Nature and Normativity

Here are two excellent essays, each taking opposing stances on how to answer questions centring on nature and normativity, alongside the roles of sciences and humanities in understanding reality. Both are admirably lucid and make a good case for their competing methodologies: firstly, an unashamed defence of ‘scientism’; secondly, the demand to take the standpoint of practical reasoning seriously.

An excerpt from each, beginning with Alex Rosenberg’s ‘The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide To Reality’:

What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.” Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.

From Robert Pippin’s ‘Normative and Natural’:

Normative questions, I mean, are irreducibly “first-personal” questions, and these questions are practically unavoidable and necessarily linked to the social practice of giving and demanding reasons for what we do, especially when something someone does affects, changes or limits what another would otherwise have been able to do. By irreducibly first-personal, I mean that whenever anyone faces a normative question (which is the stance from which normative issues are issues)  – what ought to be believed or what ought to be done – no third-personal fact about “why one as a matter of fact has come to prefer this or that” can be relevant to what I must decide, unless (for good practical reasons) I count it as a relevant practical reason in the justification of what I decide. Knowing something about evolutionary psychology might contribute something to understanding the revenge culture in which Orestes finds himself in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and so why he feels pulled both to avenge his father’s murder by his mother Clytemnestra, and also feels horrified at the prospect of killing his mother in cold blood. But none of that can be, would be, at all helpful to Orestes or anyone in his position.  Knowing something about the evolutionary benefits of altruistic behavior might give us an interesting perspective on some particular altruistic act, but for the agent, first-personally, the question I must decide is whether I ought to act altruistically and if so why. I cannot simply stand by, as it were, and “wait” to see what my highly and complexly evolved neuro-biological system will do. “It” doesn’t decide anything; I do, and this for reasons I must find compelling, or at least ones that outweigh countervailing considerations. It is in this sense that the first-personal perspective is strictly unavoidable. I am not a passenger on a vessel pulled hither and yon by impulses and desires; I have to steer.



Modernity is often associated with disenchantment. But what does this mean? Ancient thinkers had tended to ascribe teleological principles to the natural world: the stone strives for its home at the centre of the earth; the eclipse communicates divine displeasure. The monotheistic traditions which then gained ascendancy in Europe and the Near East retained something of this, finding God’s plan suffusing nature: God creates walnuts to resemble brains, signing to human reason that the former is good for the latter; gold and silver lie beneath the ground and the sun and stars shine in the heavens above, displaying a divinely ordained symmetry (both these latter examples are taken from Foucault’s The Order of Things). But with the rise of the mathematical sciences, natural teleology and divine order came to be treated with increasing derision. Aristotle was to be banished to the libraries of the Schoolmen, and if God was to have daubed nature with language, he would speak to us in mathematics and not dainty allegories. For philosophers such as Descartes, matter was extension, and must yield its secrets to a physics taking mathematisable form. This approach to the natural world was further buttressed in the minds of natural philosophers by the successes of the Newtonian revolution. In biology, by 1828 even the demand for a vital force — said to divide the organic from inorganic — proved empty, Wöhler having proved that the organic could be synthesised from inorganic components.

Everywhere, meaning fell under the sword of mechanism, and myth and mysticism with it. But suspicion hung over this evacuated nature, for was it not also our home — perhaps even the very substance of our being? If so, what remained of freedom, providence, value, beauty or morality in all this? The very meaning of life appeared to be under threat, since there seemed to be no room for God, rational harmony or true righteousness amongst the icy torrents of indifferent particles. The height of the Enlightenment saw the most avid articulation of these worries, with Jacobi coining the term ‘nihilism’ to describe what he saw as Godless and fatalistic Critical philosophies, which in his eyes provided little more than a fig-leaf covering their destruction of a transcendent source of value.

In all this, there are both progressive and regressive currents. The rise of modern science has been a near-unparalleled breakthrough, on a par with the development of agriculture, city dwelling or the institution of constitutional legal codes. In so doing, it has rightly banished God-talk from natural philosophy and much else besides. So too, it has helped deaden the appeal of any view of freedom wherein it consists in some contra-casual power to intervene in the world (quantum mechanical gymnastics aside). But there is a risk of the burning light of science blinding us to the proper significance (or even existence) of certain equally natural phenomena. My own interests here settle on normativity — what we are committed, entitled or prohibited from thinking and doing; how we are subject to the ‘force of the better reason’; why we not merely do but should follow certain rules and conventions — ethical, theoretical, aesthetic, affective — whilst rightly rejecting others. Often, attempts to understand normativity suffer from a scientism which extends far beyond a healthy respect for the natural sciences, and which commonly has its roots in a problematic conception of disenchanted nature.


