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  • Writer's pictureDaniel de la Torre

Framing deanthropomorphization in social ontology

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Social ontology is the discipline which occupies of those entities which emerge from shared practices, intentions and valuations in a group of subjects and come to mediate the interactions and relations among those subjects. It seeks to respond to questions such as how is socially significant experience discerned, objectified and rationalized, as well as the relation between agency and social structures. Some instances of social objects can be found in transit regulations, laws, norms and values, which make possible the coordination of actions among a group of subjects.

A deanthropomorphized social object is increasingly detached from those determinations that are indissolubly tied with the particular subject’s reactions to the environment in which the object is instantiated. That means that the preferences, biases, customs and experiences of those subjects whose relations are mediated by that social object become irrelevant for its functioning. In exchange, it operates mostly with formal inputs, recognizing the subjects participating in an interaction as quantitatively determined instances of a kind.

Theorized in late György Lukács’ Ontology of social being, the notion of deanthropomorphization was used to give an account of the emerging development of entities which purpose is to mediate preceding relations, norms and valuations, functioning as a second order social object which supervenes on the local recognition of functional statuses but acquires a certain degree of autonomy with respect to the singularities of the social process which gave it birth. Law, as Csaba Varga has argued, can become a deanthropomorphized social object when its function is the mediation of the inner relations of the formal system of jurisprudence, relegating the solution of the concrete disputes to which the law is applied to a secondary position. Then, a law is a functional social object which mediates other social objects, interested only in the formal aspects of those socialized subjects involved in a procedure but not on the qualitative determinations of the subjects in question.

Since sociality is an ontological strata governed by its own emergent laws, the deanthropomorphization of a social object exhibits the increasingly autonomous properties of this ontological strata and relegates the determinations which concern the previous strata of psychic phenomena, organic life and physical nature (discerned in N. Hartmann’s ontology, which was appropriated by late Lukács) to a secondary place in its functioning.

The process of deanthropomorpgization in social ontology includes the stabilization of emerging properties of social being, as it happens when a behavioral tendency is objectified and incorporated within an administrative system, becoming reified and acquiring a prescriptive character. It aims for a formal objectivity increasingly detached from individual biases. However, it can be formally biased, when the criteria for the objectification of a social object (its form of objectivity, Gegenstandlicheitsform) includes a bias in its design. Andrew Feenberg has explored this kind of formal bias in technology, which can be embodied in the nature or design of an artifact as well as to the values realized through the contextualization of that artifact. Therefore, the deanthropomorphization of a social entity aims for the overcoming of local biases related to its emergence, with the aspiration to abstract those qualities of that social object which can be instantiated In different contexts with similar results, but it can be formally biased when it realizes particular valuations as a consequence of a flawed structure or the inadequacy with the content, composed of social relations, to which it is applied.

In the age of algorithmic governability it becomes clear that a growing number of social interactions become mediated by social objects that separate the formal aspects of the subjects of an interaction, which are computable, from the qualitative determinations which particularize that concrete subjects. The supervening characteristics of social then being seem to belong to different strata than that of biological species, cultures and personal preferences. Another approach to the deanthropomorphization of social ontology could consist in exploring the functioning of social objects which are not limited to human interactions but make possible new forms of socializing with non-human subjects, as it has been proposed in theories of Animal Architecture, which argue for a broader consideration of the ways in which socially mediated objects, like buildings, are utilized by animals. In both cases the social object mediates a broader conception of subject than that of anthropocentrism. It is also important to note that a deanthropomorphized social object does not need to be performatively mantained by a human subject, because a non-human can perform the practices which sustain that social object.

The method for a theorizing of deanthropomorphized social ontology could proceed by the description of already existing social objects, a transcendental approach which questions for the necessary and sufficient conditions for a social object to emerge, or by a speculative approach which asks for unseen yet possible configurations of social objects in a posthuman context, where the capabilities, characteristics and differences among socialized subjects could give birth to unexpected social entities.


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