Naturalism and Normativity

July 21, 2010

So, I’ve been having a conversation, over at ktismatics, with Pete Wolfendale of deontologistics. This post is a continuation of (my side of) that conversation. The basic issue is the status of norms – Pete adheres to a ‘Brandomian anti-naturalism’; I think that norms are natural phenomena. What are the differences between our positions, and why do I think Pete’s wrong?

Pete has various things going on in his discussion of normativity, I think. The first is a methodological insistence on the primacy of norms in terms of rational discursive claims. I’m basically 100% on board with this. Any judgement we make is going to be guided by norms of judgement – one can’t rid oneself of normativity in order to attain an objective understanding which can then be used to ground normativity – the idea’s incoherent. Objectivity is acquired via commitment to certain norms. If this is part of the thrust of the Brandomian emphasis on inferentialism, I’m all for it.

But Pete is making a stronger claim than this, I think. The basic naturalistic claim (the claim I’m arguing for) is that norms are emergent properties of natural phenomena (where ‘natural’ contrasts with ‘supernatural’ and ‘metaphysical’, rather than with ‘social’ – social and cultural phenomena are natural phenomena, in this sense of the term). Pete thinks there’s something more to norms than this. What could it be?

Here are some extracts from Pete’s long and dense post Dissecting Norms. I’m skipping over a lot of significant content in order to get to stuff that I regard as core, which is in Pete’s section 5, Rules, Norms and Practices. (I’ve already more or less articulated this argument in the ktismatics thread, but when I did so I hadn’t read much of Pete’s work, and didn’t say it right, so this articulation supersedes that one!) Here’s Pete, using Wittgenstein and Brandom:

arguments about how to interpret a rule ultimately regress to arguments about how to make explicit the norms implicit within our practices. These arguments then appeal to facts about what has been done to make claims about what should be done. The irreducibility of norms to practices consists in the fact that the former facts always underdetermine the latter. This is not to say that there are no good reasons for picking one interpretation over another, but rather than this process of interpretation is inherently open ended. There will always be facts which give us reason to exclude possible interpretations, but there will always be points at which we have to make decisions about how to apply a rule by making appeals to some selective reading of what has previously been done.

Pete goes on to give the example of case law, and writes that case law…

…is a different kind of rational process than the process of description which goes on in the sciences. Even though experimental evidence always underdetermines which scientific theory is right, we can always develop more tests, and get more evidence. The world is fully determinate, and it will always help us choose between theories as long as we can work out the right question. Interpretation on the other hand does not have the kind of plenitude of evidence which is bequeathed to description. For instance, in interpreting the intentions of the writers of the US Constitution, we will always be confronted at points where we have to make a best guess, by marshalling an interpretational narrative gleaned from the historical facts available.

Now – this distinction, between interpretation and description, is in my opinion unsustainable at the level of philosophical generality at which Pete’s argument has to be pitched in order to work. There are a host of differences between case law and scientific investigation, but none of those differences (of institutional structure, object of discursive focus, etc.) can sustain the philosophical weight of the distinction between description and interpretation that Pete is using here as part of his attempt to expectionalise normativity. In fact, this distinction is incompatible with the methodological primacy of normative pragmatics and interpretation that Pete elsewhere seems to be using in his system. The whole point of the Brandomian/Wittgensteinian apparatus that Pete is deploying, as I understand it [NB: Please note that I’ve only just started reading Brandom, so my use of ‘Brandom’ here should generally be taken as meaning something close to ‘Brandom as inferred by me, largely from Pete’s presentations of his views’], is to insist that description is also a normative activity – in fact, is first and foremost something that can, in principle, be made explicit as interpretation.

Carrying on with section 5 of Pete’s Dissecting Norms post – Pete writes:

The reason I have been claiming that norms do not really exist, or that they are pseudo-beings (here), is precisely because the truth of interpretations of them cannot be assessed in objective terms. This indicates that there is no real, fully determinate thing underlying our talk about a given norm. This isn’t to say that talk about norms is not a matter of truth, simply that the kind of truth in question is not objective truth.

How does this understanding of objective truth, and the corresponding insistence on a “determinate” thing underlying and undergirding empirical description – how does this insistence square with a Brandomian methodological priority given to inferentialism over referentialism? What is the epistemological mechanism by which certainty of the determinacy of the objective object of knowledge is acquired, independent of the unconcludable inferentialist game of giving and asking for reasons? [NB: I think Pete’s answers to these questions probably involve a transcendental deduction of a quite substantive non-empirically acquired metaphysical realism – but I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it…]

Perhaps more to the point, this distinction just isn’t right as a way of distinguishing scientific investigation from (say) case law. Ktismatics, in the thread, pointed out the large extent to which scientific endeavour does not assume a determinate object of analysis, but is instead often probabilistic; I would add that science is in any case presenting hypotheses that function as models with greater or lesser predictive and explanatory power. This latter endeavour is a very different one from making metaphysical claims about the fundamental (necessary) structure of reality: science’s authority comes from the modesty of the status of its claims – the fact that they can never be anything more than “best guess”, and therefore must be meta-theoretically silent on the determinacy or otherwise of the empirical phenomena they relate to. [And, for that matter, there’s always the possibility of acquiring additional evidence about what the Founding Fathers intended, for example – just like in the ‘descriptive’ case.]