In the face of the disenchantment of nature, we can easily succumb to that curious form of philosophical vertigo that Wittgenstein diagnoses so well. We then grasp about for a solid handhold. Confronting frigid nature, operating with lawful or law-like regularity, one response has been to cast aside concepts like freedom, obligation and representation as folk-psychological detritus which we can do without. For example, Stephen Stich has claimed:

intentional states and processes that are alluded to in our everyday descriptions and explanations of people’s mental lives and their actions are myths. Like the gods that Homer invoked to explain the outcome of battles, or the witches that inquisitors invoked to explain local catastrophes, they do not exist. [quoted in a recent article by Dwyer]

This is the eliminativist approach: the world is nothing like the fantasies of religion and art had led us to believe — it is the indurate ground of animal life but not our ‘home’. For the eliminativist, there is no need to sweeten the pill of the disenchantment brought on by the scientific mind-set. As Ray Brassier has recently written, “Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

Drawing back from eliminativism, another response has been to reconstruct those concepts suspected of anthropocentrism in a more respectable vocabulary for the naturalist. So, there is no need to ditch freedom, say, but let us just be clear what we mean by it, where this might legitimately be causation along certain biochemical pathways and not others, or action in light of knowledge of the conditions under which it was caused, or whatever natural-scientific form of description best approximates actual or ideal folk-psychological usage. The manifest image of humanity is not entirely wrongheaded, just naïve. Properly regimented, it captures something important about human patterns of understanding, behaviour and our place in the world. Let us call this view naturalistic revisionism.

Different again from eliminativism and revisionism is expressivism. The expressivist agrees that the world is a cold, dead place when contrasted with the animisms, platonisms and providentialisms of old. However, the human animal ‘stains’ and ‘gilds’ reality with its sentiments (to borrow Hume’s terms). For the expressivist, it is we who project value on the world, and this can give us the resources to explain ethics, freedom and aesthetics outside of the tight net of the scientific naturalist’s privileged nomenclature. There is nothing unnatural about our caring about (or disdaining) each other, our projects and our environments; but that need not force us to redescribe ourselves in natural-scientific terms alone — our passions have their own logic and significance that subsists upon but grows out of its natural base.

Yet another response to disenchantment has been to foreground not human emotion but reason and autonomy. For constructivists, the legacy of disenchantment has been to show us that we are alone in the world, with no divine firmament above or promontory below that would help us surveil a normative order. But unlike expressivists, we should look to our activity of trafficking with reasons stretching beyond our structures of passions. We forge obligations for ourselves through the exercise of autonomous legislative capacities, claiming ownership of our actions through drawing them into an unfolding plan which we grant authority over our desires, projects and identities as a whole. In doing so, we act with the dignity proper to creatures capable of self-determination, who are not merely buffeted around by events, beliefs or desires, but who manage to establish some sort of purchase and sovereignty over themselves and thereby lead their lives.


Now, you need not be a platonic boogeyman to be uneasy about this collection of options. My own thinking about these issues is heavily indebted to John McDowell. His suggestion that we need “a partial re-enchantment of nature,” as with many of McDowell’s trademark phrases, is a little unfortunate though. He stridently rejects the idea that ‘re-enchantmant’ has a “crazily nostalgic” character which gives any ground towards a “regress into a pre-scientific superstition” which would encourage us to interpret the fall of a sparrow like we would a text. But nevertheless the associations surrounding ‘enchantment’ remain — something spooky gets evoked. Talk of ‘re-enchantment’ is misleading, and a better McDowellian phrase would be resistance to the “interiorization of the space of reasons.”

Disenchantment makes it seem like reasons are illusory or are at best absorbed into the activity of subjects. What we get is meaning, and the rational relations it makes intelligible, restricted to meaning-conferring subjects. At most, so understood, we project reasons into a world of rationally inert objects. The car-crash is then only a reason to phone an ambulance in light of human ethical practices; the ionized radiation in the cloud chamber only justifies belief in the presence of an alpha particle in light of the construction and testing of electromagnetic and particle theories. Now, there is something right and something wrong about all this. We cannot intelligibly think from a perspective of cosmic exile and must accept the finitude of our cognitive capacities (contra SR and OOO). All of our truck with value, reasons, justification must proceed from local and situated circumstances and continue to lean upon human forms of knowing and valuing. But that does not mean we should rest content with the idea that these are ‘merely human’ standards whose shadows fall upon an apathetic world. Our finitude, properly understood, ought not impugn normative realism, and we should not be carried away by the characterless world presented by natural science.

