Weak Ontologies   /   Summer 2005   /    Bibliographic Review

Bibliographic Review on Weak Ontology

Andrew Douglas

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project (1969).

In his recent book, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory, Stephen White outlines the contours of an emerging “ontological turn” in contemporary political theory. Increasingly, White contends, political theorists are pursuing a broad set of contentions about the fundamental character of human being and the world. And further, these thinkers are beginning to explore the various ways in which human beings relate to their most basic commitments. As White describes it, this turn toward ontological reflection is best understood in terms of a kind of weakness—ontological commitments are considered essential to our ethical and political sensibilities, our modes of cognition, and our capacity to generate normative structures, but we cannot prove the certainty or validity of these commitments in any strong sense. In other words, weak ontology pursues the “fundamental and contestable” foundations of contemporary political theory.

To be sure, weak ontology is a young and somewhat inchoate concept, and White will admit this. As he states at the beginning of his essay in this issue of The Hedgehog Review, “weak ontology does not so much name a doctrine as gesture toward a thicket of philosophical issues.” Consequently, we do not have the privilege of reading from an established literature on the topic. So how might we begin to approach the literature on weak ontology? How might we begin to explore the various contributions to this thicket of philosophical issues? One way to do so would be to start from betterknown concepts and more familiar philosophical discourses. In an important sense, the enterprise of weak ontology is about negotiating a space for ethical and political theory between a set of controversial and contested concepts and discourses. As a sort of roadmap through the literature on weak ontology, I offer a series of negotiations or betweens.

  • White, Stephen K. Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

We find ourselves today caught in the throes of a rather stale tension between a commitment to a broad set of modern assumptions and a sustained proclivity for postmodern critique. Weak ontology is, in many ways, a response to a general frustration with the way this tension affects our contemporary ethical and political sensibilities, our modes of cognition, and our ability to generate and sustain normative structures.

Early modern thinkers like Descartes and Hobbes emphasized a particular way in which human beings see and relate to the world. Understanding the human mind as an isolated entity, these thinkers sought, through the cultivation of reason, a kind of mastery over the existential conditions of human life. This understanding is supported by an ontology that places rational capacity at the core of human being. This ontology typically parallels further contentions about the basic character of the world and our relations to it. John Locke, for example, grounded his claims to human dignity and equality in a deeper Christian theological understanding of the basic structure of reality. The point here is that, in the late modern age, these basic contentions about being and the world carry with them an air of absolute certainty; they are assumptions held beyond contestability, early modern philosophical foundations, examples of what White calls “strong ontology.”

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