Further, and still more to the point, scientific investigation is fundamentally interpretive. Scientists acquire data (which is in itself a fully normatively guided activity: granting specific aspects of the non-human world the social ability to be referred to as authorities in a distinctively scientific way, is itself an extremely complex social, normative, interpretive practice) and then interpret the data, as part of a large-scale complexly institutionalised discursive activity. Pete seems to be implicitly relying here on a version of the myth of the given, whereby supreme court justices are (rightly) aware that the activities they professionally engage in involve ongoing rational contestation of rival claims and interpretations, but scientists can read their conclusions off the natural world without engaging in interpretation, open-ended rational discourse, disputation, or all of the other social practices of rational discourse that are here being used to distinguish the making of norms from the discovery of scientific facts.

My point here isn’t meant to be an anti-scientific one, obviously. There are of course lots of non-philosophical ways in which the interpretation/discovery distinction can hold up just fine. But the point of a meta-discursive theoretical apparatus of the kind that Pete seems to be deploying is that it operates at a level of generality and abstraction where these distinctions drop away, and reference to an objective world can (rightly, I think) be understood as of a piece with other more overtly-interpretive discursive practices in which the ability to refer to an objective world, and our understanding of the nature of that world, is constructed out of an ongoing discursive pragmatics. (A discursive pragmatics that can then be analysed naturalistically, using the scientific resources it itself makes available, I’m arguing.)

Now in a way all this is slightly beside the point. The real focus of Pete’s argument in this section is to distinguish practices from norms. The reason I’m talking philosophy of science, however hastily, is that I think the (imo faulty) philosophy of science that Pete is relying on in the passages I’ve quoted above – a philosophy of science whereby the object of scientific investigation is taken to be necessarily determinate, and in which scientific results are therefore, by implication at least, ultimately excludable from the ongoing process of interpretive negotiation and contestation that is otherwise part of the basis of Pete’s Brandomian deontologistics – … this philosophy of science is necessary in order for Pete then to assert the determinacy of the empirical world, in contrast to always-empirically-underdetermined norms – which is what gives him his anti-naturalism re: normativity.

Pete’s argument here is Wittgensteinian. We have a given set of practices that constitute the following of a norm – a canonical example from the Investigations is somebody who has been taught how to following the “+2” rule, and has demonstrated their mastery of the rule by writing out the number series 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc. Wittgenstein writes:

Now we get the pupil to continue a series (say +2) beyond 1000—and he writes 1000, 1004, 1008, 1012.

We say to him: “Look what you’ve done!”—He doesn’t understand. We say: “You were meant to add two: look how you began the series!”—He answers: “Yes, isn’t it right? I thought that was how I was meant to do it.”——Or suppose he pointed to the series and said: “But I went on in the same way.”—It would now be no use to say: “But can’t you see….?”—and repeat the old examples and explanations.—In such a case we might say, perhaps: It comes natural to this person to understand our order with our explanations as we should understand the order: “Add 2 up to 1000, 4 up to 2000, 6 up to 3000 and so on.”

Wittgenstein’s point here is part of a larger argument about regresses of interpretation – the rule for interpreting a rule must itself be interpreted, etc. etc. (resulting in the requirement for a pragmatic non-interpretational mode of rule-following). The way Pete is using arguments of this kind, however, is to draw attention to what he takes to be a special property of norms (or, really, I guess, to norms’ technical non-existence, and thus inability to have properties). Norms, Pete is arguing, are underdetermined by practice. Norms therefore cannot be identified with practice. Norms therefore cannot be understood naturalistically.

Assuming we are using ‘practice’ in a suitably broad way (such that our descriptive framework also takes into account the biological features of the human animal that enable and channel social practices, etc.), I think it’s clear where Pete’s argument falls down. Let me telegraph sufficiently: the following sentence is the point of this post, and everything else has just been a clearing of ground in order to make more explicit where it’s coming from:

Pete’s argument falls down because norms are no more underdetermined by practices than are practices themselves.

It’s a simple as that really, but just to elaborate: Pete seems to be assuming a fully determinate empirical reality that can be absolutely known in its determinacy, empirically. I think this is based on a faulty philosophy of science – it is in principle impossible to acquire such knowledge (my asserting this is not, of course, the same thing as my asserting that no empirical knowledge can ever be acquired – the dispute is over what constitutes ‘knowledge’, not over whether knowledge (including non-scientific knowledge) is possible). Pete then seems (reasonably) to deny this epistemological access with regard to the future practices that are intrinsically involved (given a Brandomian framework of open-ended rational discourse and rationally-motivated action) in the constitution of present norms as norms. Pete then seems to argue that this lack of absolute knowledge about future practices, is really a feature of the intrinsic indeterminacy of norms, versus the intrinsic determinacy of practices, even though the epistemological issue that’s doing the work here is in fact one related to practices, as the Wittgenstein argument makes clear: the problem in the Investigations passage quoted above appears when the pupils’ practices are different from those of the teacher; absent such possible divergence, what are the grounds for differentiating norms from practices at all?

That could all have been more felicitously phrased. But I hope the basic point has been communicated: I don’t see what legitimate grounds Pete can have for differentiating norms from practices (in a very general sense) in the way he does – which is also to say, I don’t see what compelling arguments Pete has against naturalism w/r/t normativity.


Now in the conversation at ktismatics I kept apologising for not having read enough of Pete’s work – and apologies are still due: I’ve now read the relevant posts from Pete’s very useful important posts page, but there’s still lots to read – notably Pete’s Essay On Transcendental Realism, which after all is what ktismatics was discussing to begin with. And then of course there’s Brandom. I obviously think it’s legitimate to analyse Pete’s work without having acquired the relevant Brandom background; but equally obviously, knowledge of Brandom’s system would be useful here. My excuse is simply that Making It Explicit is enormous, and I didn’t want to drop the conversation for the time required to read it. [I should also probably note, by the by, that there seem to have been a number of other blogospheric arguments about normativity raging recently. In case it’s unclear, this isn’t meant to be an intervention into those debates.]