Nature is not exhausted by natural scientific description, and so it is misguided to require human interests for any more juice to be squeezed out of it. The predominantly nomothetic explanations offered by natural science are pearls without price, but they have no claim to speak for the totality of nature. Human life is obviously in some sense ontologically decomposable into organic compounds, atoms, quarks and electrons, and so on. But the explanatory matrix which most often befits it is normative and not immediately natural scientific (whatever the prospects of reductionsism about normativity). Again, there is nothing unnatural about humans as they fall under normative descriptions, appraised in terms of their intentions, virtue, beauty or freedom. We come to employ these concepts in the course of our biological maturation, supplemented by a process of socialisation which is no less a part of the natural history of humanity.

The temptation towards the modernist division between meaning-conferring subjectivity and intrinsically meaningless nature arises when we think that we can only have meaning on human terms — the human forge of meaning being the correlate to the frozen world of mechanism. If the logical space of nature and the logical space of reasons are irreconcilable, then this would seem to follow (assuming naturalistic revisionisms are moribund, which I think is very plausible). But this is only so if nature is also exhausted by natural scientific description. And it is not: natural events can be legitimately characterised in normative terms without a regression to pre-scientific rationalism. This is the sort of re-enchantment McDowell seeks, and rightly too. The claim to be defended is thus: “the natural world is in the space of logos.” My optimism on this count is rarely shared though.

Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument

Meillassoux takes the correlationist to rely on the following argument:

thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone. Such an enterprise is effectively self-contradictory, for at the moment when we think of a property as belonging to the world in itself, it is precisely the latter that we are thinking, and consequently this property is revealed to be essentially tied to our thinking about the world. (AF: 4)

This argument is a form of what Karl Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, which often gets attributed to Kant. However, Kant does not make this short argument. Ameriks traces this form of argument to Reinhold, and he notes that it does sometimes appear in the post-Kantian tradition. So, we find Reinhold claiming the following:

What is represented, as object, can come to consciousness and become represented only as modified through the form of representation, and not in a form independent of representation, as it is in itself. (Versuch: 240; quoted in Ameriks FoA: 129)

Reinhold takes it that a need to represent objects for them to be given to consciousness ensures that we cannot come into an epistemic relationship to those objects which could be disentangled from our representations:

The concept of a representation in general contradicts the representation of an object in its distinctive form independent of the form of representation, or the so-called thing in itself; that is, no thing in itself is representable. [...]

[T]he object distinguished from the representation [...] can only be represented under the form of representation and so in no way as a thing in itself. (Versuch: 244, 246)

So, for Reinhold, because we cannot get outside of our representations, then objects cannot be represented as they are in themselves.

If the correlationist — whatever ‘originary correlation’ they are meant to argue for, and whatever it means to say that they cannot consider its terms independently — has to rely upon this argument as it stands, they are in trouble. This is because the conclusion it argues for is trivial given the way key terms in the argument are understood. Reinhold is trying to prove that we cannot know things in themselves, where he takes knowledge to require that objects are represented to us. But if he tacitly understands ‘things in themselves’ just to be what is not representable, then the conclusion follows all too easily. Thus, on its own, this argument ought to convince no-one.

Meillassoux’s presentation of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. It seeks to establish an (underspecified) ‘essential tie’ between thought and things in themselves. Like Reinhold, this is meant to undermine the possibility of an epistemic relation to the world as it in itself independently of thought (one that the realist requires to distinguish primary and secondary qualities). The way that it does this is by simply noting that we cannot think of features of the world in itself without the world in itself being the object of that thought. Thus, we must always factor in a correlation between thought and the world in itself when attempting to reflect on the latter. Again, the shallowness of this argument ought to be transparent. Knowledge of the world in itself, as required by the realist, is denied to us because thinking is always present when thinking about the world in itself. However, this is only because here we are to understand knowledge of the world in itself as knowledge where thought is not present. The opposition is simply defined out of existence. Nothing is demonstrated by this argument, and it is no more contentful than Reinhold’s efforts.

* * *

Even with Meillassoux’s distinction between weak and strong correlationism, and the specification of different possible correlates than simply thought and world, I am not yet clear in my own mind what the status of the correlationist’s claim that thought and world must be thought together is meant to be. So, I am hesitant to assert or deny that particular philosophers are correlationists. Besides, I am not sure how useful a discussion along the lines of ‘is x really a correlationist?’ would be. Still, insofar as transcendental idealism can be thought of as introducing some significant relation between thought and world, whether we understand this idealism as metaphysical, formal, methodological or whatever, then it may bear considering in this context.

However we understand the relation between objects and cognition in Kant, I have claimed that we do not find a ‘short argument’. Yet, Kant does claim that objects conform to the conditions of cognition. So, we can ask, how does Kant’s position differ from the ‘short arguments’ dismissed above? This ought not to be of mere historical interest insofar as it can furnish us with alternative arguments for either correlationism or a more plausible relative of it. Speculative realists have an interest in attending to other such strategies insofar as their own positions can develop in dialogue with a wider range of opposition than the colourless proponent of the short argument.

