Towards a Legal Ontological Turn

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Image: Daniel Horen Greenford

The Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) program is pleased to invite you to participate in the upcoming symposium entitled Towards a Legal Ontological Turn.

The objectives of Towards a Legal Ontological Turn are three-fold: i) advancing research in the fields of ecological law, indigenous jurisprudence, anthropology beyond the human, and related fields; ii) fostering constructive dialogue among participants to examine tensions, assumptions, and connections between legal theory and the Post-human insights of both the social and environmental sciences; and iii) co-creating defining themes and contributions for a resultant special issue in a leading journal.

Propose Dates and Location:

October 7th and 8th, 2020 – 9:00 to 16:30.

Thomson House Ballroom – 3rd floor,

McGill University Downtown Campus

3650 McTavish St, Montreal, QC H3A 1X9

Preliminary Agenda:

Wednesday: Welcome, opening plenary, workshops and co-writing of papers.

Thursday: Morning interactive workshops, afternoon stirring papers, closing Plenary.

*Breakfast, lunch, coffee & snacks to be provided to participants daily


The failure of environmentally focused law and governance to mitigate the conditions to which it is addressed can, and should, be considered a failure of the legal system itself. It continues to fall short of its goal not because of its incomplete fulfillment, or political or economic intractability, but rather because of something much more fundamental: its ontological basis. Western descended legal systems reflect what Arturo Escobar has called a mono-ontological occupation, precluding the possibility and the very reality of differing worldings. So-called ‘other’ ways of being and knowing are rendered differing cultural views of the singular and common world of Western naturalism, whose concerns are supposedly addressed by the liberal values of diversity and inclusion. This particular framing has been exported around the world through the processes of colonisation, development, and globalization. This process has both erased untold more-than-human relationalities, legal and others, as well as fundamentally structured the very horizon of possibilities for who and what has rights and standing. For rights after all are based upon the very question of who and what exists.

In this way we can see that the law is never simply a collection of inviolable rules and processes. Laws and governance regimes reflect narratives, stories and worldviews, are based on fundamental ontological assumptions, are the expression of lifeworlds, as Aaron Mills has put it. It is not enough to update environmental law’s anthropocentric narrative of reason, liberalism, and materialism by supplementing it with further ‘scientific description’ as Kirsten Anker has reminded us. This would only function to further entrench this ontological occupation without questioning the deeply held assumptions to which its particular forms of legal constitutionalism are beholden. To overcome the purified and policed divide between the social worlds of nature and humans, enforced by Western legal orders, we must open a space in which we might engage with ways of being and existing in the world that are, in Aaron Mills’ terms, “rooted”, on their own ontological and ecological terms. Moving beyond both traditional legal pluralism, as well as traditional legal anthropology as both insufficient to the task, a way forward must be found towards a form of constitutionalism, and therefore a lifeway on which it rests, that is earth sustaining.

This symposium is an opportunity to consider these questions, following Saskia Vermeylen’s injunction for law to “seek inspiration from other disciplinary theoretical debates about the relationship between culture and nature … in anthropology and (environmental) continental philosophy”. We hope that the symposium will be an opportunity to theorize across disciplines in order to articulate a variety of deeper ways forward for theories of law that are grappling with not only environmental considerations, but the encounter between cosmologies. We thus call this the legal ontological turn, so that we might, following John Borrows, “explicitly ‘own’ our metaphysics and more fully interrogate the implications of our beliefs” to develop a more-than-human law, one which is truly ‘nation to more-than-human nation’.  Gathering at Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, where the erasure of lifeworlds and legal orders is palpable and present, we hope that this symposium will work in the direction of some kind of reconciliation in that regard. It will take place over two days with scholars and practitioners from many different disciplines and backgrounds, recognizing that, as Anna Grear has pointed out, theory is not disembodied abstraction but rather the embodied product of interdependent relations in a lived world. In this way we hope that it can be, at its best, as Bell Hooks once put it, a ‘location of healing’.

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