Politics and Ontology
Given the recent bevy of posts spawned by Nina‘s comments on what she sees as a problem inherent in “certain corners of contemporary continental philosophy”, with regard to the relation between politics and ontology, I feel drawn to say something about the issue. I think straight off I should say that for the most part I agree with Nick’s opinions on the matter (here and here), although I think he made claims for Speculative Realism as a whole that were perhaps more true of his own approach (and that of some others in the loosely defined SR paradigm). Not being a speculative realist, I’m not going to frame anything I say in terms of what a speculative realist approach allows us to do with politics, but rather try to spell out what the relation between politics and ontology is from my own perspective (which I’ve been slowly elaborating on this blog over the past couple months). Also, I’m not going to summarise all of the discussions that have been going on, but I do need to say something about Nina’s brief remarks and the comments Nick made in response to them.
To start with, Nina’s initial point seems to be that there are some within the modern continental field who are more or less explicitly engaged in a project “tracing politics from the laws of nature”. However, the point is not that they are trying to derive political principles from science, but rather that they are trying to derive political principles from ontology. Now Nina also seems to have some concern with the specific form that some of these ontologies take (insofar as they concern themselves with either meaning or meaninglessness), and to some extent with the very goals that these ontologies aim for (she expresses sympathy with Badiou’s thesis that mathematics is ontology, insofar as it takes ontology out of the hands of philosophers entirely), but these are besides the point. The point is that ontology is being taken to play some foundational role in politics, and that this is rather problematic, insofar as it tends to allow us to ignore ‘what happens’ in favour of thinking about the structure of this very happening. Whether ontology is treated as a necessary precursor to any politics, or whether ontology is treated as somehow itself a political action, the charge is that this avoids the genuine practice of politics.
Nick has pointed out perhaps the crucial issue with the debates which this has sparked, which is that no one seems to be entirely sure what genuine politics is. This feeds back into the debate itself insofar as some think explicitly think that ontology is all that can provide an answer to this question (which I think is Reid’s position, although I’m not entirely sure if he’s happy with his non-philosophical approach being identified as ontology), and even those who think that ontology is itself somehow an essentially political matter (which I believe is John’s position) need to fall back on a very broad conception of the political (and its unclear whether this is itself motivated by ontological concerns). Nick is very honest in saying that he’s not sure that he has a good definition of politics, although he believes that the above approaches are inadequate.
What I’d add to this point is that it seems that not only do we not have a good definition of what politics is, but the debate is proceeding without a good definition of what ontology is. Moreover, it’s even somewhat confused over the place of philosophy in general, insofar as some seem to take philosophy to be identical with ontology and others aren’t so sure. The question of the relation between philosophy and politics, and the perhaps more specific question of the relation between ontology and politics, is a bit fuzzy under these conditions. Now, the irony here is that I think we can only get clear about these relations if we not only get clear about the distinction between ontology and science, mentioned above, but also about the distinction between the is and the ought, which Levi’s initial response to Nina explicitly called into question.
I’m just going to try and present a clear definition of what politics is on the one hand, and what ontology is on the other, and then say something about the relation between them, drawing on the distinction between what is and what ought to be.
1. What is Politics?
Politics is concerned with two questions: “What should we do?” and “How should we do it?”, or with the ideal on the one hand, and the instrumental on the other. These two questions aren’t necessarily serial, as if we always had the luxury of working out what we should aim for before working out what it’s possible to achieve. The divorcing of the former question from the latter question is naive utopianism. The divorcing of the latter question from the former question is simple logistics. We only have genuine politics when both the ideal and the instrumental are open to question, and when concerns with one can affect the concerns with the other.
