Alfred Deakin Research Institute


Multiple ontologies/ontological relativity workshop

December 17-18, Deakin University


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Image: Johannes Neurath
Detail: José Benítez Sánchez: The Nierika of Tatutsi Xuweri Timaiweme. Huichol yarn painting, 1980

Convened by Gillian G. Tan, Geoff Boucher and Sean Bowden, Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University

Deakin University
Melbourne City Centre
Level 3
550 Bourke Street

For more information, please contact: Dr. Gillian G. Tan,

Janice Baker (Deakin)
Simone Bignall (UNSW)
Geoff Boucher (Deakin)
Sean Bowden (Deakin)
Adam Broinowski (ANU)
Justin Clemens (Melbourne)
Erin Fitz-henry (Melbourne)
Gregory Flaxman (UNC - Chapel Hill)
Roland Kapferer (Deakin)
Eben Kirksey (UNSW) - 18th only
Lyn McCredden (Deakin)
Jon Roffe (Melbourne)
Gillian G. Tan (Deakin)

Peter Beilharz (Latrobe)
Ghassan Hage (Melbourne)
Bruce Kapferer (Bergen)
Helen Verran (Melbourne/CDU) -18th only


The notion that ontology, as a system of what there is in the world, could be multiple, or relative to another, stands in contrast to notions of singularity and absoluteness. At this level of formulation, multiplicity, or relativity, is defined in opposition to a unitary, and unifying, system, yet we can surmise nothing further about the implications of the multiple, or even what it means. This workshop is dedicated to the precise ways in which there could be, or are, multiple interpretations of multiple ontologies, leading to various meanings and applications. By encouraging constructive cross-disciplinary exchange, the workshop aims to arrive at both a clearer articulation of multiplicity/relativity, according to one's disciplinary background, and a corollary clarification of difference, with implications for ethics and responsibility.

  • The recent ontological turn in anthropology has suggested a radical shift in the way difference is understood. Whereas in the past, anthropologists analysed difference - between their own and native groups - as cultural, advocates of the ontological turn argue that this framework amounts to relativism. For 'ontologists', by contrast, the point is that concepts borne out of a specific mode of knowledge production can neither capture nor demonstrate the radical alterity of other ways of being. These other ways of being may call into question more fundamental assumptions, such as what a 'thing' is that exists in the world. If the Nuer say that twins-are-birds, for instance, then is the logical flaw theirs, or is it in our inability to think beyond the concepts given to us by the classifications of human and nonhuman? Or, as Holbraad has asked, do we even know what they, the Nuer, mean?
  • Work on the multiple ontologies of literary fictions was somewhat isolated in the field until recently, confined to possible worlds theories and Brian McHale's Quinean treatment of postmodern fictions. But with the ontological turn in continental philosophy, particularly the work of Alain Badiou, the ontological implications of literary worlds have moved to the centre of debate.
  • In philosophy, a substantial amount of literature has grown up around the notion of 'ontological relativity' and of the possibility or impossibility of translating different ontologies (theories of objects, frames of reference, languages, conceptual schemes, coordinate systems, etc.) into one another. W. V. O. Quine argued that we cannot say what something is except through a frame of reference, and since there is no framework-transcendent fact of the matter concerning what the terms of different theories refer to, the only way we can talk about what objects there 'really' are for a given theory is to translate it into another theory. Deepening Quine's arguments about radical translation, Donald Davidson argued that we cannot even make concrete sense of the idea that others have conceptual schemes radically different from our own. Quine's and Davidson's arguments have generated a large amount of debate and many of the issues they have raised have been taken up in ethically promising ways, particularly in the works of Rorty.

These various statements on difference, possible worlds and translatability underlie the questions that we aim to grapple with. What are the disjunctures between the concepts of 'multiplicity' and 'relativity' when attached to ontology? What various statements, employing either 'multiple ontologies' or 'ontological relativity', have been used to probe 'difference' in abstract and concrete ways? Approaching multiple ontologies/ontological relativity as a problem, we invite papers that are committed to genuine enquiry and constructive debate.

The implications of these seemingly theoretical debates resonate clearly with issues in ethics and responsibility, and thus with the practical realm of social justice. Here, differences proliferate: not only between victim and victor, marginal and powerful, poor and rich but also in the interstices of dualisms and categories. By engaging with multiple ontologies/ontological relativity as problem and proposing clearer articulations, this workshop opens up ways to engage with what's at stake in practical, and ethical, issues of difference.


Deakin University
Melbourne City Centre
Level 3
550 Bourke Street

For more information, please contact: Dr. Gillian G. Tan,

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

12th December 2013