New Blog: Morbid Symptoms

My new blog — Morbid Symptoms — is now up and running.

The plan is to write about philosophy, politics and psychiatry in a way that develops some of the discussions that will be familiar to old readers of this blog but which also brings in lots of new topics and concepts too. There’s an introduction here and the first proper post on ‘Paternalism and Anti-Authoritarian Authority’ is here.

Division Day

The blog has been quiet for a few months while I’ve been finishing my thesis and settling in to my postdoc here at Essex. I submitted in August and passed my viva a fortnight ago, and so with marginally more time to myself, I’ve been wondering whether to start posting here again. But after considering it for a while, I’ve decided to mothball the blog.

On the whole, it has been brilliant to interact with so many people interested in similar philosophical issues, and then even to meet some of you (like Nicole, James and Pete). Thanks to everyone who has been reading, commenting and linking here over the years. I’ve been greatful for it all.

Originally, what I’d intended to do here was to chart the progress of my thesis. As it happened, I didn’t end up doing much of this, but nevertheless the end of my PhD seems like an appropriate occasion to stop, or to at least take an extended break. There’s a few reasons for wanting to do so.

Although I was never that frequent a blogger, I feel like I need to take some time for the kind of issues I’ve been discussing here to percolate without disturbance for a while. In short, I want to do some rethinking and reformulation in relative silence. As Deleuze puts it: “What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.” Secondly, whilst I’ve been amazed at the response the blog has gotten, it has also made me a little uncomfortable (especially if the number of hits is remotely near the 45000 that the WordPress counter claims). What I’ve posted here have essentially been rough notes — some of which are several years old now. Of course, people can appreciate that I’ve changed my mind in that time, but nevertheless I feel a bit too tied to this history, especially when I meet someone who has stumbled across this place before. Though I don’t intend to delete the blog, bringing it to a close might help to create a little bit of psychological distance from the things I’ve written here.

Hopefully, I’ll make a fresh start blogging elsewhere at some point. There’ll be another post here if and when that happens. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be active on Twitter, where you can follow me here. Thanks again to everyone who has been reading!

The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy

Here is the announcement for our first big EAP conference in September. I am hugely excited about it given the topic and the awesome list of speakers.

The Essex Autonomy Project is pleased to announce its first major international conference, ‘The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy,’ taking place at The Institute of Philosophy, London, 4-5th September 2010. This event is part of a series interrogating the ideal of self-determination in human affairs. The conference will investigate the turbulent history of the notion of autonomy, from the Greeks to modernity.

The line-up of speakers is as follows:

Katerina Deligiorgi (University of Sussex)

Axel Honneth (University of Frankfurt)

Terence Irwin (University of Oxford)

David McNeill (University of Essex)

Frederick Neuhouser (Columbia University)

Thomas Pink (King’s College London)

Robert Pippin (University of Chicago)

John Skorupski (University of St Andrews)

Further information and a full programme will be available shortly at

Attendance is free but places are strictly limited and advanced registration is required. To register, please send an e-mail to Helen Cook at

The Essex Autonomy Project is based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Essex. For more information on its work and for announcements of future events, see its webpages at

Why normativity?

One of the main themes of my research is normativity. In this post, I want to provide something of a primer on normativity. Hopefully, this will go someway towards explaining why this is an issue we should take seriously and why normativity acts as a core concept for philosophers like myself. The immediate prompt to this post is the ongoing discussions between Levi and Pete, which keep running aground whenever normativity arises. Pete has set out the pertinent issues a number of times, but I thought it would be useful to approach them from my own perspective too, since a bit of triangulation might help us get a clearer sense of what is being said.

In short, normative issues concern correctness. Obviously, there’s many different senses of correctness and many different ways in which it arises as an issue. This helps to explain the tendency for normativity to to become a monolithic topic, which can seem to suck all philosophical light towards it like some supermassive body. One crucial distinction here though is between first-order normative inquiry and metanormative inquiry. I’ll explicate this in relation to some philosophically familiar topics.

