Joseph Heath on Brandom

January 24, 2011

I ended my last post by quoting from Joseph Heath’s paper Brandom on the Sources of Normativity [pdf]. Googling, I see that Heath is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto – his work seems to be partly focused on synthesising a Habermasian theory of communicative action with the rational choice discourse of modern economics. Heath also writes popular books, such as 2002’s The Efficient Society: Why Canada is as Close to Utopia as it Gets and 2005’s The Rebel Sell. I thought I’d use Heath’s paper as a jumping-off point for continuing my discussion of Brandom. This post is just notes on the first half of Heath’s paper.

Heath writes that Brandom

wants to argue that the concept of a social norm – a rule that determines, implicitly or explicitly, whether an action is correct or incorrect – can serve as a primitive concept in the development of a general theory of meaning.

But I don’t think this is right – Brandom’s theory is, in part, an account of the origin of norms – norms or rules are not ‘primitive’ for Brandom in any strong sense (though the reflexive nature of the argument means that norms are, at a number of points in the argument, treated as if they are primitive – but that’s because the full content of these concepts as Brandom understands them can’t be cashed out until later in the work).

In the paper’s introduction Heath complains that

Most of the detail in Making it Explicit consists in Brandom’s attempt to show that, if one is willing to take the concept of a social norm as given, one can similarly generate an account of inference, truth, reference, and ultimately representation. However, the mechanism used to achieve the latter is still relatively unexplored, and fraught with technical difficulties. In order to make it worthwhile to iron out the kinks in this mechanism, Brandom must provide the reader with some reason to think that it is somehow more plausible to take normativity, rather than representation, as a primitive. The first chapter of Making it Explicit, however, manifestly fails to achieve this.

As I say, this in my opinion fails to give adequate credit to the ‘eating its own tail’ quality of Brandom’s argument. Although Brandom’s argument of course builds sequentially, and I think the book is well structured to this end, the justification for a number of moves that are made near the start of the book can’t adequately be articulated until the argument as a whole is complete. Heath seems to find this vexing or implausible, but I don’t see any reason why such an argumentative structure is intrinsically problematic.

In sections I and II of the paper, Heath gives a useful summary of Brandom’s discussion of regulism and regularism, which I won’t summarise yet again.

In section III the paper starts going more badly wrong. Heath stumbles over Brandom’s discussion of ‘external’ and ‘internal’ sanctions, suggesting that –

Brandom does not explain exactly how having a fully internalized set of sanctions moves us away from the regularist account.

and that

he does not say much to allay the concern that a system of norms could not be sustained by internal sanctions alone

I’m sympathetic to these objections, since this is basically where I came in in my discussion of Brandom – I too initially baulked at the discussion of internal sanctions in Chapter One of MIE. I still think this section of MIE is one of the least satisfactory, but I no longer think this is a problem with Brandom’s general theoretical apparatus – I think it’s a problem in the articulation of that apparatus. I think that really Brandom is interested here (as often elsewhere) in the possibility of a nonnormative descritive metalanguage – when he says that it is ‘norms all the way down’, he means that our methods of articulation of conceptual content (which includes the descriptive propositions of a naturalistic account of norms) have to be normative (and thus part of a set of normative practices). But the ‘internal’ / ‘external’ sanctions distinction is a really bad way of articulating that point, if this point is indeed what Brandom’s after here. In fact the distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ sanctions as articulated here is, I think, strictly speaking incoherent given that a large part of Brandom’s apparatus is devoted to an account of how causal chains can be mapped inferentially. No causal chain (to use Brandom’s example, beating people with sticks) is, on Brandom’s account, intrinsically external to a web of inferential connections, just as no causal chain is intrinsically internal. The question is simply how we map causal chains inferentially (or don’t), and this is a question that can only be answered from a social-perspectival position of such mapping (and acts of ‘taking-as’). Beating people with sticks can be an internal sanction, just as a mark on a scorecard can be an internal sanction – what matters for the distinction is how that sanction is treated in practice (or, strictly, how that sanction is properly treated in practice). I think Brandom neglects all of this because he hasn’t gotten around to ariculating these subtleties early in Chapter 1 – but I agree with Heath that this renders Brandom’s discussion of internal sanctions extremely problematic.

Heath adds:

There is also a problem explaining how a community could ever induct new members into a set of practices, if the sanctions governing those practices were all internal. One would need to show that a practice which is “norms all the way down” is also learnable. It is a conspicuous feature of the way that we initiate children, for example, into our practices, that we rely quite heavily on sanctions to signal approval and disapproval. Often these sanctions involve cooperating, or witholding cooperation – parents are always saying things like “no, I won’t pass it to you until you ask nicely for it.” These are external sanctions. It is difficult to imagine that we could do without these sorts of sanctions entirely, or that the practices in which they are used are not “genuinely” normative on that account

I don’t think this is right – saying “no, I won’t pass it to you until you ask nicely for it” can be an internal sanction too, since the parent’s ethical disapproval can be interpreted by the infant in normative terms, and this may be precisely where the force of the sanction lies. Nevertheless, I think Heath has a general point in this area. Training operates by generating new normative practices. Those new practices can be generated via sanctions. Those sanctions can be “internal”. But they can also be “external” in the sense that they form no part of the ‘student’s’ implicit set of inferential mappings. If a sanction presents as wholly arbitrary (i.e. not a sanction at all from the perspective of the student, but merely an inferentially inexplicable event) then it is ‘external’ to the student’s inferential chain. As soon as the student is capable of adopting a subject-position from within which the sanction functions as an actual (normative) sanction, however, the sanction is now ‘internal’ to the set of inferential connections pragmatically inhabitable by the student (even if the student doesn’t endorse that set of practices).

I need to address all this is more detail in a post on ‘Training’. For now I just want to register that I’m sympathetic to Heath’s dubiousness about the discussion of internal sanctions in MIE Chapter 1, but I think Heath is reading too much into the discussion, and misreading it as a result. Heath regards this discussion as foundational for Brandom’s system, and therefore woefully unsatisfactory. I regard it as a first pass at articulating a set of points that Brandom will elaborate in greater – and much more compelling – detail throughout the rest of the work, and that indeed can only be properly elaborated once more has been established in the way of theoretical resources.

In section IV Heath continues with his reading based on his interpretation of the ‘internal sanctions’ section. He suggests that Brandom

is not so much trying to provide an account of the action-theoretic underpinnings of normativity as he is offering a principled refusal to provide such an account.