Anyway, questions of due diligence notwithstanding, I still think this post is an adequate pass at the relevant section of Pete’s Dissecting Norms argument. I’ve already made clear that Pete has no obligation to respond to my remarks on his work, and let me reiterate that – Pete’s already been extremely diligent in responding to my comments in the ktismatics thread. But if you’re reading, Pete, and feel like replying, my question basically boils down to: what’s your response to the sentence of this post I’ve put in bold type? If you agree with it, how do you see it as compatible with your argument re: the status of norms? If you disagree with it, why?



It occurs to me that most of the post above is actually superfluous with regard to the basic point, which my original comment in the ktismatics thread possibly expresses more clearly. To re-iterate one more time, then:

Given that the under-determination of norms by practices comes (according to Pete’s argument (as I understand it)) from the fact that we can’t fully know in advance which future practices will be agreed to be compatible with these norms; and given that this indeterminacy is by definition also an indeterminacy of future practices; why is this indeterminacy taken as telling us anything specifically useful w/r/t norms as opposed to practices?

Hopefully I’ve now said that in enough different ways that it should be clear what my objection is.]


15 Responses to “Naturalism and Normativity”

  1. deontologistics Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    There’s a lot here, but I’m going to do my best to address it in a comprehensive fashion. I think you’ve misunderstood both my comments about determinateness and my distinction between description and interpretation (both somewhat understandably), though I think the attribution of the simplistic philosophy of science to me is somewhat unwarranted given the quotes you’ve used (and other things I’ve said elsewhere).

    I’ll start off with my short response to the bolded sentence you take as the core of your objection, then I’ll work through the other issues and in doing so clarify the meaning of my response.

    RESPONSE: Practices (behavioural regularities and the causal mechanisms underlying them) are completely determinate, even if the evidence we have underdetermines our theories about them (as it does for all empirical theories).

    Okay, on to the various points:-

    1. I don’t think that there’s *more* to norms. Strictly, I think there’s *less* to them. They aren’t real. When we talk about a norm that’s implicit in a practice, we’re not talking about any real feature of the practice, but simply treating the practice in such a way that it can become involved in our own practical reasoning (e.g., such that we can undertake to involve ourselves within it as a rational activity).

    2. The real confusion here stems from the fact that you’re homing in on the idea of determinateness. This was never meant to play a crucial role in the argument about the difference between norms and practices, but is really meant to elaborate the difference as established by the distinction between objective and non-objective truth. This is much more clearly presented in the TR essay (sorry to throw more your way), in which I provide a proper account of the difference between objective and non-objective truth in terms of differences in the structure of discourse. This is to say that I there give a proper account of the difference between empirical discourse (description) and hermeneutic discourse (interpretation).

    3. In addition, this quote is false (if I read you right, the hyphen confuses me):-

    “In fact, this distinction is incompatible with the methodological primacy of normative pragmatics and interpretation that Pete elsewhere seems to be using in his system. The whole point of the Brandomian/Wittgensteinian apparatus that Pete is deploying, as I understand it, is to insist that description is also a normative activity – in fact, is first and foremost something that can, in principle, be made explicit as interpretation.”

    That something is governed by norms does not mean that it is a matter of interpretation. There are different norms governing interpretation and description, and this is the root of their difference. Description need not be interpretation.

    4. Moreover, you seem to think that anything that involves argument is interpretation. This is not the case. Yes, there is a loose sense in which scientists argue about different ‘interpretations’ of the data, but the sense in which I’m using it is the hermeneutic sense. Interpretation is distinguished by the fact that it appeals to facts about the attitudes of individuals and groups in order to justify things. I’ll address this in a bit more detail below.

    5. The simplistic philosophy of science you impute to me is way off the mark. I neither think that we simply read theories off of the world without having to argue about the evidence (this is a bizarre idea given how much of my work is about *argument*), nor do I think that we can *know* empirical reality in its full determinacy, i.e., that we can ever actually end up at a complete picture of the world, let alone deploy it as a premise in argument. This should be clear from the second quote you took, where I adopt the standard Quinean line that theory choice is underdetermined by evidence.

    6. The important point, which is the crux of the above response, is that the underdetermination of choice of empirical theory by evidence and the underdetermination of choice of hermeneutic interpretation by empirical theory are related but different forms of underdetermination. We could be entirely confident of our theories about practices (i.e., about our dispositions to act) and nonetheless be uncertain about the norms implicit in them. This is because of the difference between the structure of the arguments in each case. I’ve explained this in the TR essay as a matter of how we withdraw authority from ourselves in making claims about things. In arguments about objective matters we exclude the use of claims about attitudes as reasons, whereas we inevitably regress to these kinds of claims in interpretative arguments. Without going into too much of the detail provided in the TR essay, I’ll try to re-explain the upshot of this vis-a-vis determinacy.

    My claim is that in objective matters we withdraw all authority from ourselves and others over whether any of our claims about an object are correct, and thus grant complete authority over the correctness of these claims to the object itself. This means that for any claim we make about it, we take it that the object determines its truth or falsity. This is the basis of the principle of bivalence: any claim about an object is either true or false (P or not P).

    Conversely, in non-objective matters we do not completely withdraw authority, and thus our arguments ultimately depend upon some authority and the attitudes of that authority (this need not be an actual person in all cases, but this is somewhat complicated). The thing is that attitudes do not hold to bivalence in the same way. Someone can take P to true, they can take P to be false, or they can have no attitude about P at all. This is why I described the objects of interpretative discourse as indeterminate. When there is a question as to which way someone’s (or some groups) attitudes determines the content of a norm, there may always be an answer of ‘neither’. When the person themselves is involved in the argument, they can simply stipulate which way to go, and thus continue the determination of the norm, but when they’re inaccessible (such as if they’re dead) we simply have to piece together our best interpretation, but in these cases even knowing about their dispositions will not help us (for reasons discussed in the comments on your other posts).