Transcendental idealism famously effects a Copernican turn. Instead of assuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, Kant ventures a hypothesis: objects must conform to our knowledge. This claim has proven difficult to understand. It is clear that Kant is not asserting an empirical idealism, which holds that objects have a metaphysical dependence upon our epistemic activity or our ‘representations’. Kant denies this when distinguishing his position from what he calls Berkeley’s dogmatic idealism. In the Prolegomena, he calls his position formal idealism, and any dependence of objects upon our knowledge is restricted to the forms of our knowledge. In the Analytic of the first Critique, regarding the categories of the understanding, Kant denies he is engaged in a traditional metaphysical investigation of being qua being (A247=B303). However, it can appear that the Aesthetic claims that our forms of sensibility, namely space and time, are ontological conditions of objects (although Kantians such as Henry Allison and Graeme Bird forcefully argue against such a reading). Whatever the right interpretative approach here, obviously some important connection between formal conditions of knowledge and objects is being asserted. But why? The answer provides some possible motivations for something like a correlationist position which are not simply versions of the short argument.

Kant makes his speculative Copernican hypothesis because he is dissatisfied with metaphysics. When compared with mathematics, say, which also seeks knowledge which is not directly empirical, it can hardly be said to be on the ‘sure path’ of science. For Kant, this was illustrated by the hollowness of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the soul, God and world, reflected in the the interminable debates in rational psychology, rational theology and rational cosmology which are diagnosed in the Transcendental Dialectic. The problem, he thinks, is that metaphysics has employed theoretical reason in illicit ways, beyond its proper bounds. Traditional metaphysicians have failed to take into account the anthropocentric forms of human cognition, and so constantly come to grief by asking of reason what it cannot deliver. However, this is merely a sketch of some of the territory. There is no swift move from registering the forms of human cognition and towards sealing us off from a non-human world. From the bare fact that it is our cognition, it does not follow that it cannot deliver things in themselves. To attribute such a short argument to Kant on this basis is to ignore the details of Kant’s examination of cognition and his lengthy inquiry into metaphysics.

If transcendental idealism does ultimately count as a form of correlationism, this will be on the basis of the determinate limits on knowledge explored in Kant’s inquiries. These include sensible conditions, intellectual conditions, cognitive conditions governing the relation of the sensible and intelligible (e.g. the discursivity thesis), and rational conditions pertaining to the proper use of practical and theoretical reason. Each is supported by argument and analysis, which vary in success. For example, the intellectual conditions on empirical knowledge include conformity to the categories of the understanding. These conditions on thought are backed by an examination of the forms of judgement, which many people have found problematic and dogmatic. This set of conditions will probably not be the most troubling for the speculative realist though (Kant allows that we can think the thing itself — though whether that is just as a limiting concept is debatable). Rather, it will be the sensible conditions which will be most problematic. These sensible conditions enable objects to be given. Thus, they provide the main receptive framework for cognition, where the understanding provides the main spontaneous framework. Objects are given to sensibility according to its forms, namely space and time. This can seem an unassuming empiricist move: we know about things through spatio-temporal experience. But it goes beyond this insofar as Kant’s Copernican turn makes an a priori pure form of intuition logically prior to objects. Objects are given according to this pure intuition, such that they have formal properties in conformity with this pure form. This can be understood in more or less metaphysical terms. It is where realists will doubtless demur though, since it can seem to impugn the independence of objects from our cognitive apparatus.

Why does Kant embrace something like correlationism here? Some reasons are arguably idiosyncratic. For example, Kant thinks that we require pure forms of intuition to help apply the categories of the understanding (such as existence or plurality) to sensible objects — they bind the a priori and the empirical together ‘schematically’. Also, given his understanding of geometry and arithmetic, pure forms are meant to explain the synthetic a priori status of mathematical knowledge.

What may have a wider resonance though is the role of forms of intuition in grounding Kant’s revised metaphysics. Kant thinks that reason can be shown to fail when, like the rationalists, it strays from the path of possible experience. This was what led metaphysics into darkness. But if objects have to conform to the forms of intuition, then their formal properties can be grasped a priori. So, for any object which is given to us, we can justify limited metaphysical knowledge of it with reference to the pure forms, since nothing can be given that does not conform to these forms. Kant sums it up like this: “reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.” Now, by my lights, Kant’s specific appeal to pure forms of intuition is not ultimately successful. But it does give a substantive argument for a correlationist-like understanding of the relation between objects and cognition. Furthermore, it outlines a strategy which I think can be made to work, albeit in a heavily revised form, with respect to the normative bases of cognition (and which, in time, I hope to outline).

