For a social ontology with a self-reflective knowing subject: towards the articulation of the epistemic criterion of reflexivity
This thesis argues for the idea that there are deep interconnections between the notions of ontology and reflexivity. It starts from the idea that ontological claims are cognitionally prior to epistemological and methodological accounts. It is argued that ontology is of particular importance to social science because the boundary between the substantive and the ontological is less clear than in natural science. Furthermore, because social science is located within its object, society, it is argued that self-referential questions about the epistemic status of every social ontology emerge. In the face of these self-referential questions concerning ontological coherence, the ‘epistemic criterion of reflexivity’ is proposed in this thesis. Meeting this criterion is required to deal successfully with the self-referential problem emerging from the fact that the knowing subject is part of her object. I argue that it is only by conceptualizing agents as self-reflective knowing subjects that an ontology has a chance of satisfying the criterion of epistemic reflexivity which is proposed by this thesis. In Chapters 1 to 3, the works of Roy Bhaskar, Pierre Bourdieu, Jügen Habermas, Alvin Gouldner and Andrew Sayer, as well as of several social constructionists and ethnomethodologists are examined, considering their contribution to the notions of ontology and epistemic reflexivity. It is argued that proponents of both relativistic and deterministic social theories cannot satisfy the criterion of epistemic reflexivity because they cannot coherently account for their knowledge-claims using their own ontologies. I thus argue that it is not enough for a social theory to provide an account of self-reflection – for the wider ontology in which it is situated may itself deny the possibility of such a self-reflective activity. It is in this sense that I argue for the need for an improved conceptualization of self-reflection in which agents are conceptualized as having the capacity of self-objectivation within context. It is through having such a presupposition that ontologies can fulfill the epistemic criterion of reflexivity proposed. The need for such a conceptualization of self-reflection leads me to explore two relevant approaches in Chapters 4 and 5, those of Archer and Castoriadis. I begin by looking at Margaret Archer’s account of the ‘internal conversation’. However, Archer’s internal dialogue will be shown problematic in the sense that it results in various contradictory claims. The thesis then considers Cornelius Castoriadis’ notion of self-reflective imagination which partially meets the epistemic criterion of reflexivity proposed in this thesis.