove to be incorrect. All that could be deduced is the potential that a system of generalised commodity production could emerge and hence surplus value could arise though commodity production.


The non-sequiturs of idealist reasoning
A response to Andy Blunden's article

In my previous article "On the Significance of distinguishing ontology and epistemology" I criticised various forms of confusion among various schools of philosophical thought between these two issues - confusions which almost always reduce ontology to epistemology. In particular, I was concerned to take up this matter in relation to Hegel as, in a previous talk, I had identified distinguishing these two matters as being important in being able to extract correct, materialist concepts of dialectics out of Hegel's work. The confusion between ontology and epistemology, that is the confusion between the study of thought and the study of the world as it exists independently of thought, is carried off by these various schools of thought by several, often similar, non-sequitous arguments. In his response to my article, Andy Blunden defends the types of reductions of epistemology to ontology that I criticised by recapitulating the same kinds of arguments.

The first example of this confused argument that I pointed out was the following quote from Ernesto Laclau and Chantelle Mouffe:

...even if we assume that there is a strict equation between the social and the discursive, what can we say about the natural world, about the facts of physics, biology or astronomy that are not apparently integrated in meaningful totalities constructed by men? The answer is that natural facts are also discursive facts. And they are so for the simple reason that the idea of nature is not something already there, to be read from the appearances of things, but itself is the result of a slow and complex historical and social construction. (New Left Review #166, 'Post-Marxism Without Apologies')

In this quote they suppose themselves to be establishing that the natural world is necessarily discursive - the reduction of the world to human discourse being the popular postmodern form of the idealist reduction of the world to thought. As I pointed out, the sleight of hand by which they establish this is that "they raise a question about the natural world (an ontological issue) [though they also conjoin the "the natural world" with "the facts of physics, biology or astronomy" in order to mix up the natural world and knowledge of the natural world from the outset], but then give an answer about ideas about the natural world (an epistemological issue) as if it were the same thing."

Andy defends Laclau and Mouffe by pointing out that " what we can say about the facts of a specific branch of natural science is indeed a social construct (which is not quite the same thing as to say it is a thought, of course)." But this is merely a recapitulation of the same argument. At issue was whether or not the natural world is discursive (or consists of thought, or is a social construct, the arguments being of the same form and often interrelated, though with different emphases depending on the particular theorist). Just as Laclau and Mouffe, rather than address themselves to the issue they raise, substitute the issue of whether or not ideas about the natural world are discursive, Andy, addressing the related issue of whether or not the natural world is a social construct, rather than address himself to the issue at hand, substitutes the issue of whether or not "what we can say" is a social construct. Obviously what we can say about anything is a social construct, but then this was never at issue. Andy recapitulates Laclau and Mouffe's argument by leaves my criticism of it unchallenged.

This is a common form of non-sequitur amongst those who tend to make the sort of confusions between ontology and epistemology about which I write in my article. It essentially runs along the lines of: because we can only think with thoughts, we can therefore only think about thoughts. Of course, it is never stated in such a straightforward form. Natural sciences, or any thoughts at all, are a social construct, but it simply doesn’t follow from this that they cannot reflect the nature of things external to social constructs. Similarly, when Andy claims that Einstein showed that "concepts as simple as space and time were abstractions from the human practice of measuring time and space, practices which cannot exist independently of socialised humanity" this is indisputable. Concepts of space and time and the practice of measuring space and time certainly cannot exist independently of socialised humanity, but again this is a not the issue. On the other hand, what is to the point is that space and time can and do exist independently of socialised humanity. Concepts are generally concepts of something, something other than themselves. In this instance concepts of space and time. Likewise, the practice of measuring means making a measurement of something other than the practice of measurement itself.

Andy objects that I seem "to be implying that Laclau and Mouffe imply that nature does not exist". Laclau and Mouffe, when prompted to as they were in the article from which I quoted them, quite certainly deny that they are making a claim that nature does not exist. But, with a version of the non-sequitur I mentioned previously (in their linguistically oriented case: that because anything we say will be in words, anything we talk about will only be words) they reduce any knowledge of it to discourse in and of itself. Hence, they claim, we can leave any study of independently existing reality behind and in its place merely worry about studying discourse itself. Of course, it is correct to say that if we are to understand this independently existing reality we must study discourse. But we must study (and produce) discourse, as discourse about things in an independently existing reality, not as if it were only the discourse itself that we were studying.

