Posted by: Johan Normark | May 31, 2012

The divine inexistence vs living with the ancestors

I have been struggling with how to combine realist ontologies from the continental philosophical tradition with that of the Maya. That is not an easy task as the ontology/ontologies of the Maya (ancient and contemporary) tend to be seen as “social constructions” of some non-specified reality “out there”. However, the problem is even greater than that. The continental philosophical tradition is “Eurocentric” as well and one can easily find problems and issues that these ontologies focuses on that is of little to no relevance outside this “cultural sphere”. What anthropologists often uncover in “non-Western” collectives are different ontologies that of course can be described as various sensual profiles of real objects but I believe the problem is deeper than that.

On occasion I have made use of the anthropologist Göran Aijmer’s “ontology of ontologies” where he outlines at least three different coexisting ontological orders (realist, discursive and iconic). Aijmer created these different orders to describe different modes of existence. For example, someone carves a temple mask (an activity that can be described by metric information if needed). What the carver believe is being carved (the discursive order) is different from the reproduction of non-linguistic “messages” manifested in the mask (the iconic order). However, Aijmer has created this ontology of ontologies from readings of Wittgenstein and his language games. The attempt to describe different modes of existence has also been proposed by Etienne Souriau which is outlined by Latour in The Speculative Turn. I will discuss that alternative approach in another post. In this post I want to emphasize how a “Eurocentric” ontology may be problematic to combine with a Maya ontology, if we want to maintain a flat ontology.

Today I was reading Graham Harman’s summary of Quentin Meillassoux’s English articles in his book about this philosopher. The article Spectral Dilemma is sort of an appetizer for Meillassoux’s unpublished book The Divine Inexistence (which also is summarized in Harman’s book). A specter/phantasm is someone who has died unjustifiably and therefore has not been properly mourned. There are paths of despair for both the theist and the atheist that create these specters. The spectral dilemma is that if there is a God, why did he/she let it happen and if there is no God there is no redemption for the victim of injustice. In order to solve this dilemma, the thesis of the divine inexistence is needed. What Meillassoux shows is that both theism and atheism claims to exhaust the field of possibilities. This is wrong because both believe that their position is true, they also commit themselves to the idea that this truth is a necessity. For an atheist it not only a necessity for God not to exist but also that he cannot exist. To the theist God’s existence is of course a necessity. Instead of this dilemma Meillassoux launches the idea of a virtual God, currently inexistent, contingent and unmasterable. God may exist in the future (this conclusion follows several lines of thought which I do not have time to cover here, but I will). Let’s just hope someone does not believe this God emerges on December 21, 2012 in the form of Bolon Yokte K’uh.

Even though I find Meillassoux’s ideas intriguing I see this spectral dilemma as something of relevance in a “Western” theistic/atheistic tradition. It is completely irrelevant to contemporary Yucatec Maya (and perhaps to other contemporary and ancient Maya as well). Despite centuries of Christian influence, the Maya have “stubbornly” maintained a very different ontology. To use Aijmer’s terms, the iconic order has remained fairly intact as non-human objects are crucial ingredients in this order. The discursive order has changed.

To the Maya a person never dies (and I wonder if they ever are born?). As Astor-Aguilera writes, the body (human body, pot or building) is simply a container for non-corporeal persons that are tethered to this container for as long as the container is usable. It can be discarded through what we call biological death, smashing of pottery or a termination ritual. To the Maya there are no gods, divinities, etc., these are Christian overcodings. Only non-corporeal persons/ancestors exist and they are tethered into various objects and phenomena but these ancestors do not live in a separate realm. They are within earth, on earth and in the sky and the trees link these non-discrete realms. They are still communicating after the “death” of the object. The Maya both undermine and overmine objects, which exactly is what materialism does according to Harman. In any case, the theistic/atheistic spectral dilemma is no dilemma for the Maya. The Maya are simply living with their ancestors.

Astor-Aguilera, Miguel Angel (2010). The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque

Harman, Graham (2011). Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.



  1. […] at Archaeological Haecceities has a remark, HERE, on why the spectral dilemma does not exist for the Mayas. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. I saw a link to this post at Graham Harman’s blog and thought I’d take a look.

    First I should say that I come at ontology from a rather different point of view. I’ve spent a lot of time with the cognitive sciences where “ontology” has been a term of art for over three decades. For the cognitive psychologist ontology is about categories in a person’s mind. Some, for example, are interested in the development of ontological categories in childhood; others are interested in the difference between, say, commonsense physics and Newtonian physics. For the AI programmer or computer scientist ontology is simply about the kinds of entities in some domain of knowledge or practice. If, for example, you want to build an expert system about organic chemistry, then you need to know what kinds of entities organic chemists think and talk about. In none of these cases is there any direct interest in what’s really going on in the world. It’s all about how the world is (to be) represented.

    From the cognitive science point of view, the Maya ontology is no more or less interesting than the ontology of a speculative realist philosopher, whose thoughts are as legitimately the object of cognitive study as are the thoughts of the Maya. The cognitive scientist could study, or model, either ontology without making any commitment to the world itself. Nor does the cognitive scientist have to worry about whether or not some ontology of interest is “merely” a social construction or whether it is “real.” In either case, it must also be a set of ideas in someone’s mind.

  3. Good points. I have read some articles of what has been termed “neuroarchaeology” in order to get a better grasp about the cognitive sciences for my next project. This project will take a look at how the concept of time and calendars have been developed, with the Maya as a case study. Do you have any useful references regarding the use of ontology in the cognitive sciences?

  4. Btw, Lambros Malafouris has made some interesting applications of neuroscience in archaeology:

    I have one online article on the “senses” which is more inspired by Deleuze/DeLanda/Protevi and Ingold than by OOO. The Scribd version appears to be full of strange signs though, the pdf is OK:

    • For the development of ontology in children, see Frank Keil, Semantic and Conceptual Development, and Concepts, Kinds and Cognitive Development. While the computer science/AI work is probably not so relevant to your work, the Wikipedia article on informatic ontology seems like it would give you some idea of what’s going on–there’s a lot of it. So you might want to take a quick look through it, also this ontology website by John Sowa. Then there’s my unpublished working paper, Ontology in Knowledge Representation.

      • Thanks. I appreciate this. I will take a look at it after the weekend.


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