* * *

A final thought on the question of metaphysics. The metaphysics which Kant seeks to cut down to size is an unbridled rationalism. But speculative realism has typically championed a kind of empirical metaphysics. It seeks to be porous with respect to scientific discovery: it is science which is to be the leading-edge of ontology. I have some limited sympathy with this approach with respect to certain theoretical endeavours, and agree that on the whole there is no need for a metaphysical grounding for science, provided by philosophy. However, I wonder quite how speculative realism will come to understand the status of its own metaphysical claims.

Alexei has raised the problem of normativity in this area: does a radical materialism have the resources to account for its own justification? We are all naturalists now — after a fashion, at least. But speculative realists have adopted a particularly strident form, which does not seem to be friendly to normativity. Just witness Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Can it understand, or sufficiently redescribe, the context in which it puts forward its own theory, such that it can allow that such a theory is meaningful, justifiable and truth-apt, whilst cleaving to a sparse materialist metaphysics which admits values, if it all, only in an anti-realist fashion? I will have more to say about this at a later date.

Philosophical Therapy & Humanism

At a workshop on Wittgenstein’s methodology which I was at recently, Marie McGinn made a point of underlining the ethical stakes of much philosophical work undertaken in a Wittgensteinian spirit. I won’t try and rehearse exactly what she said here, and will instead examine the topic of naturalism which she raised in this context, but some of what I will say, ultimately, I take to be deeply sympathetic to her view (but be that upon my own head and not hers).

The question of ethics came up here in light of Wittgenstein’s remarks about philosophical problems arising when ‘language goes on holiday’ or is like ‘an engine idling’ rather than doing real work. For if we take philosophical problems to share this form — however diffuse their manifestation and origins — then it seems we are led to a conception of philosophy as a therapeutic set of practices which simply “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (PI 116)

This makes philosophy look like a purely negative activity, and there are certainly places where Wittgenstein appears to embrace this idea. Take PI 118-9, for example:

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or other piece of plain nonsense and of other bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of inquiry.

So conceived, philosophy returns us to the everyday. We get back to baseline. This is not something just to be sniffed at since the temptations to fall into philosophical error are deep (and such inclinations are not products of stupidity), and the baseline we get back to is not forever fixed but shifts as our linguistic usage does, requiring some acuity in grammatical investigations to recognise. Nevertheless, something important can seem to go missing here.

Such a philosophy can appear very conservative, lacking the sort of critical function which has animated much of the best philosophical work. For those of us with an affinity to Wittgenstein as well as the post-Kantian tradition, through Hegel and Marx to the Frankfurt school, this presents something of a problem. How do we ensure that our philosophising respects the insights of a therapeutic approach and yet remains able to interrogate our everyday assumptions?

One attractive answer to that question would be to deepen our understanding of the sources of philosophical problems, not resting content with a linguistic turn alone. For language is, of course, a practice — one that takes place in a wider social world. Following this line, there may be room for a marriage of critical theory and therapeutic philosophy. For example, such an approach might try and trace a connection between the perennial temptation to forms of Cartesianism and the alienation engendered by the conditions of life in modernity. The upshot of such an approach would likely not be a philosophical therapy that tried to return the wayward philosopher to ordinary linguistic usage, but rather identified what social conditions would need to be changed in order to stem intuitive but misleading forms of thought. I don’t know much Adorno, but my suggestion here I think might end up sharing some aspects of his approach.

Without going this far though, there are still important tasks that Wittgensteinian methodology can be put too. Here, perhaps the most important is holding the line against virulent forms of reductive naturalism. Recourse to grammatical investigation can be a tool in defending a kind of philosophical humanism: a position which takes human life to be just as substantial and respectable as the domain studied by the natural sciences. Our ordinary activities are shot through with appeals to values, to our dispositions, to the contingencies of our history (a history which no less unfolds in nature than that of supernovae or trilobites). Anatomising these sort of appeals in the manner of a grammatical investigator can help us understand the place of humanity in a natural world, and can be drawn on in resisting the rabid reductive naturalist who wants to evacuate meaning in favour of mechanism. Bare appeals to the phenomenology of human experience are cheap, but grammatical investigation in a Wittgensteinian vein can help draw out the underlying patterns of human activity in a more substantial way. This sort of rich understanding of the role of our human qualities as something which are (and should continue to be) drawn upon without embarrassment in our explanatory endeavours can be employed to stave off the sort of naturalist for whom all this is merely folk psychological self-delusion. It is, of course, not enough to say that ‘this is just what we do’ and expect the reductive naturalist to be satisfied, but this can be an important first step in resisting the breezy dismissal of human attitudes as no more than mere projections onto an indifferent world which a properly scientific cast of mind can see through.