The real world for Laclau and Mouffe occupies a similar position to the noumenal world of Kant's transcendental idealism. It exists, but we can't have any knowledge of it so there's no point worrying much about it. Although without some sort of categorical stability such as Kant's synthetic a priori or "the objectively shared context of all people" that Andy mentions in his article, the possibility of rational communication doesn’t seem to exist, and Laclau and Mouffe's position can readily lapse into full irrationalism and solipsism.

Andy also takes up my criticisms of the similar, though quite distinct, ontology/epistemology confusion that arises in the arguments of hermeneuticists (though he confuses this to be a criticism aimed at Laclau and Mouffe). The hermeneuticist non-sequitur boils down to: because society is dependent on thought (more specifically reasons and intentions) the study of society is the study of thought. He takes the example of a policeman beating a striker and claims that "all ontology can tell [her] ... is that she is not dreaming". In fact, there is far more than this that is to be known about this situation than that. Within ontology, the issues are raised, not only of what kind of entity a physical object such as the baton is and what causal powers it possesses, but also of what kind of entity are and what causal powers are possessed by: the individuals as biological beings; the thoughts and intentions of the individuals involved; and the social relations and institutions involved. All these issues are issues which are not reducible to epistemological issues. In the case of the thoughts and intentions of the individuals involved, there are obviously epistemological issues which could also be raised as to how they are able to have knowledge of their situation, but the ontological issue of what kind of entities thoughts are (for instance what are they in relation to, and how do they relate to physical, biological and social types of entities) and how are they efficacious remain.

In relation to Hegel, Andy implies that my error is in using an individualist conception of thought. There is nothing, however, in my article that would contradict any valid notion of the social nature of thought. What my article does contradict, is that society is, or can be studied as, a process of thought as Hegel attempts. It is certainly the case that I would assert that only individuals can have thoughts. But they can do so by virtue of their existence within a social, intersubjective situation. It does not, however, follow from the fact that thought is necessarily socially-embedded that society or social structure or history are of the same nature as thoughts, nor that the historical development of knowledge and the intersubjective means of its development are of the same nature of thoughts. This is once again a non-sequitur of the hermeneuticist type. Hence, it is false to directly equate the concepts of epistemology with concepts appropriate to the study of society and history.

In my article, I followed my criticisms of Hegel's idealist dialectics with a discussion of how Marx's materialist dialectics differed. In particular, I argued that Hegel melds:

... together questions of conceptual necessity with questions of natural (although, since society is also included in this, better to say ontological) necessity. Hence, Hegel discusses issues of logic and epistemology, and argues that issues which would otherwise be issues of ontology, correspond as a matter of course.

I pointed out that:

Conceptual necessity does tend to match ontological necessity, but then, that's the very point of concepts. Concepts which don't capture something about the ontological nature of something are usually rejected for that very reason. The correspondence between the two is something that has been worked at [hence, Marx's statement that "Only after this work is done successfully ... then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction." (Afterword to Capital)], not something which could have emerged simply on the plain of pure ideas.

In the case of Marx, he starts Capital with an extended discussion and examination of the category of the commodity, in a parallel to Hegel's starting point in his Logic with the category of being. But:

... we can see both the parallel and the disjuncture of conceptual and ontological necessity in Marx's Capital - a conscious attempt to use Hegel's method of reasoning but without the idealist reduction of reality to ideas. Marx's starting point ... is the commodity. From this he reasons out the necessity of money. He then also goes on to reason out the existence of surplus value created through the existence of labour power as a commodity.

But these moves are not acts purely of pure reasoning alone [as they are in Hegel's Logic]. In the transition from the commodity to money, there is an element of empirical input into the reasoning here. The existence of money cannot be discerned by conceptual entailment alone since commodities were produced and exchanged by barter for an extended period before the development of money. Rather, what there is here is a conceptualisation of the commodity which is sufficient to show that it contains the tendency to cause the creation of money. That this tendency has indeed been actualised could not have been determined without some empirical input.

Likewise, in the transition from these categories to the category of surplus value, it is the case that petty commodity exchange existed for thousands of years without surplus value arising through it. So if one were to simply deduce the existence of surplus value from commodity exchange this would in many cases prove to be incorrect. All that could be deduced is the potential that a system of generalised commodity production could emerge and hence surplus value could arise though commodity production.

So, for anyone wanting to still maintain that conceptual and ontological necessity can be equated, the question requiring a reasoned answer in the affirmative is: could knowledge of the existence and nature of capitalism been reasoned simply out of the category of the commodity without any empirical input? Andy chooses again not to address himself to the issue but instead tries to caricature my argument as a type of empiricism merely on the basis that I say that empirical input is involved in Marx's reasoning. To suggest the involvement of empirical facts in reasoning is to say that "the subject at issue is subjective analysis of empirically given facts".

