(Yet another shameless cross-posting from I Cite)
In a critique of Scott Eric Kaufman's draft paper on the history of theory in literary studies (which I haven't read; I recommend, though, the terrific discussion over at Rough Theory) Eileen Joy rightly draws attention to Stephen White's discussion of weak ontology. Indeed, to my mind, Scott's emphasis (as channeled by N. Pepperell) on "an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held" is more akin to William Connolly's ethos of pluralization and commitment to the cultivation of an ethos of generosity (White discusses Connolly's work in detail in Sustaining Affirmation; White's notion of weak ontology in fact draws heavily from Connolly and attempts to mediate between Connolly's Deleuze-indebted 'immanent naturalism' and the work of other political theorists--in particular, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, and George Kateb).
Is this interesting primarily as a matter of academic pedantry or turf warfare (along the lines of "gee, political theorists have already been talking about this for quite a while")? Perhaps. But there could be more at stake. Differently put, that Connolly has worked out these notions in several books that have been the subject of sustained discussion among political theorists for the last decade might shed light on potential ramifications of an "aggressive commitment to strong beliefs weakly held" (it is also likely that the disciplinary difference here is significant--Scott says that literary theorists are more interested in imagined worlds; political theorists, for all our engagement with ideals, remain imbricated in this one, for better or worse). Here are a few possibilities:
1. Among political theorists, Connolly tends to be associated with poststructuralism (his archive is heavy on Deleuze and Foucault and critical of foundationalist, universalist, and dogmatic approaches ).
2. Connolly's pluralism is not deliberative. That is, it is neither rooted in nor presupposes the possibility (or even desirability) of discussion. It thus accepts a fundamental incommensurability but wants to defang it.
3. This is where 'weakly held' comes in. Connolly expresses it as an awareness of the contestability of one's own fundaments.
4. To my mind, this is where the difficulties come in. It is one thing to recognize the contestability of one's fundaments when one is thinking, reading, and writing. In some ways, it is simply another way to understand good old Kantian reflexivity/universalizability. It may even be another way of 'including oneself in the picture' and recognizing that any view that one has of the whole is already part of that very whole, inside it, operating within it. Yet, it is another thing entirely to engage politically from such a view.
Or, perhaps a better way to put it is to say that different things can follow from such contestability. One can stop fighting to death, aware that one may be wrong--gee, maybe slavery is God's will or maybe women really are incapable of reasoning. Or, one can fight to the death, knowing full well that this may ultimately have been wrong and pointless. Contestability, then, may be simply another way of saying that nothing is certain, that certainty is an inhuman element.
5. An additional difficulty with placing one's political eggs in the contestability basket is a matter of political strategy. When one's opponents are possessed of an inhuman certainty, when they are motivated to realize their vision of the world, to respond by saying that, really, they need to demonstrate more humility is inadequate. That is not the way to defeat them. Instead, one needs to affirm the contest aspect of contestability, the aspect of struggle--force decides.
Addendum: Rich Puchalsky, in the comment thread at Rough Theory, doubts that argument can overcome a determined a commitment to incommensurability. I'm not sure I know what he means. For me, incommensurability isn't something one is committed to or not. It's a description of the world (I prefer the term collapse of symbolic efficiency) that one can try to refute, resolve, deny, or accommodate. Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible (modus vivendi is one fragile possibility). In the academic world, it is often decided/determined budgetarily, but remains as a site of conflict and contestation--actually, not unlike in the political world. Perhaps, though, conflict over the details, the working through of momentary compromises is not trivial. Perhaps it is a kind of inching forward toward a necessarily impossible and unattainable resolution.