“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

2016 Presidential Election and Political Ontology

J. Thomas Howe describes Whitehead’s process ontology as follows:

Whitehead’s theory of experience is extremely complex, and its elucidation is the major task of Process and Reality. What is important for our purposes is the essentially social nature of all actual entities. “There is no entity, not even God, which requires nothing but itself in order to exist…Every entity is in its essence social and requires society in order to exist” (Religion in the Making, 108). Whitehead’s point involves more than the claim that we need the help of others to sustain our well-being. To say that “every entity is in its essence social” means that all actual entities are constituted by their relations. They are internally related to all others. “An actual entity is present in other actual entities” (Process and Reality, 50).

Margaret Thatcher infamously claimed that “there is no such thing as society.” A friend of mine (with whom I’ve been discussing these themes for years) recently suggested to me that I don’t believe there is any such thing as an individual. It is true that I have been influenced by thinkers like Simon Critchley and Immanuel Levinas, who in their own ways articulate an ethics of dividualism in opposition to ethical individualism. But this doesn’t mean I deny the existence of individuals or even that I don’t value individuality. In fact I believe individuality is among the most important values of the modern world. My criticisms of individualism are only meant as a reminder that individuality is a social construct, which is to say, in order to become a free thinking individual capable of taking responsibility for my actions, I first need to be cared for and enculturated by a community that values individuality. The social care required to produce responsible individuals, I would argue, must include access to nutritious food, safe housing, comprehensive healthcare, and quality education. The capitalist system is supposedly pro-individual, but by undermining the relational bonds of families and local communities, and hampering the ability society as a whole to care for itself, it makes the formation of responsible individuals more and more difficult. So in short, I’m in favor of Bernie’s socialist proposals precisely because I value and want to foster the formation of caring individuals capable of creatively contributing to the ongoing reproduction of society.

Will publicly funded education and healthcare in and of themselves save American society from its decay into consumerist resignation? No, of course not. Hospitals are still very dangerous places to be and mechanistic medicine needs to take a step back to consider health from a more holistic perspective. And our public educational system has got to drop its obsession with standardized testing. But investing time, energy, and money in publicly available healthcare and education is the best way to revitalize them. Publicly funded tuition and healthcare are not sufficient to rebuild society, but they are a necessary part of the effort.


Below is W.E.B. DuBois speaking to the Wisconsin Socialist Club in Madison back in 1960 about the history of socialism in American political discourse:

And here is another socialist, Martin Luther King, Jr.:







11 responses to “2016 Presidential Election and Political Ontology”

  1. louisbrassard Avatar

    Dear Matthew,
    I agree with your text above but the expression ”in favor of socialism” is rather vague and the road on to go towards a society that care has to be spell out otherwise it is ideological.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Good catch. I clarified a bit.

  2. Yannick Baele Avatar

    “I’m in favor of Bernie’s socialist proposals precisely because I value and want to foster the formation of caring individuals capable of creatively contributing to the ongoing reproduction of society.”

    Does this sentence seem coherent to you ? If so/not, why ?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I wrote it, I believe it is coherent. If you’d like to challenge something, spell it out.

      1. Yannick Baele Avatar

        Didn’t I sow enough clues ?

  3. Yannick Baele Avatar

    No answer… I’m gonna go with the Lacanian interpretation then, and conclude your first child is underway…

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Only if carrying my dissertation to term counts…

  4. Yannick Baele Avatar

    Kay, last attempt… I really didn’t think it’d be that hard for you…

    First of all, you said : “I wrote it, I believe it is coherent”. You believe or you think ? The fact that you wrote it, is that supposed to carry anything more than an argument from authority ?

    I’m sure you believe it, but do you really think you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter ? What people like him, MLK and DuBois for instance have in common is that all of them, at their respective times were/are fighting the “reproduction” of society… Clear enough for you now ?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      They were socialists fighting to assure that the next generation could co-exist more justly. They weren’t trying to reproduce society as it existed in their own times, but to produce it again in a better form.

      1. Yannick Baele Avatar

        Go ask any of their contemporary counterparts whether they would subscribe to your original statement…

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