Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory

By Stephen K. White | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

IHAVE BEEN trying to show two things. The first is that there is a weak ontological turn going on today in political theory. My strategy was to put together in a lineup some unusual suspects who share the characteristics of weak ontology. If my reconstructions have been successful, then the field of contemporary theory should look a little different.

I am also aiming to show that there is something particularly persuasive about contributions to moral and political theory that understand themselves in these terms; that is, I have been elucidating the strengths of weak ontology vis-à-vis its competitors. In conclusion, I want to say a bit more along these lines. Weak ontology primarily challenges three other modes of thinking that inform contemporary political reflection: strong ontology, postmodernism or poststructuralism, and political liberalism.

Strong ontologists are likely to categorize the claims of weak ontology as a new variant of nihilistic, postmodern attack on ultimate values. But if my interpretation of Taylor is correct, it should make this sort of swift rhetorical riposte a good bit less sure of itself. Taylor's value in this regard lies in his powerful elaboration of a theistically rooted moral and political theory that is articulated nevertheless in weak ontological terms.

In relation to postmodernism or poststructuralism, the core issue I have raised is how one challenges various fundaments of modernity without that critique becoming an imperative disconnected from affirmative moral and political formulations. I have argued that to be persuasive in a sustained sense, such formulations must draw explicitly upon ontological sources. Many poststructuralists and postmoderns seem undecided betweenjettisoning ontology wholesale and appealing obliquely to one that is somehow different. Simultaneously, they tend to want to relocate the affirmative moment of political thinking into the idea of a politics “to come.” Within this model, political reflection shuttles between excoriating critique of an irredeemable present and “messianic” appeals to an indefinite, but somehow redemptive, future.1 As a result, the careful, risky, and plodding work of affirmation migrates toward a receding horizon. One upshot of my reading of Butler is to show that, by articulating

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1
Derrida emphasizes this notion of the “messianic” in Spectres of Marx The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. P. Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994); see also “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy,” Oxford Literary Review 6, no. 2 (1984).

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