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The “Weak Ontology” Thesis

Charles Taylor

Part of a panel from a mosaic pavement: the god of wine Dionysos dances with a panther, from Halicarnassus, 4th century AD, Roman Empire, British Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I agree with much of Stephen White’s interesting reflections in Sustaining Affirmations. I would like to try to present my own version of the reasons for adopting a thesis very much like his. This will involve some changes in nomenclature and some different considerations in the argument, but I think I am traveling very much in the same direction.

First, a change in nomenclature: I prefer the term “philosophical anthropology”11xGeorge Kateb expresses a similar preference in his essay in this issue of The Hedgehog Review. when we talk about the issues that we can’t just leave aside when we engage in the human sciences. I want to use this latter term in the broadest sense, which will include much of what we call the “humanities” as well: history, philosophy, literature. My term “philosophical anthropology” is meant to cover much the same matters as White does with “ontology”: it tries to define certain fundamental features about human beings, their place in nature, their defining capacities (language is obviously central to these), and their most powerful or basic motivations, goals, needs, and aspirations.

There are those who think that one can avoid defining these matters in some preliminary way. All that one needs to start with is some minimal characterization of the human subject: an agent, capable of reason, with certain goals and preferences that it tries to act on. All the rest will come out in the empirical study of human beings: what they desire, how they use reason, how effective this use is, and so on. This is the picture of the stripped down, “disengaged” subject, what White calls the “Teflon subject.” But I believe that this minimalist approach is illusory. In fact, different fundamental ontologies, or philosophical anthropologies, operate somewhat as “paradigms” do in Kuhnian theory; that is, they define the basic kinds of questions we need to ask in order to pursue our enquiry. One cannot skip this stage; to believe that one has done so is to buy into one of the many possible anthropological views, but unwittingly, in the naïve belief that this is the “obvious” one, or the only one possible.

Take the question which we are forced to discuss a great deal today: what are the sources or causes of the kind of categorical violence where people are willing to kill large numbers of strangers because of their (perceived) categorical identities: race, color, religious or ideological affiliation, and so on? The fact that these recur so frequently in our “civilized” century is deeply troubling. How can we explain these recurrences? Is it mere “survival,” a “throwback” to earlier times? What is deeply disturbing about this violence is not just that it occurs at all, that people can be motivated to kill whole categories of others, often on patently irrational grounds, but also (1) that this violence is frequently “excessive,” spreading beyond its original target to englobe more victims, or involving atrocities and mutilations; (2) that it can involve some language of purification, as one sees with a term like “ethnic cleansing”; and (3) that it can also include a ritual element. These latter two features remind us sometimes of modes of violence that belong to sacrifice in primitive religions, and this can enhance the sense of a “throwback.”

Some thinkers might want to understand this in sociobiological terms: humans acquired, during their evolution in the Pleistocene, this tendency to bind with the in-group and violently repel potentially rival out-groups. This, it can be reasoned, was “adaptive” back then. The assumption here is that the behavior can be identified and understood on the biological level, like the preference for sweet foods. But perhaps this whole approach will prove inadequate.

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