Social Ontology and Philosophy of the Social Sciences
From my doctoral dissertation Social Kinds: A User’s Manual:
What is in our head, and what is out there? Arguably, this is the main question metaphysicians have been engaging with, and long before Kant made the problem especially salient with his Copernican Revolution in philosophy. In particular, metaphysicians are invested in distinguishing between on the one hand classifications representing categories that, using the Platonic jargon, “carve nature at its joints,” and on the other hand classifications that are conventional, representing kinds that are the product of our epistemic and normative interests. In other words, we could say that metaphysicians argue about which categories or kinds – I use the two terms synonymously – exist as the product of our mind and which exist independently of our thought.
Social ontology, being a part of metaphysics, is not exempt from this issue. According to most philosophers, social reality is the example of the product of our intentionality par excellence, and so are the categories through which the inhabitants of the social world are classified, whether these denizens are persons, as in the case of member of parliament and refugee, or in the case these denizens are things, as in the case of border or money. However, a more recent trend in social ontology has taken a different and, in a way, revolutionary turn with regard to the categories of social reality, as it deems the existence of many, if not most, social kinds independent of our thought.
The view I set out to defend purports to clarify the terms of the debate and lies in between these two different approaches. What I argue is that, on the one hand, it is indeed us who devise and over time bring change to social kinds, which are ultimately an artificial instrument, a compass to help orienting us around the social world. On the other hand, the fact that we come up with social kinds does not entail that anything goes, since there are both empirical and normative constraints on how we can represent the social world, and that make some categories better tools than others. Thus, the endeavor of understanding the nature of social kinds amounts to walking a tightrope, where if you cast a sidelong glance on one side you will see what is in our head, whereas if you cast it on the other side you will see what is outside of it. This exercise in philosophical funambulism behooves me to tread carefully and keep my balance throughout this risky walk.”
I wrote my master thesis on the distinction between ontology, conceived as the branch of philosophy concerned with the question of what entities exist, and metaphysics, conceived as the complementary part of philosophy that seeks to explain, of those entities, what they are. Most philosophers claim that it is not possible to address the first question without at the same time addressing the second, since knowing whether an entity exists requires knowing what that entity is. Building on the work by Achille Varzi, I argue against this popular position and try to offer a detailed analysis of the idea according to which it is possible to do ontology without engaging in metaphysics. Moreover, I claim that, rather than being merely possible, in some cases it is, for methodological reasons, preferable to start with a metaphysics-free ontology, postponing any inquiry concerning the nature of the entities included in the ontological inventory to a later stage. This is a claim that can be already found in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (II, 2, 89b34–35), in Fridugisus of Tours’ De Nihilo et Tenebris, and especially in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (I, q.2, a.2, ad 2), whose distinction between the an sit and the quid sit questions corresponds rather closely to my way of distinguishing the ontological and the metaphysical question, respectively.
Applied ontologies are taxonomical representations of reality that help organize information and integrate data across a variety of languages, servers, and conceptual frameworks. In my work, I have been relying mostly on Basic Formal Ontology (BFO), developed by Barry Smith and his associates, as my top-level ontology. The ontologies I built concern the biomedical field (SCTO) and the field of argumentation theory (ArgO).