- White’s Weak Ontology: The Bearable Lightness of Being
In a world conceived without foundations in immutable law or a higher authority, justification in politics and ethics must be a provisional exercise. Stephen White takes the fundamental contestability of our reasoning as a starting point, and yet in his book Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory, he wants to reclaim some of the ground lost to antifoundationalism. He does this by focussing on how it is that we conceive of what it means to be a human being. He believes, and I agree, that as human beings in the context in which we now find ourselves, it carries normative weight to picture ourselves in certain terms. Those terms must pay attention to the existential realities that are the bases of human life: the use of language; an awareness of mortality (“finitude”); a capacity for radical newness (“natality”); and the defining of oneself against a larger background or source (as in Taylor’s “sources of the self”). White’s objective is to think about politics and what we owe one another in broader and more motivating terms, and this is only possible if we acknowledge the importance of these realities as well simultaneously as recognize their historical and contestable nature. Besides the direct subject of human nature, White engages at least three large questions in his project: What is wrong with liberalism? What is the nature of normativity? What is the role of political theory? He addresses each of these to a different extent and the answers are well worth considering.
White’s basic objection to liberalism is that it cannot be a sufficient cognitive and affective orientation for political-ethical interactions. It is “incapable, by itself, of adequately engaging the problem of difference and natality.” This is the crux of the failure of political liberalism. His argument is this: political liberalism rejects an appeal to deeper questions about human nature and the good, which an ontology embodies. However, liberalism must specify some form of human relation, and it uses the minimal norm of equal respect to embody what persons owe one another as political-ethical creatures. But equal respect is inadequate as a starting point to attain something like Connolly’s “critical responsiveness” c which is basically an ethos highly tuned to the emergence of new forms of political life and identity. Equal respect takes identities already given and secures their rights and the boundaries that protect political dignity, but it is tone-deaf to the potentialities that exist in an always-changing world. Indeed it allows for a lot of “inattentiveness, resistance and resentment exhibited by established constituencies to the stirrings of new political identity.”
This is one level at which White criticizes political liberalism. He goes to a second, deeper level, however and makes the claim that equal respect is essentially incapable of ever expanding to include a more responsive, attuned perspective because of its roots in the Kantian paradigm. What he calls the “carrying capacity” or normative/affective power of the idea of equal respect is based upon the Kantian notion of treating people as ends rather than means. This latter ideal carries force because we see others as embodying dignity as members of a noumenal realm of rational beings. Of course the purely rational world is problematic as a basis, but equal respect has normative power insofar as it retains the element of being confronted with an element of the sublime. The problem is natural creatures when encountering the sublime also experience fear and anxiety not only respect and awe. White emphasizes the German meaning of “Achtung” c beware, be on guard. Equal respect interpreted in these terms is basically an attitude of mutual acknowledgment across the divides that separate persons. The ethos embedded in it is a standing back, a marking of separateness. In a sense, White would say that equal respect might recognize another’s wholeness or integrity but not fullness or natality, the fact that persons are capable of becoming something other than they already are.
White is both right and wrong about liberalism. I begin with what seems misdirected in his critique. Some versions...