The Authority of Reasons

We might think that Brandom’s constructivism—with its claim that norms are only authoritative for us to the extent that we acknowledge them to be—is the most faithful way of developing the Enlightenment idea of a self-authorising subject. However, it is not clear that such a constructivist approach to normativity is stable, and furthermore it threatens to leave us with a deeply unattractive conception of freedom. There are several ways of spelling out these particular worries, but a common thread running through them is a suspicion concerning the move from a situation where we are not subject to the force of reasons and to one where we are so subject.

If Brandom’s constructivism is meant to be a radical one, applying to all norms inclusive of the fundamental norms of rationality, then we are in a position where prior to engaging in self-legislative activity then legislating in one way rather than another will be unconstrained by reasons. But if that is so then the sort of freedom that we are exercising in our decision to legislate in a certain way will be empty, being little more than ‘arbitrary self-launching’ (in Larmore’s phrase). With no basis to decide how to legislate, the power to do so appears devoid of the liberatory potential it seemed to promise. So, this suggests that we must admit that at least some sort of rational constraint on our activity must be operative prior to the process of binding ourselves through self-legislation. But if we can be realists about the sorts of reasons that these norms provide us with, why not be realists about other sorts of reason too? Moreover, to the extent we are not realists in some particular domain, the sort of freedom that the constructivist can thereby offer us will appear, if not incoherent, then at least unfulfilling insofar as self-legislation not already subject to rational constraint can now seem to slide into mere caprice.

These sorts of considerations, advanced against Brandom’s broadly constructivist attempt to reconcile freedom and rational constraint, suggest that we would fare better with a realist approach that does not make the authority of reasons to compel us a product of us taking them to be authoritative. However, this move raises a whole new set of difficulties. If we are to appeal to the existence of reasons possessing an authority independent of our endorsement, then ought we not offer a theory that explains the metaphysical status of these potentially mysterious items, along with an account of how they come to have any bearing upon our everyday activities?

McDowell’s appeal to such independent reasons recognises some philosophical demands here. However, the thrust of his approach is to try to make it respectable to refuse to give a theory that provides a philosophical grounding for such reasons in such a way as to straightforwardly refute a sceptic about them. In this way, it is in deep sympathy with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic approach to philosophy, which McDowell draws on heavily.[1] This project should not be confused with one that dogmatically asserts its confidence in the existence of such independent reasons, and instead it is one that requires real philosophical work in an attempt to justify its opposition to the demand to give such a theory. This makes it a non-standard case of realism and is perhaps best approached without such a label in mind.

McDowell’s early work on ethics gives some sense of his overall approach to reasons in general.[2] In that work, he agrees with ethical anti-realists like Bernard Williams that values—for our purposes, the source of ethical (and aesthetic) reasons—are not part of the ‘absolute conception of the world,’ in the sense in which they are not there independently of us as ethical agents and inquirers. However, McDowell does not draw a straightforward anti-realist moral from this though. Instead, he exploits an analogy with secondary properties, such as colour, to show that there is another sense of a reason being there independently of us that is much less objectionable:

Values are not brutely there—not there independently of our sensibility—any more than colours are: though, as with colours, this does not prevent us from supposing that they are there independently of any apparent experience of them.[3]

Suggestive as this analogy is, philosophical controversy over the status of secondary properties like colour can threaten to obscure what I take to be McDowell’s central point here. This point is that just because an appeal to our responsiveness as human agents to features of the world is required to understand something (colour, ethical value, beauty, danger, etc.) this should not impugn the sense in which we can characterise that thing correctly or incorrectly; the status of our judgements about it are not thereby second-rate. McDowell echoes this point when he goes on to object to the projectivist’s conception of what belongs to reality originally and what has to be projected on to it. This distinction between what the projectivist takes to belong to reality, McDowell claims stems from “a contentiously substantial version of the correspondence theory of truth, with the associated picture of genuinely true judgement as something to which the judger makes no contribution at all.”[4] It is this conception of what true judgement consists in (something specifiable from outside of our own perspective as beings-in-the-world) that McDowell thinks is undermotivated; and it is this idea which provides a way into understanding aspects of his later work which will concern us.[5]

In place of his analogy of reason-giving values with secondary properties, McDowell later comes to articulate his position in dialogue with the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. This leads him to many of his most notable formulations, such as the idea that the conceptual sphere is unbounded. What this might mean, and why anyway would want to maintain it, we will now go on to see. This will provide us with a general conception of what McDowell thinks responsiveness to reasons that are there anyway is which is not limited to ethical or aesthetic reasons. This should allow us to grasp what McDowell takes rational constraint to consist in and thus also how he proposes to understand our freedom as coming to act under such constraint.

