To go from metaphysics to ontology is to raise again the question of what the real world is really like. As long as we remain in metaphysics, there is always the danger that deployment of the actors’ worlds will remain too easy because they could be taken as so many representations of what the world, in the singular, is like. In which case we would not have moved an inch and would be back at square one of social explanation — namely back to Kant’s idealism.
The danger cannot be exaggerated when we consider that the open-mindedness shown, for instance, by anthropologists about the ‘other’s’ cosmologies is often due to their certainty that those representations have no serious relation to the solid world of matters of fact. In the scholar’s tolerance for wild beliefs, a great deal of condescension might seep through. There may be thousands of ways of imagining how kinships bring children into existence, but there is only, it is argued, one developmental physiology to explain how babies really grow in the womb. There may be thousands of ways to design a bridge and to decorate its surface, but only one way for gravity to exert its forces. The first multiplicity is the domain of social scientists; the second unity is the purview of natural scientists. Cultural relativism is made possible only by the solid absolutism of the natural sciences. Such is the default position of the endless debates going on, for instance, between physical and human geography, physical and cultural anthropology, biological psychiatry and psychoanalysis, material and social archaeology, and so on. There is unity and objectivity on one side, multiplicity and symbolic reality on the other.
This is just the solution that ANT wishes to render untenable. With such a divide between one reality and many interpretations, the continuity and commensurability of what we call the associations would immediately disappear, since the multiple will run its troubled historical course while the unified reality will remain intact, untouched, and remote from any human history. But it’s not the case that shifting from social to natural objects means shifting from a bewildering multiplicity to a welcoming unity. We have to shift, yes, but from an impoverished repertoire of intermediaries to a highly complex and highly controversial set of mediators. Controversies over ontologies turn out to be just as interesting and controversial as metaphysics, except that the question of truth (of what the world is really like) cannot be ignored with a blase pose or simplified a priori by thumping on desks and kicking at stones. (I maintain the plural for ontologies to remind the reader that this unity is not the result of what the world is like at first encounter, but what the world might become provided it’s collected and assembled.) Even once reality has fully set in, the question of its unity is still pending. The common world has still to be collected and composed. As we shall see at the end of this book, this is where the social sciences may regain the political relevance that they seem to have lost by abandoning the ether of the social and the automated use of the critical repertoire that it allowed. There is no rear-world behind to be used as a judge of this one, but in this lowly world there lie in wait many more worlds that may aspire to become one — or not, depending on the assembly work we will be able to achieve.
Fortunately, we don’t have to solve those arduous questions all at once in order to do our work as sociologists. We don’t even have to deploy the complete set of agencies manifested by matters of concern. We simply have to make sure that their diversity is not prematurely closed by one hegemonic version of one kind of matter of fact claiming to be what is present in experience — and that goes, of course, for ‘power’ and ‘Society’ as well as for ‘matter’ and ‘Nature’. Once again, the key training for practicing ANT is negative at first.