Archives For structuralism

Author Information: Luca Tateo, Aalborg University & Federal University of Bahia,

Tateo, Luca. “Ethics, Cogenetic Logic, and the Foundation of Meaning.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Mural entitled “Paseo de Humanidad” on the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, in Sonora. Art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
Image by Jonathan McIntosh, via Flickr / Creative Commons


This essay is in reply to: Miika Vähämaa (2018) Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

In his interesting essay, Vähämaa (2018) discusses two issues that I find particularly relevant. The first one concerns the foundation of meaning in language, which in the era of connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and post-truth (Keyes, 2004) becomes problematic. The second issue is the appreciation of epistemic virtues in a collective context: how the group can enhance the epistemic skill of the individual?

I will try to explain why these problems are relevant and why it is worth developing Vähämaa’s (2018) reflection in the specific direction of group and person as complementary epistemic and ethic agents (Fricker, 2007). First, I will discuss the foundations of meaning in different theories of language. Then, I will discuss the problems related to the stability and liminality of meaning in the society of “popularity”. Finally I will propose the idea that the range of contemporary epistemic virtues should be integrated by an ethical grounding of meaning and a co-genetic foundation of meaning.

The Foundation of Meaning in Language

The theories about the origins of human language can be grouped in four main categories, based on the elements characterizing the ontogenesis and glottogenesis.

Sociogenesis Hypothesis (SH): it is the idea that language is a conventional product, that historically originates from coordinated social activities and it is ontogenetically internalized through individual participation to social interactions. The characteristic authors in SH are Wundt, Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (2012).

Praxogenesis Hypothesis (PH): it is the idea that language historically originates from praxis and coordinated actions. Ontogenetically, the language emerges from senso-motory coordination (e.g. gaze coordination). It is for instance the position of Mead, the idea of linguistic primes in Smedslund (Vähämaa, 2018) and the language as action theory of Austin (1975).

Phylogenesis Hypothesis (PhH): it is the idea that humans have been provided by evolution with an innate “language device”, emerging from the evolutionary preference for forming social groups of hunters and collective long-duration spring care (Bouchard, 2013). Ontogenetically, language predisposition is wired in the brain and develops in the maturation in social groups. This position is represented by evolutionary psychology and by innatism such as Chomsky’s linguistics.

Structure Hypothesis (StH): it is the idea that human language is a more or less logic system, in which the elements are determined by reciprocal systemic relationships, partly conventional and partly ontic (Thao, 2012). This hypothesis is not really concerned with ontogenesis, rather with formal features of symbolic systems of distinctions. It is for instance the classical idea of Saussure and of the structuralists like Derrida.

According to Vähämaa (2018), every theory of meaning has to deal today with the problem of a terrific change in the way common sense knowledge is produced, circulated and modified in collective activities. Meaning needs some stability in order to be of collective utility. Moreover, meaning needs some validation to become stable.

The PhH solves this problem with a simple idea: if humans have survived and evolved, their evolutionary strategy about meaning is successful. In a natural “hostile” environment, our ancestors must have find the way to communicate in such a way that a danger would be understood in the same way by all the group members and under different conditions, including when the danger is not actually present, like in bonfire tales or myths.

The PhH becomes problematic when we consider the post-truth era. What would be the evolutionary advantage to deconstruct the environmental foundations of meaning, even in a virtual environment? For instance, what would be the evolutionary advantage of the common sense belief that global warming is not a reality, considered that this false belief could bring mankind to the extinction?

StH leads to the view of meaning as a configuration of formal conditions. Thus, stability is guaranteed by structural relations of the linguistic system, rather than by the contribution of groups or individuals as epistemic agents. StH cannot account for the rapidity and liminality of meaning that Vähämaa (2018) attributes to common sense nowadays. SH and PH share the idea that meaning emerges from what people do together, and that stability is both the condition and the product of the fact that we establish contexts of meaningful actions, ways of doing things in a habitual way.

The problem is today the fact that our accelerated Western capitalistic societies have multiplied the ways of doing and the number of groups in society, decoupling the habitual from the common sense meaning. New habits, new words, personal actions and meanings are built, disseminated and destroyed in short time. So, if “Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups” (Vähämaa, 2018, p. 169) what does it happen to language and to knowledge when social groups multiply, segregate and disappear in a short time?

From Common Sense to the Bubble

The grounding of meaning in the group as epistemic agent has received a serious stroke in the era of connectivism and post-truth. The idea of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed among the different agents of a collective network (Siemens, 2005). Knowledge does not reside into the “mind” or into a “memory”, but is rather produced in bits and pieces, that the epistemic agent is required to search, and to assemble through the contribution of the collective effort of the group’s members.

Thus, depending on the configuration of the network, different information will be connected, and different pictures of the world will emerge. The meaning of the words will be different if, for instance, the network of information is aggregated by different groups in combination with, for instance, specific algorithms. The configuration of groups, mediated by social media, as in the case of contemporary politics (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017), leads to the reproduction of “bubbles” of people that share the very same views, and are exposed to the very same opinions, selected by an algorithm that will show only the content compliant with their previous content preferences.

The result is that the group loses a great deal of its epistemic capability, which Vähämaa (2018) suggests as a foundation of meaning. The meaning of words that will be preferred in this kind of epistemic bubble is the result of two operations of selection that are based on popularity. First, the meaning will be aggregated by consensual agents, rather than dialectic ones. Meaning will always convergent rather than controversial.

Second, between alternative meanings, the most “popular” will be chosen, rather than the most reliable. The epistemic bubble of connectivism originates from a misunderstanding. The idea is that a collectivity has more epistemic force than the individual alone, to the extent that any belief is scrutinized democratically and that if every agent can contribute with its own bit, the knowledge will be more reliable, because it is the result of a constant and massive peer-review. Unfortunately, the events show us a different picture.

Post-truth is actually a massive action of epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007), to the extent that the reliability of the other as epistemic agent is based on criteria of similarity, rather than on dialectic. One is reliable as long as it is located within my own bubble. Everything outside is “fake news”. The algorithmic selection of information contributes to reinforce the polarization. Thus, no hybridization becomes possible, the common sense (Vähämaa, 2018) is reduced to the common bubble. How can the epistemic community still be a source of meaning in the connectivist era?

Meaning and Common Sense

SH and PH about language point to a very important historical source: the philosopher Giambattista Vico (Danesi, 1993; Tateo, 2015). Vico can be considered the scholar of the common sense and the imagination (Tateo, 2015). Knowledge is built as product of human experience and crystallized into the language of a given civilization. Civilization is the set of interpretations and solutions that different groups have found to respond to the common existential events, such as birth, death, mating, natural phenomena, etc.

According to Vico, all the human beings share a fate of mortal existence and rely on each other to get along. This is the notion of common sense: the profound sense of humanity that we all share and that constitutes the ground for human ethical choices, wisdom and collective living. Humans rely on imagination, before reason, to project themselves into others and into the world, in order to understand them both. Imagination is the first step towards the understanding of the Otherness.

When humans loose contact with this sensus communis, the shared sense of humanity, and start building their meaning on egoism or on pure rationality, civilizations then slip into barbarism. Imagination gives thus access to the intersubjectivity, the capability of feeling the other, while common sense constitutes the wisdom of developing ethical beliefs that will not harm the other. Vico ideas are echoed and made present by the critical theory:

“We have no doubt (…) that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking (…) already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not [engage in] reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate (…) In the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to nationalist paranoia (…) the weakness of contemporary theoretical understanding is evident.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, xvi)

Common sense is the basis for the wisdom, that allows to question the foundational nature of the bubble. It is the basis to understand that every meaning is not only defined in a positive way, but is also defined by its complementary opposite (Tateo, 2016).

