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.

29 Responses to “What makes an ontology “robust”?”

  1. Hill Says:

    mic drop dot gif

  2. landzek Says:

    and and perhaps a less specific sense the irony of the situation you describe is that in this ontology not being robust exactly creates a condition of it robustness.

    Even people with the knowledge of their terrible situation will not let it go often enough. It is not sufficient to have knowledge of one’s bad habits to relieve one south of that bad habit. I think one would like to argue a certain ‘addiction recovery trope’ that one needs to get to one’s bottom, and we might say and ontology that is not robust Merli needs to get to its bottom in order to find a way to develop a robust ontology (if that’s even desirable). But I think one of the issues of at least addiction and recovery and bottoms is that most of the people never get to their bottom. So we could say have your proposal here: if it’s never been said before I feel like you’ve come upon something that opens a whole world of analysis.

    I love it.

  3. brian Says:

    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.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Could you please summarize my view as you understand it and tell me specifically what is wrong with it?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    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.”

  6. landzek Says:

    I agree. Im not sure what the substance of the disagreement is.

  7. landzek Says:

    And i am still in the mode of resisting the use of the term ‘robust’. Lol.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    “Adam, you say Radox is bad, but actually it’s good. So I’m confused.”

  9. brian Says:

    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.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    “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.)

  11. brian Says:

    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.

  12. brian Says:

    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.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    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.

  14. brian Says:

    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 . . .

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    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).

  16. brian Says:

    I see. You are being more descriptive than normative. I’ll leave you in peace now. Thanks for the exchange.

  17. landzek Says:

    I’m not familiar with Radox. And I could be wrong but it seems like Adam is taking an approach of system unto itself, and not a metaphysical approach of a proposed overlying system. It appears to me that he saying in a way that a functional ontology accounts for itself through an out, and that such a system is robust because it is fully operative and maintains itself as a holistic reality. It accounts for itself for example the suffering incurred, while also using that suffering as an example of why the present and the future must likewise be.

    Whereas I don’t think it would be two off the mark to suggest that what he is saying is not so robust is a breach of such system, which is to say to call the system of metaphysical system, and that’s to propose that the system itself is not solute, due to the proposal of this other overreaching systemic explanation. If the Stan has recourse to something that is other than the system but insomuch as the system is supposed to be operating, it is then itself witnessing its own failure.

    Through this kind of analysis we can really begin to understand what we mean by hegemony and colonialism and oppression and other discursive operators. We can also likewise apply this analysis to our own existence our own situation say for example of idiotic Trump and dishonest Hillary (not that I agree with those labels). It is a bit easy to begin to have an analysis upon what is actually occurring in our current situation.

    For what I think I understand about our present movement that wants to move beyond Kantian essential duality. Because in fact while Kant it’s supposed often enough to be talking about some sort of escape from metaphysical and supernatural proposals, The irony that he instigates is that he is indeed attempting to establish another metaphysical overreaching system. And it is this type of conundrum that was perpetuated in its various ruminations for the next 200 years including today.

    This is why I see the facet of addiction more important then some return to fundamentalism or some identification of metaphysical truth. For even the idea that there are multi vocality or more than one reality or some fluidity of presence it’s just another metaphysical speculation, another encompassing metaphysics but this time based on the nothingness that is on the other side of the ironic Kantian universe.

    I see Adams talk here as a great opening to many avenues of discussion, and one case is that of addiction.

  18. brian Says:

    Dammit, landzek . . .

    If one attempts to prescind form metaphysical concerns and just talk about the durability of the system, can one simply “observe” from an ahistorical, “neutral” position? A neo-Darwinian like Dawkins will talk about selfish genes and seemingly reduce civilization to the functional persistence of DNA. The question of whether it is “good” to exist or not is left unaddressed or treated as an unnecessary question. Genes simply are self-replicating machines. But I reject Hume’s repudiation of the capacity to derive an ought from an is. Implicitly, we are always judging and selecting. Phenomenology has heightened awareness of intentionality. The idea that our perceptions are free of interpretation or some guiding notion of the good that directs desire and observation is simply naive. Hence, durability should necessitate asking the question of Being; why is there something and not Nothing? Durability should evince the question of whether it is good to exist tout court, as well as whether it is good for a particular system to perdure.

