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Genetic Ontology

The suggestion that development is ontological change might sound an abstract and speculative claim, something highly theoretical and of little practical relevance. But in actuality it is part of an attempt to rescue some important existential aspects that have been gone unnoticed in most accounts of development. To view children as essentially computational devices, or as scientists-in-the-making, is to lose sight of the emotions, the conflicts and struggles, the power of involvement and commitment, the threats to and strivings for a sense of identity, all of which are part of human development. And, in addition, the fact that all of these aspects of human existence take place not in a single world of natural kinds with determinate properties but in multiple worlds structured by human activity, concern, and involvement.

People in different cultures and different times are constituted differently. They don’t simply know different things, they are different kinds of people. As a result they do know in different ways, and they know different things, but there’s more going on than just that. Constituted differently, they have different cares, orient themselves differently to past and future, recognize different imperatives, have different sensibilities, and live a different sense of time, its movement, and how to live it. They have a different sense of space, are bound in different ways, impelled by different conflicts and contradictions. They even move differently, with qualitatively different embodied dispositions. These are not matters of people’s conceptions—ways of thinking about space, time, the world. They are people's embodied ways of living, ways of acting, modes of existence.

The study of all this, and especially of the way children (but adults too) become who they are, is what I’m calling genetic ontology.

Why does this matter? It matters because now more than ever we all need to recognize, comprehend, and respect differences among the people of the Earth. Piaget’s genetic epistemology lends itself, whether he intended this or not, to an ordered hierarchy of ways of knowing, with male, European upper-middle class rationality at the top. Genetic ontology tries to grasp different ways of living, different modes of existence, different cultures, without rushing to judgment about which is best, or to arrange them in a hierarchy.

Packer and Goicoechea (2000) argue that a non-dualist ontology can be seen struggling to emerge in cultural developmental psychology. It is an ontology, a view of human and non-human being, in which person and social world are internally related to one another, mutually constituting. In contrast with the “constituting subjectivity” of Kant and Piaget, who viewed construction only as a cognitive activity in which subjectivity applies its forms to data from a distinct and separate objective world, this ontology envisions a practical process of construction where people shape the social world, and in doing so are themselves transformed. This mutual constitution is accomplished in the social practices of human relationship and community.

We described the following six 'tropes' or 'themes' to this ontology:.

  • the person is constructed
  • in a social context
  • formed through practical activity
  • and formed in relationships of desire and recognition
  • that can split the person
  • motivating the search for identity

[An interpretation of schooling in terms of these tropes...]

The following is excerpted from this article.

The roots of cultural psychology can be traced back from Vygotsky to Marx and Hegel, and the differences in the ontological assumptions underlying constructivist and sociocultural perspectives on learning can be illustrated by comparing Hegel with Kant. Hegel was deeply dissatisfied with Kant’s dualism of (experienced) phenomena and (unknowable) things-in-themselves; of empirical and transcendental; of subject and independent reality. Hegel maintained that Kant had erred in taking for granted the character of the knowing subject; his response was an attempt to formulate a very different ontology. His efforts influenced Marx and subsequent dialectical materialists, including Vygotsky and Ilyenkov, as well as phenomenologists, including Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, such post-modernists as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Lacan, post-structuralists such as Bourdieu and Latour, as well as Dewey.

Rather than attempt an exhaustive survey of how the non-dualist ontology has been taken up by each of these people, we shall describe six themes that seem key, appearing in the work of many of them, sometimes all. And although we explore these themes here primarily from a theoretical angle, the reading and reflection leading to this paper occurred simultaneously with empirical investigation; our account of the themes developed as reading informed empirical inquiry and vice versa. This paper thus flattens out what was a circular and dialectical process of discovery.

The Person is Constructed

The first theme is that the human person is not a natural entity but a social and historical product. The person is made, not born. Human infants are incomplete animals; the world-openness introduced by this neoteny (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 47) means we must continually remake ourselves, and in doing so we make society and history. “That man himself appears to resemble an artifact, as it were, a product of civilization trained to speak and to act in ways foreign to his nature, is culture’s crowning achievement” (Loewenberg, 1965, p. 210).

In Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807/1967) Hegel described a series of forms or levels of the changing human subject.1 Unlike his immediate philosophical predecessors (Kant, Locke, Descartes), Hegel did not assume the existence of the individual knowing and learning self. For Hegel, “contrary to most of the history of modern philosophy, the individual self is in no sense an immediately given element of consciousness (as Descartes claims of his cogito) but a socially created concept, and a most peculiar concept at that. The peculiarity is that, even as it is society and the social order that teach us to think of ourselves as individuals in the first place, they thereby teach us to ignore the fact that we are wholly social products and social participants. It [sic] teaches us to think of ourselves as ontological atoms for whom the formation of society is a puzzle and a mystery” (Solomon, 1983, p. 514).

For Marx, too, “man... is an animal which can develop into an individual only in society” (Marx, 1904, p. 268, cited in Ollman, 1976, p. 105). Similarly, Lacan saw the “symbolic order” not “as constituted by man, but rather as constituting him” (Lacan, 1956/1968, p. 141), and as leading to the creation of such “imaginary” objects as the ego (Fink, 1995).

...in a Social Context

The second theme is that this formation and transformation of the person can occur only in a social context that is constitutive of being (cf. Taylor, 1971/1987). Variations of this theme can be found in Foucault, Lacan, Marx, Heidegger, even Kuhn, and in Habermas, Bourdieu and Latour, as well as Hegel.

Foucault (1969/1972, p. 26) insisted that a “discursive formation” forms a “field,” a “totality,” a “background” against which facts and events stand out. Bourdieu employs concepts of “social field” and “habitus” to capture the interrelationship of social context and person. Habitus and field are “linked... by a relationship of ontological complicity”--that is to say, each determines the being of the other (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 273). Habitus is the embodied way in which we engage the world: “a system of durable, transposable dispositions which functions as the generative basis of structured, objectively unified practices” (Bourdieu, 1979, p. vii). Social fields are history objectified, each is a multidimensional space of positions, defined by the distribution of forms of capital.

Similarly, Kuhn (1970; 1977) saw the “paradigm” as central to an understanding of scientific activity. It is the “disciplinary matrix” that defines a community of scientific practitioners and the “world” inhabited by its members.

In another variant, Latour (1997) invokes “a network-like ontology,” an “irreductionist and relationist ontology” in which “actors are not conceived of as fixed entities” but are “a new ontological hybrid, world making entities.” The old distinction between things and representations, between material and texts, is dissolved: both have the same ontological status. Society, argues Latour, has “a fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary character”; it is “a global entity--a highly connected one--which remains nevertheless continuously local.” And Habermas (1981/1984) similarly insists that “lifeworld” is a necessary part of any social analysis.

Each of these is an analysis of people and things as parts of a whole, in a “philosophy of internal relations,” (Ollman, 1976, p. 26). The whole is a public, intersubjective, taken-for-granted context, within which people and artifacts are posited: in terms of which their being is defined.

How does context--whether conceived of as field or as root-like network--have this ontological power? In short, because the being of an entity--colloquially speaking, what it is--is not a timeless, essential property but is determined by the human practices in which it is encountered, grasped, and comprehended. Being is not essentially mind or matter, but varies with the historical and societal context. Heidegger argued that “It is not the case that human being ‘is,’ and then on top of that has a relation of being to the ‘world’ which it sometimes takes upon itself” (1927/1996, p. 53). Rather, the “totality of involvements” of “world” exerts a “constitution” on human being, and “discloses” entities. His “fundamental ontology” in Being & Time is a detailed cultural analysis of human being. Being is an answer to a human concern; humans have an “ontological priority”; we have an “understanding of being” (p. 34) that is rooted in our way of life. “Man is not only a being that thinks [but also] the being that reveals Being.... He reveals in addition... the being that he himself is” (Kojève, 1947/1969, p. 36). Not just our knowledge but we ourselves, and the objects we know, are constructed: what counts as real varies culturally and changes historically.

Consider Marx’s (1867/1977) central example: the “commodity” is a kind of entity--a way for something to be--that becomes possible only in a particular kind of society, at a particular period in history. The same can be said of other “objects” we find around us--tools, signs, money, food, music, art, clothing--each is a cultural artifact. To say that each is, at bottom, material is, first, false (since some are immaterial) and, second, unhelpful (since material is itself no natural category).

As Engeström and Cole (1997) point out, the concept of context or situation is not unproblematic (what is its width, where are its boundaries, how are multiple contexts related?) but it is surely unavoidable.

