Weak Ontologies   /   Summer 2005   /    Interview

Interview with Richard Flathman

“We know that x is the case, and we ask what must be the case such that x could be the case.”

Keith Topper and Richard E. Flathman

Drawing of John Rawls (2018). Via Wikimedia Commons.

In his book, Sustaining Affirmation, Stephen White charts the contours of a “weak ontological” turn in contemporary moral and political theory. According to White, as we are pressed to deepen and extend our moral and political commitments, we are also inescapably driven to affirm some conception of the most basic and fundamental categories of human being. Yet, White maintains, if the articulation of these categories is to avoid the reifying and self-certain tendencies characteristic of “strong ontologies” like natural law theory, then the very act of affirming them must be conjoined to the cultivation of a sensibility that acknowledges their historical, contestable character. It is this dual recognition—namely, that ongoing moral and political affirmation requires some account of the fundamental existential conditions that define us as human beings and that this account, however conceived, is always essentially contestable—that White defends as the proper starting point for reflection about moral and political life today. Indeed, it is precisely this commitment to weak ontology that White advances as an alternative (or supplement) not just to strong ontology, but also to some variants of “postmodernism or poststructuralism, and political liberalism” (151), both of which, he maintains, are suspicious of “sustained ontological reflection” (152). In your view, is the weak ontological alternative to this trinity of contemporary positions an attractive one? What makes it politically felicitous and / or politically problematic?


The attraction of White’s view is that it combines readiness to make affirmations with avoidance of dogmatism. Assessment of the political value of this combination will be helped by making comparisons with related positions.

The first of these, with “postmodernism,” is briefly introduced by White himself. If every opening is a closing, every revealing a concealing, then attempts to develop “some account of the fundamental existential conditions that define us as human beings” will always result in illusion or worse. In arguing that our ontologies should be “weak,” White acknowledges the force of this objection, but he insists that we should nevertheless do what we can to take our reflections to the ontological level. I suspect he thinks that some ontological commitments, even if only implicit, are always at work in our thinking and that we should make them as explicit as we can and subject them to critical thinking. This won’t satisfy, say, Lyotard, but I have no objection to it.

A second comparison is with Rawls’s “method of avoidance” and his attempt to develop a theory of right and of justice that is “political not metaphysical” (“ontological,” as White prefers to say). Although I suspect that Rawls is skeptical about metaphysical thinking as such, his stated position is not that it is impossible or futile (he is not a postmodernist) but that it is, at a minimum, politically useless. Disputes concerning metaphysical questions are every bit as intractable as disputes concerning right and justice, so it is no help to refer the latter to the former. It would probably not be going too far to say that he thinks, as Richard Rorty does, that appeal to metaphysics makes reaching agreement about conceptions of right and justice more difficult, more intractable.

I don’t fully agree with this view. I agree with White that there is a place—call it political philosophy—for attempts to get beneath quotidian political and moral debates to assumptions, dispositions, and the like, and to reach considerations that may in any case be at work in them and which, if made explicit and subject to critique, may give us an improved perspective on them. I doubt that there will ever be a direct inference from such reflections to the resolution of particular political and moral issues, but a “weak” ontology à la White does not expect such inferences.

I think, however, that much—probably the great preponderance—of political and moral thinking and discourse proceeds without such deep and general commitments. This is clearly the case of most discussions of “policy.” When I read the newspaper, listen to the pundits on talk shows, converse with my colleagues and friends, I rarely hear more than a faint echo of ontological thinking. The positions that people take on “policy” questions may implicitly involve such commitments, but there is no reason to think that they play an active role in thinking and discussion. It is not necessary to embrace Rawls’s method of avoidance in order to recognize and even welcome the fact that, existentially or empirically, discourse concerning, say, welfare policy, is political not metaphysical. I think this is also true concerning, for example, most thinking and acting concerning authority and rights. Debates about first amendment rights or the scope of federal versus state authority are carried on in a fluctuating combination of historical, rational, dispositional, and affective thinking and talking and are most often resolved through rhetoric, negotiation, compromise, and horse trading, not by appeal to ontological considerations. Ontological thinking is not impossible, but it is for the most part irrelevant to or at the margins of political and moral interactions.

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