Thanks to Lee Jarvis for this point.
In Defence of Pluralism in the Teaching of Ontology and Epistemology
Article first published online: 29 AUG 2007
Volume 27, Issue 3, pages 208–211, October 2007
How to Cite
Bates, S. and Jenkins, L. (2007), In Defence of Pluralism in the Teaching of Ontology and Epistemology. Politics, 27: 208–211. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9256.2007.00302.x
- Issue published online: 29 AUG 2007
- Article first published online: 29 AUG 2007
We are really pleased to have received two thought-provoking responses, as our professed hope was to open up debate on the pedagogical strategies surrounding meta-theory. In this reply, we wish to clarify our position, as well as respond to the issues raised by Colin Hay, David Marsh and Paul Furlong: namely, our apparent defensiveness; the definitions employed; and gatekeeping.
Our central criticism in the original article was that Hay, Marsh and Furlong prescribe a directionality between ontology and epistemology without fully acknowledging its contestability and the presence of alternatives. This, we suggested, was pedagogically problematic, as the decision concerning the relationship between ontology and epistemology is removed from the student and restricts the knowledge upon which students can draw.
We were careful not to introduce our own positions on the directional relationship, or criticise the validity of the position adopted by Hay, Marsh and Furlong, as we did not want to reinforce the orthodoxy, or merely replace one view with another. Nowhere do we state that the perspective that ontology is prior to epistemology is wrong; we merely wanted to note that not everybody agrees with this. Consequently, we advocated greater reflexivity and plurality in the teaching of meta-theory by highlighting the ‘competing perspectives surrounding the directional relationship between ontology and epistemology, in addition to acknowledging the competing positions within meta-theory’ (Bates and Jenkins, 2007, pp. 61–62). As such, we do not, as Marsh and Furlong claim, take a post-structuralist position. Indeed, Bates is not a post-structuralist; critical realism underpins his work (see, for example, Bates, 2006) and he is strongly committed to the directionality that Hay, Marsh and Furlong espouse. However, in agreement with Jenkins, he does not wish to impose this directionality on to students by not drawing attention to the plurality of opinions in this area. Instead, we wish to allow students the possibility of making up their own minds on this question, as part of the broader enterprise of deciding, defining and refining what kind of political scientist they are.
What is wrong with being defensive?
Marsh, Furlong and Hay claim that we are too defensive with respect to the benefits of ontological and epistemological reflection. We would not wish our article to be read in this way, as our intention was to highlight the additional pedagogical advantages of introducing meta-theoretical material. We did not mean to suggest that the pedagogic benefits were the only or primary benefits on offer, or that they constituted the sole reason for their place on political science courses. Indeed, we state that learning about ontology and epistemology is important, as ‘it helps students to appraise, differentiate and choose between competing philosophies, theories and analytical traditions’ (Bates and Jenkins, 2007, p. 55). This, we feel, is not far from Hay's defence of the direct virtues of meta-theory.
Unlike Hay, we struggle to see how the ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ benefits can be so easily compartmentalised. We believe that one implies the other; it is only through reflexive learning, which meta-theoretical reflection fosters, that students can be capable fully of ‘articulating and defending a perspective in political analysis’. If we continue to ignore the variety of perspectives on the relationship between ontology and epistemology, we paradoxically hamper reflexive learning processes. Indeed, the potential implication of Hay's position is a return to surface learning in which students rote learn the ontological and epistemological premises of, and differences between, contending theoretical and analytical traditions, rather than understanding and appreciating what these premises and differences entail.1
Continuing definitional problems
Marsh and Furlong's attempts to justify their employment of ‘foundationalism’ and ‘anti-foundationalism’2 and their characterisation of realism as an epistemological position confuse further, rather than clarify, their position. ‘Foundationalism’ denotes foundations for something and when the term is utilised, this overwhelmingly refers to knowledge. Therefore, we maintain that it should be used as an epistemological term. Marsh and Furlong justify their unconventional usage by stating that other terminology has more serious problems. Yet, the problems they identify have less to do with the muddying of pedagogical waters, which results from utilising other terminology, and more to do with their confusion over realism.
Their dismissal of using the terms ‘realism’ and ‘constructivism’ is premised on their conflation of ontological realism and epistemological realism. Their epistemological question concerning knowledge of deep structures rests upon, and is therefore secondary to, the acceptance of a realist ontology. Marsh and Furlong appear to consent to this and, therefore, we fail to see the problem with labelling ontological positions ‘realist’, so long as we are clear that we are referring to ontology and not epistemology. Only referring to realism in epistemological terms is more confusing than this differentiation between ontological and epistemological variants, as realism is not, as they claim, ‘clearly associated’ with only epistemology in the social sciences (see, for example, Baert, 2005; Fay, 1996). Indeed, critical realists, which elsewhere Marsh labels himself as, would clearly and explicitly relate realism to ontology. This emphasis on realist epistemology appears peculiar given that Marsh and Furlong insist ontology is prior and are happy to rest on Hay's argument here.
