Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory

By Stephen K. White | Go to book overview

PREFACE

IMAGINE YOURSELF standing by a vacant lot watching children play. Debris lies about, for a building once stood here, until its foundation gave way. Chunks of the building remain here and there, as does the gaping hole left from the foundation. As the children clamber over the remains and jump in and out of the hole, you begin to think that they are playing a game, but it is one with which you are unfamiliar. In fact, the rules still seem to be emerging, and the children themselves are sometimes uncertain how to proceed. It would be pretty difficult, accordingly, to give a decent account of this game.

Despite your doubts, you venture a speculation about the rules. But immediately your uncertainty increases again when another adult passes and, with an air of authority, informs you, “That's not really a game. Not enough coherence.” A second passerby curtly announces that the children ought not, in any case, to be playing in such a dangerous lot. A third passerby eyes you with some impatience before offering the rebuke, “Must one always try to foist some underlying structure onto what should be simply free play?”

What to do? Aware of the risks, you decide to go ahead and reflect further about what still looks to you like a game, and a good one at that. A plausible start might be to focus on three or four kids who seem to be the most comfortable with the game, the closest to being competent in their negotiation of the still somewhat amorphous rules. Your hope is that in attending carefully to that competence, you can make the rules more palpable. If this can be done well, you will be satisfied for the moment.

That, anyway, is what I have tried to do in this book. The new game being played is not, of course, children in a vacant lot, but contemporary ways of entwining ontological reflection with political affirmation. Call the game “weak ontology.” It is taking place on the terrain of what used to be called the “foundations” of ethics and politics, the sources from which affirmative gestures gain their strength.1 Now obviously not every affirmation of a specific value or practice has to be traced back to such a source. A particular, discrete argument may be all that is necessary to defend our preference for, say, a given democratic practice. We are nevertheless sometimes pushed to articulate more extensively how we

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1
I specifically do not say that one's weak ontology is the privileged starting point for justification; more on this issue will be said in chapter 1.

-ix-

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