Andy claims that I have suggested that "Marx ... begins with appearances, reasons out what these appearances entail, and then corrects any mistakes with a bit of empirical data." Whilst I would say that correcting mistakes with empirical data may at times be useful, this was never an issue at stake in my article. My contrasting of Hegel and Marx was limited to the issue of the post-investigative method of presentation not to the nature of individual or historical enquiry. Hence, I followed the assumption that Marx's reasoning in Capital was everywhere correct, and the need to correct mistakes was not an issue. But the transition, for instance, from the commodity-money market to surplus value cannot be presented simply as an act of conceptual necessity. Since money and commodities can circulate without creating surplus value, as they have done for much of history, that their circulation has now become part of a process in which surplus value is created and appropriated cannot be asserted without reference to empirical facts.

Evald Ilyenkov makes a similar point when he says:

At this decisive point in the analysis, thought goes back again to the empirics of the capitalistic commodity market. It is in the empirics that the economic reality is found which transforms the movement of the commodity-money market into production and accumulation of surplus-value. [Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital, p. 275, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1982]

What can, however, be reasoned out through conceptual necessity, once a correct concept of the commodity-money market has been established by a process of enquiry, is that it has a necessary tendency or potential to lead to the creation of surplus value. But this tendency can exist unactualised, as at times it has. It is incorrect to assume that simply because we have arrived at a correct concept which demonstrates a certain tendency, that this tendency has been actualised and that, hence, we can bypass any empirical check on whether or not this is indeed the case. To think that the world will necessarily follow this conceptual necessity simply because it is conceptually correct is to assume that all necessary tendencies must always and everywhere be actualised.

That there is a disjuncture between the real tendencies of things and their actualisation leads to the corollary that appearances are not always a reliable guide to the real nature of the entities being studied. The understanding of this disjuncture means that the philosophical position I am advocating could not be based upon the simple "reason[ing] out what these appearances entail" that Andy's caricature of my position suggests. The possibility that a concept might correctly grasp an ontologically existant tendency yet that tendency remains unactualised or partially actualised, means that conceptual neccessity might not eventuate in the real world. In this case appearances are hardly going to reliably indicate the existence of the tendency or the nature of the entity possessing the tendency. In fact, this disjuncture puts a distance between appearances and the true nature of things that Andy's position could not sustain, since for him conceptual necessity equals natural necessity. This conjoined conceptual/ontological necessity must always and everywhere be followed through, that is actualised, in order to make the need for any empirical guidance in verifying that it has indeed been actualised redundant.

Even with this point being made, it should also be noted once again, that even in so far as conceptual neccessity does follow ontological necessity, this does not justify the equation of the two (or of thought and society, or thought and reality) and licence the use of logico-epistemological concepts to be applied to ontology. Logico-epistemological concepts such as judgements or propositions, for instance, are made in the processes of thinking about the independently existing social or natural world from which it does not follow that the social or natural world are ontologically constituted by them. Neither should we, like Hegel, take logico-epistemological concepts such as contradictions, to which we can find analogies within ontology (in this case to conflicting tendencies and necessary interconnection), to apply equally and in the same sense to both ontology and epistemology.


 

Further non-sequiturs
Response No. 2 to Andy Blunden

To respond to some of the key points that you have made in your reply, I've quoted sections of it and followed them by my response.

I retain my view that your own sleight of hand is allowing you to skip over what is significant in people like Laclau and Mouffe, which is highlighted in your assertion that: "space and time can and do exist independently of socialised humanity." What is true is that the practices of measuring space and time and the practices based on these concepts are valid, real and objective, and therefore the concepts of space and time have a material basis in nature. How else can you compare the Medieval, Galilean and Minkowski concepts of time and space? Are they all simply objectively existing? Or only the most recent conception? Or some future ideal conception?

The point is that it is space and time itself, as opposed to concepts of space and time, that exist objectively. Although, concepts do objectively exist in the ontological sense (the same can be said for any idea or thought no matter what), in the epistemological sense, as concepts of something, they are subjective. They are mental tools with which to attempt to grasp the nature of space and time, but they are not themselves space and time and in fact they are a radically different type of thing to space and time. Each of the concepts of space and time reflect the nature of space and time better or worse, but none of them are space and time and no concept of space and time ever will be.

