A Social Ontology

A Social Ontology

David Weissman
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Social Ontology
    Book Description:

    Moral and social philosophers often assume that humans beings are and ought to be autonomous. This tradition of individualism, or atomism, underlies many of our assumptions about ethics and law; it provides a legitimating framework for liberal democracy and free market capitalism. In this powerful book, David Weissman argues against atomistic ontologies, affirming instead that all of reality is social. Every particular is a system created by the reciprocal causal relations of its parts, he explains. Weissman formulates an original metaphysics of nature that remains true to what is known through the empirical sciences, and he applies his hypothesis to a range of topics in psychology, morals, sociology, and politics.The author contends that systems are sometimes mutually independent, but many systems-human ones especially-are joined in higher order systems, such as families, friendships, businesses, and states, that are overlapping or nested. Weissman tests this schematic claim with empirical examples in chapters on persons, sociality, and value. He also considers how the scheme applies to particular issues related to deliberation, free speech, conflict, and ecology.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14856-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Imagine that people surge out the doors of a commuter train, dispersing through a station already crowded with riders. They move in waves through the exits onto the street. Some walk together, but most go alone, strained or composed, full of purpose, complete. Social atomism could tell most of its story by describing these commuters. Separate bodies and trajectories distinguish and explain us, though we are sometimes joined under rules or laws that limit the terms of our mutual duties. Everyone does, or can, arrive at the destination of his or her choice. Crowding delays but never captures us. Togetherness...

  6. Chapter 1 Systems
    (pp. 23-100)

    Thingis typically an all-purpose word used to signify any topic of thought or conversation. The things that concern me are material particulars, including cats, cultures, and cyclones. I shall say that such things are systems, and that they are established and sustained within tolerant environments when causal relations bind their parts. Any material particular that is not a system is an aggregate of systems, as people are systems and crowds are aggregates.

    Section I describes the inception and character of systems. Section II appraises the various arguments that purport to eliminate relationships in favor of their terms. Section III...

  7. Chapter 2 Persons
    (pp. 101-146)

    The schematic claims of Chapter One require a test: are they applicable to some domain of things? We humans are mutually independent systems, though we often join ourselves to one another to form higher-order systems that are reciprocally related, nested, or overlapping. Here, in talk about family, friendship, and work mates, we have ready evidence that networks of systems are pervasive. Yet the evidence comes too easily; the examples seem trivial. Shouldn’t the idiom of metaphysical authority be abstract: shouldn’t we keep our distance from the details of everyday life? This persuasion wrongly scorns the perspective and concerns that first...

  8. Chapter 3 Sociality
    (pp. 147-227)

    Human societies gather and connect their members. A family, a friendship, a culture or religious sect, a company or school: these are stable systems. Each has a structure—proper parts joined by reciprocal causal relations—appropriate to its one or many tasks. Each relates to others, including systems that are independent of it and those to which it is related reciprocally, by nesting or overlap.

    The parts of houses, animal bodies, and cars are joined mechanically, with cement, blood vessels, or bolts. Such connections—in a car’s power train or between heart and lungs—make a system’s reciprocities easy to...

  9. Chapter 4 Value
    (pp. 228-284)

    The members of human social systems are forever having to choose between cooperation and conflict. Accommodating ourselves to one another within systems where each has a distinct role, we learn that other people, or the system itself, have aims that are not perfectly reconciled to our own. Plato’s solution is detailed in theRepublic.Character is perfectly shaped by the requirements of role; work is specialized. Individuals do not have conflicting duties, because competition for their services is eliminated. This is Plato’sidealstate. The conflicts he wished to reduce are still the everyday noise and tension of our lives....

  10. Chapter 5 Deliberation
    (pp. 285-303)

    New properties are generated by the establishment of new systems; this is a point argued in Chapter One. Sometimes new properties are distributed within a higher-order system, as distinctive forms emerge at many places in a painting. Other new properties are corporate; they qualify—supervene upon—entire systems. A painting’s structure is a corporate property, one that emerges with the integration of its parts. Awareness, too, is an emergent, corporate property, one that baffles us because we cannot yet tell how the brain (or some of its parts) generates it, and because the only words we have for specifying it...

  11. Chapter 6 Free Speech
    (pp. 304-326)

    We celebrate free speech, though we are slow to think systematically about its rationale and limits. Here in America that justification rarely extends beyond our deference to the First Amendment, perhaps with citations of Milton and Mill. We assume that free speech is a nearly unqualified benefit, though no good is unqualified, this one included. A more nuanced rationale for free speech—one that marks out its limits as well as its advantages—is my first concern. My second interest is metaphysical. Evidence for the effects of free speech is disguised by the ontology usually invoked to support it. I...

  12. Chapter 7 Conflict
    (pp. 327-335)

    The reciprocities that establish human systems require the coordination of a system’s parts. This emphasis on coordination—and cooperation—seems to confirm our idealized belief that harmony is the essential characteristic of all human relations. It should follow that disharmony is evidence of an eliminable distortion. This estimate is hopeful but mistaken. Some human relations express the contrary interests of people or systems that are mutually inimical or irreconcilably different.

    This chapter argues that conflict is systemic and ineliminable (not merely the effect of scarcity and crowding), and that its expressions take one or another of the classical dialectical forms....

  13. Chapter 8 Ecology
    (pp. 336-344)

    Our notions of man and society too often abstract us from the physical context in which we secure and satisfy ourselves.Ecologystudies the reciprocal relations of contiguous living systems (whether individuals or species) and the relations of these systems to their circumstances, including temperature, radiation, and rainfall. It locates us within nature, as natural creatures.

    Five points dominate our thinking about nature’s relation to human societies: nature asconstituent material, context, resource, challenge,andlimit.We are composed of natural materials (carbon compounds, for example) and subject to whatever laws regulate them. Nature is our context: we live within...

  14. Afterword
    (pp. 345-346)

    Metaphysics is often thought to be an a priori discipline, thereby implying that its relevance to matters of fact is indirect: we suppose that metaphysics applies to them only as it discovers universal truths that warp every particular in any possible world. There are universal principles of this sort. There are also some parochial universals, meaning principles that apply to, and distinguish, our world. Such local principles are not known a priori. We infer fallibly to them after examining the states of affairs that obtain here. This cascade of determinations starts in the principles of noncontradiction, excluded middle, and identity...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 347-362)
  16. Index
    (pp. 363-379)