In recent work, Judith Butler has developed an ontology of the body that she hopes will have a substantial normative upshot: our recognition of our corporeal vulnerability is supposed to underpin an ethic of nonviolence and a renewed commitment to egalitarian social conditions. However, the route from Butler’s metaphysical claims to her ethico-political commitments is not always clear. Her ontology elucidates general and necessary features of embodiment, but it is not immediately evident how these could introduce constraints on political arrangements or ethical behaviour. Ontology, one might think, is simply neutral on the question of politics.
In this paper I reconstruct Butler’s response to this difficulty. I outline the key elements of Butler’s ‘new bodily ontology,’ explaining her conceptions of vulnerability, precariousness, and interdependency, and drawing on Heidegger’s distinction between the ontological and the ontic to elucidate the different meanings of these terms. I examine the relationship between Butler’s ontology and her normative claims, arguing that one of her central attempts to derive an ethic of nonviolence directly from our interdependency is unpersuasive, resting on a conflation of the ontic and ontological senses of that term. Nonetheless, I argue that Butler is right to suggest that genuinely acknowledging our vulnerability is likely to make us more responsive to the claim of the other, and to loosen the grip of the ‘military fantasies’ encouraged by an ideal of absolute sovereignty. A commitment to nonviolence and a more egalitarian shared human condition amounts to an ontic mode of acknowledging our ontological condition, while the illusory ideal of sovereign independence and the violence it encourages amount to a disavowal of it.
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Post-Kantian European Philosophy Seminar Convenors: Joseph Schear, Manuel Dries, and Mark Wrathall