In ethics, we are often asking what we ought to do — what would be good in the way of practical action. Should I give up philosophy and train to be a psychiatrist? Was it too callous to have decided not to meet your friend because you felt too drained to listen to their problems? Is a society without socialised medicine thereby unjust? These are first-order ethical questions, and they are normative because they are oriented by the question of how it is correct to act.

But we can also ask (as metaethicists do) about the metaphysics, epistemology and semantics involved. What does it mean to say I should do something? What is it for an action to be good? Is it possible to know whether I did the right thing? How? What, if anything, separates ethical demands from those of social etiquette? These are metanormative questions, also oriented by the notion of correctness in action, but which try to uncover what this notion of correctness amounts to. At its limit, it might even conclude that there is no sense in which actions are appropriate or inappropriate — they just are.

Similar distinctions between the first-order normative and the metanormative arise in other areas too. Another familiar example is deliberation about empirical facts and epistemology. Again, there are first-order matters: What is that animal? Would it be true to believe it is a chaffinich? Are physicists justified in believing that the Higgs boson exists? Do these problematic observations imply that the standard model of particle physics must be revised? These are normative matters, but only in the thin sense that they, arguably like all inquiry, are oriented by the question of what is good in the way of belief. The usual (and right) answer is that we should believe the truth, but we can also assess correctness along a number of other dimensions: justification, entitlement, inference, probabilifaction, consistency, coherence, accuracy, and so on.

One of the functions of epistemological inquiry is to examine the status of these first-order matters. What does it mean to say that we are not entitled to believe that P, even though P might turn out to be true? What is it for our perceptual beliefs to be justified? What is problemtic about inconsistency in belief? These questions have a metanormative dimension insofar as they abstract themselves from the immediate issue of what beliefs are good or bad along various dimensions in order to ask what any such assesments consist in.

The tentacles of normativity reach far and wide beyond these two examples too. We find them in the philosophy of language, where many have argued that meaning is normative insofar as terms have a correct and incorrect usage, and where the task is to flesh out this normative dimension to linguistic practice. The same goes for concepts and their conditions of application (alongside the murky notion of ‘mental content’ more generally) in the philosophy of mind. Aesthetics can be thought to be a discipline with a metanormative aspect too, especially when beauty and art are notions entangled up with endorsement, which a theory of aesthetic judgement may need confront. The theory of agency is another locus for normative issues, especially insofar many people (myself included) think that there is a distinctive logical form to action-explanation which needs to be articulated in relation to reasons in addition to brute causality. The list goes on… I certainly do not mean to endorse all these projects — I think many of them are misguided ventures — but merely to point to some of ways in which metanormative matters appear within contemporary philosophy.

Hopefully, it will now be clear that we can pitch normative inquiry at different levels. One worry that Levi has expressed is moralism: doesn’t an obsession with normativity lead us to fixate on judging people, weeding the unworthy from the worthy, and seeking to police people’s activity? With our distinction between first-order and metanormative inquiry in hand, we can respond by saying that focusing upon the normative does not necessarily betray a desire to be the judge of what is right and wrong. Instead, for philosophers interested in normativity, there is more often an attempt to understand the conditions under which assesments of correctness can succesfully be made at all and what the upshot of such assessments is. One way of articulating this is to say that we want to understand ‘the force of the better reason.’ I take this to be quite some distance from the right-wing obsession with ‘values’ that seems to be incensing Levi.

Another worry of Levi’s may be more pressing though: turning to norms can seem to be a turning away from the world. We can think of this in terms of a kind of ‘cognitive ascent’ which proceeds in two steps. First, there is a distinction between talking about the world and talking about our orientation towards the world. On one view, there are plenty of philosophically interesting features of the world to talk about — the structure of objects, the nature of causality, the individuation of social actors — and we should just get on and do that. Talking about norms is not talking about the world in this way: either it is talking about how we should talk about the world, and not plainly talking about the world; or it is talking about how we should act in the world, which is both tediously anthropocentric and still not talking about the great outdoors. Furthermore, there is a second ascent here too, since there is not only first-order normative inquiry but metanormative inquiry. It is either talking about how we should talk about how we should talk about the world, or it is talking about how we should talk about we should act in the world. The reassuring cruch of reality is thus even further from being underfoot.