It is still possible to talk of objective thought, but this is in a different sense of the word objective. It would simply mean thought which conceptualises what it is a concept of most correctly. This would then apply to whatever has the greatest explanatory power at any time. I think it is incorrect to subscribe to any epistemic absolutism in which it can be expected that knowledge only counts as knowledge if it is correct once and for all, is anomaly free and can never be improved upon or, on the other hand, to a relativism in which our changing knowledge of the world is itself what changes the world.

It is correct to say that the concepts of space and time have a material basis in nature, this was never something I have disputed. But it is simply a non-sequitur to say that this means that the concepts of space and time are objectively existing space and time itself.

Your quote from Hegel, is an appropriate one and I think illustrates the muddle:

"With these explanations and qualifications, thoughts may be termed Objective Thoughts among which are also to be included the forms which are more especially discussed in the common logic, where they are usually treated as forms of conscious thought only. Logic therefore coincides with Metaphysics, the science of things set and held in thoughts thoughts accredited able to express the essential reality of things.

There may be a sense in which logic coincides with metaphysics, since its purpose is as a tool with which to reflect the nature of the world. But it is not the world itself. Logic (allowing for Hegel's very expanded use of this term) is a tool with which we can understand things such as metaphysics (and in as much as it does so correctly) will have a coinciding relationship to it, but it is not metaphysics. This is again a non-sequitur: because we understand metaphysics with logic, metaphysics is logic.

Hegel also tries to justify confusing matter of ontology with epistemology with the argument:

"... If thought tries to form a notion of things, this notion (as well as its proximate phases, the judgement and syllogism) cannot be composed of articles and relations which are alien and irrelevant to the things

Again I would make the same point as I did above in response to your point about thought having a basis in material reality. There is no denying that thought should not be alien and irrelevant to things. There is a causal interrelation between thought and that of which it is a thought. But in saying that thought is not alien and irrelevant to things it does not follow that thought and things themselves are the same thing. These arguments assume the only option we have is either to deny that there is a relationship between thought and objective reality or to say that they are one and the same kind of thing. Why should we be denied the option of saying that thought and reality are different kinds of things which have a causal interaction?

To try to clarify this with an analogy: A mirror can reflect the image of an object fairly well, analogously to a thought reflecting something of which it is a thought. But whilst the image of the object and the image in the mirror may correspond well enough (there being a causal connection between them) the mirror itself is a totally different kind of thing to the image of the object.

What I would like to see you address is this: how is it that at one point in history a medieval concept of space exists, at another point a Galilean concept and at another point we have a Minkowski space-time manifold, and people manage to live perfectly well in their own way, in each epoch. Hegel gets around this troublesome fact by proposing that (instead of lot of ideal objects like your space and time) a kind of Logic exists which includes the whole movement through these different entities, it posits itself in Nature, and then through social labour of people in Nature, these entities manifest themselves in the progress of science.

You got a better theory?

As should be evident from my earlier rejection of both epistemic absolutism and relativism, yes. Simply that all these concepts are attempts to understand the same real world in different ways. That one concept is better than another, i.e. has more explanatory power, does not mean that the other is of no use whatsoever.

The fact that people lived perfectly well is, in the first place, simply by virtue of the fact that for most of everyday life, people can exist and act on the basis of simple generalisations of everyday experience. Theoretical conceptions are not necessary for most everyday activity. I can watch television without any knowledge of electromagnetic radiation and eat without any understanding of biochemistry and the digestive system.

At the level where theoretical knowledge does make a difference to human practice, your assertion that they all managed to live perfectly well in their own way, implies that these changing concepts were without anomaly. In fact it is the discovery of non-correspondences between concepts and that which they are concepts of which has often led to the search for better concepts. If concepts and what they are concepts of were one and the same these non-correspondences would never arise.

If instead we accept your relativist view that nature changes along with our concepts of it, your argument above is inexplicable. Galilean space and time and Minkowskian space-time would have referred to two different realities rather than being two different conceptions of the same independently existing reality. If this were the case, comparing the two ought to be irrelavant, as they don't even refer to the same thing. You might as well have compared Galilean space and time with the Darwininan theory of evolution. Unless one assumes that Galileo's and Minkowski's theories actually referred to one and the same thing, such and argument ought to apply with just the same force.


I'll put my answer again
Response No. 3 to Andy Blunden

Thanks for repeating your question. I don't however think it was unclear to me before and don't think your repeating of it challenges any of my rebuttals, but I'll take up your key points once again. On the other hand, I think it does narrow in on the fact that you see knowledge to stand in a causal relationship only with society rather than with both society and nature.