What appears to have most disgruntled Hay, Marsh and Furlong is that they could be perceived as intellectual gatekeepers. On reflection, we should have stated clearly that all teachers are gatekeepers to some extent and that intellectual gatekeeping does not mean indoctrination and domination. As teachers, we define, rather than confine, the parameters of knowledge upon which students draw. Gatekeeping is something we should remain sensitive to and move to minimise, rather than being something which we reject or can eradicate. Despite Hay, Marsh and Furlong's success at exposing gatekeeping elsewhere, the lack of recognition of the contested relationship between ontology and epistemology needed to be highlighted.
While Hay does explicitly outline his position and points towards alternatives elsewhere, it is arguably the case that this is presented, and may appear solely, as a logical explanation, rather than a justification for a choice among contending positions. Alternative positions are not engaged with at a sustained level within the introductory material. Judging the legitimacy and logic of Hay, Marsh and Furlong's position is rendered more difficult by this relative silence on the matter.
Hay also points to the lack of sustained alternatives, but this suggestion relies on the standards of the author to make that judgement and, therefore, closes off this possibility to students. Alternative perspectives may be weakly articulated, but they still exist and students should have the opportunity to appraise the (de)merits of the irreconcilable positions. An engagement with this debate and the highlighting of any inarticulacy may result in students putting forward more robust justifications for the positions they adopt. Political Analysis (Hay, 2002) and Theory and Methods and Political Science (Marsh and Stoker, 2002) are two of the primary texts upon which students draw and, rightly or wrongly, students tend to internalise, perhaps instrumentally, Hay, Marsh and Furlong's positions as given.
The final point to address is Hay's question as to how alternative traditions, and, in particular, postmodernism and post-structuralism, are distorted by maintaining the position that ontology is prior to epistemology. Hay contends that he does not detect ‘in post-structuralism the notion that epistemology precedes ontology’ (Hay, 2007, p. 117). However, the arguably more pressing issue concerns whether it is possible to detect in post-structuralism the notion that ontology precedes epistemology. While Hay may remain convinced of this possibility and does provide persuasive arguments, we are not convinced that all post-structuralists would agree. For instance, in the Dixon and Jones quotation, ontology is conceptualised as already theoretic; ontology can only be understood in the context of someone holding beliefs. As Roger Trigg suggests, ‘ontology has become dependent on epistemology. What there “is” is seen as the product of our strategies for finding things out’ (Trigg, 2001, p. 24).
For others, if ontology is ultimately prior, it must be capable of being grounded immanently. Heidegger and Derrida address the ‘failure’ of onto-theology to establish satisfactorily the ground of being. They are less concerned with the nature of being and more concerned with how being is constituted. By making the claim that Western philosophy has consistently privileged that which is, Heidegger investigated the possibility for being, through interpreting the meaning of the being that determines entities as beings. Derrida also asks about the principle by which metaphysics is established. He attempts to show how impossible it is to draw a line between reality and representation, as metaphysics has to reach beyond itself ‘to account for the origins or point of determination of their theoretical systems’ (Finlayson and Valentine, 2002, p. 12). This form of post-structuralism considers how metaphysics can be pronounced ‘undecidable’ by demonstrating that it is based on a contradiction; it cannot account for its constitution in its own terms. It could be argued that such inquiries are informed by a ‘limited’ ontology, but by asking questions such as ‘how is it that certain things come about and are held to exist?’, they depart from providing an answer to Hay's question: ‘what exists that we might acquire knowledge of?’.
The logic of these positions may be problematic and the arguments could be criticised. However, introducing certain analytical traditions by reference to their ‘primary’ ontological predicates does not always seem to capture adequately the spirit of perspectives, which candidly profess to take, or are motivated by, an alternative mode of inquiry and which may not endorse the categories that Hay employs. It is in this way that Hay's insistence that ontology precedes epistemology may distort students' understanding of these perspectives.
Hay's and Marsh and Furlong's introductions to ontology and epistemology have made a valuable contribution to the teaching of political science and deserve to be recognised as such. Yet, neither is without problems. Hopefully, this exchange will open up debate and enable others to contribute to the construction of an even more inclusive pedagogical framework, which allows for a multiplicity of theoretical and analytical perspectives to flourish. If we are to be defensive of anything, it should be towards ensuring this pluralism and openness in the learning process.
In these attempts they refer to Bevir and Rhodes for support. However, Bevir and Rhodes argue, ‘We use an anti-foundational epistemology’ (Bevir and Rhodes, 2003, p. 1, emphasis added). As is usual, anti-foundationalism is not aligned with ontology.
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