  2. duncan Says:

    Many thanks for this – it gives me a lot of think about. You’re very generous in responding to comments. I think I’m going to mull all this over for a while, and hopefully make time to read your Transcendental Realism essay, which given what you say here is obviously important for understanding your views. So I won’t respond properly for a little while. If it helps, I woke up this morning (as I’d hoped I would) with (I think) a much better understanding of what you’re doing w/r/t the fictional status of norms. So that bodes well, from my p.o.v. I’ll also say that I think I may have miscommunicated on the philosophy of science point, since your remarks in the comment above seem to me to be broadly compatible with my understanding of what you’re saying – though I suppose this could also just be evidence of my confusion… Anyway, I’ll try to address this issue at further length anon. [Note to self: perhaps I’ll write a new post split between 1) the fictional status of norms, and 2) philosophy of science; these seem to me to be the core issues here, probably.] Anyway, many thanks again for taking the time to respond at length. I’ll reply properly eventually.


  3. duncan Says:

    Ok – so – slightly better rested, and with a few days more cogitation time, let me have another run at this.

    As I was saying on the ‘Brandomian anti-naturalism’ thread, the other night something slotted into place for me w/r/t what Pete’s saying about norms as fictions. [Pete, I’m mostly talking about you in the third, not to you in the second person, here, because I find that it makes writing this smoother, for some reason. I hope you don’t mind…] I’ve been misunderstanding something important about Pete’s position – and I think it’s quite likely that other people reading Pete have not misunderstood him in this way. Now – there’s a reason I’ve been misunderstanding Pete, which I’ll get to, but let me start by trying to explain what I got wrong, and what I now think Pete’s saying. Pete – if you think I’m still getting your position wrong, please let me know. I want to be reasonably confident that I’m parsing your work correctly – I’m interested in debating this stuff, but I want to make sure I understand your position first – that’s the main priority for me, at present.

    Ok. Here’s what Pete’s saying about norms as fictions. (In my own language. This’ll be more simplistic than Pete’s developed views, but I want to be sure I’ve got the ballpark position right).

    Pete thinks that we humans – indeed we sapients – engage in practices (social practices which are also natural practices). Examples: we play football, we play monopoly, we play cards; we debate and potentially amend the rules of football, monopoly, cards (we modify rule-books and disseminate new poker tournament anti-cheating pamphlets, or something). All of these practices can be naturalistically analysed. They are objective things.

    Now when we participate in these practices, as humans (as sapients) we perceive ourselves not just to be engaging in naturalistically-analysable practices, but also as subject to norms – as committed to and (potentially at least) as trying to adhere to rules and principles that dictate how we should behave in any number of circumstances that may or may not ever happen. These norms necessarily exceed in their potential application any given number of cases to which they have ever actually been applied – or from which they could have been derived. A set of practices that are in conformity with a norm cannot ever be used to adequately derive the norm, because (here we’re in Wittgensteinian territory) every new event that might or might not fall under the norm (every event that might be seen as being or not being in conformity with the normative rule) can be made out to conform with the norm or to transgress the norm, depending on how we interpret the norm. And how we interpret the norm cannot of course be fully dictated by its past applications. The norm is thus under-determined by any number of past examples of practices that conform to it or transgress it, and so can always (in principle) be made out to align with any number of different sets of future practices (however unlikely this might be for any given example).

    Now what in fact will determine whether those future events conform to or transgress the norm, will be how the application of the norm is decided in practice, by debates around the application of the norm. (And conceivably by things other than debates, but I don’t want to get into ‘trials of strength’ type stuff right now, so I’m determined to stick with the game of asking for and giving reasons.) The norm appears to us to have a determinate content, already here, telling us how to behave in any given situation (any given situation that falls within the scope of the norm, I mean). In fact the norm has no such determinate content – the norm is, in fact, open, and is constantly (so to speak) determined in practice – and the present content of the norm w/r/t future practice, is really the future judgements that will be made in future debates around the norm’s ‘application’ [one might say, instead of ‘application’, ‘ongoing construction’].

    Pete may disagree quite strongly with the particular way I’m phrasing this – I think there are some significant vocabulary differences between us (for instance, Pete I think uses the term ‘interpretation’ more narrowly than I do, and I haven’t yet done enough careful reading of Pete’s stuff to sort out these terminological issues (some of which may be substantive disagreement, but I’m not sure about that.)) But so far, give or take some infelicitous phrasings and oversimplifications, am I more or less on track, in terms of characterising your position, Pete? If not we have a problem, because the rest of this comment will be null and void. But I’m going to tentatively assume that I’m not too far off base, and keep going for now.

    Ok. So (we’re saying) this is our situation. Norms appear to us to have determinate content, as if they already lay out in advance everything we should or shouldn’t do (w/r/t whatever it is the norms apply to). But (we’re saying) this isn’t right! This determinate content doesn’t exist! There’s no such thing!

    Again, Wittgenstein is a good figure to go to, from the canon, here. Think of (the later) Wittgenstein’s many remarks along the following lines (this passage from the Investigations (195), is quoted by Brandom on pages 14-15 of Making It Explicit):

    ‘But I don’t mean that what I do now (in grasping a sense) determines the future use causally and as a matter of experience, but that in a queer way, the use itself is already present’. – But of course it is, ‘in some sense’! Really the only thing wrong with what you say is the expression ‘in a queer way’. The rest is all right; and the sentence only seems queer when one imagines a different language game for it from the one in which we actually use it.