When one uses the semantic prime “we” (Vähämaa, 2018), one immediately produces a system of meaning that implies the existence of a “non-we”, one is producing otherness. In return, the meaning of “we” can only be clearly defined through the clarification of who is “non-we”. Meaning is always cogenetic (Tateo, 2015). Without the capability to understand that by saying “we” people construct a cogenetic complex of meaning, the group is reduced to a self confirming, self reinforcing collective, in which the sense of being a valid epistemic agent is actually faked, because it is nothing but an act of epistemic arrogance.

How we can solve the problem of the epistemic bubble and give to the relationship between group and person a real epistemic value? How we can overcome the dangerous overlapping between sense of being functional in the group and false beliefs based on popularity?

Complementarity Between Meaning and Sense

My idea is that we must look in that complex space between the “meaning”, understood as a collectively shared complex of socially constructed significations, and the “sense”, understood as the very personal elaboration of meaning which is based on the person’s uniqueness (Vygotsky, 2012; Wertsck, 2000). Meaning and sense feed into each other, like common sense and imagination. Imagination is the psychic function that enables the person to feel into the other, and thus to establish the ethical and affective ground for the common sense wisdom. It is the empathic movement on which Kant will later on look for a logic foundation.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant 1993, p. 36. 4:429)

I would further claim that maybe they feed into each other: the logic foundation is made possible by the synthetic power of empathic imagination. Meaning and sense feed into each other. On the one hand, the collective is the origin of internalized psychic activities (SH), and thus the basis for the sense elaborated about one’s own unique life experience. On the other hand, the personal sense constitutes the basis for the externalization of the meaning into the arena of the collective activities, constantly innovating the meaning of the words.

So, personal sense can be a strong antidote to the prevailing force of the meaning produced for instance in the epistemic bubble. My sense of what is “ought”, “empathic”, “human” and “ethic”, in other words my wisdom, can help me to develop a critical stance towards meanings that are build in a self-feeding uncritical way.

Can the dialectic, complementary and cogenetic relationship between sense and meaning become the ground for a better epistemic performance, and for an appreciation of the liminal meaning produced in contemporary societies? In the last section, I will try to provide arguments in favor of this idea.

Ethical Grounding of Meaning

If connectivistic and post-truth societies produce meanings that are based on popularity check, rather than on epistemic appreciation, we risk to have a situation in which any belief is the contingent result of a collective epistemic agent which replicates its patterns into bubbles. One will just listen to messages that confirm her own preferences and belief and reject the different ones as unreliable. Inside the bubble there is no way to check the meaning, because the meaning is not cogenetic, it is consensual.

For instance, if I read and share a post on social media, claiming that migrants are the main criminal population, despite my initial position toward the news, there is the possibility that within my group I will start to see only posts confirming the initial fact. The fact can be proven wrong, for instance by the press, but the belief will be hard to change, as the meaning of “migrant” in my bubble is likely to continue being that of “criminal”. The collectivity will share an epistemically unjust position, to the extent that it will attribute a lessened epistemic capability to those who are not part of the group itself. How can one avoid that the group is scaffolding the “bad” epistemic skills, rather than empowering the individual (Vähämaa, 2018)?

The solution I propose is to develop an epistemic virtue based on two main principles: the ethical grounding of meaning and the cogenetic logic. The ethical grounding of meaning is directly related to the articulation between common sense and wisdom in the sense of Vico (Tateo, 2015). In a post-truth world in which we cannot appreciate the epistemic foundation of meaning, we must rely on a different epistemic virtue in order to become critical toward messages. Ethical grounding, based on the personal sense of humanity, is not of course epistemic test of reliability, but it is an alarm bell to become legitimately suspicious toward meanings. The second element of the new epistemic virtue is cogenetic logic (Tateo, 2016).

Meaning is grounded in the building of every belief as a complementary system between “A” and “non-A”. This implies that any meaning is constructed through the relationship with its complementary opposite. The truth emerges in a double dialectic movement (Silva Filho, 2014): through Socratic dialogue and through cogenetic logic. In conclusion, let me try to provide a practical example of this epistemic virtue.

The way to start to discriminate potentially fake news or the tendentious interpretations of facts would be essentially based on an ethic foundation. As in Vico’s wisdom of common sense, I would base my epistemic scrutiny on the imaginative work that allows me to access the other and on the cogenetic logic that assumes every meaning is defined by its relationship with the opposite.

Let’s imagine that we are exposed to a post on social media, in which someone states that a caravan of migrants, which is travelling from Honduras across Central America toward the USA border, is actually made of criminals sent by hostile foreign governments to destabilize the country right before elections. The same post claims that it is a conspiracy and that all the press coverage is fake news.

Finally the post presents some “debunking” pictures showing some athletic young Latino men, with their faces covered by scarves, to demonstrate that the caravan is not made by families with children, but is made by “soldiers” in good shape and who don’t look poor and desperate as the “mainstream” media claim. I do not know whether such a post has ever been made, but I just assembled elements of very common discourses circulating in the social media.

The task is no to assess the nature of this message, its meaning and its reliability. I could rely on the group as a ground for assessing statements, to scrutinize their truth and justification. However, due to the “bubble” effect, I may fall into a simple tautological confirmation, due to the configuration of the network of my relations. I would probably find only posts confirming the statements and delegitimizing the opposite positions. In this case, the fact that the group will empower my epistemic confidence is a very dangerous element.

I could limit my search for alternative positions to establish a dialogue. However, I could not be able, alone, to find information that can help me to assess the statement with respect to its degree of bias. How can I exert my skepticism in a context of post-truth? I propose some initial epistemic moves, based on a common sense approach to the meaning-making.

1) I must be skeptical of every message which uses a violent, aggressive, discriminatory language, and that such kind of message is “fake” by default.

2) I must be skeptical of every message that treats as criminals or is against whole social groups, even on the basis of real isolated events, because this interpretation is biased by default.

3) I must be skeptical of every message that attacks or targets persons for their characteristics rather than discussing ideas or behaviors.

Appreciating the hypothetical post about the caravan by the three rules above mentioned, one will immediately see that it violates all of them. Thus, no matter what is the information collected by my epistemic bubble, I have justified reasons to be skeptical towards it. The foundation of the meaning of the message will not be neither in the group nor in the person. It will be based on the ethical position of common sense’s wisdom.

Contact details:


Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bouchard, D. (2013). The nature and origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Danesi, M. (1993). Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kant, I. (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.

Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin’s.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1)

Silva Filho, W. J. (2014). Davidson: Dialog, dialectic, interpretation. Utopía y praxis latinoamericana, 7(19).

Tateo, L. (2015). Giambattista Vico and the psychological imagination. Culture & Psychology, 21(2), 145-161.

Tateo, L. (2016). Toward a cogenetic cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 22(3), 433-447.

Thao, T. D. (2012). Investigations into the origin of language and consciousness. New York: Springer.

Vähämaa, M. (2018). Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Wertsck, J. V. (2000). Vygotsky’s Two Minds on the Nature of Meaning. In C. D. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (eds), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 19-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Here is the full video of Albert Doja’s lecture at Harvard University, “Social Morphodynamics: Mapping Identity Transformations, Cultural Encounters, and the Evolution of Core Values.” A written version of the lecture appeared earlier this week on our site. Some of the content in the video is a little bit different from the written version, and includes a question-and-answer session with the live audience.

Please refer to:


Author information: Albert Doja, University of Lille & University of Harvard,

Doja, Albert. “Social Morphodynamics: Mapping Identity Transformations, Cultural Encounters, and the Evolution of Core Values.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 14-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

In this paper given to Harvard CES community in the framework of my appointment as a Visiting Research Scholar, I outline a personal account of a theoretical path toward a specific research project and scientific method, which I believe may figure out what anthropology is or may be heading today. European societies are facing new challenges stemming from cultural encounters and identity transformations. These have revealed the vulnerability of the EU project and cosmopolitan European identity.