McDowell gives a simplified account of Kant’s response to (what he takes to be) Hume’s position.[6] Hume is supposed to have thought that reason is unable to find an intelligible order in the world beyond that which it itself produces in operations that themselves must be understood to take place in a nature devoid of intelligible order. For example, Hume famously denies that reason can justify the judgement that events cause one another rather than have merely been constantly conjoined, since there is no basis for supposing that the second event followed from the first of necessity, which is what the concept of causation implies. Kant rescues concepts like causation from this Humean scepticism (one which McDowell also advances reasons for thinking is incoherent on its own terms) by opposing the disenchanted conception of nature that figures in Hume’s thinking. For him, the world must be taken to have an intelligible order—to stand inside the space of logos or reasons—though this is taken to operate on two levels: transcendental and empirical.[7] Seen from a transcendental perspective, the world is seen to be constituted from a joint cooperation between a meaning-conferring structure of subjectivity and a meaning-lacking ‘in itself’ that exists independently of this structure. McDowell thinks that such a conception of how world possesses an intelligible structure succumbs to a pernicious form of idealism that, through making the world in some sense a product of ourselves, cuts us off from the world as it is in itself rather than connects us to it.

In place of Kant’s transcendental perspective, McDowell thinks that we only need call upon the empirical perspective, along with the dispensing with the idea of an ‘in itself’ in a move familiar from Kant’s successors. For McDowell, it is important to hold onto the idea that our judgements mirror the world but holding onto this idea requires thinking of the world as always-already apt to be conceptualised. As McDowell puts it:

mirroring cannot be both faithful, so that it adds nothing in the way of intelligible order, and such that in moving from what is mirrored to what does the mirroring, one moves from what is brutely alien to the space of logos to what is internal to it. [...] [T]he natural world is in the space of logos. [8]

This position is thus a variety of epistemological rationalism which expresses the idea that the world can be grasped through the use of reason without us necessarily falsifying that world by projecting structures onto it that are not already present in it.[9] If this idea that the world already falls within the bounds of the space of logos—the intelligible order which can support normative relations—can be defended then it would seem to open up the possibility of rational constraint being exercised by objects in the world. This is because events in the world (smoke rising from a building; someone being cruel to their friend; a rainbow arching over a hill) would no longer have to be articulated in propositional attitudes or cause beliefs in a network of social scorekeepers in order to be the sort of thing that it makes sense to understand as a reason for something (to believe there is a fire; to condemn an action; to take your surroundings to be beautiful). These things would already be the sort of thing that can be a reason and the awareness of which can be drawn upon to guide action.

In Mind and World, McDowell seeks to exorcise an anxiety relating to the possibility of empirical content that would threaten to close down the option of giving an account of rational constraint by the world that proceeds in the foregoing way. McDowell’s strategy is repeatedly mischaracterised, so it is important to accurately state his aims: to hold onto a minimal empiricism and the idea that the logical space of law is different in kind than the logical space of reasons.

The first desideratum is a version of Quine’s idea that experience must constitute a tribunal that rationally constrains our thoughts. This thought is that, without the sort of constraint that through experience allows the world to reveal to us what we should think, then the very idea that thought is about the world at all must be relinquished. This is because for a belief to possess empirical content is for it to purport to be about the world in some way, and this means that it is essentially something that can be appropriately or inappropriately held to be the case. Given our natures as embodied spatio-temporal agents, it is through experience that the world can exercise a rational constraint upon us. If we are forced to give up this sort of rational constraint then the idea that thought can bear upon the world at all is also threatened.

The second desideratum builds upon but importantly modifies Sellars’ thoughts about the logical space of reasons. For Sellars, when we talk about reasons (for example, discussing claims to knowledge or justification) then we invoke a characteristic mode of intelligibility that can be contrasted with the sort of intelligibility invoked when we explain one thing by showing how it is a causal consequence of another. The logical space of reasons supports normative relations such as implication, entitlement, probabilification and so on which can be contrasted with these causal notions.[10]