    Ok. I think we’re all more or less agreed on all of this (though I’m happy to be corrected). Now let me move on to the next bit of Pete-interpretation. Here’s what Pete does with the arguments I’ve been aiming to express above. Pete says:

    – There are on the one hand practices, which can be analysed naturalistically.
    – There are on the other hand our experiences of these things called ‘norms’, which ‘norms’ we experience as telling us right now what we should and shouldn’t do in an indefinite number of future situations – as having a determinate content which lays down what ought to be done, even in situations we may not even have imagined yet.
    – These things called ‘norms’ don’t, in fact, exist. They aren’t real! There’s no present ‘normative content’ that’s really determinate in this way telling us what ought to be done! We may experience such a thing – but it’s a fiction. These kinds of experiences of norms are constitutive fictions of the experience of the human animal – of sapient creatures.

    This, I now think, is what Pete means, when he says norms are fictional: he means that there is no presently-existing determinate ‘normative’ content that lays out in advance what should and shouldn’t be done in an indefinite number of future situations – and there in principle cannot be such content because our ‘norms’ are in reality continually determined and redetermined in practice. And yet we act as if there were such content – we imagine such content – and we call the fiction of such content our norms.

    Now – I may be wrong in interpreting Pete this way. I’m perfectly willing to be corrected on any or all of this. But I wanted to say what I take to be Pete’s position on this in my own words, and hopefully Pete will still have the time and the patience to explain if, and if not how not, this accurately describes his views.

    That said, let me move on to the next thing.

    Here’s the next thing: the reason I’ve been (I now think) misreading some aspects of Pete’s position on all this, is that I don’t mean the same thing by ‘norms’ as Pete does. When Pete talks about ‘norms’ he means (as I’ve been saying above) something along the ball-park lines of ‘determinate (presently-existing) content laying down what should and shouldn’t be done in any given future situation in which the ‘norms’ in question apply’. He means something like ‘normative propositional content’, I guess, although I’m not sure if Pete would restrict normative content to propositional content – I need to reread some of his material to try to get a sense of just how Pete understands this.

    Now, we’re all agreed, for Wittgensteinian reasons, that such determinate (propositional?) normative content that lays down in advance how a norm should be applied in any and all future situations does not exist. To the extent that we understand norms in these terms, norms do not exist. If this is how we understand norms, then norms are indeed fictional.

    But this isn’t what I’ve been meaning when I write ‘norms’. This terminological difference has been the source, for me at least, of many of the confusions in this conversation, I now think (and this is also because, I believe, this isn’t just a terminological difference, though I want to basically postpone discussion of that for right now, I think). To be clear, I accept the Wittgensteinian arguments about the meta-theoretical misguidedness of the belief that norms have determinate (propositional?) content laid down in advance independent of that content’s determination/instantiation (indeed these sorts of arguments have been what’s driving a lot of what I’ve been saying here, obviously). But the lesson I take away from these arguments is not ‘norms do not exist/are fictional’, but rather ‘this understanding of norms, whereby they’re seen as having determinate content that lays down their application in all appropriate future circumstances, is a faulty understanding of what norms are, and of what normative content is’. I think that what Pete means by ‘norms’ is what I’d mean by ‘the hypostatisation of norms’.

    That last sentence could be elaborated at enormously greater length. But I want to stop here for now and check in with Pete (if Pete’s still got the patience) about whether I’m in the right interpretive space on the stuff earlier in the post. As I was saying before, I really appreciate the time Pete’s taking to elaborate on his views.

  4. deontologistics Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    It does seem like you’ve got a better understanding of my position than you did. You’re right that I’d express it in slightly different terms, but it’s mostly right. There’s a couple points I’d pick you up on though.

    1. You’ve got to recognise that when you’re talking about the determination of norms, that the ‘determination’ in question is not a causal matter. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be development of norms that is not explicit. Practices change and become more complex, often through complicated processes of reciprocal correction and selection, and this is a causal matter. The point is that it’s only from within the perspective of an argument about the content of the norms implicit within practices that such content is treated as determinate, what ‘determines’ this content are reasons for taking up one interpretation of it rather than other, and thus proceeding to act in one way rather than another. So, our practices could change in a more or less implicit way through a natural causal process that involved no explicit argument about the norms implicit in them, but these changes could nonetheless function as good reasons for interpreting the content of the norms we are governed by in certain ways. Think of the ways in which laws come to be applied and the practicalities involved in this application can come to function as good reasons in debates over interpreting the content of the law.

    2. I wouldn’t really use the word ‘experience’ as much as you are, because I’m really not interested in the phenomenology of the normative. True, it can be helpful at times to say that we experience the norm as if it extends on rails to infinity and what not, but this is not what’s crucial to the analysis. What is crucial is what we *do*, and my point is that in having arguments about what we should do in which we try to either institute new norms (i.e., collective practical commitments) or make explicit norms already implicit in our practices, we are *treating* them as both existent (in a weak sense, compatible with fictional existence) and as determinate.

    Those things being said, I can address your confusion over the use of the term ‘norm’. I’m not entirely surprised that there was some confusion here, although I think it means you didn’t grasp the central point of my ‘dissecting norms’ post. The whole point of that post was to show that most people when they use the term norm are using a sort of confused hybrid concept that spans two different things: collective practical commitments (understood from within the context of arguments about what we should do) and collective behaviour tendencies (understood from within the context of arguments about how we understand and predict the behaviour of causal systems).