The two essential features of these questions are the ‘should’ and the ‘we’. I’ll say a little bit more about the ‘should’ or ‘ought’ later, but it is the ‘we’ that is specifically important here. If we changed the subject of the question to ‘I’, then we’d have a very different issue, as “What should I do?” and “How should I do it?” are more properly the questions of ethics. (It should be noted that there is a limit case of “What I should do?”, namely, what I’ve been calling the fundamental norms of rationality, which aren’t straightforwardly ethical, but I’ll leave this for now.) What makes politics genuine is that it is guided by a concern with some group or that it is a matter of collective action in the interests of that collective.
The word politics has of late acquired an additional, and largely pejorative meaning which is divorced from this collectivity. Take the phrase ‘office politics’, or the exasperated exclamation that ‘It’s all politics!’. Here politics is taken to mean the strategic manoeuvring of different individuals (forming and breaking alliances, manipulating others, making threats, cutting deals, etc.) in pursuit of their own ends. Genuine politics doesn’t exclude this kind of strategic manoeuvring, but it is not a matter of individuals coming to compromises to get what they want for themselves, but to get what they think is right for the group. The pejorative sense of politics strips away the central ideal at the heart of the notion of politics, leaving nothing but the difficult realities of how it is achieved.
The other point to make is that politics is obviously not just concerned with questions about action, but with action itself. This is the difference between talking about politics and engaging in politics. The simple definition of politics is thus the following: it is that discourse that asks after the ideals guiding, and the instrumental considerations governing, collective action and the collective action that arises from it.
2. What is Ontology?
One of the things that has become apparent in this debate is that we’re not entirely sure what the subject matter of ontology is, but we are sure that it has something to do with ‘what is’. The other term which has been thrown around is ‘nature’, but I think this has perhaps caused more confusion than it has helped. The problem is that we haven’t really delineated precisely what ontology is meant to tell us about ‘what is’, as opposed to the other discourses that are ostensibly concerned with it. It seems as if there is a definite sense in which physics, biology, geology and the other natural sciences are concerned with ‘what is’, and moreover one could make a good case that the social sciences are also concerned with it. What is specific about ontology’s concern with ‘what is’?
I’ve put forward an account of ontology’s subject matter elsewhere (here and here), but I’ll try and rehearse it again here. Science, defined in the broadest sense, is that discourse which is concerned with ‘what is’. Ontology is the meta-discourse of science, insofar as it is concerned with what ‘what is’ is. This is understood better is we break ontology into ontology proper and metaphysics (which is a part of it), by breaking ‘what is’ into ‘what is the case’ (or ‘what is true’) and ‘what exists’. Ontology is concerned with what ‘what is the case’ is (or what Being is), whereas metaphysics is concerned with what ‘what exists’ is (or what beings are). If we think of it this way, we understand that what ontology is concerned with is what is the case independently of what happens to be the case (and thus also what happens to exist). Metaphysics is a part of ontology insofar as what beings are, or the beingness of beings, is an aspect of Being proper.
Now, I’ve elsewhere argued that ontology is sensitive to science insofar as science determines what beings there are, through asking the question ‘what exists?’ and metaphysics (which is an essential part of ontology) can only get at the essence of ‘what exists’, or beingness, by abstracting from these beings. It is this sensitivity of metaphysics to science which allows ontology to concern itself with the structure of Being as it is in itself. I’ll say more about this later, but for now it is important to point out that the relationship between ontology and science is not one-way.
Ontology can make a positive contribution to science. This is not to say that science cannot proceed without an explicitly ontological discourse. This is obviously not the case. However, as Heidegger and Husserl noted, there is a certain amount of ontology within the sciences themselves, namely, what they called regional ontology. Now, I think Heidegger misconceived what regional ontology is, insofar as he understood it to be a matter of working out the kind of Being belonging to the beings within a given domain. I would argue that this is mistaken, as strictly speaking there aren’t different kinds of Being (this is my commitment to the strong principle of univocity discussed here). Nonetheless, Heidegger is right to say that science engages in a certain amount of implicit ontology, insofar as each particular scientific discourse is concerned with what kinds of entities make up its domain, and insofar as they are concerned with how the entities within different domains are related (and can interact) as part of a unitary nature. Ontology is concerned with the questions of what constitutes a legitimate kind of entity (insofar as it is concerned with what entities are, via metaphysics), and with what constitutes a legitimate relation between entities in different domains (insofar as it is concerned with the unitary structure of Being as such).