This is really the only place to go if you regard Brandom’s discussion of internal sanctions as foundational for his system, rather than as a preliminary pass at a much more elaborate argument. And this view also results in seeing Brandom as much more strongly ‘anti-naturalistic’ than I think his work justifies. Heath continues:

The drive to “explain” normativity in terms of something more basic is, according to Brandom, guided by a desire (ultimately misplaced) to make norms “naturalistically respectable”.

Which is also to say that if (on Heath’s read) we adopt Brandom’s explanatory strategy we are also giving up the aim of rendering norms naturalistically respectable. (I of course disagree with this reading of Brandom.)

Heath then contrasts purely descriptive with normative vocabulary. He argues that Brandom’s case for his system ultimately rests on the fact that starting with norms as primitive allows us to account for description, but starting with description as primitive does not allow us to account for norms (because you can’t get “ought” from “is”). This is indeed a crucial part of Brandom’s argument. But (as I’ve already said) Heath misses the reflexive element of Brandom’s account. Heath refers to the greater explanatory scope made available (according to Brandom) by starting with normative practices, using Brandom’s term “expressive completeness”, and refers us to page 641 of MIE. But Brandom’s term “expressive completeness” does not just signify explanatory scope, but also signifies the self-embedding of a philosophical analysis, such that it is able to account for its own conditions of possibility. As Brandom writes on that page:

One of the criteria of adequacy that has guided the project from the outset is that it be possible to elaborate the model of discursive practice to the point where it is characterized by just this sort of expressive completeness. This means that the model reconstructs the expressive resources needed to describe the model itself. By means of these logical resources, the theory of discursive practices becomes expressively available to those to whom it applies. What is required is just that the scorekeeping practices that confer conceptual contents on the fundamental sorts of explicitating vocabulary used in stating the theory and specifying the content-conferring discursive scorekeeping practices in the first place be themselves specified within the terms of the theory.

This specification, I claim, involves for Brandom not just reference to primitively normative practices, but to the naturalistically describable practices by which those practices (which are, in fact, the very same practices) are taken to be normative (and so on down the line of ‘taking-as’) such that the circle of normative commitments and empirical description is capable of being closed in both directions. The other day (at David Roden’s Enemy Industry blog, specifically this post – I should have linked to this before, I now realise – apologies), I referred to Geoffrey Bennington’s description of Derrida’s theoretical intent: “the empirical is the transcendental of the transcendental (of the empirical)”. I see a similar (and, unlike – imo – Derrida’s, successful) explanatory loop at work in Brandom’s system. Norms can be understood in terms of empirical, naturalistically analysable practices. But naturalistically analysable practices can only be described from within a thoroughgoingly normative social-perspectival location and set of inferential commitments. The empirical practices that institute this social-perspectival location can in turn be analysed naturalistically. But such analysis can, of course, itself only be carried out from within a normative social-perspectival location. And so on and so on. This circle – a ‘virtuous’ rather than a ‘vicious’ one – keeps on spinning round, and ensures that there is no ‘foundational’ point for Brandom’s system in a strong sense – although for us normative practice is foundational, since we would not be subjects at all if we did not participate in and experience such practice (while we can perfectly well be subjects without a commitment to naturalistic modes of scientific analysis). I will go on to discuss the naturalistic understanding of the ‘brute fact’ of the (biologically evolved) social capacities that can institute normativity in a later post. For now I just want to make the general point about Brandom’s explanatory circle.

On my read of Brandom’s system, a strong naturalism (though one that includes rather than excludes analysis of social practice) is compatible with Brandom’s irreducibly normative pragmatics in the manner just described (the irreducibility simply comes from the impossibility of escaping the embededness of our naturalistic accounts in a social-perspectival set of normative commitments, not from a general opposition to naturalistic modes of explanation w/r/t normativity). On Heath’s read of Brandom, however, Brandom’s system has to be opposed to a strong naturalism. For Heath we can be either naturalists or Brandomians, but we cannot be both. Since Heath – reasonably enough – thinks that there are very compelling reasons for a commitment to naturalism (I of course agree), Brandom’s theoretical apparatus seems unappealing, and Heath’s read of the minutiae of Brandom’s system is correspondingly unsympathetic.

~~

In section V of his paper, Heath’s emphasis shifts, and he begins to elaborate his alternative to Brandom’s perceived anti-naturalism. This is where the paper becomes most problematic: because Heath has mistaken the nature of Brandom’s account of the origins of normativity, when he comes to propose his ‘alternative’ Heath in fact proposes a much simplified version of Brandom’s own argument. I will address this in my next post.

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20 Responses to “Joseph Heath on Brandom”


  1. […] normativity as it relates to human cognition and society, you might want to check in with bloggers Duncan Law, Deontologistics, Planomenology, and Minds and […]

  2. ktismatics Says:

    “I will go on to discuss the naturalistic understanding of the ‘brute fact’ of the (biologically evolved) social capacities that can institute normativity in a later post.”

    I was going to respond to this idea based on some of Michael Tomasello’s work, but my comment wound up expanding into a post instead, viz. the preceding pingback link on this thread. Tomasello does empirical work mostly on language acquisition, but in his most recent monograph Why We Cooperate he explores the evolutionary substrate and the primitive developmental building blocks on which human normativity may be built. Rather than reiterating here, I point you to my post and especially to Tomasello if you’ve not come across his work previously in your readings.

  3. duncan Says:

    Hi ktismatics – thanks for dropping by, sorry not to be around and about the blogs more – I saw your Tomasello posts but haven’t read the guy so didn’t really feel qualified to comment. I guess my instincts are: I find compelling the basic idea that the ability to adopt another’s perspective is a core feature of the practices that enable normativity. I’m not so convinced that this is a feature specific to humans – it seems to me that we have everyday experience of how animals like working dogs, for example, are often able to inhabit the consciousness of those important to them – which would make sense evolutionarily, since wolves hunt in packs (and dogs have evolved out of wolves as part of an ongoing interaction with humans), and the ability to empathically co-ordinate action between individuals would seem important to the success of that endeavour. But I don’t have the knowledge either of Tomasello’s work or of the ethological literature to really push this case or comment more broadly…

  4. ktismatics Says:

    Most of what I know about this stuff comes from Tomasello’s books. Tomasello is keen to point out not just differences of humans from their primate forebears, but similarities as well. He’s mostly a psycholinguist, and he devotes considerable effort to arguing against a separate “language module” in human brains that constitutes a dramatic, nearly miraculous evolutionary jump. He wants to ground both language and normativity in shared intentionality, which can be seen in rudimentary form in chimps, wolves, etc.