    You only hypostatise norms if you talk about them qua collective practical commitments (i.e., as having propositional content) and as playing causal roles in the production of social phenomena. The whole point of my approach is to get away from this, while still allowing us to use norm talk where it is necessary, such as in arguments about what we should do, and in the context of elaborating the fundamental norms governing the practice of rational inquiry itself.

    If you’ve got a different way of understanding the concept of ‘norm’ you need to explain what it is, and why it isn’t either synonymous with what I call ‘norms’ or ‘practices’ or a confused hybrid of the two.

    Moreover, if, as I suspect, what you really mean by norm is just what I’ve been calling ‘practices’, and you just want to abandon all talk of norms qua practical commitments (i.e., as having propositional content), then you need to explain how we can do so without destroying both collective practical reasoning more specifically and the institution of rationality itself more generally.

  5. duncan Says:

    Thanks for this Pete. Just checking in without time to comment substantively, but I’m really glad I’ve (broadly speaking) interpreted your remarks on these issues correctly. I’ll think about your points here and possibly re-read some of your stuff – it might take a while, I’m not sure. I also see, having moved further into Making It Explicit, that Brandom addresses the issue of the status of propositional content at some length and with some intricacy; it’s possible I’ll try to get work my way through all this material before commenting on this stuff further.

    I should maybe comment briefly on the following now, though:

    Moreover, if, as I suspect, what you really mean by norm is just what I’ve been calling ‘practices’, and you just want to abandon all talk of norms qua practical commitments (i.e., as having propositional content), then you need to explain how we can do so without destroying both collective practical reasoning more specifically and the institution of rationality itself more generally

    Breaking this up into sections, my sense is that my commitments are the following:
    1) It’s probably not too far off the mark to say that I mean by norm what you’ve been calling ‘practices’, but I think my position is probably best conveyed in shorthand by the summary I started with – that norms are emergent properties of natural phenomena. Those natural phenomena would include some but not all practices and also things other than practices like biological properties of the sapient organism, etc.
    2) I certainly don’t want to abandon all talk of norms qua practical commitments, though it depends what ‘propositional content’ is taken to mean, whether I think it’s helpful to understand practical commitments in terms of it. I think that practical commitments can be understood in naturalistic terms.
    3) Because of (2), I obviously don’t think that the institution of rationality itself is threatened by a thoroughgoingly naturalistic stance re: norms.

    Now obviously your view is that this position falls under the critique you make in the ‘Dissecting Norms’ post – that it confuses two different perspectives on norm-related phenomena – the internal (space of reasons discourse around norms) and the external (naturalistic description of practices and other empirical phenomena) – thereby hypostatising norms. I’m not averse to being persuaded on this. But at present I think the set of commitments I just sketched are broadly correct.

    You’re right of course that saying this presents me with an explanatory task – I have I think some obligation to lay out how my commitments could be elaborated in such a way that the position isn’t vulnerable to your ‘Dissecting Norms’ critique. I guess I’ll try to do this – though it sounds like a much more substantive task than anything I’ve been doing in the conversation so far, and therefore may take quite some time to materialise (or may never materialise, if I decide it’s impossible either because of time and energy constraints, or because I’m wrong.) Before doing that, I think I want to follow up on some of the comments you make above. And before doing that I want to read and think about these issues a bit more. So this is something of a holding-pattern comment, from me – apologies.

    From another direction, though… I don’t think the following matters for the conversation going forward, and may just muddy the waters – but since it’s on my mind, and since it may make my perspective clearer: I think my comment above may mis-convey what I’d been misunderstanding about your position. For what it’s worth, I think I already understood the thrust of your distinction between norms and practices – the idea of separating off ‘norms’ from naturalistic accounts of behavioural regularities, etc. What I hadn’t understood is that for you the ‘norms’ that are thus separated off are necessarily determinate, w/r/t possible future obligations. I’d got the wrong end of the stick on this, because I’d confused an aspect of your argument about why such norms don’t objectively exist with an aspect of your substantive definition of what such norms would consist in, if they existed. Once I realised that ‘norms’, for you, are, definitionally, determinate, in the sense of determining the content of all relevant future obligations, it suddenly made sense why you’re saying they don’t exist.

    This makes me think that there are really two separate disagreements between us, w/r/t the status of norms, and that some of the confusions in this conversation have been coming from the fact that I didn’t see this. On the one hand, there’s the question of whether norms qua norms (as they operate within the space of reasons) are determinate in the sense of determining the content of all relevant future obligations. I’m of the opinion (arguments about naturalism aside) that this is not the case. Then there’s a separate disagreement about whether norms qua norms (whatever we take that to mean) can also be understood naturalistically. Obviously we disagree about this too.

    At the moment I’m thinking that the former disagreement is actually the more significant of the two, and is motivating the latter to a considerable extent. So: I agree with you that if norms qua norms are determinate (in the sense we’ve been discussing), then these ‘norms’ don’t exist. But I think it’s possible to give up the commitment to determinacy while still retaining a credible space-of-reasons understanding of norms qua norms. I think that giving up this commitment also then enables the bringing together, at a very abstract meta-theoretical level, of the two perspectives on norm-related phenomena that you distinguish in your ‘Dissecting Norms’ post (the internal-space-of-reasons and the external-naturalistic). These two perspectives could still remain distinct in most senses and in most practical contexts – it’s just that anti-naturalistic arguments would no longer have the meta-theoretical philosophical force that they currently appear to.

    Obviously I need to expand on all this – and it’s perfectly possible that I’m still misunderstanding your position, or the philosophical terrain more generally, in significant ways. In any case, I’m going to go away and think and read quite a bit more, and eventually, get back to you with some more developed remarks.

