ontology and political commitment (+)

Tom Vest vest at scf.usc.edu
Tue Jun 27 03:07:37 MDT 1995

I hope you all will excuse this invitation to diverge further from explicit
marxist political issues in order to explore the ontological/methodological
sub-thread just a bit further. I tried to spare you all this post by
inquiring first on the Ontology list, but got no responses (either
everyone's dead over there or these are really bad questions --I am unable
to determine which on my own).

>From what (little) I've read, Bhaskar's work seems to be meant as a
response to Quine's theoretical-methodological question, "To the existence
of what sorts of things does belief in a given theory commit us?" that
takes technology and scientific progress as indicative of the validity of
something like the "conventional" empirico-deductive account of science. At
some point Hans described (Bhaskar's description of) science by relating it
to the ("structured," "differentiated," and "changing") ontological realm
of "mechanisms" vs. the everyday world of "events." My questions are:

1. I'm quite amenable to Bhaskar's conception of fundamental reality as
"changing" (if less sanguine about the "structured" and "differentiated"
aspects). Regardless, using such a description, is there any point in
continuing to talk about the "ontic" as distinct from other, more mundane
aspects or levels of reality? Are the "differentiations" between Bhaskar's
mechanisms and events simply gradations or differences of degree?

2. For marxists, is the commitment to theorizing up from the ontic level
recommended by something other than (what I assume to be a prior)
commitment to a specific revolutionary political program? Is it possible
that this is where Leo Casey and RD adherents diverge, i.e., not so much in
a specific disagreement with ontologically-informed class analysis, but in
their general unwillingness/inability to plumb reality to the ontic depths?

3. As an occasional student of international relations theory, the
formulation of questions of ontology in these terms sounds very much like
our too-frequent debates about levels of analysis, i.e. at which level
(human nature, institution, class, nation-state, international system,
world system) are the primary causal determinants of international events
to be found? To me these usually seem more like
affirming-the-consequent-style justifications for/from theory rather than
serious interrogations of theoretical presuppositions. Am I/is the
discipline/department of international relations missing something

4. Have I taken the "linguistic turn" too seriously, or is there some way
to "talk about ontology" that discounts the "talking" part of this
exercise? Is this renewed interest in ontology merely a call to be more
conscious of the (often unconscious) methodologies through which we seek to
address particular research questions, or pursue particular politcal

As a former student of a prominent RD proponent, I feel that my earlier
education has seriously impeded my ability to grasp most if not all
ontologically-informed arguments. As a continuing student I am seriously
troubled by this fact. I would REALLY be grateful if someone would he*lp me
out here.

Thanks in advance,

Tom Vest
School of International Relations
University of Southern California

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