In response, there a few things to be said. Firstly, I do take discussions of normativity to be about the world directly — they are no mere escape from it. I will be brief here because in a way this does not meet Levi’s worries head on. Nevertheless, whilst it may be démodé in some quarters to be concerned with rational agency as a distinctive phenomenon, I think it is a pressing descriptive task for which marshalling the vocabulary of normativity is essential. (See Pippin’s excellent piece and the surrounding discussion for more on this.) Beyond this, normativity is itself part of the world and is threaded throughout countless human practices. When McDowell gives us an account of virtue alongside the capacities, social practices and formative processes needed to make sense of our responsiveness to it, or when Brandom excavates the structure of the practice of giving and asking for reasons, they are talking about real phenomena which need to be elucidated. It is perhaps worth stressing that there needs to be nothing a priori about these normative investigations, even if figures like Habermas (and Pete for that matter) sometimes try to derive minimal rational norms in a quasi-transcendental fashion.

It is the intersection of metaphysics and normativity that seems to be worrying Levi here though. I am less enamored of constructive metaphysics than Levi or Pete, but I think the latter does a brilliant job of demonstrating the methodological role that metanormative inquiry should have within any such metaphysics. I can’t do better than his own exploration of these issues in this essay.

Finally, I want to underscore the possibility of detatching normativity from deontology. The latter understands normativity in terms of necessity imposed through legislation. In Kant’s practical philosophy, this is bound up with a system of duties and rights which takes a rigorist form that many people find both implausible and distateful. Indeed, Lukács tries to show how the Kantian subject, delineated through reference to an abstract set of duties, is the one presupposed by capitalism, being a reactionary ideological symptom of modern forms of exchange.

My own understanding of normativity, both in the practical and theoretical realm, has a more Aristotelian character to it. I do not take the reasons we have to stem from legislation but rather from the concrete situations we face as agents. Nor do I typically articulate rational requirements in terms of necessities imposed on us by reason. Instead, I help myself to the less austere vocabulary of the good as well as the right, and try to extend the concern with what one can do to who one should be as well. In addition to my own, there are innumerable other ways of approaching normativity too. It is important that this point be made in order to correct the assumption that recourse to normative themes is meant to bolster to some quasi-Kantian project, when this is certainly not always the case.

I could continue but that’s more than enough for now.

Workshop on Autonomous Judgement

Details of the inaugural workshop for the Essex Autonomy Project (on which I am the postdoctoral research officer) below.

The Essex Autonomy Project is pleased to announce the opening event in its three-year research initiative, ‘Deciding for Oneself: Autonomous Judgement in History, Theory and Practice’. The aim of the research is to advance theoretical understanding of the capacity for autonomous judgement and to provide orientation to those who must navigate its complexities in social, medical and legal practice.

Challenges and Strategies

The Essex Autonomy Project
Inaugural Workshop (21-22 May, 2010)

Participation is free but seating is limited; advanced registration is required. To register, send an email to . Full details of the event can be found at:


Day One : Friday, 21 May, 2010
Location: Senate Room (4.722, off Square 1), University of Essex Campus

11:00-11:30: Welcome and Overview of the Research Project Prof. Wayne Martin (Principal Investigator; Dept. of Philosophy, University of Essex)

11:30-13:00: Philosophical Models of Autonomy: An Overview Dr. Joel Anderson (Dept. of Philosophy, Utrecht University)

13:00-14:30: Lunch. Network Centre Foyer, 1N1.3.3.