To address these challenges I propose a new theoretical and methodological approach. My research in progress on European identity transformations draws on structural socio-anthropology and aims to develop some of Lévi-Strauss’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual and theoretical tools. I outline a complex research strategy including the use of Bayesian inference and computer formalism, while comparison of the findings with policy choices and practices will make it possible to assess the effects of European integration policies.

A colour-adjusted photo of buildings bombed during the Kosovo War.
Image by MagneG via Flickr / Creative Commons



This September 2017, I took up an appointment at Harvard University where I am offered a visiting position at the Center for European Studies. Today September 20, 2017, I have the honor to be the first to open the Visiting Scholars Lecture Series with this talk to Harvard community, which makes me feel very much honored and be very grateful to be part of Harvard intellectual community. Two weeks earlier, at the end of the induction day of Harvard CES Visiting Scholars, we went to look, among other things, what it means to a freshman to touch John Harvard’s feet.

Before that, however, I came at Harvard through the Massachusetts Avenue and I first stopped at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where so many things are being done on quantum theory, on artificial intelligence, and on “anthropological futures”, to mention but the title of a book by Michael Fischer, a MIT professor of anthropology. Moving from one quarter to another, the mind is constantly up a storm that could push the limits of human performance and understanding. As a French educated and French minded anthropologist, a memorable question came immediately to my mind from Marvin Minsky and his Society of Mind: “What magical trick makes us intelligent?”

Quite naturally, I found myself asking – What is a magical trick that makes the research I am doing? What magical trick makes identity politics so powerful? Paraphrasing Marvin Minsky, the trick is that there is no trick. The research I am doing as the power of identity politics or the importance of populism that is taking much of our debates nowadays, as we have seen last week at CES, stem from the vast diversity of people’s minds, not from any single, perfect principle, value, idea, or motivation. People’s actions and decisions, like the research any of us is doing, “emerge from conflicts and negotiations among societies of processes that constantly challenge one another” (Minsky 1986, 308).

Among many things, the cognitive revolution is now a contemporary interdisciplinary effort to provide scientific answers to long-standing epistemological questions. It was born here, in this intellectually stimulating environment, as an important intellectual movement among some celebrated forefathers, the computer scientists Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky, the psychologists George Miller and Jerome Bruner, the linguist Noam Chomsky and the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The Influence of Lévi-Strauss

For Lévi-Strauss, since human brains are themselves natural objects and since they are substantially the same throughout the species Homo sapiens, we must suppose that when cultural products are generated the process must impart to them certain universal (natural) characteristics of the brain itself. Thus, in investigating the elementary structures of cultural phenomena, we are also making discoveries about the nature of humankind.

Verbal categories provide the mechanism through which universal structural characteristics of human brains are transformed into universal structural characteristics of human culture. In this way, category formation in human beings follow universal natural paths. It is not that it must always happen the same way everywhere but that the human brain is so constructed that it is predisposed to develop categories of a particular kind in a particular way.

The epistemological issues of anthropological knowledge and the ethical conception of the anthropologist’s work are consistently present throughout Lévi-Strauss’s work, in its ontological, aetiological and salvational dimensions, as he dealt with both the nature and the denaturation of humankind and society, trying to return to the means, or showing the absence of means, to alleviate the evils. Clearly, it is his own adroitness and talent to have been able to establish the theoretical foundations of a revolutionary contribution, both scientific and humanistic, to general anthropology.

Contrary to the received ideas of his critics, little of recent topical, ethical, methodological or epistemological interest escaped Lévi-Strauss’s notice, understanding and engagement. His corpus of work is far-reaching and comprehensive in scope, encompassing methodology, philosophy, history, humanism, mythology, linguistics, aesthetics, cognition and reasoning. Indeed, Claude Lévi-Strauss anticipated and called for the advent of what I believe must be the future of a theoretical anthropology. He is hailed as a “Hero of our time”, by Susan Sontag and many others since the early 1960s (Sontag 1963), and his vision and ambition was to provide a new epistemology and a new ethics, a new approach to methodology and a new global awareness (Doja 2008, 2010a).

While revisiting the old debate between Derrida and Lévi-Strauss on the place of writing (Doja 2006a, 2006b, 2007), I came to the conclusion as many others (cf. Wiseman 2009) that we must legitimately ask to what extent, at least in popular imagination, a version of structuralism invented retrospectively by “poststructuralists” has become substituted for the real thing.

Anthropology today concerns itself with questions of identity politics, migration, diseases, famine, poverty, feminism, reflexivity, corruption, illiberalism, globalism, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, human rights, cultural activism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and many other related themes. An attempt to restore Lévi-Strauss to a central position can hardly prove immediately relevant to all of these social and political issues. Yet it is possible to show that structural anthropology may innovatively account for much more than the dynamics of social systems and the praxis of competitive and strategic practices.

Some of Lévi-Strauss’s achievements could lay strong claim to having mapped, within anthropology, the philosophical parameters of an increasing preoccupation with issues of contextualization and reflexivity in the face of the declining coherence of meta-narrative and grand theory, as well as with issues of political concern and engagement in the post-colonial era. We may be correct in asserting that Lévi-Strauss used structural arguments coherently and correctly to analyze the cultural order, its transient character by means of entropy and irreversibility, and not surprisingly, deconstruction, or rather “dissolution”, to use its own term, and self-reflexivity.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Lévi-Strauss in person. As I also said on occasion elsewhere (Doja 2013, 42), when I met him for the first time during a party in the impressive Library of the Social Anthropology Laboratory where I was doing my Ph.D., I presented him some Albanian ethnographic data in a typical way, that is, thinking I had something to tell that could interest him. I remember there was something about the motives of Albanian medieval ballads, warrior songs, customary laws, social organizations and the like. Surely, he paid particular attention to my matter, seemingly out of courtesy, but I remain grateful for his critical encouragement of my rather untypical theorizing attitude, which I will have to develop later.

I was talking about the possibility of linking my stuff to incest prohibition theory and structural analysis of myths with the aim of revealing the hidden ideological dimension and instrumental character of social values like honor morality. My purpose was to point at the silencing of human agency, in particular women’s agency, under the appearance of structural coherence. Was he still listening just out of courtesy, especially to my critical, yet insufficiently developed ideas of the interactive relationship between structure and agency? No doubt! Yet, guess what? When I met him again ten years after, not only he had nothing forgotten of what I told him ten years earlier, but he also infallibly remembered my own theoretical position almost with the same terms, a discussion that we followed in the years to come through a number of letters exchanged.

Nevertheless, I remained an “inconstant” disciple. There was a time in my anthropological training when, educated in France in the early 1990s, I found Lévi-Strauss simultaneously inspiring and terrifying, which ultimately convinced me of the superiority of what I had learned. In the next phase, after moving to Britain in 2000 to take up a Lectureship at the University of Hull and then a Senior Fellowship at the University of Limerick in Ireland, all my anthropological knowledge gained in the French tradition of anthropology was so challenged by various British-American postmodern approaches of the time as I reached to the point that I had everything to learn from the beginning.

But with maturity, I came to see that with Lévi-Strauss there is perhaps more truth in the next than in the previous side of my anthropological education. Arguably, some aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s theory may be advanced as a workable methodology helping us to build innovative anthropological approaches to agency and politics in history, culture and society.

