- Comments on Stephen White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory
I make a poor critic of Stephen White’s Sustaining Affirmation since I find I agree with so much of it. So let me begin by noting the several strengths of White’s project. The most obvious strength is that White begins to consolidate an attractive alternative to metaphysical approaches to political thinking — indeed, not just an alternative, but a far superior alternative. He does so with clarity and precision, avoiding much of the silly and pretentious jargon that so often drags down self-styled postmetaphysical thinkers. He begins to take on the burden of proof in a way that most such thinkers have failed to do, for fear of once again seeming to be metaphysical — with all of the undiscerning clumsiness toward politics entailed therein. The bottom line is, of course, the question of whether political theory can offer any criteria for political judgment — that is, whether, in the end, it can play a critical role in political life. To be critical, however, means going beyond critique: it is one thing to expose the failures of various metaphysics — whether Platonist, Christian, rationalist, liberal, or feminist-essentialist. It is another to show that there are ways of thinking that are, in fact, robust in providing guidance in political judgment.
White’s approach is to shift the matter of criteria to four kinds of “existential universals” — things we are stuck with by virtue of being human. We linguistic; we are mortal and thus subject to finitude; we have capacities for natality or agency; and we constitute ourselves as selves out of the existential resources we find given to us. As White knows, the approach is not original: it is prefigured in anti-metaphysics of Nietzsche and Heidegger; and — although he does not mention these lineages — in certain versions of pragmatism, in Hannah Arendt (who is, of course, Heideggerian in her own way), and in Habermas’s universal pragmatics.
The originality of these approaches, of course, is that they discard the metaphysical problematic as overly narrow and hence a misguided if not irrelevant approach to existence. Metaphysics has to do with certainties that might be grasped by the mind; it thus problematizes only one of many different ways in which humans are embedded in existence. The revolution initiated by Nietzsche — if I may be permitted to put it crudely but directly — was to show that the problem with metaphysics is not that its answers are wrong, but that its questions are irrelevant to life. The point was developed by Heidegger, but applied to politics by Arendt, who noted that metaphysics begins with the vita contempletiva, whereas politics inhabits the vita activa. In this way, Arendt systematically expanded the problem, asking what kinds of relationships and limits embed humans within their existence. What relations do have they to the various worlds they inhabit, and what are the ethical potentials of each kind of relationship? Only when we conceptualize this can we also conceptualize the domain of politics, the possibility of political judgment, and that kind of ethical sensibilities appropriate to it. White follows this powerful and insightful line of thinking.
I do have a quibble with one of White’s tactics. Why characterize this approach as “weak ontology”? The term seem to position it halfway between “strong ontology” — that is, metaphysics — and no ontology whatsoever. But that’s not quite what’s going on: there’s nothing “weak” about the project, nor should it be conceived as located on a continuum of this sort. Rather, the approach shifts the problem of metaphysics ninety degrees, and in doing so exposes the weakness of “strong ontology” — that is, that it is based on the reduction of existence to the judgments of the mind, eclipsing those autonomous intersubjective realities within which politics comes to be. If the approach of “strong ontology” isn’t weak — in the sense of being so narrowly obtuse that it misses the phenomenon of politics — I don’t know what is. In contrast, the kinds of approaches represented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Arendt, and Habermas are strong in the sense that they begin with the...