14:30 – 15:45: The Mental Capacity Act and the Mental Health Act Prof. Genevra Richardson (School of Law, King’s College London)

15:45-17:00: The Law of Consent
Dr. Sabine Michalowski (School of Law, Essex University)

17:00-17:15: Coffee

17:15 – 18:30: The Clinical Assessment of Capacity.
Prof. Matthew Hotopf (Maudsley Institute of Psychiatry)

Day Two : Saturday, 22 May, 2010
Location: Wivenhoe Sailing Club

9:30-10:00 Coffee

10:00 – 11:15: Assessment of Capacity in Social Welfare Contexts Graham Sharp (Welfare Rights Officer, Suffolk County Council)

11:15-12:30: What Can We Learn About Autonomy From the Case of Anorexia Nervosa?
Dr. Jacinta Tan (Centre for Philosophy, Law and Humanities in Health Care, Swansea University)

12:30-14:00 Lunch

Letter to Middlesex University

I am sure you have already heard about the planned cuts at Middlesex University. Much more info is available over at Infinite Thought. Here is my letter to the University management:

Dear Professor Driscoll, Professor Ahmad, Professor House and Professor Esche,

I am hugely dismayed to hear of the decision to close the philosophy department at Middlesex University. The quality of the teaching and research which the department undertakes is excellent — something its recent RAE results make plain. So too, its contribution is a distinctive one, acting as a vitally important hub for the study of European philosophy, and which sees it punch far above its weight on both the national and international level. It has achieved these results with very good value for money, both in terms of its relatively modest budget and its success in attracting external funding for fellowships and AHRC projects. On any reasonable measure, the department is highly successful. In light of all this, the planned closure appears nothing short of absurd.

The outcry against the decision has been massive and will doubtless continue to grow, reflecting the esteem in which the department is held in the humanities across the world. I am sure you are keenly aware of the damage already caused to the reputation of the University. If the planned closure is not reversed, this will only escalate. It should become increasingly clear to you that there will be no tame acceptance of this decision. Even at this early stage, it is readily apparent that opposition to these plans will be intense, organised, and extremely prolonged.

I strongly urge you to rethink the proposed closure.

Tom O’Shea

Senior Postdoctoral Research Officer
Department of Philosophy
University of Essex

Please write to the University management:

The full set of emails is;;;

The co-ordinators of the campaign against the closures request that if you send an email, you also blind copy (BCC) it to the campaign email,

Kierkegaard Graduate Conference

The 13th International Graduate Conference in Philosophy is being held next month on the 15th May here at the University of Essex. It’s called: ‘Become who you are: Kierkegaard, literature, and the philosophy of religion.’ The keynote speakers are Stephen Mulhall and Michael McGhee. There’s also a philosophical film festival which takes place on the 12-14th May, with film showings and talks, including a screening of ‘The Conformist.’ More details about both events can be found here.

Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop

Apologies for it being so quiet around here recently: I’m in the process of finishing my thesis, starting my new job at the University of Essex, and getting ready to move house. I thought I’d post this announcement for a workshop that I’ll be speaking at next month alongside Pete Wolfendale (Deontologisitcs) Nick Srnicek (Speculative HeresyThe Accursed Share), Reid Kotlas (Planomenology) and James Trafford. Ray Brassier will be headlining, giving a longer paper to the Warwick Colloquium in European Philosophy. Hopefully, I’ll be able to develop some of the sketchy thoughts about realism and correlationism which I posted on here last year, especially in relation to Meillassoux. Drop Pete an e-mail if you’d like to come along.

Warwick Transcendental Realism Workshop

Time: Tuesday 11th of May, 12:00pm (registration) – 7:00pm

Location: University of Warwick, LIB2 and S0.11

Organised by Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, in conjunction with the Research Group in Post-Kantian European Philosophy

The purpose of the workshop is to examine the arguments underlying the increasing push towards realism in parts of modern continental philosophy, along with approaches that bridge the analytic/continental divide, and to assess the possibility of transcendental approaches to realism within this context. Particular themes that we be focused upon include:-

– The arguments of Quentin Meillassoux, and the possibility of transcendental responses to the problems he raises.