    As usual, if I’m getting your position wrong please do let me know (if you have time) – and many thanks again for taking the time to elaborate your views here…

  6. deontologistics Says:

    My major problem with the position you’re trying to articulate is that although I understand that you want to claim that ‘norms’ are emergent features of naturalistically describable phenomena, I’m not sure what it is that’s emerging. I just don’t understand what norms are supposed to be on your picture.

    Either we’re talking about what *causes* what *will* happen to happen (which I’ve called ‘practices’), or we’re talking about *reasons* for what *should* happen (which I’ve called ‘norms’). What is there in between?

    It’s important to bare in mind that in the Dissecting Norms post I’ve defined practices not just as the brute regularities displayed in a group’s behaviour, but as including the mechanisms that produce these regularities. This means both social and biological factors that play a role in maintaining the behaviour in its given pattern. I suppose I might need some more precise terminology here, but that’s something to work on.

  7. duncan Says:

    Ah, I forgot that was how you were defining practices, sorry, fair enough.

    On the general point – I’m not sure what it is that’s emerging – what’s emerging are norms, as we regularly understand them. I suppose a useful parallel is regular experience (the experience of colour and sounds and so on?) My view (the naturalistic view) is that if you have a human organism with certain brain states, behaviours, etc., one of the features of this organism is a subjective experience of the colour blue (for instance). Now the Nagel view of this (if I remember right – it’s a long time since I read any of this sort of thing) is that we can analyse brain states all we want, but this won’t tell us what it’s like to experience blue – the subjective experience of blue cannot be captured by scientific descriptions of brain-states, etc. I think this is absolutely right, but it doesn’t do any damage to naturalistic forms of explanation. The experience of blue still “just is” certain brain states etc. (or emergent properties of certain brain-states etc). It’s just that analysing brain states doesn’t in itself necessarily give us those brain states. Similarly, analysing the practices (in your sense) that produce a given norm doesn’t of course in itself make that norm binding on us – a norm is only, for us, a reason for action, if the practices that generate it intersect with our own practices in a specific way – but the norm can still be identified as an emergent property of a complex set of practices.

    It’s possible that this whole discussion is one big terminological confusion – I’m not sure.

  8. duncan Says:

    I’m still working through Making It Explicit, and will be for some time, so the usual provisos still, frustratingly, apply – but Pete, I find it really hard to believe that you’re not misreading Brandom when you use him to support your argument about norms and practices. Here’s a quote from a page I happen just to have read (page 137 of the Harvard University Press paperback – but there are a lot of similar formulations elsewhere). Brandom is here writing about the obligation an inferentialist semantics has to provide a robust concept of objectivity (but that’s not why I’m citing it). He writes:

    This issue of objectivity is perhaps the most serious conceptual challenge facing any attempt to ground the proprieties governing concept use in social practice – and the pragmatist version of inferentialism being pursued here is a view of this stripe.

    This is, surely, unambiguous? Brandom’s project aims to ground the proprieties (not just the regularities) governing concept use (that is – the norms governing concept use) in social practice. Brandom doesn’t write “any attempt to distinguish the proprieties governing concept use from social practice”. He writes “ground” and “in”. Brandom’s project aims to explain norms (proprieties) in terms of social practices. I don’t see how else one can read this passage (and others like it).

  9. deontologistics Says:

    I must admit that the way I’ve been defining the term ‘practice’ isn’t the way Brandom uses it, and I’m somewhat embarrassed about not having made that explicit in advance. For instance, Brandom talks about describing practices in normative terms, i.e., his normative pragmatics, and this is obviously anathema to what I’ve been calling ‘practices’, which are supposed to be described in completely non-normative terms. I’m increasingly thinking that I might need a more nuanced set of terms here (much thanks to this discussion with you), and might end up switching to using practices as a more neutral term. I haven’t fully worked this out yet.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think this shows the huge rift between myself and Brandom that you think it does. Brandom is very explicit that norms can’t be *reduced* to regularities, but this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think that these regularities play an important role (as at the very least indicated by his remarks about object-involving, or ‘thick’ practices). Brandom’s challenge is to provide an account in which our behaviour institutes norms even while those norms are irreducible to that behaviour. His account of this is what he calls normative phenomenalism, and although I think it’s along the right track I don’t think it’s entirely worked out. I extend this with my more robust distinction between objective and non-objective truth. You might think this extension is unnecessary, but it definitely builds upon something already present in Brandom’s work.

  10. duncan Says:

    Ok, thanks Pete, this is clarificatory. I do think this is a considerably bigger difference between yourself and Brandom than some of your writings imply, but it’s definitely useful to get a sense of where you’re departing from Brandom’s work. (And as I say, I’m not done reading Brandom yet…)

    On regularities: my sense (subject to all the usual provisos…) is that Brandom’s critique of regularism is meant to capture less than you take it to. I entirely agree with the critique as it applies to a lot of naturalistic explanations (or, I should say, would-be explanations): Brandom’s obviously concerned to ensure that his own theory isn’t vulnerable to the charge that it renders normatively binding whatever common practice consists in – it’s a precondition of any philosophically compelling account of the status of norms that the account should have the resources to explain why whole societies can be wrong about central normative issues, etc. I think Brandom’s critique of regularism is in the first place meant to differentiate his own apparatus from more problematic forms of social-practice-based normative theories, which are indeed vulnerable to this charge (and I think Brandom is successful in so differentiating his apparatus), but I don’t think this move in itself undermines or precludes a naturalistic account (which isn’t to say it requires one, either, obviously). That said I’ve not yet run into Brandom’s term ‘normative phenomenalism’ [a quick google search suggests that he doesn’t introduce it until Part Two], so we’ll see how we go.

