Understanding the Nonhuman: The Relevance of Ontology

In my philosophical and political circles, general schemes of reality have been accused of being unimportant. That is, in attempting to expand towards what lies beyond human experience, it ensures that whatever it adds to our worldviews will be irrelevant to any of our practical endeavors. I hope to dispel such notions.

As an analogy, let us imagine a group of physicists are measuring the behavior of an atom. These physicists develop a model to understand how this type of atom will move about when placed in certain conditions. In normal, earth-like conditions, they develop a model that explains its behavior in every case. However, they discover that this theory is limited: it cannot explain how the object behaves in extreme conditions. For this example, the atom behaves strangely at high speeds.

If these scientists were to announce, “No, the current model is completely fine, there is no need to develop a general one,” we would certainly be surprised and scold them for such behavior. Then, someone presents to them a general theory, and they respond, “This is just irrelevant! It does not present anything that matters for human engineering or technology! Do you not care about how things are for us?” People who acted like this would be treated as bad scientists in an ideal world, for if people acted this way, we would certainly never have made the discoveries that we have and the advances that we previously thought impossible. We would certainly consider it unjust if when the first person looked up at the stars and wondered aloud if they could be reached he was scolded by his peers and told to keep his mind on more practical things. Thanks to the work of the curious, we have discovered a great hope for our species in space travel.

Yet in philosophy and the more philosophical sciences, a similar attitude is not only pervasive, but dominant. Quoting Matthew T. Segal Quoting Graham Harman:

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

While Kant or Hegel will go to great lengths to make such spaces unreachable or nonexistent respectively, what we are dealing with here is a purely pragmatic objection. The non-human exists, but it does not matter. Objects may interact with each other and have a life of their own so to speak, but it is irrelevant to us, so there is no need to talk about it. This line of thought is as absurd as saying that because I have never opened and never needed to open a certain cabinet in my house that I never check what is inside. Checking what is inside will not hinder my ability to check the other cabinets, just as being able to talk about the nonhuman will not hinder my ability to talk about the human. It can only help it.

Refactoring your ontology is a little more complicated than opening a cabinet, but that does not mean it is terribly difficult. It never hurts for a theory to be able to talk about more things, as being able to talk about new things does not exclude what we were able to talk about before. It is especially critical when navigating human society and politics that we have as general a scheme as possible. Human society is situated in a worlda world which is for the most part nonhuman. We must speak about the nonhuman when discussing human society, and when we do so, we have to do so in a manner that is coherent. There is no avoiding ontology in this regard; there is simply doing ontology and pretending you have not. Winging our ontology will inevitably result in something reductionistic and limited.

One of the most important fields where the understanding of the nonhuman is important is ecology. For a long time, environmental concerns were ignored in politics and philosophy, yet our ignorance of how such things interact has led to one of the greatest crises to ever face humanity. It is important to understand the nonhuman here because we do not know the line where “affecting humans” ends and where “irrelevant” begins. I am not suggesting that the solution to the climate crisis is that we all become object-oriented philosophers; I am saying that our sciences and theories must have methodologies and theories which are not hopelessly skewed towards the human. We have nothing to lose from doing so except at most some hours of our time, and we may gain ways of thinking about our world which are more flexible, coherent, and expansive. It is common sense that such a thing is beneficial. Only when we do so can we put our more special endeavors into context and understand how they interact.

Philosophers, scientists, and political thinkers have long criticized the attitude that “if it does not affect me or my friends, then it does not matter.” Why then do they not purge themselves of the last vestige of this mode of thought? Philosophy has been irrelevant for so long because of this attitude writes Bogost:

“The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.”

The sooner we rid ourselves of such an attitude, the better. No more skewed theories; no more faulty instruments.