Relational Ontologies

by Barbara Thayer-Bacon (Author)
©2017 Textbook XVIII, 172 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 505


Relational Ontologies uses the metaphor of a fishing net to represent the epistemological and ontological beliefs that we weave together for our children, to give meaning to their experiences and to help sustain them in their lives. The book describes the epistemological threads we use to help determine what we catch up in our net as the warp threads, and our ontological threads as the weft threads. It asks: what kind of fishing nets are we weaving for our children to help them make sense of their experiences? What weft threads are we including and working to strengthen, and what threads are we removing or leaving out? It is important to carefully re/examine these most basic ways of catching up what sustains us in our ocean of infinite experiences, as the threads we weave for our children will determine what they catch up in their nets, until they are old enough to re/weave their own. Relational Ontologies reweaves America’s epistemological and ontological fishing net on a larger scale, turning to indigenous cultures and diverse spiritual beliefs for assistance in reforming American schools.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: What Does Ontology Have to Do with Education?
  • Chapter 1.   Water: James’s Pure Experience
  • Chapter 2.   Land: First Nations’ Examples
  • Chapter 3.   Plants: Deleuze’s and Guattari’s Rhizomes
  • Chapter 4.   Sky: Indra’s Net
  • Chapter 5.   Spider Webs: African Examples
  • Chapter 6.   Educational Implications
  • About the Author
  • Index
  • Series index

← xiii | ix →


I teach a “Feminist Theories and Education” course for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), which I developed originally with a feminist epistemological focus from my own research interests in feminist epistemologies. I use Relational “(e)pistemologies” as one of the texts in that course, along with Women’s Ways of Knowing; Knowledge, Difference, and Power; and Education Feminism.1 In Relational “(e)pistemologies, I develop a theory of knowing that is supported by the classic pragmatists and gender feminists, with other influences from radical feminists, indigenous scholars, and postmodernists.2 By “relation” I mean to emphasize connection to others, including other people and ideas. The connection is transactional in that we affect each other, dynamically and functionally, and each is changed as a result.3 As Martin Buber described this transactional quality, relations are mutual.4

In Relational “(e)pistemologies,” I develop a theory of knowing that is supported by the classic pragmatists and gender feminists, with other influences from radical feminists, indigenous scholars, and postmodernists. I argue that none of us can know what is True or Real, in a universal sense, and so we must all be content to continue to talk about “knowledge” and “reality” with quotation marks around the terms. This is why I put ( ) around the “e” in epistemology and refer to traditional Epistemology with a capital “E”—due ← ix | x → to its assumption of Absolute Truth. I offer an epistemological theory that insists that knowers/subjects are fallible, that our criteria are corrigible, and that our standards are socially constructed and thus continually in need of critique and reconstruction. I argue that an epistemology that rests on an assumption of fallibility entails pluralism, both in terms of there being no Final Answer at the end of inquiring and also in terms of the need to be open and inclusive of others in order to help us compensate for our own limitations. My relational epistemology is a pragmatic social feminist perspective calling for active engagement, aiming at democratic inclusion, joining theory with practice (praxis), striving for awareness of context and values, and tolerating vagueness and ambiguities. I argue that knowing is something people develop as they have experiences with each other and the world around them. People improve upon the ideas that have been socially constructed and passed down to them by others. They do this improving by further developing their understandings and enlarging their perspectives. With enlarged perspectives, people are able to create new meanings for their experiences.

In developing this epistemological theory and comparing it to other relational ways of knowing it was impossible not to have ontological discussions seep into the work, our understandings of “reality.” I use a metaphor of an Ocean as representing our “pure experience” as William James (1909) describes this, and fishing nets to describe our ontologies and epistemologies that help us capture our experiences and give them meaning. Imagine the world, as we experience it, is like a vast ocean. We must design a fishing net to help us catch up our experience of this vast ocean and make sense of it. Whatever net we use, however fine the weaving, there is so much more in this vast ocean of experience than our nets can ever catch up. When we cast our nets, much will overflow the top of our net as well as spill through it and escape back into the vast ocean. What we use to make this net are our theories of knowledge (our epistemology) as well as our theories of being (our ontology). We cannot divorce ourselves from epistemological and ontological questions, for they form the very weaving of the net we use to capture our everyday commonsense concerns. While my focus was on the epistemological weavings of our net for Relational “(e)pistemologies,” (let’s call them the warp threads that run lengthwise) I could not avoid the weft threads that run widthwise and help to make up our nets. My position is that it’s impossible to develop an epistemological theory that does not include an ontological theory as well. My desire for this book is to turn the net and look at it from the perspective of ← x | xi → the weft threads, and explore how an ontological focus will help us to further understand the nets we use to capture our experiences that are woven with threads of relationality.