McDowell thinks we will get into trouble if we identify the logical space of laws with the logical space of nature. For those, such as Brandom, Rorty and Davidson, who appreciate Sellars’ insight that the logical space of reasons constitutes an important mode of explanation that is irreducible to the logical space of laws, the problem is that if these two logical spaces are dichotomous, and nature is the logical space of laws, then it seems that normative relations between nature and our reason-governed practice are impossible. This threatens minimal empiricism, which depends upon rational constraint from the world, and this in turn threatens to make empirical content unintelligible, as we have seen. However, McDowell thinks that we can deny that the logical space of nature is identical to the logical space of laws. He admits that the huge success of the hard natural sciences is undeniable and that these sciences rely on a nomothetic model of explanation in which phenomena are elucidated by subsuming them under the strict causal laws. However, he thinks that only a misplaced scientism would force us to say that this is all there is to nature. If this separation of the logical spaces of nature and law is possible then we ought to be able to hold onto both the Quinean and Sellarsian insights, and so thereby retain the conception of a reason that is authoritative independently of our treating it as such. To make this sort of move plausible, McDowell proposes a ‘reminder’ that tries to characterise the sense in which we are both ineliminably part of nature but also guided by reasons. This reminder draws upon Aristotle’s notion of second nature: that ordinary human adults who are brought up in the right way can grasp reasons. As McDowell articulates it:

Once we remember second nature, we see that operations of nature can include circumstances whose descriptions place them in the logical space of reasons, sui generis though that logical space is.[11]

This is meant to be a truism, but in a Wittgensteinian spirit, one that we are prone to forget about since it is so often before our eyes.

Although McDowell believes that socialisation is essential to the process of “having one’s eyes opened to reasons at large by acquiring a second nature,”[12] he does not think that this should lead us down an anti-realist path. In fact, he goes as far to characterise his position as a ‘naturalised platonism.’ The sense in which McDowell’s attitude towards reasons is platonistic is that what counts as a reason for something is not specifiable by reference to facts about us that are specifiable prior to characterising us in terms of the space of reasons. This represents McDowell’s anti-reductionist tendencies, emphasising the autonomy of the space of reasons from the sort of explanation offered by the natural sciences. However, from the other direction, this platonism is essentially naturalised because reasons are the sort of things that can be grasped by mature humans.[13] Nor is this merely a lucky coincidence but something pivotal to the idea that mature humans are agents who have the world in view at all. The key to understanding this thought is to recall that McDowell’s response to Kant involves championing the idea that the world is always-already apt for conceptualisation and thus essentially reason-giving for us.

[Notes below the fold]

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Brandom on Enlightenment and disenchantment

Nature, in ceasing to be divine, ceases to be human. Here, indeed, is just our problem.

—John Dewey

In the previous post, I made an attempt to clarify the foundations of Brandom’s project by investigating his explanatory strategy and the substantive commitments he adopts. In the light of this, Brandom’s account of normativity was also re-examined with the suggestion that it might be bolstered by a more robust account of autonomy that placed stronger conditions upon the attribution of normative commitments to agents. In this final post on Brandom, I will inspect the historical underpinnings to many of these earlier positions. More specifically, Brandom’s approach to the Enlightenment tradition and its denaturalising of values will be scrutinised.

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Swings and Roundabouts

I am reading J.M. Bernstein’s Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics with a curious mix of delight and horror. Delight, because he outlines a tremendously exciting argument that reconstructs an Adornian story about disenchantment, conceptuality and the role of rationality in connection with normativity, all under the auspices of a particularistic realism. Horror, for the same reason: this is because in large part it is almost exactly the same story that I had hoped to tell about normativity, here told simply at the level of ethics. So, while on the one hand, it’s fantastic to see this story developed in such detail, I keep having lots of mercenary disappointment that someone has ‘got there first’. In terms of my thesis, my strategic aim was to counterpose McDowell and Brandom’s positions, side with McDowell in the broad outlines but to insist on a number of necessary inflections or modifications to his position. It now looks like Adorno (or at least Bernstein) has already broken much of the ground in this respect. In a way, of course, this is great, because it saves me a lot of difficulty bumbling about in the semi-darkness, allowing me more time to rigorously establish and finesse the position I want to develop. But, on the other hand, to a large extent it robs it of what little originality (I thought) my project had. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’ll be plenty in Adorno’s story as Bernstein reconstructs it that I will want to challenge or improve upon.

Either way, it’s a very good read (and I highly recommend Bernstein’s audio lectures on Kant and Hegel too). Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction:

[I]n his account of the disenchanting of the world, Adorno contends that not only does it eliminate previous objects of ethical esteem, but more emphatically and importantly it eliminates what I want to call the forms of object relation that previously had been manifest in ethical reasoning: experience, knowledge, and authority. Disenchantment thus effects not only beliefs (trading in bad ones for good ones), and a transformation of the objects of knowledge (eliminating certain certain items — starting with the gods and coming to an extinguishing of values as belonging to the furniture of the universe) but even more significantly our modes of cognitive interaction with objects. It is in virtue of the enlightenmnet critique of reliance on experience and authority that that ethical cognition too disappears (into sentiment, emotivism, will etc.); and with the disappearance of ethical cognition the entire structure of moral insight collapses.

J.M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, p.32