Image by ShinyPhotoScotland via Flickr / Creative Commons


The Morphodynamic Approach

One of the more powerful of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas is his description of the generative engine of myths on the basis of the set of their own transformations. In mythical thinking, the basic transformations that Lévi-Strauss distinguished between a number of characters or terms of myths and their large number of possible roles or functions are controlled by means of a special relationship that he formulated in a canonical way, which demonstrates how the transformations of the myths can be captured. Lévi-Strauss’s concept of canonical formulation that articulates the transformational dynamics of mythical networks transcends a simple analogical relation to a quadratic equation, Fx(a):Fy(b)::Fx(b):Fa‑1(y), which articulates a dynamic homology between meaningful elements and their propositional functions. This formulation made it possible for Lévi-Strauss to detect a sort of genuine logical machine generative of open-ended meaning within specified mythical networks.

In a quadratic equation of this kind, the generative virtues of the so-called “double twist” of the canonical transformation in the structural study of myth imply two conditions internal to canonical formalization. According to Lévi-Strauss, a formulation of this type reflects a group of transformations in which it is assumed that a relation of equivalence exists between two situations defined respectively by an inversion of terms and relations, provided that one of the terms is replaced by its opposite and that a correlative inversion is made between the function value and the term value of two elements (Lévi-Strauss 1955, 252–253 [Eng. 228]).

After the method for the structural study of myth was introduced (Lévi-Strauss 1955), the generative virtues of the so-called “double twist” of canonical transformation have remained for a long time not understood, until the knowledge progress in qualitative mathematics became sufficiently advanced to understand them, especially after they were made comprehensible as an anticipated formalization of catastrophe models in new mathematics and morphodynamics (Petitot 1988; Scubla 1998; Maranda 2001; Desveaux 2001).

What is more important, for a catastrophist operation of this kind to take place, the very idea of canonical relation requires a third operating condition, which is external to canonical formalization. In all cases, it is expressed as the necessity of the crossing of a spatiotemporal boundary, defined in territorial, ecological, linguistic, cultural, social, or other terms, but which is always a boundary condition in mathematical sense, required to be satisfied at the boundary of a topological domain in which a set of differential equations is to be solved.

The catastrophist operation that requires a boundary condition of this kind is claimed by Lévi-Strauss to be important in determining the mathematical solutions to various mythical problems. Namely, a series of variations inherent in the myths of a given people cannot be fully understood without going through myths belonging to another people, which are in a relation of inverse transformation with the formers.

The great discovery of Lévi-Strauss made it possible for structural anthropology to overcome the logic of binary oppositions – to which it is too often and obstinately reduced – in order to become a morphogenetic dynamics. In a broad sense, while the key categories that Lévi-Strauss developed are embodied in the anthropological objects he studied (myths and mythical networks), they have the potential to be usefully and critically applied to other domains if radically tweaked.

Many studies show that the structural analysis initiated by Lévi-Strauss may innovatively account for the ways in which social relations are ever more mediated by and implicated in broader political processes (Asch 2005; Marchart 2008; Constable 2009). In this wake, my original idea is to argue that the requirement of a boundary condition in canonical formalization can anticipate the discursive activation of a particular cultural ideology acting as a hidden agency of instrumental politics. Let me illustrate briefly with some cases of sometimes accomplished and sometimes still ongoing research projects.

Cultural Activism

A common topical issue of Balkan ethnography, especially Albanian ethnography, is the view that associates patriarchal cultural traits with high fertility rates, extended family structures, marriage patterns, and the cultural myths and ideologies of honor and blood. Without disputing the notion of the Albanian family system being patriarchal, it seems that the cultural myths and ideologies associated with patrilineality are conflated with the actual practices of patriarchy. Many commentators have too easily assumed that the patriarchal language and discourses that symbolically support patrilineality result uniformly in outcomes and practices that they simply reify as patriarchal (e.g. Kaser 2008).

Almost ten years ago, I took up a more careful reading and systematic critical analysis of demographic data, historical sources and ethnographic evidence to show that the Albanian family is confronted since a long time with particularly low fertility rates and with a relatively high average age at marriage for women, which cannot support the assumption of a patriarchal extended family (Doja 2010b). Arguably, a more analytical approach to the alleged segmentary organizational pattern of parallel agnatic groups of men in Southeast European societies, including Albania, would also reveal that the segmentary structure of social organization appeared inadequate.

A morphodynamic approach and transformational analysis can show that the ideological construction of these myths can be invalidated if we take what is put forward as empirical evidence is nothing more than a strong cultural activism, acting as a kind of what I call a cultural Viagra for social survival. In this situation, cultural pressure subjugates both women and men to the reproduction of social norms and values, aiming at limiting Albanian women to their childbearing function and Albanian men to their protecting function. In this way, the cultural activism commonly obscures an important fact of a purely ideological dimension, which could be only uncovered after mapping the overall data within a canonical formalization of morphodynamic approach and transformational analysis.

This photo was originally taken in 2000, in a field in Pristina, Kosovo.
Image by Andreas Adelmann via Flickr / Creative Commons


War Politics of Mass Rapes

Last year, at a conference on war and sexual violence held in CUNY Graduate Center in New York, resulting in a forthcoming edited volume, I presented another highly topical case that is even more explicit (Doja 2016). Feminist and other accounts of war rapes during the ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere have exposed extensively the importance of misogynistic masculinity, preparing the ground for an ahistorical approach, which has also reified a conceptualization of so-called backward Balkan social structures, norms, and values.

A common way of approaching the dimensions of mass rape and sexual violence during the sinisterly notorious ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia has been to explain them specifically against a cultural background supported by the existence of a tribal society, complex joint family structures known as zadruga in South Slavic areas, customary laws known as Kanun in North Albanian area, patriarchal practices, and other savage customs. This is not only obscure but also unscrupulous.

If we look closely to social and family structures, both marriage and vengeance rest on the symbol of blood and both are institutions that give shape to alliances. If marriage created a network of alliances and divided society in exogamous groups, vengeance also created a continuously moving scenario in which memberships and strategic alliances constantly coagulated the consistency of agnatic groups. In general, a relation of matrimonial affinity and hospitality was experienced as a relationship of friendship and solidarity just as a relation of feud vengeance was lived as a relationship of hostility. Yet, if matrimonial affinity and feud vengeance were opposed to one another as much as many other structural modalities of association or dissociation between different agnatic groups, friendship and hostility were part of the same opposition.

Matrimonial affinity and feud vengeance, friendship and hostility were only different expressions of a single and unique structural relationship. Definitely, the whole of social relations and values remained placed under the sign of ambivalence. In this sense, at a more empirical level, emotional sentiments as well as social relations and values of affinity, friendship, and hospitality, must have something in common with the relationship of love and solidarity to hatred and disintegration. Precisely this kind of structural ambivalence may allow a new theoretical and methodological approach to explain the effectiveness of mass rapes as a military strategy of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia.

Marriage is a transaction of women exchanged between agnatic groups of men, a customary transaction intended to seal political alliances and conceal debts of blood, honor or money. In this sense, marriage is not only a social institution of sexual relations, but also a sexual regulation of social violence and a sexual institution of social stability. Also rape as a forced sexual intercourse is not a simple aggressive expression of sexuality, but rather a sexual expression of social violence. From the position of structural logic, marriage becomes possible by the means of matrimonial alliance that is supposed to bring love, friendship, and solidarity. In the same way, rape can be defined as a confrontational misalliance that becomes possible by the means of war, and which would necessarily induce hatred, hostility, and disintegration.

