What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

15 thoughts on “What makes an ontology “robust”?

  1. Well, amidst the congratulatory posts, I suppose I shall be contrarian. Your polemic comes across as a hatchet job. Peruse Milbank and Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue for numerous practical suggestions as to how one might act to improve social conditions. The point of Radical Orthodoxy’s argument regarding ontology is that metaphysical allegiances influence how one understands reality and what actions appear reasonable and good. I’m sorry if they seem silly and lacking in robust depth to you. I do not get the sense that it is an insular position positing an ahistorical perfection from which to castigate the “impurities” of lived, existential situations.

  2. I only ask because you have given me literally no content to respond to. You open by exaggerating the degree of positive response (only two people have commented) and implicitly congratulating yourself for being brave enough to buck the trend. You then follow up with name-calling — dismissing my post as a “hatchet job” — and imply that I haven’t even read Radox material. The closest you come to making an actual point is when you say, “The point of Radical Orthodoxy’s argument regarding ontology is that metaphysical allegiances influence how one understands reality and what actions appear reasonable and good” — but that is a widely accepted fact, not something that makes Radox unique. If that’s their “point,” then the movement is indeed trivial. The following sentence just kind of sneers at me, then the final one says, essentially, “nuh uh.”

  3. Alright, I admit, the way you use robust seems to have an ambiguity about it — or perhaps you have some ambivalence about it, I am not sure. Robust depth is the wrong expression and I apologize for lack of clarity. It appears to me that you are associating robust with a self-reinforcing hermeneutic derivative from a kind of enclave mentality. A self-reinforcing dynamic suggests an incapacity for true dialectic. This ought to be a deficiency, but I am not certain you are reading it that way. The prophetic paradigm you articulate seems more consistent with Judges and Deuteronomy. A wisdom book like Job puts theodicy potentially in question. I don’t think the weight of Jewish prophetic experience is as monolithic as you appear to suggest. But that is a different matter from how you have positioned Radical Orthodoxy.

    Now that I scrutinize more closely, I suppose that your argument is too brief for me to have certainty that I grasp it. Radical Orthodoxy is apparently different from Old Testament prophetic and Augustinian modes in that it sees the reason for “bad things happening” as utterly outside, more a viral invasion than a susceptibility drawn from internal moral weakness and failure. I don’t think that is really true. The concentration on Dun Scotus and univocity is an attempt to see a decadence in early modern theology that led to the deformations of nominalism and voluntarism. These are interior to Christendom. If one believes that ideas of this kind are esoteric and do not influence behavior, of course, one will be dismissive of the Radial Orthodoxy narrative.

  4. “Some guy came along and messed the balance up” is an extrinsic explanation, even if that person was in some sense “within” Christianity. Plus there is the sense that Stocus is returning to the pre-Platonic, agonistic Greek ontology — when his conceptual innovations weren’t somehow smuggled in with Muslim thought. And near as I can tell, Radox is almost purely an academic phenomenon, not a real ecclesiastical movement rooted in a specific community.

    To me, the biggest weakness in the Radox ontology is that they don’t take sin seriously. They want Augustine without sin, and when they talk about sin, they tend to downplay it by conflating it with finitude as such. That attitude can only lead to the empty triumphalism that imagines you can unambiguously locate the City of God — and surprise, surprise, it turns out that the putative City of God is convincing to literally no one. I can see why they would want to downplay sin for propaganda reasons (since modern people are suspicious of sin talk), but they are removing the key element that makes the Augustinian paradigm actually function in a robust, self-reinforcing way. (This is not to say that I want us to “return” to the Augustinian paradigm, just to emphasize that it has a rigor and efficaciousness that Radox literally can never have.)

  5. And the reason I pointed to Milbank and Pabst’ book on The Politics of Virtue is that it articulates a prudential program that may or may not work, but it is hardly a kind of magical thinking. Surely, rhetoric such as “the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems” is meant to be dismissive. I simply don’t recognize that characterization as a legitimate precis of Radical Orthodoxy.

  6. Okay, I have heard this particular criticism of Radical Orthodoxy. I don’t think it is quite valid, but the charge that it is too heavily intellectual is not without merit. (Sorry, the back and forth is out of sync.) Also, be aware I am at work in a drudgery day job. Terseness is due to the conditions in which I write, not a desire to be unmannerly.

  7. I guess I’m not being clear, because my problem isn’t that Radox lacks a political program. (The parallel with libertarianism should indicate that, because obviously libertarians have a political program.) Everyone, in every worldview, has views about the practical results that follow from their ideas. The question is whether there are built-in mechanisms so that, for example, failure actually increases adherence to the worldview. That would be robust. Just having a political program is not sufficient for robustness. For instance, I don’t think that the Sanders movement will automatically survive just because it has good principles and a program of action.

  8. I have been misreading your points. I have not read your blog enough to have a good sense of where you are coming from. (I surmise my views are likely more conservative, but not if one equates such with libertarian perspectives.) I guess I am still hung up on the ambiguity about robust. It seems you are using it as both good and bad in some ways. Is failure increasing adherence a good thing or not? What criteria is used for failure? From the point of view of a first century Jewish zealot, Christ’s death on the Cross was a failure; not so, obviously, for a Christian.

    The comment about Sanders would imply robust is good — but the notion that robust is insular and in some ways incapable of refutation is surely not . . .

  9. It’s not about whether robustness is good or bad. A system is robust if it is durable, and since systems constantly have to reproduce themselves (every day, every generation), a system is more robust if it is self-reinforcing. In the long run, the self-reinforcing aspect can produce weakness or vulnerability, but it can’t survive at all if it doesn’t have self-reinforcing mechanisms. The traditional climate was pretty robust, until the stability it fostered allowed us to evolve to the point where we could produce an external shock to it — and now the dynamic of climate change is unfortunately robust because it’s producing self-reinforcing cycles (the melting of permafrost releasing methane, for instance). A lot of bad things are robust — I’m not a fan of Augustinianism, and I think there’s a case to be made that neoliberalism is more robust than social democracy (and I prefer the latter).

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