Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory

By Stephen K. White | Go to book overview

Chapter One
INTRODUCTION:
THE WEAK ONTOLOGICAL TURN

A CURIOUS COMMONALITY is emerging across a wide variety of contributions in contemporary political theory. Increasingly there is a turn to ontology. This shift might initially seem a little puzzling. For one thing, ontology traditionally referred to a fairly restricted field of philosophical reflection concerned with analyzing “being” that was relatively remote from moral-political concerns. What explains the extraordinary expansion of interest? This expansion becomes doubly perplexing when one recalls that ontology was also traditionally closely connected—sometimes even identified—with metaphysics, an activity now regarded by many with deep suspicion.1

In trying to understand the recent ontological turn, several contributing factors need to be separated. One is the shift in the meaning of ontology that emerged in the last century in analytic philosophy and philosophy of science. For most English-speaking philosophers, ontology came to refer increasingly to the question of what entities are presupposed by our scientific theories. In affirming a theory, one also takes on a commitment to the existence of certain entities.2 Ontology in this general sense seems to have been increasingly appropriated in recent years in the social sciences. Thus, one frequently hears reference made to the ontology implicit in some social scientific theory or research tradition.3

____________________
1
See the essays on ontology in Hans Burkhardt and Barry Smith, eds., The Handbook of Metaphysics and Ontology, vol. 2 (Munich: Philosphia Verlag, 1991). Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Ontology,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 542-43.
2
W. V. O. Quine, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953); and Larry Laudan, Progress and Its Problems: Towards a Theory of Scientific Growth (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), chap. 3.
3
The notion of ontology likely found its way into the discourse of political science through the methodological discussions of the late 1970s and 1980s. Crucial essays in this regard are J. Donald Moon, “The Logic of Political Inquiry: A Synthesis of Opposed Perspectives,” in Handbook of Political Science, ed. Fred Greenstein and Nelson Polsby, vol. 1 (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1975); Brian Fay andJ. Donald Moon, “What Would an Adequate Philosophy of Social Science Look Like?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 7, no. 3 (1977): 209-27; and Terence Ball, “Is There Progress in Political Science?” in Idioms of Inquiry: Critique and Renewal in Political Science, ed. T. Ball (New York: SUNY Press, 1987). The first two essays employed the Lakatosian language of “research programs”; the basic conceptualization of entities within a program was called the “hard core.” Ball's essay, under the influence of Larry Laudan's work, explicitly refers to the “ontology” of a “research tradition.”

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