This is not, however, to understand women’s experiences of rape and marriage in a binary and rigid structuralist relation, because there is necessarily a problem with this argument that is inspired from Aristotle’s logic of analogy, which cannot be valid. The permutational relation between indexical terms and function values of both rape and marriage may be productively mapped onto a catastrophist model following Lévi-Strauss’s morphodynamic theory. Indeed, not only war is a catastrophe, but also rape in war is a catastrophe on its own. Accordingly, we may offer a catastrophist model to conceptualize rape by means of a canonical formalization in which the solidarity role of marriage will stand to the hostility of rape as the ambivalence of marriage stands to the rape politics of an unspeakable and unthinkable solidarity‑1, which is a solidarity upside down or anti-solidarity:

marriage (solidarity) : rape (hostility) :: marriage (hostility) : solidarity1(rape)

Here rape is replaced forcibly by marriage, its opposite, and a correlative inversion is made between the functional ambivalence of marriage and the unknown, unspeakable ontology of an enforced rape function. Yet, for a catastrophic operation of this kind to take place, the logical operation of a boundary condition is required. In a context in which mass rape was deliberately used as a possible instrument of ethnic cleansing, everything happened as if the activation of a specific political and instrumental agency was necessary for the notorious effectiveness of mass rape to take place.

This kind of ideological agency, which is mathematically identified by the requirement of a boundary condition in canonical formalization, can be shown to promote and put forward the cultural assumptions specific to a given group. During the Bosnian war and the Kosovo war in former Yugoslavia this specific agency was provided by the increasing role of traditionalist and nationalist discourses, which burst moral order and social morphology in the first place, precisely by bringing to the fore the destructive workings of family honor and blood ideology. Indeed, the mass rapes of women were intended to forcefully instill a kind of shame and disgrace as a social pollution that should bring necessarily the disorder and break-up of the social system of any group in its totality. Typically, at war, such a social pollution and catastrophic disorder is termed in Albanian with a generic term for “total killing”, shfarosje, which means literally “kinship uprooting”.

Returning to a paraphrased Lévi-Strauss’s terminology from The Raw and The Cooked (Lévi-Strauss 1964), the unspeakable political effectiveness of mass rapes is forwarded to account not just for a “raw” madness of cultural norms and values. It is mainly the twist of a “cooked” evil of ideological agency acting as an instrumental politics of ethnic cleansing during ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia. The cultural activism of family honor and blood ideology makes it possible afterwards for family norms and values to be converted into ethnic-religious ideology, for ethnicity to be converted into nationalist consciousness, for this consciousness to become organized into conflict, and for organized nationalism to become militarist, masculinist, misogynist, racist, and violent.

Identity Politics

The requirement of an operating condition that in the study of myth is expressed as a boundary condition in mathematical sense may be of particular interest for the study of identity transformations, in the comparative analysis of transformations resulting from intercultural dynamics, especially in processes of identity construction and identity politics. This brings to my last case, that is, my research proposal on the morphodynamics of European identity transformations that I intend to develop during my stay at Harvard as a CES visiting scholar, and which aims at reinvigorating neo-structural constructivism to turn the focus towards profoundly political implications.

Social relations are often weird and counterintuitive. Especially in the identity field, discursive practices do not always have definite ontological properties. They often appear to be entangled in strange combinations of seemingly incompatible states of either societal, ethnic-religious and national-populist, or civic and normative characteristics. In this sense, identity ontologies can be compared to the seemingly mysterious state of particles that in quantum mechanics is called superposition.

Both M.I.T. and French physicists are conducting real-life tests of whether quantum particles truly exist in superposition states. I assume that a comparable quantum connection to be tested may also exist in the identity field between seemingly opposed and incompatible identity ideas, values and motivations. The main assumption is that identity transformations are affected by seemingly opposite cultural ideologies that are in inverse relationship to one another and act as political instruments of power and hegemony.

On empirical level, I assume that European integration is never complete and unstable relations subsist between civic ideas and societal motivations. In term of research design, logical processes and political tensions must be explored in relation to identity shifting at societal, ethnic-religious, regional-national and supranational levels. In many situations, discursive practices are not necessarily positioned to provide a particular identity meaning, as the observer in social research, just as in quantum mechanics, influence what they observe. This only becomes clear once we look what they mean. Incompatible identities may become deeply connected as their properties match in opposition to one another when they are observed and mapped.

Here it is important that the distinction between indexical terms and functional values of the identity field is conceptualized topologically as relational, not substantial. This means that relative positions of identity indexes, kinds, agents, units, and ontologies are determined by a structured set of power relations and group identities that achieve their own transformations through identity politics. Actually, whatever its properties, any identity is only applicable in reference to an otherness and can only be realized on the boundary of one in contact or confrontation with, or in contrast to the other.

In this sense, civic ideas and ethnic motivations appear to exist in a quantum superposition state and possess multiple conflicting meanings at once. If they are entangled in this way, like in quantum mechanics, I predict that when the cultural position of ethnic motivations is revealed, both civic and ethnic identities will fall into exact opposed positions of instrumental ideologies. Here I assume that the identity field is again comparable with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, given that the more exactly the cultural position of identity values and aims is determined, the less exactly the identity momentum of policy outcomes can be known. Indeed, the wave-particle duality in quantum physics might be thought as the multiplex interaction in the identity field between civic ideas and ethnic motivations.

On conceptual level, I assume that this instability reveals an apparent risk of discursive activation of hidden instrumental politics and ideological agency that could promote Ethnicization of European values and unsuspected outcomes of public policies. A neo-structural model of the identity field is expected to capture it, based on the evolution rules of canonical transformations defined by Lévi-Strauss and the concept of political field borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu. In Bourdieu’s field theory, power relations are reframed as lines of forces in an electromagnetic field and social space as a multiplicity of relatively autonomous fields. In the European identity field, the dynamics of interactions shows that discursive practices support or reject modalities of belonging that conform to public logics, which are instrumentally used to affect identity building and transformation.

While potential political tensions in the reproduction of identity field restrict or encourage boundary crossing, I assume that any transgression generates a hysteresis effect, which is mathematically calculable in electromagnetic and other fields, and which can explain identity politics as a system of identities depending on the history of their own transformations. Further logical-mathematical reformulations of Lévi-Strauss’s methodology can provide logical formalization of transformational regularities in concrete situations of identity field, which may allow taking hold of a “generative engine” of identities based on their own transformations.

This would mean, for example, that the double sequence of doing good to your natives and doing harm to foreigners is complemented by another double sequence of doing harm to natives as if you were doing good to strangers already ignored and inexistent [F(g)n:F(h)e::F(h)n:F(g)e‑1]. This may seem to be weird but it’s what happens more often than not, especially with public policies twisted by populist arguments.

Mapping the interaction between identity terms and functions onto permutational relations between identity indexes, functions, kinds, agents, units, ontologies and ideologies also reflect their positions in the identity field, while reformulating their topological relationship in canonical way will demonstrate how identity transformations can be captured and instrumental agency behind identity politics can be revealed. For example, computer simulations of the normative function [F(n)] of civic identity (Ci) will be confronted to the societal, ethnic-religious, nationalist/populist/fundamentalist function [F(e)] of cultural identities (Cu).

Ideally, this confrontation is supposed to bring the transformation of cultural identity into normative functional identity [F(n)Cu]. Yet, canonical formulation F(n)Ci:F(e)Cu::F(n)Cu:F(Ci)e‑1 also demonstrates whether normative function of civic identity [F(Ci)] is transformed into ambivalent agency, as political factions or societal groups could characterize a hidden unsuspected European identity (e‑1), or the “ethnicity” of an upside down Europe. Remember that in the structural study of myth an additional operating condition is required as a boundary condition in both empirical and mathematical sense. In the identity field, this validation requirement must lead us to search for hidden instrumental agencies of identity politics and ideology that could constrain identity transformation in one or another direction.

