Even if you have become comfortable with the words epistemic, epistemological and ontological, and now feel confident using them in sentences, it still may be that meeting the term ‘ontic’ lurking in a lexicon, a set of concepts associated with technologies deployed in practices, will unnerve you. If in our vocabulary we already have ‘epistemic’ meaning associated with knowledge doing and making; ‘epistemological’ which refers to how we can be certain enough about what we know; and ‘ontological’ which names what it is we know, the configured known, is there any need for more of these knowledge doing words? Why would we require ‘ontic’? Surely this knowledge words business is getting just too arcane!

Ontological troubles sometimes swirl around our knowns in situ and to apprehend and stay with that trouble is to do ontics; and to do ontics in going on as a collective in staying with tensions and troubles, requires us to be explicit about this aspect of our epistemic work. We can start by cultivating familiarity with ontic experience of the here and now, wordless experiencing, albeit within a particular language world. Expressing that experiencing in story necessarily gives a partial account of the experience; wording is (re)experiencing experience. Long ago I learned from some helpful Nigerian children, bilingual in Yorba and English, that ontics are not only knowingly habitable, but also that one’s navigation in the puzzling elicted by experiencing it, happens within the relations that become structured in particular languages, albeit wordlessly. And further, that such navigation might be spoken of.

Here’s one place I have found I cannot do without the concept of ontics. Landscape fires are used as a technology in land management practices is many places in Australia. In some of these places scientists and Aboriginal landowners work together to make landscape fires (Verran 2002). Environmental scientists conceptualise such a technological fire as ‘a prescribed burn’, Yolngu Aboriginal Australian landowners conceptualise it quite differently and call it ‘worrk’. A profound epistemological and ontological gulf separates the different knowledge practices. Yet it is possible for these two groups, who can barely understand each other, to co-operate on the ground; they often ‘do’ a single fire together. In the course of this work each group carefully constructs the required epistemic micro-world as they conceive of, and justify lighting a landscape fire. All those present at a firing event experience a fire that is simultaneously conceptually singular albeit vague—a landscape fire, and conceptually multiple—a ‘prescribed burn’ and a ‘worrk’. The fire that they do is collectively experienced in a domain of inferential knowing that is aconceptual; this domain is where ontics is done. (http://www.issuesmagazine.com.au/article/issue-march-2008/science-and-dreaming.html)

Recognising ontics involves accepting that entities have strategies of existence. A particular landscape fire has strategies by which it does its own existence, and for humans to know about and thus collectively manage a fire, we need ontology, and as it often happens in Australia, two very different ontologies are on hand. When explicit recognition of such epistemic difference is required if we are to go on together and avoid perpetration of epistemic injustice, juxtaposed ontologies are not enough. As soon as we venture away from the comfort zone of an epistemic collective where knowers share an ontology, we need to learn to inhabit, navigate, and negotiate ontics.

Author: Helen Verran



Verran H (2002) A postcolonial moment in science studies: alternative firing regimes of environmental scientists and aboriginal landowners. Social Studies of Science 32(5-6): 729-762.

Posted in TiP Lexicon.