Science can proceed without ontology, but it does so without explicitly concerning itself with these foundational questions. This can produce problems, most obviously when it comes to linking up scientific domains. I take it that insofar as we pursue science properly we should ask these questions explicitly, which means that we should do ontology. This gives us one possible way of understanding the relation between ontology and politics.
Insofar as politics is concerned with instrumental considerations regarding how to achieve our collective goals, then it must be concerned with ‘what is’. Kant understood this well in the third critique when he introduced the idea of technical reason. We need to understand what resources we have and what obstacles there are to achieving our ends if we are to work out how to achieve them, but we can only do this on the basis of understanding the situation we happen to be in, or ‘what is the case’ as such. Insofar as politics’ concern with ideals must be sensitive to instrumental considerations, and these instrumental considerations must be sensitive to ‘what is’, then politics must be sensitive to science. Moreover, insofar as ontology can make a contribution to science by making explicit what is otherwise implicit within it, so as to pursue it properly, then politics must be sensitive to ontology.
Ontology can thus contribute to politics in a way that is not a matter of giving an account of what politics is. In my opinion, ontology can make an actual contribution to the political (rather than the mere potential one outlined above) insofar as it can play a foundational role in the social sciences (I’ve made some gestures in this direction here). A better understanding of the real structure of the social is a cornerstone of developing a better politics, and if it is done right, then ontology can make a positive contribution to this.
3. The Difference Between What Is and What Ought to Be
Now, I’ve put forward a definition of politics, a definition of ontology, and given a rough account of how ontology can have an indirect effect on politics. The issue now is to show why, against what some others have said, ontology should not have a direct effect on politics (i.e., an effect that does not proceed via science), and politics should not have an effect upon ontology. To do this it is important to understand the distinction between what is and what ought to be.
The first thing we have to do when trying to make sense of this distinction is to map it on to the two ways that ‘what is’ was interpreted above: ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists’. It is possible to map the distinction onto the latter half in two ways: as the distinction between what exists and what ought to exist, and as the distinction between what exists and the demands that constitute what ought to be. This would be a distinction between beings and the laws or norms that dictate how they should be. I have been endorsing this latter distinction, insofar as I hold that norms are not beings (but are pseudo-beings, as I tried to explain in the previous post). For the moment though, I think the latter half of ‘what is’ is unimportant. The former half is more interesting, especially insofar as it subsumes the latter, in virtue of the fact that there are truths about ‘what exists’, but these truths do not exhaust ‘what is the case’ as such.
When we try and map the is/ought distinction onto ‘what is the case’ we are confronted with an interesting problem. It seems very straightforward to distinguish between ‘what is the case’ and ‘what ought to be the case’, but since ‘what is the case’ is equivalent to ‘what is true‘, we are put in the awkward situation of either accepting that there are truths about ‘what ought to be the case’, which are thereby part of ‘what is the case’ (e.g., we would like to say it is true that ‘one should drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK’), thus collapsing the distinction, or maintaining the distinction and denying that anything true can be said of ‘what ought to be the case’. To restate this more simply, it seems that we must either deny the truth of normative discourse, or we admit that the normative is a part of ‘what is’.
Another way of looking at this problem is by relating it to the three major concepts of Kant’s critical project: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Insofar as we identify ‘what is the case’ with the True, then we see that this problem collapses the Good and the Beautiful into the True, insofar as we take there to be truths about what is good and what is beautiful. We will leave the Beautiful alone for now, as that raises a whole bunch of extra questions, and will stick to the relation between the True and the Good.