Finally, narrative references of indexical terms and functional values in coded categories of identity discursive practices and modelling validations of their sub-literal meanings provide precise indications to hidden realities that characterize empirical situations of either Ethnicization of sociocultural relations or Europeanization of societal, ethnic-religious, regional-national values. The target is to deliver a computational model to conceptualize and recursively map the determinants of civic solidarity and intercultural attitudes, which allow developing a policy instrument to assess how core values and identity transformations evolve as boundary conditions of European integration, social cohesion and intercultural dynamics.

On methodological level, which remains still the most underdeveloped part and beside collaboration with colleagues from Europe, I hope to develop this research project in collaboration with potentially interested Harvard faculty, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians. We need a heavy infrastructure design of computational models and protocols based on Bayesian inference, DEVS formalism, and construction of systemic numeric references to identity discursive practices. In practical terms, we explore the role of metaphoric and dichotomous aspects of discursive practices and the functional relationships they suggest in identity categorization. Functional shifts are assumed depending on whether the same metaphors of gender/kinship and building/construction are used as indexical terms of identity expression or as instrumental functions of identity politics.

The differential discontinuity between indexical terms and functional values in the identity field is a logic of dichotomization and permutation in metaphorical and metonymic series. Open series of antithetical pairs of identity indexes, kinds, agents, units, and ontologies, and the permutation of their indexical and functional values, are available to any agent across identity field to be pinned conspicuously on identity kinds of various reference units, be they individuals, societal groups, nation states, institutions, organizations. We identify non-exhaustive series of ontological assumptions of identity objectified in terms of indexical evidence referring to supposed origin, common cultural heritage, collective memory, language, religion, social/legal norms, institutional/political system, media, citizenship, sovereignty, or federation of the identity unit under consideration.

They allow configuring metaphorical/metonymic permutations of discursive practices that force instrumental functions of identity building to compel identity transformations. We assume that such functional values as recognition, socialization, distribution, diffusion, participation, persuasion, emulation, manipulation, imposition, discrimination, claim or contestation relate to actors’ ontological assumptions and motivations, thus identifying the subjective agency of underlying identity politics.

Computer-assisted textual analysis and agentive algorithms of discursive surveys will disaggregate literal meanings of narrative texts into multiple descriptors that make up and objectify indexical terms of identity expression and their functional values in identity politics. Their coding in sub-literal numeric references to indexical terms of characteristics, performances and affiliations, will create multiple datasets to map: 1) the distribution of identity situations and relations into constructed categories according to their function values of either common refuges of close belonging or separate clusters of open inclusiveness; 2) the presence or absence of indexical terms of behavioral components, convictions and attitudes related to corresponding function values of identity politics; 3) the permutation of indexical terms into functional values and vice-versa; 4) the identification of factors affecting such distributions and permutations with respect to sociocultural and political order.

Contact details:


Asch, Michael (2005) “Lévi-Strauss and the Political: the Elementary Structures of Kinship and the resolution of relations between indigenous peoples and settler states.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 425–444. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2005.00244.x.

Constable, Nicole (2009) “The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex, and Reproductive Labor.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 49–64. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085133.

Desveaux, Emmanuel (2001) Quadratura Americana: essai d’anthropologie lévi-straussienne, Genève: Georg Editeur.

Doja, Albert (2006a) “The kind of writing: anthropology and the rhetorical reproduction of post-modernism.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 157–180. doi:10.1177/0308275X06064993.

Doja, Albert (2006b) “The predicament of heroic anthropology.” Anthropology Today, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 18–22. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8322.2006.00439.x.

Doja, Albert (2007) “Creative misreading and bricolage writing: A structural appraisal of a poststructuralist debate.” Portuguese Review of the History of the Book, vol. 11, no. 22, pp. 89–104.

Doja, Albert (2008) “Claude Lévi-Strauss at his Centennial: toward a future anthropology.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 25, no. 7-8, pp. 321–340. doi:10.1177/0263276408097810.

Doja, Albert (2010a) “Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009): The apotheosis of heroic anthropology.” Anthropology Today, vol. 26, no. 5, pp. 18–23. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8322.2010.00758.x.

Doja, Albert (2010b) “Fertility trends, marriage patterns and savant typologies in Albanian context.” Journal of Family History, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 346–367. doi:10.1177/0363199010381045.

Doja, Albert (2013) Invitation au terrain: Mémoire personnel de la construction du projet socio-anthropologique, Bruxelles: Peter Lang. doi:10.3726/978-3-0352-6299-5.

Doja, Albert (2016) “Raw madness and cooked evil: the unspeakable politics of mass rapes as an instrument of ethnic cleansing.” Paper presented at the International Conference War and Sexual Violence. Graduate Center, City University of New York, 28-29 April 2016, Video at

Kaser, Karl (2008) Patriarchy after patriarchy: gender relations in Turkey and in the Balkans, 1500-2000, Berlin/London: LIT-Verlag.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1955) “La structure des mythes”, In Anthropologie structurale, Paris: Plon, pp. 227–255, Reprint 1958. [English translation “The Structural Study of Myth”, Structural Anthropology, pp. 206-230. New York: Basic Books, 1963].

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1964) Le Cru et le Cuit, Paris: Plon, Mythologiques, Vol. 1. [English translation by John and Doreen Weightman (1969) The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (New York: Harper & Row)].

Maranda, Pierre ed. (2001) The Double Twist: from ethnography to morphodynamics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Marchart, Oliver (2008) “Ungesellschaftliche Gesellschaftlichkeit: Exklusion und Antagonismus bei Lévi-Strauss, unter Berücksichtigung von Lacan, Laclau und Luhmann.” Soziale Systeme: Zeitschrift für Soziologische Theorie vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 370–396.

Minsky, Marvin (1986) The society of mind, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Petitot, Jean (1988) “Approche morphodynamique de la formule canonique du mythe.” L’Homme: Revue Française d’Anthropologie, vol. 28, no. 106-107, pp. 24–50.

Scubla, Lucien (1998) Lire Lévi-Strauss: Le déploiement d’une intuition, Paris: Odile Jacob.

Sontag, Susan (1963) “The anthropologist as hero”, In Claude Lévi-Strauss: the anthropologist as hero, edited by Nelson E. Hayes and Tanya Hayes, Cambridge: MIT Press, Reprint 1970.

Wiseman, Boris ed. (2009) The Cambridge Companion to Lévi-Strauss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Anderson College,

Riggio, Adam. “The Complexity of Rights, Claims, and Social Reality.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 17-24.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image from Surian Soosay, Flickr / Creative Commons


I have not often thrown myself into the ring of a long-running chain of replies that began in Social Epistemology. My own research specialties fit into the conceptual boundaries of social epistemology – the social and cultural aspects of knowledge production are central to my work – but not always in its disciplinary boundaries. As such, the specific literature from which a debate flows will not be familiar enough to me that I could add something genuinely valuable to a conversation.

That said, on seeing the exchange between J. Angelo Corlett and Gregory Lobo reignite, I realized that I could contribute a worthwhile comment. At least, I hope it will be worthwhile. My reply will have two steps. First, I wish to indicate the limits of the field of Corlett and Lobo’s debate. What social phenomena would their ontologies best describe?

In the recent exchange earlier this year, their most obvious difference was the most important for philosophers: over the proper domain to put these ideas into practice. After that comes the most critically-minded element of my reply, asking whether the concepts that Corlett and Lobo have discussed in their exchange can be put to practical use on their own. If not, what additional concepts or ideas would their social ontologies need to be put to work, as all political and moral philosophies must ultimately do.

What Is Society Made Of?

