Weak Ontologies   /   Summer 2005   /    Articles

The Idea of Individual Infinitude

George Kateb

colored-in version of the famed 1888 black-and-white Flammarion engraving called "Universum." Via Wikimedia Commons.

In his discussion of my work, Stephen White finds several “weaknesses.”1 One weakness is my treatment of two (out of four) constituent elements of human beings—language and human finitude—and another is my over-confident antitheism. White claims that in my writing, language and finitude are “relatively neglected” (35), while any dismissal of theism, including my own, leaves him “stunned” (4). I will emphasize our disagreement over finitude and touch on the matters of language and theism only occasionally. I should say at the start that White’s book as a whole is full of perceptive analyses of numerous ideas and that his overall strategy of exploring the concept of weak ontology strikes me as illuminating and original. Although I take issue with him in this essay, and sometimes find his criticisms not to my liking, I respect the book greatly.

I respect Sustaining Affirmation above all because White demonstrates with patient skill that political theory is less than itself, despite its achievements, when—for theoretical reasons or not—it is done without serious attention paid to what I prefer to call existential concerns. We must examine political questions from a perspective outside themselves, even though, and necessarily, not outside ourselves. (Analogously, moral judgment of politics must use standards that do not emerge autonomously from the very nature of politics.) Philosophical anthropology is the generic name for one such outside perspective. (That White calls his perspective “ontology” rather than “philosophical anthropology” does not matter to me, though it may to him.)

Existential issues make up an important part of philosophical anthropology, while moral psychology makes up another important part. The pursuit of philosophical anthropology is reflection on the human condition. Although philosophical anthropology, in these two parts, need not be political in its inspiration—but often it is—it will always be politically relevant, no matter how remote from politics it appears to be. Furthermore, a theoretical exploration of political life is enriched by philosophical anthropology, but it also discloses facets of the human condition that would otherwise go unnoticed or unappreciated. We never know when all of a sudden an existential concern or an insight into moral psychology might give life to, or receive life from, our understanding and appraisal of some political event or condition. There is a constant circulation of lessons. Of course, every existential question and every aspect of moral psychology lend themselves to interpretation and, hence, to dispute. The dispute can never end.

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