ontology and political commitment (+)

jwalker jwalker at email.unc.edu
Fri Jun 30 06:17:06 MDT 1995


There are a number of points in your recent post that I found
interesting.  I can't reply to all of them now since summer school has
started around here!  But here are a couple of questions:

On Thu, 29 Jun 1995 LeoCasey at aol.com wrote:
 There is a clear connection between the
> particular concept of human nature posited by political thinkers, on the one
> hand, and the idea of the just (or legitimate, or necessary) state which they
> derive from it, on the other hand. Thus, Hobbes' negative ('realist') concept
> of human nature as competitive and self-seeking egoism is directly connected
> to his argument that a strong, absolutist state is required to end the 'war
> of all against all', while Locke's positive concept of human nature as
> cooperative and sociable is logically entailed in his view that the powers of
> the state should be limited and restricted. Classical political theories
> based on ideas of human nature, therefore, take the form of elaborate and
> grand tautologies -- for all the ornament, the vision of the state they
> espouse was implicit in their notion of human nature.

I think you're right that the theory of human nature one holds will guide
one's view about what forms of political organization are just.  But you
seem to be advancing this fact as a criticism -- in philosophy, anyway,
to call a theory a "tautology" is to criticize it as empty and probably

But I can't see that the examples you present here or later in your post
bear this criticism out.  A theory is tautologous only if all of its
prescriptions are in some way contained within the theory of human nature
it starts with.  And this is clearly not true of Hobbes and Locke --
you'll note they both do a lot of arguing, invoking many further premises
not themselves derived from the "theory of human nature", to reach their
conclusions about the just state.

In the case of Hobbes, for example, there are many contemporary politicla
theorists who start with his assumptions about human nature -- rational
nontuistic man -- and reach far different conclusions.  Which one
wouldn't expect if the whole theory were waiting within the account of
human nature, waiting to be unpacked.

So it seems to me that accounts of human nature are premises in arguments
for theories of justice, maybe pretty important ones, but that this
doesn't make those theories tautologous.


Let me also note, although it is too long an argument to make
> here -- much of my doctoral dissertation was dedicated to it -- that once one
> starts from a singular notion of human essence, which most concepts of human
> nature necessarily do, one invariably produces equally singular notions of
> what human subjects should do (a dynamic Foucault analyzed as normalization)
> and of what a just state or society might be, and in so doing, establishes a
> theoretical basis for state authoritarianism.

I know you've explicitly begged off of giving your reasons for this, but
I found it provocative!  What I wonder is what you mean by "theoretical
basis fo rstate authoritarianism", and why the theories you criticize
establish one.

Would any theory of justice, or for that matter any theory of morality,
establish such a basis, in your view, whether or not it is drawn from a
theory of human nature?

I take it you think authoritarianism in the sense you use it is something
to be avoided, and the word certainly carries that connotation.  Can you
say more fully what you mean by it, and why it's bad?


> Let me make one last point, since all of the critiques of radical democracy
> on this list have not made it, and I think it is a major issue on which the
> radical democratic vision needs to do some serious thinking and debate. The
> problem with the elimination of the ontological is how one then grounds the
> values one wants to promote in society and the state. If human nature does
> not logically ential democratic (anti-exploitative, anti-racist, anti-sexist,
> anti-homophobic) norms, why should one adopt them as opposed to hierarchical,
> oppressive norms? There are some ways out of this thicket, but they are not
> adequately developed at this point. That issue may be worthy of further
> investigation.

I'd like to respond to this more adequately and perhaps will in the
future.  It's hard to do so, though, since you seem to be asking a very
broad question -- about the normative grounding of any political theory!

For the moment I'd just like to register my belief that whether there is
such normative grounding or not doesn't depend on whether we like
building our theories on conceptions of human nature.  This is because
such conceptions, in my experience anyway, almost always embody covert
normative premises and so can't serve to ground out a political theory --
they themselves stand in need of grounding.

John D. Walker

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