...Formed through Practical Activity

Our third theme: this relationship between social context, people and things is sustained and transformed in practical activity. Any social context--a classroom, for example--is itself the product of human language and social practice, not fixed but dynamic, changing over time, in what we call history. As Berger and Luckmann put it, “man is capable of producing a world that he then experiences as something other than a human product.... [T]he relationship between man, the producer, and the social world, his product, is and remains a dialectical one.... The product acts back on the producer”(1967, p. 61).2 Hegel, too, described the mutual constitution of person and social context, and the dynamic of contradiction in both.

In Hegel’s account, however, these transformations unfold in a somewhat mysterious way. Marx insisted that they are consequences of human praxis, open-ended and contingent, and should be studied in their concrete particularity. Human activity has a central ontological significance here. Labor, crucial to the reproduction of human existence, transforms natural objects into artifacts and physical forces into sources of power, and also transforms the laborer’s nature. For Marx, like Hegel, social being is distinct from natural organic and inorganic being, but the natural and the social are related dialectically. Labor produces an “ontological leap” (Lukács, 1978, p. 6), giving rise to social forms and categories, to new forms of objectivity. These don’t rise above inorganic and organic being, they must reproduce themselves in it, but there is a progressive move, an ontological development, of abstraction: social forms become increasingly less dependent on materiality--consider for instance the move from barter to money to credit. Objective being does not exist only in concrete things; whether or not we are conscious of them, abstract forms have “facticity in practical life.” A drop in the stock market has “the same ontological rigor of facticity as a car that runs you over” (Lukács, 1978, p. 40). In such an ontology, objectivity is not the result of cognitive activity, as it was for Kant and Piaget, but the product of practical, social activity. “[O]bjects are not merely given or discovered by the subject, but rather are made objects by the subject’s activity.... But they are not constituted out of nothing, that is, they are not merely projections of the subject. Rather, the subject works on that which is given to it, as external to it or other than it” (Gould, 1978, p. 41). It might be objected that Piaget saw the child as actively transforming the world. But in fact Piaget saw the child’s action as merely “displacing” objects in the spatio-temporal field, not as constructing objects or producing artifacts. Action for Piaget is instrumental activity that manipulates a pre-existing, independent reality, neither creating nor consuming--knowledge of the world is constructed, but not the world itself.

The activity of labor in which objects are transformed is also a process in which the subject is transformed. “The agent thus recognizes him or herself through this objectification of his or her capacities and needs.... Furthermore, the agent becomes different through this objectification in that the circumstances of his or her agency, that is, the world in which he or she acts, have been transformed and now present the agent with a different range of problems and opportunities which give rise to new purposes and new modes of action” (Gould, 1978, p. 42).

Other analyses (e.g. Lacan, Foucault, Habermas) stress the ontological role of communicative action as well as labor. As Hanks (1996, p. 237) puts it, “the referential process is one in which subjects, objects, and social relations are simultaneously produced in the course of even the most mundane utterances.” To speak is not just to represent the world but also to occupy it; and we do many things “through” language--“we realize ourselves; effect changes in our worlds; connect with other people; experience beauty, rage, and tenderness; exercise authority; refuse; and pursue our interests” (p. 236).

...and Formed in Relationships of Desire and Recognition

If the previous themes are familiar to readers of writing on social construction, the next three are probably less so. The first is that the person is formed not only in practical activity, but in the human relationships this activity sustains (O’Neill, 1996). Hegel sought to demonstrate “the radical view that, without interpersonal interaction and the mutual demand of what he calls ‘recognition,’ there is no ‘self’ and no ‘self-consciousness’” (Solomon, 1983, p. 430). The self is not a purely cognitive construction, let alone the transparent source of action and cognition; it is formed in desire, conflict and opposition, in a struggle for recognition. Self-consciousness is not the result of the individual reflecting on him- or herself, but emerges in the relationship with another. Dreyfus and Rabinow (1993) point out that Bourdieu’s notion that people seek “symbolic capital” is influenced by Hegel’s emphasis on recognition.