    With respect to pack hunting, Tomasello again highlights both similarities to and differences from human cooperative endeavors. Chimps hunt red colobus monkeys as a food source. They hunt in packs, sharing a joint goal and coordinating the complementary hunting roles of driver, blocker, and ambusher. These roles are not preassigned: each chimp occupies first one role then the next as needed in the playing out of a specific hunt. However, despite all of this emergent coordinated activity, it’s still not clear that chimps are really engaged in mutually collaborative activity. Tomasello contends that

    “each chimpanzee takes up the most opportune spatial position still available at any given moment in the emerging hunt… In this process, each participant is attempting to maximize its own chances of catching the prey, without any prior joint goal or plan or assignment of roles. This kind of hunting clearly is a group activity of some complexity, in which individuals are mutually responsive to one another’s spatial position as they encircle the prey.”

    In contrast, 1-year-old human infants do engage in joint cooperative activity that doesn’t necessarily result in the individual gaining some pragmatic advantage. I describe one of Tomasello’s studies illustrating this difference in a response to Carl’s comment on my post. Other relevant studies are also summarized in the book.

    If establishing a naturalistic, evolutionary ground for normativity is important to your project, then you might want to look at Tomasello. Unlike Brandom, for whom normativity is inherently linguistic (if I understand your summary correctly), Tomasello explores prelinguistic normative behaviors, grounding both language and normativity in mutual intentionality. Of course his interpretation of the empirical findings is open to debate. Some researchers content that language is what finally pulls mutual cooperative behavior together, with the basic grammatical construction of subject-verb-object serving as a template for children’s understanding of intentionality. In the last section of Why We Cooperate some of these alternative interpretations are presented by other theorists responding to Tomasello. Clearly it’s an area of empirical investigation that needs more work, but the topic is starting to garner more scientific attention and some important findings.

  5. duncan Says:

    Thanks ktismatics – you’re right that I should look at work like Tomasello’s, given my areas of research interest. I may try to get ahold of some of his work – if I manage, I’ll let you know anything that occurs. I wonder, though, given the scenarios that Tomasello describes, what it means to say things like it’s not clear that chimps are really engaged in mutually collaborative activity? From what you describe Tomasello describing, it sounds a lot like that’s exactly what’s going on? Similarly, I have some doubts about the research-design you describe in your response to Carl – if I get you right, Tomasello has his researchers engage in cooperative play with both young children and chimpanzees, at times with a pragmatic goal that incentivises the research subjects to participate in coordinated interaction, at times with no such goal but with the play itself as its own reward. Tomasello discovers that the chimps are markedly less inclined to participate in play that does not involve a direct reward as its outcome, and that the chimps also lose interest in the play more quickly if the researcher withdraws from interaction. For Tomasello this is evidence that chimps do not participate in certain kinds of normative, non-self-interested sociality, while children do. This is one possible explanation for the observed results. Another explanation might be that the chimps find the experimental games boring and pointless (as the games may very well be), and can’t be bothered to participate unless there’s an obvious and immediate reward. The children, by contrast, find the games – and, in particular, interaction with the adult researchers – interesting, and are keen to participate even if it involves no immediate reward. There are a number of possible reasons for these differential responses. One notes that animals usually find social interaction with members of their own species to be more compelling than social interaction with members of other species, and wonders whether the fact that both sets of experiments (on chimpanzees and on human children) were administered by human, not chimpanzee, researchers, might have influenced the results. Similarly, one wonders whether human researchers might have designed experimental social play that is more oriented to humans’ social habits and inclinations than to chimpanzees’. [Tomasello probably discusses this, but I’m also curious how old the chimps were, since I’d imagine most heavily-socialised species will have very different orientations to social interaction at different developmental stages: human children are, obviously, super-attentive to human adults, and engage in very intense mimicry of adults. There’s not necessarily a comparable motive for chimps, who are not as likely to be modelling themselves (at least as intensively) after human adults, to do this, and certainly not if the chimps are already fully socialised into an alternative set of social interactions and roles. It’s very likely that the chimpanzees were young (and human-raised), though, I’d imagine.] [On the human / chimp researchers thing, it’s of course not possible to have actual chimpanzee researchers – but one could derive one’s data from observation of interaction among members of the same species, and ideally in a minimally artificially-structured environment, such that unfamiliar or unresonant social demands aren’t being unequally imposed on only one set of experimental subjects.]

  6. duncan Says:

    ha! – just looking at the book on Amazon search inside.

    I do not believe that human altruism is a single trait, but rather that humans are more or less altruistic in different domains of activity, each of which has its own characteristics…. I use an economic framework incorporating three main types of human altruism as defined by the “commodity” involved: goods, services, and information.

    After all – what is there beyond commodities? What possible mode of altruism could there be beyond the exchange and interaction of private property? There must be works of evolutionary psychology out there that don’t naturalise the fuck out of capitalism – I’m sure this isn’t an intrinsic feature of the field – science can be distinguished from ideology! But sheesh.

  7. ktismatics Says:

    It’s difficult to summarize the empirical evidence Tomasello presents in support of his thesis, since so much of the (very short) book is devoted to summarizing individual studies. Here I thumbnailed Tomasello’s interpretation of cooperative hunting because you brought up the topic. As I said, he acknowledges that the chimps’ monkey hunt involves cooperation, but it’s almost Hayekian, where each chimp pursuing its own interests results in an unplanned emergent collective order. With respect to the game-playing study I summarized on my blog, I see your point about the difficulty of human researchers finding games that chimps might intrinsically enjoy. It’s a fairly new field of investigation, and I expect this issue of chimp-friendly games is something they’re working on. Still, it’s a notable finding that children enjoy playing cooperatively even when there’s no personal reward to be “earned” — that in fact they’ll return the reward just so they can keep the game going.

    Of course the results of any study are open to alternative interpretations, and the book concludes with a forum section in which four other theorists do just that. Briefly, whereas Tomasello points to joint intentionality as the naturalistic basis for humans’ ability to cooperate, the discussants propose innate altruism, cultural rewards, a sort of informational ecology, and language. All make good points.

    Regarding the commodities, I presume you’re just playing the hermeneutic-of-suspicion game with me rather than leveling a substantive critique. Goods, services, and information are general categories of things that can be shared or hoarded. Will you share your food or keep it to yourself? Will you help me or not? Will you share information with me or not? Generally speaking, Tomasello found that very young children shared all three types of “commodities” without reinforcement or reward from adults. Again, research design is tricky when you’re studying kids as young as 12 months old, but I find the study designs quite ingenious. Chimps, by the way, act much more like private property hoarders in these studies than do the human children.

