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Fr. 458

December 12, 2013

Can political philosophy maintain agnosticism towards “fundamental theses of social ontology or philosophical anthropology” (Theories of Democracy, p. 35)? More simply, can political philosophy remain uncommitted when the time comes to describe human beings in their relations to political institutions? For, in order to establish a relation between two things, it first seems necessary to have an idea of what these things are such that one might posit a relation in the first place.

If political philosophy cannot maintain such agnosticism, then it is plausible that various positions might be refuted in virtue of the unique socio-ontological theses to which they are committed. In other words, if one could demonstrate that a certain position x posits that individuality and community possess structures y and z, and these structures, y and could be shown to be uninstantiated in the world or generally falsifiable, then itself could be refuted. For example, if catallaxy or rational choice theory necessarily posits an individual reasoning, choosing and acting on preferences uniquely out of self-interest and the individual can be shown to proceed from other bases in reasoning, choosing and acting on preferences (e.g. a sense of justice, reasoned principles, etc.), then catallaxy or rational choice theory would get something wrong about the picture of the individual at the fundamental level of social ontology.

Certainly, it should be noted here that, unlike in the case of science, falsifiability seems to apply somewhat less easily to the theses of social ontology in that entities like individual, self, community and society are not physical or material properties capable of being isolated in a laboratory. Whatever inroads psychology and cognitive science can make in this particular domain of inquiry, it is prima facie possible that such entities resist a fully scientific explanation in that these entities are capable of change in response to pressures from within one another: views in and of society can change the individual as much as views in and of the individual can change society.

The constant here seems to be the need to tell a story of some kind when confronted with an explanatory task in political philosophy. Indeed, this need does not seem unrelated with the broader narrative requirements and conditions for legitimation set out in Jean-François Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne (see pp. 49-53). Moreover, the political philosopher owes it to him or herself to make this story as thorough and convincing as possible when it comes to reconciling empirical evidence with widely held intuitions.

With this in mind, one can set out three questions with which any political philosophy will have to come to grips in any attempt to rehabilitate the notion of social ontology:

1. Why social ontology? Generally speaking, why is there a need for social ontology in the first place? Why can one not simply do without this specious reasoning?

2. Why a(nother) social ontology? In other words, why is there a need for one social ontology rather than a plurality? And what defects are to be found in other social ontologies?

3. Why this social ontology? Generally speaking, how does this position propose to rectify the shortcomings of others? In short, why is it to be preferred?

Such are the considerations that go hand-in-hand with any new social ontology going forward.

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