Let’s use this terminology to reformulate our understanding of ontology. Thought in these terms, ontology asks after the essence of the True, or the structure of the True independent of what happens to be true. If this is the case, then ontology is not only something that indirectly affects politics (and perhaps ethics), but is responsible for defining the essence of politics, insofar as politics is concerned with the collective Good, and ontology is responsible for articulating the essence of the Good in its relation to the True as a whole. On this view, the is/ought distinction is a matter for ontology itself, rather than something which distinguishes between the descriptive domain of ontology and science on the one hand, and the prescriptive domain of politics and ethics on the other. I think this kind of view is flawed, and I will endeavour to show why.
4. The True and the Real
The above approach fails to do two things: it fails to adequately differentiate between science and politics, and it fails to adequately give an account of how ontology inquires into Being as it is in itself.
On the first point, this approach treats politics as if has its own domain. It treats the question ‘What should we do?’, as inquiring after some special kind of entity, a norm or law, that is either a transcendent part of the world’s structure, or immanent within the world itself. It doesn’t matter whether the appeal is to something like an invariant natural law, or a set of mutable norms immanent within a given historical situation, politics is treated as having an objective subject matter, and politics is treated as the correct description of this subject matter. Of course, politics still contains an instrumental element, and the actual process of political action itself, but these become tied to a descriptive discourse that can only differ from science insofar as its domain is distinct from the domains of the natural sciences. We then have a distinction between the domain of nature and some supra-natural domain (whether we call it culture or not is unimportant), and the difference between science and politics rests on this distinction. There are obviously some hard problems for situating these two domains within the same unitary structure of Being (which an ontological interpretation of the is/ought distinction would thus have to do), but I won’t go into them here. I will however point out that I’ve tried to provide independent reasons why thinking of norms or laws as entities is bad idea, in the last post.
On the second point, it is possible for us to get a good understanding of the structure of the True (or ‘what is the case’), by explicating our implicit understanding of the fundamental norms of rationality. This way of putting the point introduces more of my own technical terms than is necessary. The point is simply that we have some understanding of truth, and how it relates to other essential notions such as existence, identity, essence, and so on, insofar as we are capable of asking questions at all. We thus have an understanding of the True, as the proper terminus of all inquiry (insofar as it contains the answer to all possible questions). The important question is how we move from this pre-ontological understanding of the structure of the True, to an understanding of its essence, or the structure as it is in itself.
The point that must be made in relation to both these problems is that we need some understanding of what it is to inquire into something as it is in itself, as opposed to something as it is for us, and that this needs to be distinguished from inquiring after the truth of something, because all inquiry aims at truth. I’ve elsewhere talked about this in terms of making a distinction between objective truth and non-objective truth. This distinction allows us to solve both of the above problems. We can redefine science as that discourse that is concerned with ‘what is objectively the case’. I’ve elsewhere called this the Real as opposed to the True, of which it is a part. Ontology can then still be said to be the meta-discourse of science, but it aims to uncover the essence of the Real, rather than the essence of the True. This enables us to solve the second problem, because the Real just is the in itself, and it is in virtue of this that it has essential structure over and above our pre-ontological understanding of it. This ties back in to the point I made earlier about the relation between metaphysics and ontology. It is metaphysics’ dependence on science, and ontology’s dependence on metaphysics, which makes ontology a properly objective inquiry. We might even say that it is the limit-case of objective inquiry, insofar as it is the inquiry into the objective structure of objectivity itself, or the real structure of the Real, as opposed to the formal structure of objectivity, or our pre-ontological understanding of the Real.
