Richard Charles Strong
"There is no problem which does not become increasingly complex when actively investigated, growing in scope and depth, endlessly opening up new vistas of work to be done […]. There is never any problem, ever, which can be confined to a single framework."- Fernand Braudel
My research is focused primarily on problems and topics in social ontology, social and political philosophy, and cognitive science. I understand these research avenues as analytically distinguishable but ultimately complementary and frequently overlapping. Methodologically, my research entails working with entwined theoretical and empirical concerns from different disciplines. Just as a philosopher of science must be aware of current and past scientific research, so too adequate research in social philosophy demands knowledge of the social sciences, history, and related humanities.
My doctoral project focused primarily on extending and refining the concept of habitus for application in social ontology. My theoretical contributions were situated in opposition to prevailing rule-based collective intentionality approaches. In conceptualizing habitus as the impersonal mediator of social ontology, I modified the analytic extension of the notion beyond merely interhuman relations of standard social ontological models to make room for the non-human schematic and dispositional relations to different social niches (e.g., technologies, infrastructure, ecologies) that play non-trivial roles in causing and, in some cases, co-constituting social worlds. I argued that most of the taken-for-granted ecological, technological, and interhuman relations that make up an individual and group habitus are acquired in ontogeny both in terms of multi-scalar similarities and equally important differentials. Large swaths of our mostly non-consciousness inner lives, everyday experiences, and routine comportments are the conditioned products of the “outside world” mediated though internalized schemas and systems of dispositions formed through causal loops of experience, accommodation, and assimilation. Descriptively we could not function without these socially structured cognitive acquisitions and how we theorize them matters foundationally for basic pictures of the human agent for philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and ordinary conceptions of self and social life (e.g., aesthetics, politics, technology studies, urban planning, law, etc.). Normatively, these acquisitions also matter a great deal because the ways in which these relations emerge and become entrenched have real consequences for - inter alia - matters of justice, environmentalism, and the flourishing of humans and non-humans alike. The result of this research helps us address the metaphysical problems of agency and structure, clarify the role of mind, cognition, and biology in socio-cultural life, critique prevailing models of social ontology, better recognize the social role of things and living non-humans, and provide a better path for future theorizing. Enlarging the scope of habitus formation and relations increases both the explanatory force of the concept beyond its anthropocentric origin vis-à-vis social ontology, and, in cases where these taken-for-granted ways of sense making and social organization are out of joint (of which there are many), our range, focus, and targets of critique.
I am presently at work on an essay that addresses the not-so-tenable distinction between nature and culture (or society) that is largely taken-for-granted in theoretical discussions about the social world where the emphasis is, unsurprisingly, on culture. I intend to first demonstrate the pervasiveness of the distinction and the distortions that follow from it. I then look and exceptions to the rule and explore inroads beyond nature and culture from philosophy, anthropology, political science, and ecology. I tentatively plan to argue for a continuum of causes and constitutive social elements from the squarely anthropogenic (human and “cultural”) to the entirely non-human with the important cases, causes, and social ontological couplings occurring in the middle. I plan to draw on recent research that suggests early states and polities relied on very specific agricultural inventions and entrenchments as well as more recent work on biotechnologies, social narratives, and group formations. The aim of the essay is to persuade readers that the nature-culture distinction is not as neat or obvious as it would intuitively seem and that the distinction is perhaps, as Marshall Sahlins has suggested, the Western illusion par excellence.
Finally, I am working on an essay that complements the previous two by taking up the social ontological role of techniques and technologies. More specifically I plan to argue that one of the under-appreciated social functions of technologies is as social scaffold to fix categories, classifications, stratifications, and institutions over across different developmental and socially reproductive pathways. The materiality of sociality (and ideology) is often recognized but rarely clearly formulated. Methodologically I plan to employ comparative cases gleaned from anthropology and history with a focus on egalitarian societies (e.g., the Achuar) and those, like our own, that are highly differentiated and stratified.
Research, in my experience, has a way - for innumerable and unforeseeable reasons - of productively taking us where we didn’t expect to go. The context of discovery is never straightforward. This does not obviate the need to draft a clear plan for the future but it does mean being open to modifications and transformations along the way. As such, I understand this research statement as a tentative itinerary of the places I would like to go but not as a rigid recipe to be followed to the letter. When driving at night, as E.L. Doctorow once remarked, “you can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Research is, I think, like driving at night. Finally, it is often those aspects of research which are unknown upon our investigative departures that occasion the moments of “sober intoxication” - to use Saint Augustine’s phrase - that make research worth pursuing in the first place.