  8. duncan Says:

    No, not the hermeneutics of suspicion – but in my reading experience it’s very common for research agendas of this kind to import into their research frameworks assumptions about the kinds of phenomena they are likely to observe that I regard as unjustified, and these can have problematic impacts on conclusions drawn. The assumptions tend to fall into predictable patterns. One is a predisposition towards human exceptionalism, such that unequally high standards of proof are demanded for human versus non-human subjects to count as exhibiting certain kinds of behaviour. Another is the naturalisation (the projection as culturally- or species-invariant biological or social fundamentals) of kinds of behaviour that are historically specific to capitalist societies. This latter is really really common – the evo-psych crowd seem particularly prone to it, in my admittedly limited experience. It’s related to the frequent deployment of categories designed and suited for the analysis of a historically and socially specific form of (capitalist) behaviour – such as commodity exchange – for the analysis of social behaviour as such. I don’t think it’s accurate or analytically useful to think that the opposition between hoarding and exchange is a good framework for mapping altruism versus self-interest: many many kinds of social behaviour that I would regard as exemplarily normative do not fall on either side of this division. (Is esteem or prestige a service? Is forgiveness?) [For that matter, I don’t think that altruism versus self-interest is a good way to distinguish between normative and non-normative behaviour – though I may write a post on that (eventually), because I think the issues there would take a while to unpack.] In my experiences such categories tend to be presented as maximally general, and then the goal-posts are moved – the applicability of the category is narrowed – as suits the differential standard of proof… and while this needn’t be the case (I’m sure there are plenty of evo-psych texts out there that don’t exhibit this feature) it seems (not unusually) to be going on in Tomasello’s book, at least the introductory sections I can see online:

    all human cultures have rules and norms for sharing or possibly trading food and other valuable objects. In the process of exchange, some objects may be accorded the cultural status of money (e.g., specially marked paper), which gives them a certain, culturally backed role. Other sets of rules and norms create leaders of the group, such as chiefs and presidents, who have special rights and obligations to make decisions, or even create new rules, for the group. As for the cultural ratchet, so for social institutions: no animal species other than humans has been observed to have anything even vaguely resembling the latter.

    Vaguely resembling what? The use of banknotes? Well, indeed, no non-human animal species uses banknotes – historically, of course, neither have most human societies. Tomasello knows this – the banknotes are just in there as a (purely random?) example. What he’s really refering to is “rules and norms for sharing or possibly [possibly?] trading [meaning what?] food and other valuable objects.” But clearly plenty of animal species do have cultural-group-specific rules for sharing and transferring between species-members food and other valuable objects. Tomasello knows this. So there’s a systematic ambiguity, whereby a criteria for normativity that many human societies would not pass is hinted at, then withdrawn, but still floats around in the background of the argument, undergirding the introduction’s direct claims. Tomasello, presumably, would suggest that the behaviours exhibited by many social animal species for the sharing of foodstuffs do not count as ‘normative’ – but the question then remains what this distinction (which Tomasello purports to be drawing in this section of the text) consists in. The distinction is here not in fact drawn, but rather presupposed.

    Similarly, Tomasello tells us that non-human animal species do not have “chiefs and presidents”. Well, they certainly don’t have presidents. (Neither do they have a supreme court, or the taco bell franchise). Many animal species certainly do have dominant figures within a socially-constituted group, the status of whom is socially maintained and contested, and there are often quite complex social behaviours for the selection of such individuals, and a huge amount of social activity goes into the reproduction and transformation of such hierarchies. These behaviours can, I think, differ between cultural groups of the same species – at least that is my understanding – I’d obviously like to read more on these issues. Again, Tomasello (I think) knows this – but he presumably thinks it doesn’t count because such behaviours aren’t genuinely normative – whatever that means. Again, the distinction that is meant to be being defined through the drawing of an actual empirical distinction has to be relied on to non-empirically draw the ’empirical’ distinction in the first place. It’s simply not true to say that “no animal species other than humans has been observed to have anything even vaguely resembling” cultural institutions. Tomasello needs to shift and strengthen the meaning of the latter (very general) phrase in order to render this claim defensible – and that’s the purpose of the examples from complex industrial society.

    Of course the fact that a research project is informed by flawed generalisations doesn’t mean that the research itself is bad. A researcher can have a very foolish set of commitments and still conduct first rate research. I’d obviously have to read some of Tomasello’s actual work to get a sense. The chimpanzees / children social play experiment, if I understand it right from your description, strikes me as very bad research design, so I’m not super-optimistic. But I could be wrong! I’ve grabbed one of Tomasello’s other books from the library, anyhow, and while it’ll take me some time to get to it I’ll definitely take a look. These comments are directed at the sense I have of his work through your descriptions, and at a broader swathe of evo-psych inclinations that Tomasello appears to participate in, rather than at his (as yet to me unknown) academic work. So sorry to grouch. But really a lot of this stuff is super-bad and ideological, and it’s not just recourse to the hermeneutics of suspicion to label it as such.

  9. ktismatics Says:

    “I don’t think it’s accurate or analytically useful to think that the opposition between hoarding and exchange is a good framework for mapping altruism versus self-interest… For that matter, I don’t think that altruism versus self-interest is a good way to distinguish between normative and non-normative behaviour”

    Maybe we need to back up. Tomasello is more broadly interested in joint intentionality, of which cooperation in performing tasks or in playing games is but one manifestation. Language acquisition is his main research focus, though not in the particular book on cooperation that we’ve been discussing. Language use unfolds inside a joint intentional frame, in which the speaker attempts to orient the listener toward something of mutual interest, while listener attempts to infer the intent behind the speaker’s utterance. Language use is normative in that the speaker can fail to orient the listener properly to the subject of her utterance, either through poor use of grammar/vocabulary or through failing to escape an overly self-centered point of view with respect to the subject of the utterance. So too can the listener fail to understand the utterance, either through not having enough linguistic understanding or by failing to recognize the speaker’s intent and point of view. For Tomasello, establishing a frame of mutual intentionality precedes language and makes language possible, although of course language dramatically improves human ability to engage in cooperative projects where participants share a common intent. Tomasello’s paradigmatic examples of the joint intentional frame in human infants involve an adult pointing to or looking at something, while the infant follows the point or the gaze toward that same something. (Apes, in contrast, will point at things they want and will follow another’s point or gaze, but they seem not to grasp the communicative intent of the other’s gesture; e.g., in pointing out the location of hidden food.)

