Seminar at the UCSD Center for the Humanities

The following is a mission statement for an Open Seminar currently being held (2014-16) at the University of California, San Diego, as convened by:

Razvan Amironesei, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center on Global Justice, UCSD
Jacob Hellman, Ph.D. Student, Department of Communications, UCSD
Caleb Scoville, Graduate Student, Sociology, UCB
Ike Sharpless, Ph.D. Student, Department of Political Science – Political Theory, UCSD

Politics, Ethics, Ontology receives support as a Research Group from the UCSD Center for the Humanities. For more information, contact: philofsocialscience[at]

Politics, Ethics, Ontology: An Inquiry into the Ontologies of Nature

The topic of this research group is what we call “ontologies of nature,” framed as a new domain of analysis and inquiry. Traditionally, the concept of ontology has been reserved to the exclusive domain of philosophy, defined as the most general study of being or what is and its epistemological underpinnings. In recent decades however, the concept of ontology has become an autonomous object of inquiry occupying the intersection of philosophy and humanistic social science. Charles Taylor’s conceptualization of moral ontology (1989), John Searle’s work on social ontology (1995), Ian Hacking’s analysis of historical ontology (2002), and Philippe Descola’s (2013) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (2014) treatments of ontology from an anthropological perspective are powerful examples of this new turn.

From these theoretical precedents, the specificity of our approach follows a cross-disciplinary frame of analysis. We ask three central questions: what type of politics, what kind of ethical discourses, and what ontological claims inherently underlie the issues, concepts and problems that are presented for discussion? Moreover, how does the relationship between epistemology and ontology generate specific political and ethical questions and what implications does this relationship have for social inquiry? In the long term, we intend to apply this framework to other topics such as technology and knowledge. However, in 2015-16 our reading group will focus on a critical investigation of the concept of nature, broadly construed.

Undoubtedly, the present era of ecological crisis requires immediate action at a personal and a structural level. We argue for our part that these urgent issues require a significant focus on the conceptualization of nature as a political, ethical and ontological object of inquiry. For instance, Aristotle and Descartes both exemplify historical shifts in the epistemological and ontological understanding of nature. The former understood nature as a self-sustaining, self-generating principle, while the latter understood the concept as an objective mechanism to be investigated by a thinking subject. In order to comprehend what is at stake today, we will first investigate the ways in which this epistemological and ontological shift continues to inform our public debates and structure our discourses and practices in the domains of ethics and politics. Second, we will analyze how nature, placed within a history of conceptual thought (Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel), can both illuminate and shape contemporary social-scientific knowledge. In the process we seek alternative vocabularies about nature and humanity’s relationship to it which can inform debates at a policy, humanistic and social-scientific level.

This analysis of the concept of nature will allow us to reframe the spirit of the celebrated Kantian formula, ‘Who are we today, in this moment?’ as an exemplary question for a political and ethical ontology. To put it differently, in our view ontologies of nature inform conceptions of “the living” as such and they cannot be reduced to exclusively scientific and epistemological determinism. Accordingly, we will explore the concept of life, the status of the organism in its empirical manifestations, and issues related to the ethics of animality. In this way, our inquiry into the ontologies of nature integrates the most general humanistic concerns with pressing contemporary political and ethical issues as a new intelligible whole.

The conveners formed this group in October 2014 with the aim of creating a space to discuss conceptual problems related to the contemporary status of ontology as a social object, that were not systematically addressed within the graduate curricula of their several departments. We shared an enduring dissatisfaction with some of the effects of contemporary disciplinary specialization. The growing chasm between social sciences and philosophy created incompatible vocabularies and criteria of analysis. We view ourselves as part of an opposing trend that takes the stance of bridging the gap between conceptual analysis and empirical inquiry. Simply put, this reading group is an effort to bring social inquiry and philosophical concepts back into conversation with one another.

In the past year we have met on a weekly basis with occasional invited presentations by faculty including Marcel Hénaff (UCSD), Gerald Mackie (UCSD), and Olivier Clain (Université Laval). We have outgrown the model of an informal reading group. Institutional recognition and funding will help us invest in long-term collaborations on questions which are not exclusively tied to the domains of particular departments. It will also help us develop connections with other institutions by bringing in invited speakers. Our ultimate goal is to foster an organic community of research, something that traditional ten-week seminars cannot do on their own.

Over the next year, we will continue to meet weekly to discuss specific texts with rotating discussion leaders. We will begin with a study of Aristotle’s biology and metaphysics as connected to contemporary social issues. Second, we will undertake a study of Descartes’s metaphysics, biology and scientific method as connected to contemporary social issues. We will also host guest faculty presentations once per quarter, and hold designated sessions to workshop our own research in progress related to the themes of the group.

Fall 2014

  • Seminar synopsis: the philosophical concept of ontology (Ricœur, MacIntyre) [Week 1]
  • Social ontology (Searle) and historical ontology (Hacking) [Week 2]
  • Moral ontology (Taylor) and the problem of committed reason (Habermas) [Week 3]
  • Ontology and cosmology (Descola, de Castro) [Week 4]
  • Subjectivity 1 (Descartes, Taylor, Rose) [Week 5]
  • Subjectivity 2 (Kant, Merleau-Ponty) [Week 6]
  • Guest lecture: subjectivity and reciprocity (Marcel Hénaff) [Week 7]
  • Animality (Lorenz, Nussbaum) [Week 8]
  • Water as an object of political ontology (Hacking, Linton, Carroll) [Week 9]

Winter/Spring 2015

Ontologies of nature (in progress)


Click here for synopses of our weekly meetings.