In Relational “(e)pistemologies,” we learn that a relational epistemology is supported by a nondualistic ontology that emphasizes we are w/holistically connected with our greater universe, materially and spiritually (whole and holy). I argue this connection is at a personal and social level, but also much wider, for I describe our primal experience as being one with the whole of the universe. Such an expanded concept of relationality includes within it the natural world in which we live, our biosphere. Consistent with Buddhist, Native American, and ecofeminist views about nature, I do not assume any separation between human beings and nature. I describe human beings as one with nature. In A Pluralistic Universe, James (1909) argues that the world we experience is more than we can describe. He describes our theories as incomplete, open, and imperfect. Concepts function to try to shape, organize, and describe this open, flowing universe, while the universe continually escapes beyond our artificial boundaries. For James and myself, the universe is unfinished, a “primal stuff” or “pure experience.”

Summary of Relevant Literature

I am in conversation with many eminent scholars whose work contributes significantly to mine. My work on a relational ontology is grounded in the classical American pragmatist theories of James, Peirce, Mead, and Dewey. Allen, Bar-on, Cajete, Deloria, Farella, Lugones, McNeley, and Pratt are some of the sources for my cultural perspective. Sources for my feminist perspective include Belenky et al., Bordo, Butler, Code, Collins, Flax, Gilligan, Greene, Grimshaw, hooks, King, Martin, Noddings, Ruddick, and Warren.

Outstanding Features of the Book

Relational Ontologies is a concise, easy to read, yet detailed treatment of one person’s ontological theory in comparison to other relational approaches. This will make Relational Ontologies a book that graduate students will find accessible, and yet it also offers high-quality scholarship, and numerous sources for topics and issues that students will want to pursue on their own. ← xi | xii →

Professors will find Relational Ontologies a valuable text to add to their class list of books. Due to its detailed treatment of current feminist ontological issues, it is possible to use Relational Ontologies as a central text in a course on feminist theories, ontological theories, or indigenous theories, and then give students assignments to research other individual scholars cited within the text on their own.

Relational Ontologies is a book that is timely and forward thinking; it also addresses major theories from the past which have contributed to the author’s ontological theory. The timely quality of this book will make it possible for students to not only be aware of the history of ontological theories, but also help them understand the current issues and concerns being debated. From a professorial standpoint, this is also an attractive feature as current relational ontological perspectives are usually in article or paper form, or within an edited volume. Rarely are they found discussed throughout one text, as they are presented here.

Relational Ontologies will be a valuable book for professors to use in graduate courses that consider ontologies as a topic. This includes people who teach graduate courses in philosophy of education, philosophy, indigenous studies, science education, and women’s studies. This relational ontological theory has a wide reach and is applicable to most fields of study.

As a final outstanding feature of Relational Ontologies, since my goal is to offer my own relational ontological theory, I sincerely hope that what I write will be a significant contribution to the scholarly discussion on ontologies. If I am successful at this task, Relational Ontologies will be a text for graduate students and scholars in the fields of philosophy of education, and educators will want to read it for its scholarly value and the contributions it makes toward furthering our understanding of relational ontologies. I believe that what I have to offer contributes to ontological theory and has a major contribution to make to educational theory.


As a scholar, my theoretical background is in philosophy of education, and my interests include: pragmatism, feminist theory and pedagogy, and cultural studies in education. ← xii | xiii →

The Intended Market

Relational Ontologies is targeted for graduate students in philosophy of education, philosophy, education, religion, sociology, ecology, cultural studies, and women’s/gender studies which are enrolled in courses that consider ontology as a topic. It is also intended to make a significant contribution to scholarship in ontology, from a pragmatist, postmodern, and feminist perspective, so it should be of special interest to scholars of feminist theory, philosophy of education, education, and women’s/gender studies. It may also be of interest to scholars in philosophy, religion, science education, and indigenous studies as well.

Relational Ontologies is recommended for use as one of several equally weighed assigned texts in a quarter or semester long course or as a main text with students doing research on scholars discussed in the text, or others not discussed, on their own. It could also be used as a main text in a shorter version of the intended course, such as a six-week summer school session.



XVIII, 172
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVIII, 172 pp.

Biographical notes

Barbara Thayer-Bacon (Author)

Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon, Ph.D. (Indiana University, Bloomington) teaches graduate courses on philosophy and history of education, and cultural diversity at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her primary research areas are: philosophy of education, pragmatism, feminist theory and pedagogy, and cultural studies in education.


Title: Relational Ontologies
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
192 pages