As Kojève put it, “the man who attentively contemplates a thing, who wants to see it as it is without changing anything... forgets himself... [But] when man experiences a desire... he necessarily becomes aware of himself” (1947/1969, p. 37, original emphasis).3 Desire, especially desire for recognition, creates a lack, an absence, a hole, in the human subject. And desire directed towards another person, another “greedy emptiness” (p. 40) seeks recognition that gives not just consciousness of self but self-consciousness. “The self is for itself only by being for another” (Williams, 1997, p. 49).
The struggle with a more powerful other offers one form of recognition. The famous master-slave dialectic is not an exercise in psychology or sociology but “is in brief an ontological theory about the nature of ‘selfhood’ in which the whole history of philosophy, and in particular the Cartesian-Leibnizian vision of the fully formed individual ego is summarily rejected” (Solomon, 1983, p. 428). The struggle for prestige, to define who is master and who slave, eventually “produces a free and historical individual, conscious of his individuality, his freedom, his history, and finally, his historicity” (Kojève, 1947/1969, p. 6). And it is the slave, the one who works, who becomes civilized and educated, sublimating the drive of desire, giving form to objects and finding self in the product, the “real, objective..., cultural, historical, human World” (p. 26). But recognition need not require such struggle (Williams, 1997).

...that can Split the Person

The fifth theme is the insistence that the person, constituted in activity and relationship in social context, is fundamentally split, estranged from him or herself--alienated, inauthentic, and divided. To become human is to be split; to become a participant in community is to be divided. The person’s relation to self, to others, to activity and to the world is constituted and mediated by discourse and social practices; community defines the modes of appropriation and recognition that obtain, and the kinds of relationship in which recognition can be achieved: in doing so, it transforms desire and comes between the self and itself (Ricoeur, 1992). The result is “the cultural knotting of [the] subject who must ‘split,’ so to speak, in order to become a social subject” (O’Neill, 1996, p. 2). As Lacan saw it, “The subject is nothing but this very split” (Fink, 1995, p. 45); only the psychotic lack the split between ego and unconscious. “Alienation represents the instituting of the symbolic order--which must be realized anew for each subject--and the subject’s assignation of a place therein.... separation, a neither/nor involving the subject and the Other, brings forth being” (Fink, 1995, p. 52). “Power acts on the subject [in] a splitting and reversal constitutive of the subject itself” (Butler, 1997, p. 15).

The oppositions of thought and action, conscious and unconscious, self and other, subject and object are created, not natural. There is a “double movement” to culture (Hyppolite, 1946/1974, p. 378)4: our activity produces a social context that defines who we are. But that context also confronts us as something alien, so we are divided from ourselves and need to discover ourselves. “Man is, as such, the objectifying being who creates outside supports for himself and... incongruities result between the petrified objectivation and his living desires and will, which run in a different direction” (Landmann, 1975/1978, p. 189).

In other words, there are costs to membership in a community, to participation in a social context, as well as benefits. “To cultivate oneself is not to develop harmoniously, as in organic growth, but to oppose oneself and rediscover oneself through a rending and separation” (Hyppolite, 1946/1974, p. 385).

...Motivating the Search for Identity

If the person is divided in and from herself, she is not self-same--she lacks identity. Our final theme is that the person strives to achieve identity. This search is an effort to overcome division; not to root out or eliminate it so much as to transcend it.

It might seem that identity is just a matter of membership of a community, and indeed “in societies with very simple division of labor and minimal distribution of knowledge... everyone pretty much is what he is supposed to be. In such a society identities are easily recognizable, objectively and subjectively” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 164). But typically membership is the start of a struggle for identity, an attempt to overcome division and achieve wholeness, unity--to become self-same. And since human identity is achieved in practical activity, in desire and often in struggle, this identity is not simply equality with itself but “negating-negativity” (Kojève, 1947/1969, pp. 5, 213n). Human being is becoming--striving to be what it is not (yet).

To be posited by the public practices of a community is not all it is to be human, and it is not enough. Human being is always positing as well as posited--always pushing beyond the identity conferred by a community of practice. People actively strive to come to terms with the practices of their community, adopting an attitude, taking a stand on the way membership of a community has positioned them. As they do this their activity acts on that community, reproducing it or transforming it. In Hegel’s account the person, confronted with an apparently objective social order, seeking to overcome alienation, accomplishes this positively in philosophy, art, religion and other forms of representation, and negatively in the revolutionary destruction of their own creation. For Lacan, psychoanalysis aims to help the analysand assume responsibility for what brought them into existence as split subject, through signification of that cause, in “a discourse of separation” (Fink, 1995, pp. 62, 67).


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Williams, R. R. (1997). Hegel’s ethics of recognition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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