Weak Ontologies   /   Summer 2005   /    Articles

Weak Ontology

Genealogy and Critical Issues

Stephen K. White

Weathered growth rings in a horizontal cross section cut through an tree felled around AD 1111 used for the western building complex at Aztec Ruins National Monument, San Juan County, New Mexico, USA. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The concept of weak ontology does not so much name a doctrine as gesture toward a thicket of philosophical issues. If the concept has had any resonance, then it is because others have found themselves struggling as well with one difficult pathway or another in this thicket.

Given this situation, a useful way to introduce weak ontology might be to sketch its genealogy in the simple sense of showing how I found my way into this thicket and tried to make myself at home in it.11xThis is one way of thinking of “home” when reflecting upon Heidegger’s comment about: “becoming at home in not being at home” (das Heimischwerden im Unheimishsein); Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymne “Der Ister” (1942) Gesamtausgabe, Band 53 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1984) 147. One benefit of proceeding in this fashion is that it may help make clear exactly why, in Sustaining Affirmation, I rounded up such unusual suspects—William Connolly, Charles Taylor, George Kateb, and Judith Butler—charged them collectively with the misdemeanor of weak ontology, and forced them to perform community service within my text. In the second part of this essay, I will lay out some of the issues related to weak ontology that seem to me to be most in need of further reflection and elaboration.

I began academic life in the 1970s as an orthodox Habermasian with a strong commitment to the idea that language has a telos (understanding) and to the associated interpretation of Western modernity as something like a progressive embodiment of that telos.22xStephen White, “Rationality and the Foundations of Political Philosophy,” The Journal of Politics (November 1979): 1156–71. Somehow, I did not feel that this was really a variant of foundationalism; or at least it did not seem so compared to, say, Straussianism or political theory tied to Christianity. As the influence of post-structuralism and postmodernism grew in the mid-1980s, I spent a good deal of time responding to critiques of Jürgen Habermas from anti-foundationalist perspectives. It just seemed clear to me that all of them failed to comprehend that their critiques ran afoul of what Habermas famously called the norm of “performative contradiction”—in short, the very practice of their criticism necessarily entailed commitment to an implicit notion of reason and possible consensual understanding.33xStephen K. White, The Recent Work of Jürgen Habermas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 51 ff.

The apparent solidity of my thinking came under increasing pressure in the late 1980s as I encountered Martin Heidegger’s work, as well as that of increasingly sophisticated interpreters of Michel Foucault. As a result of this, I came to see that my Habermasianism indeed constituted a clear sort of foundationalism. But this realization did not induce any great intellectual crisis on my part. I still felt that Habermasian commitments were, in an ethical-political sense, good ones; only now I had to begin to conceive of them as reflecting “merely” my “deepest level of interpretation” of the world.44xStephen K. White, Political Theory and Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 140–42; and “Postmodern Aesthetics and Political Thinking,” The Aesthetics of the Critical Theorists: Benjamin, Marcuse, Adorno and Habermas, ed. R. Roblin (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1990) 516–17. In short, we all have recourse to a final level of meaning, at which we have some reasons for our particular interpretative frame, but none that have foundational force in the traditional sense.

At this point, I felt I had reached a defensible sort of nonfoundationalist position. But the more I thought about this, the more I became convinced that what I thought was a comfortable resting place was, in fact, just the beginning of a slide into a whole new tangle of questions. One reason I began to slide had to do with my further engagement with poststructural and postmodern positions. Even though I was now openly nonfoundationalist, I was still convinced that many nonfoundationalists held deficient views because they tended to avoid confronting and defending their own deepest levels of interpretation. If they were to do so, their deficiencies vis-à-vis my Habermasian one would quickly become apparent. In sum, I was still in the unmasking business.

Here is where William Connolly’s work began to make me slide. He clearly does not avoid this deepest level of reflection; on the contrary, he has carefully articulated it, drawing profoundly upon Foucault and Nietzsche. Moreover, he has for a long while referred to speculation at this level as ontology.55xWilliam Connolly, “Taylor, Foucault and Otherness,” Political Theory (August 1985): 355–71. Connolly’s ontology not only taught me a methodological lesson, but also constituted a powerful substantive challenge to my Habermasian commitments.

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