    When Tomasello investigates sharing versus hoarding (my terms, not his), he’s trying to establish not an innate altruism but rather an innate ability to participate in a collective intentional framework. If this is the case, then sharing stuff or cooperating on tasks and games isn’t only a naturalistic manifestation of the altruism gene or an ecologically emergent set of social structures and roles. There is in addition a normative aspect, based not just on reading others’ intentions but on sharing those intentions. We intend to communicate together, we intend to play together, etc. We might also intend to compete with each other, as in Carl’s baseball example on the other thread, but competition too requires that the competitors share a joint intention to compete. People can also share a joint intention to wage war on some other group, or to exploit them economically and divide up the spoils. Any cooperative activity can fail, either by not entering into the joint intentional frame in the first place or by violating normative mutual expectations about how the joint intentionality is going to play itself out in practice. In other words, I drew Tomasello to your attention not so much in the context of socialism but with respect to Brandom.

    In another post you cite Brandom’s normativity as sanctions-based, established and reinforced via rewards/punishments and approval/disapproval. Regardless of whether the games Tomasello sets up for comparing chimps with humans, among humans he does find some evidence suggesting that children adopt a normative stance even without sanctions being thrust upon them. He also finds that kids spontaneously cooperate on projects, and that this cooperation can actually be hindered via reward or praise bestowed on them by adults. It seems worthwhile at least to consider the possibility that humans find participation in joint intentional frames, along with the normative mutual expectations on which these frames rely, as intrinsically rewarding.

    “Vaguely resembling what? The use of banknotes?”

    Well it is true that chimps don’t use banknotes, but of course in the context Tomasello uses banknotes as an example of a “social institution.” Banknotes aren’t naturally-occurring components of human society; they are imbued with a culturally-backed meaning that relies on the joint intentions of members of that culture to regard them as valuable. In this regard a monetary system is not unlike symbolic language or a traffic-control system using stoplights and lanes or the game of baseball. So basically I don’t see a problem with the banknote example.

    Does Brandom overemphasize differences between humans and other primates with respect to normativity. Probably, although I just found some video clips from Tomasello’s lab in which chimps are shown being “good helpers” of the human experimenter. On the other hand, it sounds from your description that Brandom regards normativity as intrinsically linguistic, which would rule out chimps (at least in their natural environment) altogether, wouldn’t it? Tomasello acknowledges that human cognition is built on an ape brain infrastructure, so he’s looking for both commonalities and disjunctions. Chomsky and Pinker for example propose a full-blown language module that constitutes a dramatic punctuation in the incremental evolutionary pathway from chimp to human. Tomasello disagrees: he looks for the smaller evolutionary steps. In any event, I think we’d all agree that humans are far more adept than chimps in pursuing norm-based cooperative endeavors, so looking for organic bases for these behavioral and cognitive inter-species differences seems like a worthwhile project.

    “These comments are directed at the sense I have of his work through your descriptions”

    Maybe I’ve failed normatively as a communicator. On the other hand, I only quoted Tomasello’s summary of his findings on the chimps/children social play experiments; I did not describe the studies or the games, nor does Tomasello in this book (which after all is based on a lecture series so presumably he had to cut things shorter than he might have liked). Consequently I don’t know on what basis you are able to decide that Tomasello used “very bad research design” in this instance.

    I’m curious about which Tomasello book you’ve gotten hold of, but having access to the complete development of the ideas and their empirical support will doubtless prove more useful to you than my scattershot blogging approach at summarizing. If it’s one I’ve already read perhaps we’ll have a better basis for discussion; if it’s not, then the expectation of establishing with you a joint intentional frame around it might well motivate me to read it.

  10. duncan Says:

    I don’t know on what basis you are able to decide that Tomasello used “very bad research design” in this instance.

    The human researchers are part of the research instrument. They are attempting to test for differential responses to different kinds of social play between chimps and human children. Unless your description is wrong, they are much more likely to be testing for differential responses to the research instrument. That is, they are much more likely to be testing (whether they know it or not) for which of the two groups – chimps and human children – are more enthusiastic about [this specific kind of] play with human researchers. A key principle of good research design is to ensure that your research instrument is actually picking out the phenomenon you wish to study, rather than some other phenomenon correlated with the same distinctions in the data. I’d be really surprised if this experiment meets that criteria of good research design. However, as you say, I haven’t read the actual paper, so this is a balance-of-probabilities assessment, rather than a definitive one.

    [after a few minutes googling…]

    And here’s the paper:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00895.x/abstract

    If you don’t have an institutional login I can send you a pdf.

    Abstract:

    Human children 18–24 months of age and 3 young chimpanzees interacted in 4 cooperative activities with a human adult partner. The human children successfully participated in cooperative problem-solving activities and social games, whereas the chimpanzees were uninterested in the social games. As an experimental manipulation, in each task the adult partner stopped participating at a specific point during the activity. All children produced at least one communicative attempt to reengage him, perhaps suggesting that they were trying to reinstate a shared goal. No chimpanzee ever made any communicative attempt to reengage the partner. These results are interpreted as evidence for a uniquely human form of cooperative activity involving shared intentionality that emerges in the second year of life

    That last sentence is where one’s response should be (to within a close paraphrase) “whoah woah whoah what the fuck?!”

    Passages from the paper:

    We adopted a comparative approach to investigate how chimpanzees (our closest primate relatives) would engage in cooperative activities and to identify species-specific behavioral patterns that could address whether the formation of joint intentions and goals is a uniquely human ability. We therefore presented these same four tasks to three young chimpanzees, including the programmed partner manipulation, minimizing changes so that the scenarios faced by the subjects in the two studies were as comparable as possible.

    Here’s the answer to my question about the chimps:

    Our chimpanzees, being human reared in an environment that included close interactions with several human caretakers and numerous enrichment objects, provided a unique opportunity to address the issue of shared intentionality. Our chimpanzees were perhaps maximally prepared for success, as they interacted with a human partner with whom they were highly familiar and with whom they were capable of communicating if, during the interruption, they desired her to reengage.

    and:

    The chimpanzees’ partner was a highly familiar caretaker who often fed them and helped them obtain food; this reduced the effects of tolerance and competitiveness that may have been factors in previous studies involving chimpanzee dyads.

    and:

    At the time of the test, the females were both 51 months old; the male was 33 months old.

    So the chimps are young, though not as young as the human children (and not proportionately as young within species lifespan – chimps live about 60 years if they don’t get got by something), and familiar with the researcher.