A social ontology is a philosophical account of what are the component constituents of social and political institutions and objects. Examples of institutions are governments, international treaties, and courts. Examples of objects are moral and ethical principles, and most importantly for the current essay, human rights. Working with these examples as the central models for our understanding of what social ontology is and is for, one can see the explanatory purposes of any particular social ontology. Such purpose is, regarding institutions, understanding how they appear and what powers they manifest in everyday human life. Regarding objects, such purpose is understanding what they actually are, how they exist in a fundamental form.

It is relatively easy to understand the existence of our institutions because we can visit courts and parliaments, watch summits and international meetings on television, read the texts of treaties. The ontological challenge regarding institutions is understanding their power over people. What enables the recognition of a law court, for example, as an authority over those people falling under what its rules define as its jurisdiction. Whether an institution like a court is something to which you owe your fealty or your defiance, a social ontology would identify what aspects or components of that court would prompt strong attitudes, what would make indifference to it impossible.

The matter of objects is more challenging for a simple empirical reason. Institutions are themselves obviously material – I can walk into the Supreme Court of my country Canada, tour the facilities, read its judgments, meet the judges. However, while I can read human rights laws and declarations, listen to speeches and discussions about human rights, and study philosophical and theoretical texts about human rights, I cannot perceive the right itself. As an object of social ontology, a human right does not itself inhere in any particular matter. It can be discussed and understood, but never perceived.

None of these challenges are at all challenging from any perspective except for the one I would call reductive materialist. To be a materialist is to believe that all of reality is ultimately constituted from particles and fields of force, or perhaps only fields of force. Very generally speaking, this is what you could call me. Where a materialist differs specifically from a reductive materialist is that a person who deserves the latter description puts strict limits on the creative power of emergent processes, what systems can develop from dynamic relations among components, and how different those new systems can be from their components. A materialist need never be so harsh as to doubt, suspect, or oppose the power or existence of emergent processes, though some are.

The Emergence of Human Society, Morality, Rights, and Life

When developing an ontology of the social, the amount of creation by emergence you are willing to accept or tolerate is directly related to how many difficulties your philosophical investigation will encounter, and how intense those difficulties are. If emergence processes give you no serious concern other than to observe and understand how they work, then your investigation will discover and construct an ontology of the social with little stress or consternation. For those who, for whatever reasons, are doubtful or suspicious of emergence, their conceptual struggles will receive no sympathy or pity from me. It does not suit to make life or philosophy more difficult than it needs to be, because it will keep you from finding the truths you want to discover.

A better question to ask when developing the fundamental principles of a social ontology is what physical processes produce social objects and institutions as emergent properties. On the face of it, this would appear to be a very different question than the matter at the centre of Corlett and Lobo’s exchange. Their essays revolve around how to identify and what could be that which facilitates the recognition of others’ human rights.

Another way to phrase that question is to ask what it takes for someone to qualify as human, and so deserving of rights. The object of their inquiries is the same as that explored by Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib in their pioneering works in human rights theory, what constitutes a person’s right to claim rights. Human rights theory is a discourse grounded in the moral and political domain of philosophical thinking. So building a social ontology of human rights requires identifying a process through which moral discourses and imperatives emerge from the physical.

Where you look for these processes depends on your ontological comfort level with emergence. If you give yourself a philosophical imperative to minimize the productive power of emergence in your ontology, you will look for the shortest conceivable path from the physical, assemblages of particles and fields of force, to human rights themselves. An institutional view on the ontology of human rights, speaking very broadly, takes them to be constituted through laws and organizations that codify and uphold law. Examples include international treaties like UDHR or UNDRIP, the International Criminal Court, and the different domestic legislatures, state constitutions, and police forces that codify and enforce human rights through their laws.

Yet this need not be sufficient, since human rights in themselves do not appear in these institutions. They are the objects of discussion in all these laws, treaties, arguments, and rules, but they are present only in the intentions of the actors involved, legislators, lawyers, police, judges, and so on.

The Power of Intentionality

This is why group and individual intentions can function well as a foundation for a social ontology of human rights. Human rights, along with all the other objects and institutions of social existence, would emerge from a common substrate of individual and group intentions and intentionality. Such is the legacy of John Searle’s social ontology of intentionality.

Lobo was correct to identify that Searle made an important observation about the importance of intentional stances in constituting a society where respect for any particular set of human rights (or even just its possibility condition, the right to claim rights and have those claims discussed fairly) is a universal, or at least a widespread belief. As Lobo put it in one of his recent articles at the Reply Collective, human rights only become effective in a society’s political morality when individuals and groups within that society form the intentions to recognize rights and rights claims.

The epistemology of such a notion is particularly interesting, coming from Searle, given his home sub-discipline of philosophy where rational argument is so highly prized in professional discourse. It is to Searle’s credit that he has arrived at the conclusion that rational argument alone is not enough to compel recognition of a human rights claim. This is the point Lobo eloquently makes with his description of the story of Mr. Saifullah, a Rohingya refugee from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, living as an illegal alien in Pakistan.

A human rights claimant like Saifullah does not make demands on the people and legal institutions to recognize his rights claims as legitimate. He must supplicate himself to the authorities of various state and legal institutions around the world for them to recognize his rights. A rational argument in favour of his having rights will not be enough to justify his receiving them, no matter the logical validity of his argument or the truth of his argument’s premises.

You Need to Recognize

Recognition is a matter of intention. I, or preferably for Saifullah someone whose institutional office has the material power to help him, must have an intentional attitude toward him that recognizes his right to claim rights. At the moment of his interview, no one with such material power such as Myanmar’s government or Pakistan’s immigration authority had such an attitude. No one in a position to give him citizenship rights or even material aid recognized Saifullah as a legal immigrant or a refugee.

The intentional stance that those with material power over Saifullah take toward him is as an illegal alien; given such intentions, his claims are not recognized. If his claims for rights are not recognized, then neither is his humanity. He is ejected not only from the communities of Pakistanis or Burmese, but the community of humanity itself. I remain skeptical that an ontology of society that centres on group intentionality alone can understand the nature of this recognition and its refusal, for reasons that will become clear through the rest of this essay.

Despite Lobo’s intentions to defend Searle’s account of intentionality as the bedrock of the recognition of human rights, the account still comes up empty. Just as there is nothing about a rational argument that compels our accord, there is nothing about a rights claim, no matter how wretched the condition of the claimant, that compels an intentional stance of recognition. The case of Saifullah and the millions upon millions others like him in global human civilization and history demonstrates that a social ontology of individual and group intentionality alone is insufficient to ground human rights as a true universal.

Saifullah’s intentional attitude of claiming his rights cannot compel Pakistani government officials, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, or State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to change their intentional attitudes towards him to recognize his claims as legitimate. No matter the pleas of victims, their group intentionality of claiming human rights cannot compel their enemies to change their own group intentionality of destroying them.

The screams and pleas of his victims in the fields of Srebrenica did not change Ratko Mladic’s intentional attitudes toward them, just as his conviction on genocide charges did not change the group intentionality of the communities who continue to venerate Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, and the wider Serbian nationalist movement. The same goes for all genocidaires and mass murderers throughout human history.

The Limits of Intentionality as an Ontological Foundation

This entire discussion, stretching back to mid-2016 on the Reply Collective, of the relationship between a social ontology of group intentionality and human rights, began with a discussion in review of Raimo Tuomela’s book Social Ontology. At first, Tuomela and Searle are quite successful in building a social ontology to understand the powers of group intentionality to shape larger social and institutional structures. However, I consider Tuomela’s project ultimately superior to Searle’s approach for a reason that could best be described as Tuomela’s humility. Tuomela frames his inquiry as an investigation of how group intentionality fits into a more complex ontology of the social. Social existence, as Tuomela describes it, is a complex phenomenon that includes group intentionality as one important constituent.