    And I do not see a supposedly anti-metaphysical stance as really free of a covert metaphysics. (I am likely blundering into a conversation here, and I must attend to business. I’ll check back later and see if any of this makes even a modicum of sense to you.) The post-modern is wary of metaphysics and grand narratives, but they usually import them back in under cover of rhetoric. They do so, in my view, because metaphysics is an irreducible aspect of human thinking.

  19. landzek Says:

    It’s interesting to me you say Adam, it’s “not an anti-metaphysical stance as really free of covert metaphysics”.

    I tend to be less equivocal. I tend to say that the only way that such analysis can really have depth is to enact partition; which is the say such an analysis cannot perpetually entertain and defend itself from these postmodern deconstructions that would accuse itself within its own lack. The movement away from such nihilism, apart from merely changing the subject, is to an active partition. I think that’s what you’re kind of saying is that some metaphysics tend to stay in a kind of shadowy realm and want to prevent themselves from their own analysis, so it is that it’s not that there’s not metaphysics, but that the only way out of positing a metaphysics is to set aside analysis on its own metaphysical truth. By this I mean the creation of objects.

    Anyways: Adam did you come up with this robust ontology idea where as other people been using this term or what?

  20. brian Says:

    Landzek,

    You are conflating moi, i.e., brian, with adam, I think. He writes the blog. I am the apparently somewhat confused interlocutor. Objects go along with representational thinking. It’s a decidedly modern metaphysics. Heidegger would include everyone back to Plato in that problematic. I think he is mostly wrong. The pre-modern experience was different. It is Charles Taylor’s “buffered selves” that find themselves confronted with “objects.”

  21. landzek Says:

    I don’t think I’m confusing you guys. I am asking Adam the blog owner if he came up with that term ‘robust ontology’ or if it’s a term that’s been floating around and he’s just applying it in this case.

    Granted I’m not laying out my whole theoretical base here in these comments. If you’re interested I’ve written a couple bucks or you could check out my blog.

    Objects may go along with representational thinking but I would challenge you to not have some thinking that is representational despite how you wanted to define it.

    What are the problems we are confronting in our day is the perpetuation of postmodern kind of D construction or postmodern kind of application of theoretical forces.

    I simply take The method of suchapplications and the resultsas facts. When we consider the ontological result of what we might generalize as postmodern thought, my argument is that it is found to be an incorrect method. And that due to this incorrect manner, what I call an orientation, I place the whole tradition which supposes to find itself in the postmodern condition in the category of object.

    What this means then is that objects are subject to postmodern condition. And that the subject being at self an agent of post modernity itself becomes an object of its own estimations, it’s on constructions as well as its own deconstructions. The totality that this situation indicates can be called thus an object in itself, because it defines itself by its limitations.

    This is where I see Adams robust ontology, The ability to have such an analysis, text From, again despite all the theoretical postulates and name associations.

    I have a feeling all the stuff is going to be in my third book which will be out sometime in 2017.

  22. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Radical Orthodoxy coined the term “robust ontology.” I have a feeling that your ignorance of the context is causing you to draw unsound conclusions about the implications of my argument.

  23. landzek Says:

    The soundness or unsoundness will remain to be seen. But thanks !

  24. landzek Says:

    Or, would u care to tell me whats unsound?

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Not especially, because I’m frankly never sure how seriously to take your comments.

  26. landzek Says:

    Lol. They are always serious, and open to critique.

    Honestly; I would like to know where my comment became unsound. For if I am assuming to extrapolate from your meaning, yet you’re saying my extrapolation is incorrect, I surely would like to know at what point or upon what assumptions are incorrect on my part.

    To me it is all a game and so none of it is a game; it is a totalizing sum. I attack hard, and I expect rebuttal to be just as unflinching.

    But that does not mean that somehow I’m taking things personally or that I’m attacking people personally. I’m here to learn.

  27. landzek Says:

    ..oh. I wasn’t being sarcastic and as much as I say I love it. I was being totally honest. Your short post here allowed me a concept that I had not formulated into a term quite as yet. And your examples are good examples; i’ve just extrapolated it to a philosophical situation as a whole; for example the issue of Graham Harmon and the speculative realists, postmodernity and such.

    Eyeview most everything in reality as a religious posture, and so your post is easily applied to the situation.

    I would like to know where you are not following what I’m saying or where I’m totally off the mark.

  28. landzek Says:

    … but I understand if now is not the time or days to in-depth discussion to have through blog posts. 👌🏽


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