REFLEXIVITY AND SOCIAL ONTOLOGY, OR, ON THE COMPETENCE OF THE MENTAL BODY
author: Ina Dimitrova
title: Reflexivity and Social Ontology
Sofia: Critique & Humanism, 2009, pp.240.
In his Letter on Humanism, Heidegger recounts a story told by Aristotle. Strangers come to visit Heraclitus, only to find the famous philosopher warming himself at a stove. Noticing their dismay at his humble appearance, Heraclitus calls to them to come in, with the words, ‘For here too the gods are present.’ The foreign visitors, Heidegger comments, are disappointed and perplexed for they had expected to see the esteemed philosopher in a state of profound meditation, and not in such an everyday and unexciting, obviously non-philosophical, situation. Somebody who is chilled warming himself at a stove – this is something anyone can find any time at home. Such a common place is difficult to associate with a place of philosophical work. Heraclitus, however, tells the strangers, ‘Ηθος άνθρωπφ δαίμων’. Or in Heidegger’s interpretation: ‘The (familiar) [ordi-nary] abode for humans is the open region for the presencing of god (the unfamiliar [extra-ordinary] one).’ Actually, as the Greek phrase indicates and as Heidegger himself notes, the word for (unquestionable everyday) abode or dwelling place is ‘ethos’.
I believe this interpretation of the story about Heraclitus can serve as a motto for Ina Dimitrova’s book Reflexivity and Social Ontology. For one of the important things it tells us is that the ethos/place of philosophical work is not external to the everyday constitution of social objects and to the treatment of those objects as autonomous individuals. There are no ‘real essences’ outside of this field, just as there are no ‘privileged modes’ of knowledge. However, what may follow from this (as contemporary social sciences and philosophy constantly demonstrate) is a kind of epistemological multiculturalism – in the sense of (an often implicitly but also uncritically) postulated equal validity of different, and in many cases incommensurable, theoretical and empirical ‘cultural’ practices, on the one hand, and of the reduction of scientific thinking to merely one of the possible ‘ethnocultures’, on the other. Maintaining the perspective of ‘non-externality’, Ina Dimitrova does not content herself with the deceptive convenience of such a reduction, but wants to understand what lies between ‘the speaking of the social’ and ‘the social itself’ or, as she puts it, ‘what divides them’. The answer the study seeks to justify is: their common history.
Social ontology, objects, are the alienated result of sedimented engagements, ‘speaking of’, ‘saying that’; the interior of the social world at any given moment is the only now visible face of a system of formation and transformation of propositions which is the product of accumulated time. (p.3)
This is a key thesis because it points us to the conditions of possibility of speaking ‘non-reductionistically’ of everyday worlds. A significant element of non-reductionist speech is the interpretation, in harmony with the thesis of non-externality, of the concept of reflexivity, a concept burdened with a highly controversial philosophical history.
The idea of ‘constitutive reflexivity’ defended in Ina Dimitrova’s book meets precisely this condition and is actually closest to the ethnomethodological concept of reflexivity. I would formulate in brief (inevitably oversimplifying) the ethnomethodological understanding of reflexivity as mutual ‘reflection’ (and mutual penetration) of actions and contextual circumstances, which lends stability to everyday actions as skilful-action-in-precisely-this-environment. I am mentioning the ethnomethodological concept of reflexivity because it is the most radical in a pragmatological sense, insofar as it goes beyond the so-called ‘interpretative turn’ (with which the ‘reflexive turn’ seems to be associated above all in the monograph under review). Every interpretation is inevitably associated with meanings that are subject to interpretation, while Harold Garfinkel, in Ethnomethodology’s Program, insists that ethnomethodology has nothing to do with interpretative work because ‘ordinary everyday practices are constitutive of their own reality’ and they are ‘studied in their unmediated details and not as signed enterprises’. And that is so because there is no possibility of any ‘evasion’ or ‘hiding out’ of the always, only, exactly and entirely, members’ work, or in other words, ‘no time out’ for the latter. Any work that deals with members’ work would simply be another temporal structure. An explicit identification with such a concept of reflexivity however would, at the least, double the task of Ina Dimitrova who would have to distinctly mark the different temporal structures: of the everyday reflexivity of participants in ‘social scenes’, on the one hand, and of participants in scientific practice, on the other.