    In any case, this may be a good place to say that I’m enormously enjoying Making It Explicit, and getting a huge amount out of it – it seems to me to be one of the most impressive works of systematic philosophy I’ve ever read. I doubt I’d have read the book if you hadn’t recommended it – so I owe you a big debt of gratitude. Thank you!

  11. deontologistics Says:

    No problem. It was a revelation for me when I read it. It’s just so systematic in it’s scope. One of my major frustrations in working on analytic philosophy was it’s terribly fragmentary nature, where everyone addresses individual issues in relative isolation from others. Brandom was the first person I came across who tried to answer all of the relevant questions at once, and in the right order.

    I know this might side track you a bit, but I seriously recommend reading the first half of his latest book – Reason in Philosophy – alongside MIE. It’s provides the outline of his reading of Kant and Hegel, and it fills in some of the blanks vis-a-vis his account of autonomy and the social institution of norms, that he doesn’t quite properly address in MIE (where he’s more concerned with working out semantics and pragmatics). This is also available for free on his website as the Woodbridge lectures.

  12. duncan Says:

    Thanks, yes, exactly, the fragmentary nature of the discipline is a nightmare – not least because the big issues still get debated, but they often have to be channeled via technical disputes, and this can be really confusing (not just for readers but also, I think, for participants in the debates). I’m also sort of astonished at the resources Brandom’s able to pull out of the analytic space and synthesise – I realise he has, as you said at ktismatics, a strong tendency to warp the material he’s working with to make it mesh with his own views, and this obviously rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. But I’m very impressed at the way he pieces together bits of Sellars, Dummett, etc. (neither of whom are figures I’d normally be very interested in at all, though I’ve barely read any Dummett so I suppose that isn’t saying much) to assemble something that seems (to me at least) considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

    Thanks for the Reason in Philosophy suggestion. At present I’m enthused enough about Brandom that I can see myself reading a fair portion of his corpus, though I’ve had my eye on Tales of the Mighty Dead as a likely next book to read. I’ll take a peek at Reason in Philosophy too.

  13. duncan Says:

    In belated response to this:

    Brandom’s challenge is to provide an account in which our behaviour institutes norms even while those norms are irreducible to that behaviour

    Having now read a bunch more Brandom, I think you’re completely wrong to see this position in his work. Brandom thinks that norms are not reducible to any individual’s behaviour, and are not reducible to the behaviour of the entire community (such that whatever the community as a whole does, is definitionally taken to be normatively justified [this is one of the purposes of Brandom’s I-thou rather than I-we analysis of discourse]). But Brandom certainly thinks that our norms, and the content of our norms, can be fully explained in terms of a naturalistic analysis of the biological and social behaviour of the human organism. He’s completely explicit about this, for instance in this short interview on YouTube.

    Brandom draws a line between philosophical analysis of the kind of actions that must be required in order to generate the norms we have, and the scientific analysis of the nature of those actions: he thinks that the philosopher has no special expertise or authority w/r/t the latter, and therefore he systematically refuses to discuss it in his philosophical work (which may perhaps contribute to the impression of anti-naturalism). But this is nothing more than an appropriate disciplinary modesty. Brandom certainly thinks that normative content is fully analysable into practices, and he certainly thinks that those practices can themselves be analysed naturalistically. It’s just that he’s not going to attempt the latter task himself – it’s a scientific research task which falls outside the scope of his field and training.

    Basically Brandom thinks that the first wave of pragmatism screwed up by attempting an instrumentalist kind of naturalistic account of norms; he thinks he can offer an alternative pragmatist philosophy of language – and, derivatively, of conceptual content – that draws on more recent developments in analytic philosophy; that is much more nuanced than anything the first wave of pragmatists had to work with; and that therefore enables a naturalistic account of norms without the problems that beset instrumentalism. You’re mistaking Brandom’s critiques of instrumentalism, of regularism, and of certain scientistic philosophical positions that elide the social, for a critique of naturalism (re: norms) in general.

    Anyway, I’ll eventually put up a post on the ‘normative phenomenalism’ issue, because I think this is probably one of the key sources of misunderstanding. ‘Phenomenalism’ is probably quite a poor choice of word on Brandom’s part to convey what he’s trying to say. He doesn’t mean that norms are unreal or fictional; he just means that they’re analysable in terms of something else (practices!).

  14. duncan Says:

    Hmm, well, on reflection this –

    Brandom certainly thinks that our norms, and the content of our norms, can be fully explained in terms of a naturalistic analysis of the biological and social behaviour of the human organism

    – is a little strong, in that it goes against Brandom’s methodological modesty and pragmatist openness to philosophical pluralism. Better to say that Making It Explicit‘s system is fully compatible with naturalism, and that Brandom’s work is significantly motivated by the pragmatist project of attempting to analyse conceptual and normative phenomena from a naturalistic – both natural-scientific and sociological/anthropological – perspective. (i.e. He’s not making anti-naturalistic arguments.)

  15. duncan Says:

    Noting this here mainly so I won’t lose track of the reference: on the norms / practices issue further evidence that Brandom aims practices to be explanatorily fundamental for his system – that his work is indeed ‘reductionist’ in the sense of explaining normative and conceptual content in terms of social practices – is to be found in the summary of MIE that Brandom contributed to the Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Symposium on the book.

    Reference: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), p. 15.


    The explanatory strategy is to begin with an account of social practices, to identify the particular structure they must exhibit in order to qualify as specifically linguistic practices, and then to consider what different sorts of semantic contents those practices can confer on states, performances, and expressions caught up in them in suitable ways. The result is a kind of conceptual role semantics that is at once firmly rooted in actual practices of producing and consuming speech acts, and sufficiently finely articulated to make clear how those practices are capable of conferring a rich variety of kinds of content.

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