Notes toward a critical contextual social ontology

Call the non-ideal social ontology that I would elaborate as adequate to a robust engagement with African intellectual thought a critical contextual social ontology. It advances an account of social ontology that is contextual – that is, that social lives are constituted by the interaction of situated, creaturely, human animals not only with one another, but also with non-human organisms in diverse ecological contexts; historical – that is, that social lives are emergent from a deep temporal background, are dynamic, and are processual; structural – that is, that the contours of social lives are formed by interanimated but irreducible political, economic, and cultural vectors; existential – that is, that social lives are striated through by the radical particularity of creaturely embodiment, subjectivity, and phenomenology; and reflexive – that inquiry into social ontology is itself embedded, and therefore demanding of a recursive, dialectical critique of the very conditions of possibility – the non-ideal social ontology – from which the philosopher, critic, or thinker is speaking and writing.

A critical contextual social ontology, then, advances a thoroughgoing break with the presuppositions and horizons of the standard account of social ontology. Standard social ontology takes itself to be engaged in elaborating the fundamental entities – that is, the very basic units – of social life. Insofar then as it speaks of the basic entities of society, it searches for the “essence” of social life. This commits standard social ontology to a reductionist method – one that in most accounts comes under the moniker methodological individualism, which explains social phenomena as reducible to individual intentions; to an anthropocentric bias – such is the manner in which it abstracts from the facts of ecological existence that it pays no mind to any other biota and abiota other than the human animal; to a synchronic episteme – its account of social life is cadastral and therefore static; and to an archetypalist normativity – it posits a singular model of social life as universal and paradigmatic and thereby flattens the spectacular diversity of social formations.