– The relation between epistemology and ontology.

– The relation between philosophy and the natural sciences.

The event will be split into two parts. The first part will take place in LIB2 (in the university library building) from 12:30pm to 5:00pm, which will consist in five papers presented by graduate students on matters relevant to the topic, along with discussion. The second part will be the headline talk, given by Ray Brassier, which will take place in S0.11 (in the social studies building) from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, under the auspices of the department’s regular Colloquium in European Philosophy.


Ray Brassier (Philosophy, American University of Beirut) – ‘Kant and Sellars: Nominalism, Realism, Naturalism’

James Trafford (Philosophy, Unaffiliated) – ‘Follow the Evidence: Realism, Epistemology, Semantics’

Reid Kotlas (Philosophy Grad Student, Dundee) – ‘From Transcendental to Abstract Realism: Epistemology after Marx’

Nick Srnicek (International Relations PhD Student, LSE) – ‘Extending Cognition: Bridging the Gap between Actor-Network Theory and Scientific Realism’

Tom O’Shea (Philosophy PhD Student, Sheffield) – ‘On the Very Idea of Correlationism’

Pete Wolfendale (Philosophy PhD Student, Warwick) – ‘Objectivity, Reality, and the In-Itself: From Deflationary to Transcendental Realism’

The workshop is free to attend, but please email pete.wolfendale ‘at’ to register in advance, or to request any further information.

The Essex Autonomy Project

I have been offered a three-year post-doctoral position at the University of Essex as part of a new AHRC-funded project on autonomous judgement. Details of the project below:

Deciding for Oneself: Autonomous Judgment in History, Theory and Practice is a three-year interdisciplinary research initiative based in the Philosophy Department at the University of Essex. Our fundamental aim is to clarify the nature and value of judgemental autonomy, both for its own sake, and in order to provide orientation for those who must apply this notion — whether as parents, medical practitioners, legal professionals, or simply as citizens.

Our approach to these issues is in equal measures theoretical, practical, and historical. A crucial element of our methodology is to bring together philosophers working on the theory of autonomy and judgement with working professionals in the law, psychiatric medicine, and social policy. Philosophical theories can be tested and strengthened by application to real-world challenges, while practitioners can make use of philosophical approaches to find a way through some of the vexing challenges endemic to these issues. Our historical approach in turn holds out promise for illuminating both the theoretical and practical issues. A number of contemporary challenges regarding judgemental autonomy are best diagnosed and addressed with reference to the contested history that produced them. One important element in this will be to engage the critics who have objected to the very ideal of autonomous judgement.

Research will be conducted in large part through a series of interdisciplinary workshops, public lectures and international conferences, many of which will be open to the public. Among the research outputs for the project will be a website, ‘Green Paper’ technical reports, and a curriculum for a Knowledge Transfer ‘Master Class’ for the dissemination of results. In addition there will be a series of more conventional academic outputs, including a monograph, research articles and collections of essays. Above all, our aim is to cultivate an interdisciplinary network of researchers and practitioners with advanced expertise on the challenges intrinsic to the ideal of judgemental autonomy.

More details can be found here. Expect to hear more about this in due course!

The Unconsoled Pursuit of Goodness

Iris Murdoch claims that pursuing goodness is “pointless.” She means that the attempt to act rightly, in accordance with virtue, say, cannot be given any external justification. In other words, such actions have no goal beyond themselves, however helpful they may happen to be. This echoes the Aristotelian dictum that virtuous action is undertaken for its own sake. In this case, an internal justification, which appeals to other ethical notions, would be available. So, we might recommend acting courageously because that would be the wise thing to do. But both courage and wisdom are already normative concepts: they are already replete with ethical normative authority. In this way, no attempt is made to justify specific ethical claims through appeal to non-ethical foundations. Ethical justification is presented as a closed circle.