You say:

My question is this: if the objects referred to by the Medieval, Galilean and Minkowski conceptions of space and time are objective, how do you account for the validity of all three conceptions?

Your contribution has given a partial answer: "all these concepts are attempts to understand the same real world in different ways." This is true of course. But it says nothing about the very basis upon which the conceptions differ, namely the differing social relations within which these conception are manifested, and that is exactly the point I was asking you to address.

Here you confuse the issue of the sociology and history of science with science itself (i.e. as knowledge). Science can be studied under two aspects: first, as a socio-historical process and, second, as a set of theories about the natural and social world. In brief my answer to your question was and is: "that these are all theories of the same independently existing thing, all of which have at least some degree of truth to them, none of which are absolutely true, hence we chose the one with the most explanatory power." This refers to science only in its second aspect, since this was what was at issue. But this in no way stops me from also studying science as a social process. Science can be studied in respect of its social and historical causes and also in respect of it being knowledge of the natural or social world (which also have a causal relationship to it), but your term "the basis on which the conceptions differ" confuses the two and leads you to reduce it to a purely social phenomenon.

You also suggested that in using the words "space and time" I was mounting a challenge to Einstein's theory of relativity and suggesting that space and time exist independently from each other. The point need hardly be made that merely using the words "space and time" is in no way the same thing as saying that space and time exist independently of each other. More to the point, in this paragraph where you were supposedly challenging my assertion that space and time exist independently of human knowledge of them, you instead challenge me with the issue of whether or not space and time exist independently of each other.

You later ask:

Can you answer my question? Are the medieval, Galilean and Minkowski conceptions of space and time approximations to some other thing, other than being abstractions from Nature as a whole? if so, what can you say about the facts of physics which are not part of totalities constructed by humanity? other than that they refer to a material world? Tell me something about space or something about time which doesn't refer to any particular theory of physics or measurement or history.

Again this assumes the same kind of non-sequitur that I rebutted previously: that if we say something with a theory or measurement then this is the same as saying something about that theory or measurement.

To answer your request, it is easy tell you something about time which doesn't refer to any particular theory of physics or measurement or history other than that they refer to the material world. For instance, two events viewed as simultaneous from one body of reference will not be simultaneous when viewed from a body in motion relative to the first body. There are thousands more things that could be said about space, time, nature or society and listing them all would superfluous. Plainly, here I have used a socio-historically developed theory. But I have used one which refers not to itself but to space and time.

On the other point contained in this paragraph, it is neither helpful or correct to see scientific theories as abstractions from nature as a whole. Scientific theories are always theories of particular aspects of nature even if they may be interconnected with other aspects of nature or theories of things which are pervasive throughout nature such as time and space are.

In regards to your objection to my implication that the positions of both Laclau and Mouffe and yourself are like that of Berkley, this isn't exactly what I would say. I recognise that this is not the position you have or wish to adopt. But I would say that when you adopt a relativist position which does not recognise a world independent of thought and society, then you have no answer as to why anyone should suppose that the real world exists at all.


On the significance of distinguishing
ontology and epistemology. Summing Up

This debate has, I think, added confirmation of just how widespread is the muddling of the issues belonging to ontology with those belonging to epistemology. Also, that this almost always takes the form of what Roy Bhaskar called the epistemic fallacy: "that statements about being can always be transposed into statements about our knowledge of being". Here, I shall try and respond to some of Andy's arguments within a general but brief overview of the issue.

To avoid one confusion, it should be pointed out that by ontology is meant the study of the nature of being in general. Specific scientific theories do not constitute ontology but rather ontology gives account of what general kinds of things exist and, hence, can give account of what in general such specific scientific theories could refer to. For instance, it takes up questions such as whether or not entities exist independently of humanity or whether or not the only true entities are 'simples' or 'atoms', questions that I discussed in my talk on dialectics which sparked this present debate. It is not simply "positive investigation of the objective world" as Andy says in his conclusion, as one would generally understand this to include specific scientific theories. It is, of course, legitimate in discussing the matter to use examples from specific scientific theories as any theory of ontology (or epistemology) ought be able to account for specific examples of being (or knowing).