Searle’s social ontology is simultaneously more reductive and less humble than Tuomela’s, despite the American’s relative fame and prestige. One cannot understand human rights ontologically without understanding how the dynamics of group intentionality can encourage or discourage the recognition of a particular person’s or community’s claim to some human right or rights. But group and individual intentionality is not sufficient for a complete understanding of the existence of all social structures, including institutions like governments and laws, as well as social objects like rights and community beliefs about morality. Tuomela recognizes this insufficiency from the start of his book, and limits the scope of his inquiry accordingly.

Searle, however, takes group intentionality to be entirely sufficient for the bedrock of an ontology of the social, kneecapping his investigation from the first step. The roots of this error, as well as his inability to recognize this error in his reasoning, lie in the core principles by which Searle has guided his career and work as a philosopher for decades. The sociologist Neil Gross published a scathing and insightful critique of Searle’s late-career turn to social and political theory, which explains these profound errors in very digestible and clear terms.

Gross’ critique of Searle begins with a simple observation. When Searle’s first major book on social theory, The Construction of Social Reality, appeared, one of the first and most common critical comments it received from the sociological community was that his theories were very similar to those of Émile Durkheim. Essentially, the sociological community received Searle’s work as achieving the same insights as Durkheim did, but with a theoretical vocabulary better suited to the approaches of North American analytic philosophy, Searle’s own intellectual milieu.

Catching Up to History

Durkheim was one of the major founding theorists and researchers of the modern discipline of sociology, but this critique was not complimentary to Searle or his theory. Durkheim is historically important to contemporary social theory, but theoretically and philosophically, he has been utterly surpassed. Durkheim and Searle articulate an entirely reductive materialist approach to the ontology of the social, rooting social processes in individual, group, and community psychology.

Durkheim’s priorities in doing so were shaped by his historical context. He had an imperative to convince a skeptical intellectual establishment that sociology could be a science at all, so had to shape his theories to the extremely reductive ontological presuppositions of the scientific community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Searle, however, admitted that he did not bother to research any of this history in any great detail when he was first developing his ontology of the social. Searle’s response to his first critics in this regard was that colleagues more familiar with the history of social theory pointed him to Durkheim as a possible forerunner of his ideas, but he explored little of this older work, having found Durkheim’s writing style difficult and obscure.

Gross explains that the features of Durkheim’s style which a contemporary American researcher would find difficult are rooted in the historical context of the time. So familiarity with his intellectual community’s nature and priorities would help someone understand his concepts, and why he wrote as he did. Searle instead dismissed Durkheim as too obscure, and possibly obscurantist, so ignored him as he developed his own theory.

However, if Searle has progressed his theory’s sophistication beyond that of Durkheim, this does not mean that his work is especially relevant to contemporary social thinking. Understanding that attitudes of mutual recognition is the foundation of inclusion in human community and the validity of human rights claims merely means that Searle has caught up to the insights of Max Weber and Karl Marx. If you want to be especially mean-spirited, you could say that Searle has only just caught up to Hegel. An enormous, complex, and vibrant tradition of theoretical development and empirical research that has continued for more than a century and is still living goes largely unremarked in Searle’s recent social and political theory. So the last task of this essay is understand why.

You Need to Recognize (Slight Return)

Understanding why Searle dismisses such a massive and complex heritage in 21st century social and human rights theory shows how inadequate conceptions of group intentionality are for a genuinely comprehensive ontology of the social. The theoretical machinery and toolboxes that Searle ignores, as Gross made clear in his remarks on Searle’s general ontology of the social, are those rooted in hermeneutic and structuralist philosophy.

Sociology as a science was able to move beyond the reductive materialism of Durkheim and the destructive influence of behaviourist psychology by folding into its practice and theory core ideas from hermeneutics as well as the structuralist and post-structuralist lines of descent. These theoretical approaches understand the common beliefs of groups and cultures as more than shared intentions. They describe how social institutions, structures, and objects, as well as cultural mores, mythic narratives, and historical consciousness come to exist as emergence from more straightforward group, community, and economic dynamics.

Emergence, whether of specific properties of a system or of wholly new bodies and systems themselves, is a material process, as material as fundamental particles and fields of force, as material as group and individual intentionality through purposive action in the world. Emergent systems, bodies, and properties are real because their constituents are the relations among their components, the dynamic fluctuations of these relationships.

The interaction of complex activities constitute wholly new bodies and processes at macroscopic scales to those component dynamics. Emergence as described is an essential concept in sociology, but also in what the common expression calls hard sciences such as cell biology. In cellular biology, the structures and constituent processes of the cell emerge from metabolic and protein chemistry. Once constituting a cellular system, the system as a whole becomes capable of activities and processes that are impossible for those component processes and elements alone. As well, the systematic processes of the cell affect the activities of their components as individuals.

In sociology, all the complex objects and institutions of culture emerge from individual and group actions and communications. Cultural systems are capable of activities and processes that are impossible for those constituents, such as identity creation processes based on tacit knowledge and habit, influenced by the structures and content of communications media, social institutions, and socialization processes. These cultural processes then influence and affect their components, a complex feedback process that is irreducible to the psychological or intentional attitudes of individual people.

Being emergent and producing such detailed feedback mechanisms to their components, their activities cannot be reduced to those of their components. They begin instead through the relations among components of the system. One may be tempted, in the name of simplifying theory, to reduce these emergent processes and systems to the activities of their components. But such a simple theory is not adequate to the real complexity of a world that includes processes that emerge from dynamic relations.


Searle’s social ontology attempts to build the entire social world from aggregates of individual and group intentions. Such an ontology avoids the differences in kind that arise in systems of dynamic relationships among components. Searle has created an ontology of the social that need rely on no emergent processes, an ontology of the social that pushes aside almost all of modern social theory, social theory that is based on principles of emergence. The component processes and dynamics of those emergence that are peculiarly social were all described in sub-disciplines that developed from or in dialogue with hermeneutic and structuralist theory.

Searle, since his famous confrontation with Jacques Derrida, has dismissed these cultural fields of study and theory as empty charlatanism. The fact often goes unspoken, but to understand why Searle built such a reductionist social ontology in his 21st century work, it should at least be considered a contributing factor. Searle’s influence in much of North American philosophy during the 1970s and 1980s lent his dismissive attitude an undue weight and contributed to marginalizing the core concepts of the cultural studies fields away from disciplines and departments where his prestige was waxing.

Yet the disciplines of knowledge of which Searle encouraged a continent-wide exorcism supplied all the key concepts and theories needed to understand emergent cultural processes. By dismissing such theories, Searle closed off his own philosophical thinking from the concepts that have become the bedrock of the last century of social theory, whether from cultural, political, media and communications, or sociological disciplines. Tuomela’s ontology of group intentions, where this long dialogue began, was sufficiently humble and open-minded that it had always been pitched as being about a particular component of the social.

Searle, refusing after decades to grant any validity to the fields he once dismissed, has crafted a theory of the same phenomena, but which is hobbled by its hubris in attempting a theoretical task for which it is inadequate. If the theory turns out to be inadequate, any practice flowing from such a theory will sadly be so as well.

Contact details:


Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “On Searle on Human Rights, Again!” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 41-46.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Corlett, J. Angelo, and Julia Lyons Strobel. “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 557-571.

D’Amico, Robert. “Reply to Corlett’s ‘Searle on Human Rights’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 30-36.

Gross, Neil. “Comment on Searle.” Anthropological Theory 6, no. 1. (2006): 45-56.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

Morowitz, Harold J. The Emergence of Everything. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Searle, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Tuomela, Raimo. Social Ontology: Collective Intentionality and Group Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Tuomela, Raimo. “The Limits of Groups: An Author Replies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 28-33.