    Here’s a description of the apparatus for the task:

    In problem-solving tasks, familiar toys of approximately 3 × 3 cm served as target objects (e.g., miniature animals, bells, toy blocks) that were used in a random order. They were all attractive to children as determined through pilot testing.

    And for the chimps:

    We again used the four tasks from Study 1 (two problem-solving tasks and two social games with either complementary or parallel roles). Most modifications to Study 1, such as changes in materials or dimensions, were minor and were designed to make the apparatus more suitable for the chimpanzees. In the problem-solving tasks, food was used as a reward rather than toys, after piloting revealed that toys did not serve as an effective motivator.

    Note that keeping the tasks “as comparable as possible” means presenting the chimps with the same tasks that had been established as appealing to children. They were obviously pilot tested on the chimps, and the researchers discovered (apparently to their surprise…) that chimps weren’t too interested in the toy animals. Also:

    The only major task modification was to the elevator task. We found that a lifting motion was more intuitive to the chimpanzees than pushing, and created a “trapdoor” task that replaced the pushing component of the original elevator task with a lifting motion (see Figure 3).

    There were some further differences between experimental procedures for chimps and human children:

    After a warm-up phase with the two experimenters, children were brought to the experimental room accompanied by a parent. Parents were seated in the corner of the testing room and remained passive during sessions. If the child approached the parent, they were asked to draw the child’s attention back to the experimenter but not direct the child or give any hints of what she was supposed to do.

    It’d be interesting to watch the video, though I don’t imagine it’s available for viewing, because non-verbal cues are a classic problem in experiment design of this kind (the ‘clever Hans’ issue). It also seems strange that the parents are specifically asked to draw the child’s attention back to the experimenter, given that one of the things being tested for is attentiveness to the experimenter.

    Here’s the set-up for the chimps:

    The experimental room included two large wire mesh cages connected by a hydraulic door: a holding cage (2.5 × 1.8 × 2.4 m) and a testing cage (3.8 × 2.4 × 2.4 m). The subject watched all demonstrations by the experimenters (E1 and E2) from the holding cage. E2 then left the testing cage, and the subject was allowed into the testing cage to perform the tasks with E1.

    Might these contextual differences (interacting with your parent versus being held in a wire mesh cage) have a contextual impact on the research subject’s interest in cooperative activities with the researchers? It’s a possibility, one would imagine.

    The general procedure for the four tasks was almost identical to that of Study 1. We did not include a familiarization period for the chimpanzees, because chimpanzees exploring a novel apparatus sometimes idiosyncratically fixate on an aspect of the apparatus, after which it becomes difficult to draw their attention to other aspects of the apparatus. Thus, the first time the subjects were allowed to interact with the apparatus was after they saw a demonstration. Also, during demonstrations, the subject always watched from the holding cage (which differed from demonstration 3 of Study 1, in which the child would perform the action with E2).

    So in fact the procedures are massively different – and massively different in part because the researchers already know that chimps exploring novel apparatuses tend to be interested in different features of the apparatuses from human children (or researchers).

    This is particularly funny:

    The scores for the level of coordination are described in Table 7. The trampoline task was not analyzed because none of the subjects showed interest in the game; they most frequently took the bell and played with it alone, sat on the trampoline, or ignored the trampoline and tried to play with the experimenter

    This is interesting too:

    As in Experiment 1, looking behavior and communicative acts were also coded. Looks to the partner were dropped from further analysis because they proved impossible to code reliably. As in other studies that have encountered difficulties in determining the exact target of chimpanzees’ looks, our coding was limited by the significantly shorter duration of the chimpanzees’ looks (Carpenter, Tomasello, & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1995), as well as by the chimpanzee’s lack of a large area of visible white sclera that characterizes human eyes and makes human looks relatively easy to code.

    This is an important point: We’re just not very good at picking up on the nuances of non-human animal behaviour, because as human’s we’re primed to be attentive and receptive to the aspects of human behaviour that are particularly significant for our species and our culture. We therefore find it difficult even to directly observe (without attempting to interpret it) lots of more subtle kinds of animal behaviour. We then have a tendency to conclude that subtle communicative behaviour is absent. E.g.:

    Communicative acts were not analyzed because they did not occur

    We already know the conclusions. Here’s the future research moment:

    It will be the task of future research to determine whether there are other social games that may be more interesting and motivating for chimpanzees, to distinguish between the hypothesis that chimpanzees do not form joint goals in these games and the possibility that they simply were uninterested in the specific games used in this study.

    As is typical in the field, this proviso (which would be necessary to get the paper past peer review) gets dropped when Tomasello is summarising the results of his research elsewhere.

    Anyway, I can’t comment further now because I’ve got stuff to do – but having now read the paper I feel competent to reassert that this is bad research design, and the research’s results should not be used to support anything like the conclusions Tomasello draws from them. I guess I can try to expand on that still further, and address other points you raise, when I have some time later.

  11. duncan Says:

    In two other studies, chimpanzees sometimes tried to encourage the other to participate after many repetitions (Chalmeau, 1994; Crawford, 1937, 1942); they did not do this by means of communication—attempting to engage the other intentionally—but rather by physically pulling the other toward her station

    Because pulling someone in the direction you want them to go is completely non-communicative! No way of telling what the chimp wants the researcher to do, based on that action! Given that we’re here dealing with communication across species, I have no idea what the chimps could do that would count as communicating their intent. It’s like anything short of a politely phrased English sentence doesn’t count as genuinely communicative.

  12. duncan Says:

    To be clear, I’m highly sympathetic to the research project of looking at differences in kinds of social interaction between species. I find it extremely plausible that there will be qualitative differences in the social-interactive capacities of humans versus chimpanzees – I’d be astonished if this weren’t the case. But research of this kind is never going to be able to establish those differences – there are too many confounds, the entire research project is stacked high with confounds, it’s just impossible to do anything useful with this data. That’s my first criticism. My second criticism is that Tomasello thinks it’s possible to do something with his data because he’s fantasising the hell out of what he’s seeing – and he’s fantasising because he has a very very common set of faulty presuppositions, predictable ones, that lead his research in predictably unhelpful directions. He may have done good work elsewhere, but this paper’s conclusions shouldn’t be taken seriously (as conclusions drawn from the data presented, I mean, rather than just as Tomasello’s articulations of his own unrelated hunches).

  13. duncan Says:

    basically I don’t see a problem with the banknote example

    I’ve explained the problem: the thing the banknote is used as an example of – rules and norms for sharing food – is in fact present in non-human animal species, unless one has predecided that non-human animals’ social organisational structures for sharing food for some reason don’t count as normative. The function the banknote example serves in the text is to make the reader think of specific complex human institutions when she thinks of social institutions, such that the reader concludes that, yes, other primates don’t have social institutions. But other primates do in fact have social institutions as Tomasello has actually defined them. The banknote example distracts from this fact, that is its textual function.