Through the discussion and in Andy's summary, I think the key lacuna in his argument is his refusal to countenance the idea that knowledge stands in a causal relationship to both society and to the entities of which it is knowledge. Knowledge is influenced, and indeed is dependent upon, society through received ideas and through the provision of the very apparatus of thought, in particular, through language. This makes history and sociology of knowledge a legitimate field of study. But knowledge is also knowledge of something - of nature or society. This makes science itself a legitimate field of study, studying knowledge not as a social product but as a reflection of the entities of which it is knowledge. Hence, it is possible that knowledge is a social phenomenon but that the entities that it studies are not, that is, that they exist independently of society. (The issue does become more complex when it is society that is the object of knowledge but, as I have argued previously, the distinction between ontology and epistemology remains.)

Andy's refusal to countenance this option leads him to caricature this position as if it were the position that knowledge stands only in a causal relationship to independently existing objects. In his summary, he says that for "'orthodox Marxists'" (presumably including myself), "any suggestion of introducing human history and social relations into questions regarding the nature of objectively existing entities is but a step along the road to solipsism". If by this is meant that theorising all natural entities as consisting of or including human history and social relations than this would, fair enough, be something I would object to. If, however, it is meant to suggest that I would object to raising matters of history and social relations in regard to "questions regarding [in the sense of the study] of objectively existing entities" then this would be contrary to the position I put in the discussion.

He also says in the summary that I have said "that objects [which] themselves exist independently of human history ... exist in the form immediately given to the senses, as opposed to any subsequent theoretical constructions", even though nowhere in the discussion did I take such a position. The attribution of this position would seem to have derived from the assumption that to deny that knowledge can be reduced solely to a social phenomenon is equivalent to asserting that it is solely an empirical phenomenon not requiring the mediation of socially constructed theories.

Many of the arguments that Andy puts forward repeatedly point out that all theories are socially constructed, based on objective human practice etc. As can be seen from the position I am putting forward, I have no disagreement with this. But from these valid points, various forms of essentially the same non sequitur are used, arguing from the valid point that the theories do not exist independently of society to the assertion that what these are theories about doesn't exist independently of society. If one were willing countenance the point of view that I am putting forward, that this is an unnecessary non sequitur should be evident.

During the discussion and prominently in his summary, Andy has used Einstein's theory of relativity with which to justify his claim that the entities of which it is a theory do not exist independently of the theory itself. But where he points to the fact that the "relative validity of these abstractions is the outcome of the research" is simply another restatement of the same non sequitur: that because a theory is a social product then what it is a theory of is a social product. But that it is a social product, an "outcome of research" is both unquestionable and not at issue. What is at issue is that it is a theory that refers to the nature of space and time as they exist apart from humanity. I am aware that there have been some arguments that have tried to deny this on the basis that the nature of space and time is often explained in relation to "observers" in Einstein's theory of relativity. But the term observers does not necessarily mean human observers, it can refer to inanimate objects or even simply points in space moving relatively to one another. Thus while the theory is a social construction, it is a theory of things that aren't a social construction - a theory of the way things behave regardless of the existence of humanity.

The point of view that I am putting forward also allows one to account for theoretical change. While the nature of what we are studying might not change, our theories about it can, through social mechanisms, change, usually for the better. Thus both Einstein's and Galileo's theories of relativity refer to the same independently existing thing, though their adequacy in explaining the nature of that which they are trying to explain is not equal.

The same ontology/epistemology distinction must be made also in relation to the slightly more complex issue of social science. I say more complex because the issue can be muddied by the fact that when the object of scientific study is society, then it cannot be said that the object of study exists independently of society as is the case in most natural science. But the study of society as a particular kind of entity and the study of the process of knowing society are distinct, albeit interrelated, fields nonetheless. In the first, it is a thought-dependent entity which is the object of study, in the second, it is thought itself which is being studied. Thus, the matter of the first is something which ought to be accountable within a general theory of ontology, while the matter of the second ought to be accountable within a theory of epistemology. (As I said above, ontology studies general kinds of being and is distinct from specific scientific theories, such as, in this case, sociology or economics. It should, however, as a general theory of being, be consistent with the existence of particular kinds of being.)

The issue can also be muddied when it comes to social science because, unlike for most natural science, a theory itself can become a significant element of what it is a theory of. For instance, Marx's theory of capitalist society is as significant element within capitalist society. However, this should not lead us to confuse capitalist society itself, as an entity to be theorised about (which as a particular kind of being ought to be compatible with ontological theory), with the process of theorising about it (which as a specific case of knowing ought to be compatible with epistemological theory), even though those processes of theorising are a part of the entity. So, whilst Marx developed a theory of capitalist society, capitalist society already existed apart from his theory about it.