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  • Affirmation and Weak Ontology in Political Theory: Some Rules and Doubts
  • Stephen K. White (bio)

Author’s note: Portions of this essay are drawn from my Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2000).

One can start and stop arguments in support of one’s political affirmations in all sorts of ways. A single discrete argument may be all that is called for to sustain my affirmation of, say, some democratic practice. But we are sometimes pushed to keep extending and thickening the context of justification; and we think of such activity as enriching the persuasiveness of our position. This movement, by which a specific claim is progressively embedded within a constellation of basic concepts and commitments is what has been understood traditionally in political theory as providing ‘foundations.’ But the recourse to foundations has, of course, come under sustained attack in recent years from a variety of quarters. Like many others, I have been deeply influenced by such critiques; and yet I find that I have been just as deeply convinced that they are misleading insofar as they sometimes seem to imply that ethical and political theory can simply do without some basic conceptualization of being; that is, of self, other, world, the beyond human.

The underlying hunch of Sustaining Affirmation is twofold.[1] First, ongoing affirmation in political theory requires both the articulation of basic categories of being and the cultivation of a sensibility as to their irredeemable contestability; in short, such articulations are both fundamental and contestable. Now this might not sound particularly controversial; many think of this as precisely the conclusion we should draw in the wake of antifoundationalist insights. But here I come to the second part of my hunch: when we think of ‘fundamental and contestable’ as a conclusion, we imply the end of a train of reflection. My suspicion is rather that we have put ourselves into a quite unfamiliar beginning. What does it really mean to think what is most basic to us as both fundamental and contestable, and to orient our ethical and political life around such a bearing?

My notion of ‘weak ontology’ is merely an attempt to mark this terrain of exploration. Those who participate in what I would call the weak ontological turn come from a variety of quarters. For example, I would locate a liberal, such as George Kateb, in this turn, as well as a theistic communitarian, such as Charles Taylor. In reflecting upon their work as well as that of others, Sustaining Affirmation attempts to tease out some loose criteria for felicitous weak ontology. My methodology is hermeneutically circular: first, I use those who do weak ontology well as sources for my conception of the rules of that game, and then I turn around and use the more refined rules as a means for thinking critically about those players.

What exactly makes a felicitous weak ontology? In what follows I will first briefly sketch some rules and then consider reasons why some today are so doubtful about any recourse to ontology. Finally, I want to consider one of these skeptical stances more closely, namely that of political liberals. They argue that one can think adequately about justice while holding all ontological claims at arm’s length.

I. The Very Idea of Weak Ontology

Strong ontologies are foundational in the traditional sense; they promise some sort of solid truth - about human nature, science, God, and so on - upon which ethical and political views ought to be founded. Weak ontologies, on the other hand, offer only figurations of human being. But not just any sort of figuration will do; it must figure us in light of certain existential realities, most notably language, mortality or finitude, natality and the articulation of ‘sources of the self.’[2] These figurations are accounts of what it is to be a certain sort of creature: first, one entangled with language; second, one with a consciousness that it will die; third, one which, despite its entanglement and limitedness, has the capacity for radical novelty; and, finally, one which gives definition to itself against some ultimate background or ‘source,’ to which we find ourselves always already...

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