One response to this kind of circularity would be to charge the Murdochian agent with dogmatism. This naturally leads to another suspicion, namely the sceptical doubt that if the only justifications for acting ethically are themselves already ethicised, then perhaps no genuine ethical justification is to be had. But such responses would be misguided; they reflect an unwarranted demand for foundations, for an Archimedean point outside of the activities of justifying, reasoning and communicating with one another, from where we can issue guarantees for them. Whether we are realists or not (and both myself and Murdoch are), demanding such guarantees is not cautious but pathological; in some lights, it verges on the autistic.

One of the problems met in attempting to give an external justification for genuinely following norms (rather than merely helpful conventions) is that it invites us to answer ill-formed questions. There is something incoherent about questions like ‘what reason do I have to be rational?’ or ‘should I do what I ought to do?’ when they are directed at normativity in general rather than the justification of specific norms. For any answer to these questions to move us, we must already be trading in reasons, which threatens to make any answer seem either hopelessly circular or entirely redundant.

We find a deep affinity here between these awkward questions, asking about a norm for following norms, or a reason to be rational, and the so-called problem of the ‘Kantian paradox’. If we create or legislate normative standards for our actions, there is a difficulty in finding norms for this legislation itself which would prevent this legislation from being enirely sporadic and arbitrary. In other words, we would already need norms to guide the institution of norms. Similar problems loom here to those above, since if there were already authoritative norms to appeal to then self-legislation will be redundant, but if there are not then no non-arbitrary legislation can be undertaken. The upshot, I think, is that self-legislation is an incoherent way to think about the ultimate source of normativity.

The Kantian paradox is significant, but unlike Kantian constructivisits, I think that the attempt to provide a straight solution to it is misguided. Instead, it provides us with an important clue to a structural feature of normativity, best accounted for by Murdoch’s considerations about the pointlessness of pursuing goodness. The lesson it teaches us is that there cannot be any justificatory grounding to normative authority which is not itself equally normative and equally groundless: it is normativity ‘all the way down.’ The lack of non-holistic support for normativity does not undermine the importance of normativity; in fact, it is quite the contrary. Pihlström makes this point well in relation to morality:

Morality does not have any external goal or legitimation. Yet, this, instead of sacrificing the moral seriousness emphasized by the moral realist, is an affirmation of such seriousness. Morality is something serious—indeed, the most serious and most important thing in our life, ‘overriding,’ as one often says—precisely because it does not have any external, non-ethical goal or point.

Bearing this claim in mind, one pertinent criticism of constructivism is that it offers the wrong kinds of reason to be moral (to re-purpose Bernard Williams’ expression). For example, when Korsgaard tells us that we should be moral because otherwise we will lose something more valuable than our lives, namely our identities as agents, morality is being anchored to some external goal. But this is to instrumentalise morality, to make it into a hypothetical imperative: if you want to protect an identity precious to you, then follow these instructions. In so doing, we lose our appreciation of the inherent worth of moral action, which sits alongside its subsidiary benefits to our lives, but is not entirely parasicitic upon them. One need not have as rigoristic a conception of ethical life as Kant to think that right action can be inherently worthy. Indeed, this style of criticism has been echoed by Bradley and Prichard (neither of whom were Kantians), who also think there is something wrongheaded about giving reasons to be moral in general.

Moral or ethical normativity is a distinctive variety, insofar as it often connected to the notions of the categorical and the obligatory. However, I think we can extend the same points about there being no external goal or point to being responsive to the force of the better reason, generalising them to normativity as a whole. Naturally, there can be many subsidiary benefits for agents who follow norms, whether this be the fruits of theoretical or practical reason, such as working out what to what will satisfy us and how to get it, for example. But Murdoch is right to emphasise that the true pursuit of the good is “austere and unconsoled.” What distinguishes responsiveness to normativity proper, rather than following useful conventions, is this discerning disregard for any immediate further goal. Normativity does not, in Murdoch’s vocabulary, come with the consolations of purposiveness beyond itself.