If we accept this conception of ontology and science, then we see that the Real (‘what is’ proper) and the Good (‘what ought to be’) are both parts of the True, and that the difference between them is not a part of the Real itself. This means that the Is/Ought distinction is not a matter for ontology itself. Ontology sits firmly on the ‘is’ side of the distinction, even if it is precisely the discourse on what the ‘is’ consists in. Moreover, this undermines the idea that the essence of politics is to be determined by ontology. This is because politics is not to be identified with any actual political institution or movement, or with anything objective within the world for that matter, any more than ontology is. Now, the actual practice of politics, ontology, and science, can be studied in objective terms as part of the Real, but what defines these different discourses is their concern with specific questions, and what those questions demand. The architectonic of Reason, which divides these different theoretical discourses and modes of practical action into their various kinds is a properly normative matter. It deals with what it would be to do ontology, science, or politics properly.
This leads me to the other claims I made at the beginning of the last section: that ontology should not directly affect politics, and that politics should not affect ontology at all. It might indeed be the case that ontology does affect politics, and I would claim that the intervention of religion in politics does precisely this. People tend to forget that theism is a metaphysical position and to draw any political conclusions from it is a breach of the independence of politics. To remove religion from politics it is not necessary to do ontology, but just to insist that politics is done properly (although the addition of some ontological arguments to undermine theism itself certainly doesn’t hurt). Similarly, politics can affect ontology. There are plenty of people whose philosophical approaches are more or less consciously influenced by their political agenda. However, although this might be an interesting interpretational point, it bears no relevance to the proper assessment and critique of their ontological position, because this is not what the question of ontology is concerned with.
Finally, this brings me to my favourite line in Nina’s post, which Reid has picked up in a very different way from me:
Confronting ‘what is’ has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial.
I really agree with this sentiment, even though I’m not sure Nina would agree with my way of cashing it out. The distinction between the normative and the natural is not a natural distinction, nor is it (pace Heidegger), a distinction in some higher term (i.e., Being). It is itself a normative distinction, insofar as it is a distinction that we must make insofar as we are rational. However, it is also a distinction that we must efface insofar as we are concerned with what really is (the natural alone), and Reason demands that we so concern ourselves.
We are thus caught between two different rational obligations: the obligation to understand the world as it is in itself, on the one hand, and the obligation to treat ourselves and eachother as obligated (and thus more than mere natural things) in order to discharge the former obligation, on the other. Here we have the source of the classic distinctions between subject and object, and culture and nature, respectively. Subjects are pseudo-beings, and the domain of subjects – culture – is a pseudo-domain. We necessarily talk about them as a condition of talking about what is in itself, but in talking about what is in itself we must purge the True of them, till we are left with nothing but the cold hard Real.
In truth, there really is no artifice, no subjects, no norms, there is only nature. These themselves are artificial, but the necessity of this artifice is properly transcendental, for without it there can be no thought of the Real as Real, even if the Real is independent of thought about it. However, we are left to do more than just inquire into the Real, and as such there is more to the Good than the rational. Here is where we find the root of the ethical and the political.
5. Conclusion: What then is Philosophy?
To conclude, I’d like to return to the question I asked at the beginning about the relation between philosophy and ontology. I have already put forward a somewhat strange view of the nature of philosophy (at the end of this post), but I feel I have to say something more sober about where philosophy stands within the schema I have posited here. A good place to start is to say that philosophy is the discipline which is not concerned with any particular question, but rather with questioning as such. This is where the proliferation of ‘philosophy of X’s’ emerges from, insofar as philosophy aims to delimit the particular questions posed by other disciplines and make sure they stay true to those questions’ demands.
Philosophy is more than ontology because it is philosophy that delimits ontology and its relations to other discourses and rational activities. Philosophy is concerned with Reason as such, rather than simply with our reasoning about ‘what is’. On this account, philosophy is no more political than politics is, but philosophy does have the task of determining what politics is, and its relations to our other rational endeavours. Understanding what politics is can itself have a positive affect on politics, but this does not make philosophy a political activity. Nonetheless, this indicates that there is space for philosophy outside of ontology, that there is space for the philosophy of politics outside of ontology, and that politics is independent of all of them, even if it is related to them.