  14. duncan Says:

    Tomasello is more broadly interested in joint intentionality, of which cooperation in performing tasks or in playing games is but one manifestation

    Yes, I understand the nature of the broader claims, and as I said to kick off, I’m not unsympathetic to the general emphasis on shared intentionality. (In Brandomian idiom, I find plausible the idea that the ability to occupy multiple social-perspectival locations is central to normativity. As Carl said over at your site, this isn’t a new kind of claim – Mead was saying this in the early 20th century in a naturalistic social-theoretic context, for e.g.) Neither am I unsympathetic to the attempt to push back against Chomskyan linguistics in the analysis of the basis of normativity. But these inclinations are shared by a very wide swathe of researchers – Tomasello is also making more specific claims, and some of them seem very problematic to me.

  15. duncan Says:

    The book I got from the library (the only one by Tomasello they had) was Origins of Human Communication, which (as you probably know) is an adaptation of a lecture series – I’d been hoping for something with more empirical grist, but I guess I can google up papers.

    Here’s a passage from page 14:

    We must begin… by distinguishing between what we may call communicative displays and communicative signals. Communicative displays are prototypically physical characteristics that in some way affect the behavior of others, such as large horns which deter competitors or bright colors which attract mates. Functionally, we may also group with displays reflexive behaviors that are invariably evoked by particular stimuli or emotional states and over which the individual has no voluntary control. Such inflexible physical and behavioral displays, created and controlled by evolutionary processes, characterize the vast majority of communication in the biological world. In sharp contrast are communicative displays that are chosen and produced by individual organisms flexibly and strategically for particular social goals, adjusted in various ways for particular circumstances. These signals are intentional in the sense that the individual controls their use flexibly toward the goal of influencing others. Intentional signals are extremely rare in the biological world, perhaps confined to primates or even great apes.

    I have a really hard time understanding the view of animal behavior from within which that last sentence seems like a reasonable one to write. Has Tomasello ever interacting with a pet dog, for instance? One can only assume not. Perhaps his experimental laboratory is the only context in which he has ever observed non-human animal behavior, even informally? I’m just at a loss.

    But I really need to attend to offline stuff for a while…

  16. duncan Says:

    Oh, to be fair I see that the Warneken page you linked to does contain some videos of the set of experiments we’re discussing, though not all of them – they look pretty cool, I’ll check them out properly later. Only the trapdoor task with chimps, unfortunately – I want to see the scenarios in which the chimps were uninterested in social games!

  17. ktismatics Says:

    You’re right, Duncan — we should probably move on, agree to disagree, etc. I was so hoping that I’d have something useful for your Brandom norms project, but at least you’ll be able to devote a dismissive footnote to Tomasello as a result of this interaction. Clearly the origins of normative cognition/behavior is an important and enduring topic, and I look forward in future posts to see what sorts of empirical work you draw on. I’ve not read the particular Tomasello book you’ve snagged from the library, but at 400 pages it must cover quite a bit of empirical material, since that’s T’s usual style.

    Cheers,
    John

  18. duncan Says:

    Well the truth is I am hugely underinformed in this area, and you’re right that I should with engage with animal behaviour stuff more seriously. I guess maybe I should sit down with a few journals and skim through the archives, try to find some texts I like better. I’ll add it to my list of things to read – thanks for the push in that direction, as it were.

    Best…

  19. ktismatics Says:

    I first became interested in Tomasello via his ontogenic work on language acquisition and social learning in human children; only later did I pay attention to his ethology. Anyhow, I’ve come back to report what was on my mind about our conversation when I woke up this morning.

    Tomasello may, as you observe, be overemphasizing distinctions between humans and other animals, both in his theories and in describing his empirical results. I suspect it’s because he started with humans and is working “downstream” in a search for the origins of human uniqueness. Consequently he’s perhaps motivated to find ways in which human normativity differers from that of chimps. As you work through your own ideas you might decide to blur or even eliminate the human distinctiveness in normativity, a distinctiveness that motivates not only Tomasello’s psychology but also Brandom’s philosophy (as I understand it without having actually read it). On the one hand, maybe it’s normativity all the way down. Maybe there are right and wrong ways of being a chimp, or a dog, or even a stream or a rock. Maybe language serves primarily to make explicit statements about what’s implicit in nonlinguistic behavior patterns that are intrinsically normative “all the way down.” That’s the direction that Graham Harman takes with respect to shared intentionality: objects lure one another together into an interactional plasm. Alternatively, you could decide that normativity is just a human way of interpreting behaviors that can be explained in other ways. Distinctions like right/wrong and true/false fall away; what’s important are emergence, mutual translations, and mutual exertions of force. This I think is the direction that Latour and Levi Bryant take.

    What got me interested in the normativity issue was our prior discussion with Pete about science. For Latour and the pomos among others, science is more a matter of groupthink and power politics and shifting sociohistorical biases than an incremental discovery of truths about the world. But working scientists act normatively, conducting their own research and evaluating others’ according to standards of scientific rigor. You have deployed those standards admirably in critiquing one of Tomasello et al’s studies; others have done so as well. Presumably the next study will redress some of the normative failings of the prior studies. Critiques of the new study will then appear, leading to further incremental improvements in method, and so on.

    The critical broader issue is whether this iterative process of scientific discovery really results in improvement, or is it merely change. I suspect that your interest in normativity centers on political and economic concerns. I.e., are there norms governing individuals and groups and societies, such that it’s possible to talk seriously about “good” and “bad” rather than just “different,” about “improvement” rather than just “change”? If good/bad and true/false apply to human endeavors like science and politics, do these distinctions also apply to chimp societies and pet dogs? Or does normativity apply only to sapient beings who can reflect consciously on their own thoughts and behaviors and render evaluative judgments about them? Or does everything in the universe have some measure of sapience, such that normativity is intrinsic to everything?

    Now, of course, I’m veering far from things I know much about. I have another chapter of fiction to write. (And by the way, I don’t deem fictional characters to be as “real” as you or I, so in this and other respects I agree with Brassier and Wolfendale.)

  20. duncan Says:

    Hey John – there’s quite a lot here so this’ll be a bit schematic.