One of the major merits of this book is that it takes seriously the life of scientific cognition as a performative engagement (a series of engagements) with the social world, or in other words, as the positing of social objects in the very process of engagement, and at the same time, as distancing from the already constituted ontology. Of course, every definitive formulation of this type inevitably simplifies the actual content, for the latter unfolds in the form of constant clashes between different points of view where none of them expresses some universal truth. But if I nevertheless take the liberty of articulating the main plot of the book in this way, that is because I want to insistently underline the deficiency of this genre – and, moreover, not only in Bulgaria. Defining an initial discursive field within which dialogues develop and then letting the dialogues themselves to redefine that selfsame field requires both boldness and patience – and, of course, competence. But here by ‘competence’ I mean not merely knowledge of authors and of scientific traditions (which is self-evident in this case) but a specific skill of the ‘mental body’, if I may use such a strange construction – ability of the author to engage with but also to unintentionally distance himself or herself from the object of study, allowing the discursive formations to ‘happen’. This is certainly not just a matter only of skilful orchestration but also of an innate sense of the uncertainty, instability, dynamism, fragility of the scientific worlds and, at the same time, of their experience as massive realities by those involved in them.
Such a style is probably not a deliberately followed perspective but, rather, a ‘feel for the game’, as Pierre Bourdieu would put it. But it becomes possible thanks to the deliberate oscillation between two rigidities: of the orthodox philosophical and the orthodox sociological field. It is precisely this mobility that allows one to keep in mind the ambivalent situation (‘inside/outside’) of the scientific position as well as its complicity in the constant defining and reaffirming of social reality. It is only from such a mobile position that one can make, for example, the following observation:
The uncertainty of the distinction between language and fact or scheme and content has plagued sociology well-nigh from the very beginning. This, precisely, is the ‘spectre’ of reflexivity. But it may be precisely because of this constant presence in different ‘weak’ variants that the social sciences themselves have not reached the point of critical accumulation of theoretical ‘dissatisfaction’ and therefore do not really feel an acute need for thinking through radicalized variants such as is the rejection of the dualism of scheme and content in the field of (post) analytic philosophy. (p.144)
Personally, I very much like such an intellectual style, but I suspect it will look foreign to each of the two above-mentioned fields. As, in fact, it ought to be. For its strength lies in working at the boundaries.
In addition to everything else, Ina Dimitrova’s book makes me nostalgic. It reminds me of the time when – more than twenty-five years ago – we were trying to reinterpret the idea of social reality (and of sociology) through the prism of everyday life in an effort to transcend the boundaries imposed by the official ideology. Some of the protagonists of this book were, to us, thinkers whom we were zealously trying to ‘recruit’ to our cause. That was a time of intense discussion of key concepts in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, Merab Mamardashvili’s non-classical philosophical thought, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological sociology and Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology. I detect in this book a similar sense of excitement at exploring uncharted and unpredictable territory, making progress in shifting sands, discovering unexpected opportunities in seemingly familiar and unexciting domains.
A number of the positions we won step by step back then are now taken for granted by the author of Reflexivity and Social Ontology. And this is only natural. But I also want to give a word of warning: taking conceptual worlds for granted sometimes leads to a ‘merging of horizons’. This is occasionally to be found in Ina Dimitrova’s book too: the complex and heterogeneous positions of some authors are reduced to more or less simplified schemes. Although the ideological self-interpretations of the authors themselves seem to justify such reductions, the genre mentioned above has a much greater stake: to reveal, through the enacted dialogues, the possibilities hidden in the different cognitive universes – beyond the limits and ideological constructions of the single point of view. In fact, the author knows this and demonstrates it in most of her study.
After everything said so far, the reader who does not know Ina Dimitrova will most likely be surprised to learn that this is her debut book. A strong, bold, mature study which, moreover, has all the freshness and appeal of a first book. I believe Ina Dimitrova will not lose the thrill of being a first-time writer and will continue to powerfully develop the competence of her mental body demonstrated in this book.
 See M. Heidegger. Letter on “Humanism”. Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi. In: Martin Heidegger. Pathmarks.
Edited by William McNeill. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998, pp. 269-271.
 Cf. p. 28, where reflexivity is viewed as ‘mutual consitution between descriptions and reality’. However, this understanding, as I will try to show below, needs some important qualifications.
 See H. Garfinkel. Ethnomethodology’s Program. Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Edited and Introduced by Anne Warfield Rawls. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., New York, 2002, p. 8. This is a formulation in other words of the so-called ‘unique adequacy of methods’.
 H. Garfinkel. Respecification: evidence for locally produced, naturally accountable phenomena of order*, logic, reason, meaning, method, etc. in and as of the essential haecceity of immortal ordinary society, (I) – an announcement of studies. In: Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences. Edited by Graham Button. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 11.
- Kolyo Koev
- Ina Dimitrova – Reflexivity and Social Ontology