    – On the extent of normativity: my own inclination, as you know, is to see some non-human animals as engaging in behaviour that I’d classify as normative. I don’t have a strong view as to where to draw the line (a line that’s going to be super-fuzzy regardless of where it’s drawn) between normatively and non-normatively behaving animals. This is an empirical question (though, of course, one that’ll be informed by how we understand normativity in the first place), and I’m not convinced enough good research has been done to adequately answer it. It’s also not a question that has any direct relevance to my project. I’m ultimately interested in analysing human social behaviour at a macro-economic level, and pretty much everyone agrees that human behaviour involves norms, so my interest in non-human animal behaviour is largely a sideline that I’m personally curious about. It bugs me because I feel that many people’s excessive desire to exclude animals from normative behaviour often skews how they define normative behaviour in a way that then makes the analysis of human behaviour much more difficult. I’m also strongly pro-Darwin, and don’t like the metaphysicalisations of human nature that often accompany, overtly or tacitly, the drawing of a strong boundary of normativity between humans and other species. But that’s a separate issue, to a large extent, and doesn’t of course determine where the (fuzzy) boundary should actually be drawn.

    On the options you listed: – I definitely don’t think that “it’s normativity all the way down”. Attributions of intentionality to rocks and pencils strike me as a brand of fantastical metaphysics lacking any empirical warrant. This sort of stuff doesn’t bother me if it’s presented as religious belief – I have a sense of the restriction of science’s scope such that I’m not intrinsically hostile to people claiming supernatural revelation: science can’t refute that kind of thing, science is rigorously agnostic (though scientists needn’t be). But this sort of stuff needs to be understood as fundamentally non-secular and non-evidence based. I don’t see any reason to take it seriously within a secular discursive space.

    – At the same time, I’d definitely agree with the statement that normativity is just a human way of interpreting behaviors that can be explained in other ways. My position is a naturalistic one. Normative behaviours aren’t non-natural behaviours. They can still be explained biologically, etc. It’s just that they’re also normative. What makes them normative? Well, the series of posts to which this post belongs begins to provide my (largely Brandomian) answer to that question. The crassest version of the answer is that behaviours are normative if they’re taken as normative by an entity that participates in a particular kind of network of practices. Normativity is made, not found. But the long answer is long, which is why I’m aiming to write a thesis-length document articulating it.

    I would, however, contest a way of understanding this theoretical choice that may (or may not) be motivating your phrasing of the options, and that is in any case very common. That is the idea that if normativity is just a human way of interpreting natural behaviours, this is some sort of problem for normativity – that, if the world is viewed consistently from this perspective, the distinctions we draw between between right and wrong etc. collapse. One of the major motivating factors behind the work I’m doing currently on Brandom, is to give an account of normativity that shows how both sides of this supposed dichotomy can be true. Norms are emergent features of natural phenomena, but they’re no less normative, or (potentially) ethically compelling, for that. Relatedly, I want to dispose to my own satisfaction of the (false, at least as usually drawn) distinction between relativism and objectivity: a Brandomian account of normativity explains how normativity can be entirely social-perspectival – there is no such thing as a metaphysically objective normative standpoint – but this fact does no damage to the concept of objectivity as we actually use and understand it in, for example, scientific research.

    On the question of scientific progress, then – I obviously think that some research methods are better than others: I think the normative standards against which scientific work can be judged have been well constructed and articulated, and I think the institutional set-ups of the scientific community do an acceptably good job of socially reproducing the normative standards against which bad work can be compared and criticised. So yes, I think there can be improvement in scientific research techniques and conclusions – though of course there’s no guarantee that such improvements will happen, and it’s often a long haul.

    This is not the same thing, however, as accepting an understanding of scientific progress that is often articulated at the more metaphysical end of the philosophy of science (an understanding that I take to be accepted by Brassier, for example), whereby science is ultimately oriented towards some version of ‘absolute knowledge’. I think scientific claims can be true or false – but what science actually provides (and all that it can ever provide) is our best hypothesis, our best model, for understanding a given set of phenomena. There’s no intrinsic reason to believe that we are actually capable of fully comprehending the nature of reality – we can give it our best shot, but our view as to the status of the claims of say, theoretical physics, ought to be appropriately modest. We have a set of models, which work well in some contexts, not so well in others, and there’s no reason not to be theoretically promiscuous (as in fact in practice we are), moving between incompatible models as suits context. Science does not need to be oriented to a Grand Unified Theory in order for its claims to be legitimate. (A Grand Unified Theory might well be nice, of course, but that’s a separate thing.) I therefore have a weaker sense of the status of scientific claims than is perhaps common in some pro-science philosophical spaces, but I have a stronger sense of the value of science, and of scientific conclusions, than many of those who understand science in contingent practice-theoretic and social-perspectival terms. And, as I am arguing in this series of posts, there is no inconsistency here.

    – Finally on this – I suspect that your interest in normativity centers on political and economic concerns – that’s right, but perhaps in a more indirect way than may be obvious. I don’t, for example, think that research into the social or biological practices that institute normativity can tell us what’s ethically or politically right or wrong. That would be a category error: research into the general capacities that institute normativity can contribute to our understanding of why we have norms at all, but it can’t tell us the norms are, or what they should be. This latter question is an almost entirely separate one, and addressing it would require an entirely different set of discursive resources. So – I find pursuing these more philosophical questions useful not because they can inform political or economic views in any direct way, but for a set of other reasons: First, I find these issues interesting in their own right. Second, I find it personally useful in thinking about actual normative issues to understand what kind of things norms are (or at least can justifiably be understood to be). It’s useful to have an account that explains how norms are socially instituted, for instance, to combat discourses that insist that valid norms must come from some alternative privileged space – the word of God, a Badiouian Event, etc. And this is true in more micrological ways as well, which I won’t go into here. Third, and perhaps most importantly, I think that a lot of social analysis – which centrally analyses norms – goes badly wrong because it has an inadequate metatheoretical apparatus for understanding where those norms might be coming from. As a random example, I was reading Zymunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust a while ago, and Bauman is basically operating with a very crass opposition between good norms, which come from innate human nature, and bad norms, which are imposed by society. This is (in Bauman’s case) politically offensive (not all societies are in fact evil) – but it’s also theoretically unhelpful, because it means that one is operating with a silly understanding of socialisation, that’s going to make much of what actually goes on in the socialisation of individuals into community normative standards, and the reproduction of those normative standards, simply inaccessible to the theoretical framework. No good social theory can come from such a place. So I’m interested in developing a more nuanced and empirically adequate set of metatheoretical resources, and I think these will ultimately come in useful down the line if and (hopefully) when I’m able to turn to more concrete sociological and political-economic issues.


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