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.

10 thoughts on “Disenchantment

  1. Very good post. I suppose I technically fall into the ‘constructivist’ category here, and I’m going to have to work on something as a more general defense against the McDowellian critique you outline above.

    I will point out one thing here though. You say:-

    “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 point rests entirely on the sense of ‘legitimately’ here. I agree that it is often legitimate to describe the natural world in normative terms, but the question is whether the legitimation is of the same kind as the legitimation of describing the natural world in natural terms.

    The worry is that the somewhat quietist approach McDowell pursues seeks to elide the distinction between these two forms of legitimation, so that we can retain a certain weak realism about the normative domain.

    If we can provide a robust characterisation of this difference (and I think we can, if we can get a handle on the distinction between objective and non-objective truth), then why can’t we simply say that nature is natural and that’s all? This wouldn’t be to somehow undermine the legitimate applicability of normative terms to nature, but would simply recognise that the source of their legitimate application is found elsewhere than in nature itself.

  2. Pingback: The Shape of the Inconstruable Question « Box 3, Spool 5

  3. Thanks.

    I’d agree that your position would count as a form of constructivism. Of course, there are different species under this genus. I think that people like Habermas and Brandom, who seem to be closest to you, fall somewhere between the neo-Kantian constructivism of Christine Korsgaard and the neo-Hegelian constructivism of Robert Pippin. (I think neither poles are all that Kantian or Hegelian, but that’s a slightly different story.) Here, the idea is to take on board a putatively Kantian story about the self-legislative autonomy of the subject, integrate it with a social pragmatics that situates normativity in the context of communicative activity and ethical practices, but to retain something of the character of a formal analysis rather than the developmental justification of substantive norms that neo-Hegelians like Pippin, Pinkard and Krasnoff go in for.

    The quietist position can accomodate something of the distinction you are after I think. So, we can take up the sort of absolute perspective which Bernard Williams associates with Descartes. This is the sort of perspective which is attentive to whether something has a wide cosmological role (e.g. effecting things other than human attitudes); and we can construct a Weltanscauung that describes ourselves and the rest of nature by appeal only to wide scope properties. So, it is not like this distinction between an absolute and anthropocentrically informed perspective is off-limits. But the question is whether we should claim that the absolute perspective is the only one that can definitively characterise nature, such that describing nature in normative terms must either be plainly mistaken or be something that is only warranted because human attitudes license doing so (and might withdraw such a license). The move which McDowell wants to make seeks to question the idea that because a human sensory, social, affective or intellectual modality must be drawn on to register something’s presence, then we must suppose that the item in question is a projection, illusory or unnatural.

    One thing which may be worth mentioning is that the sort of normative realism which I want to defend (and I think ultimately McDowell probably would too) does not give any credence to the idea of a positive normative reality, whether in some cod-platonic sense or otherwise. In a way, I agree with you that norms do not exist (there are no things called norms). But what this position questions is the idea that the space of reasons therefore takes the form of a set of inter-attitudinal relations (‘only a belief can justify another belief’ etc.). This is the sort of interiozing move which I think causes problems. In Brandomian idiom, I think normative relations (e.g. implication and obligation) hold between thinkables and not just thoughts. Disenchantment can seem to block this position, but only when nature is seen as the space of scientific explicability alone and not also normative explicabilty (independent of our specific normative attitudes).

    Sorry that’s a bit patchy, but maybe it’ll help a little.

  4. An interesting post and I wonder if I might get some development and clarification here, on two counts. Firstly, you say

    “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).”

    What exactly is meant here in your claim to befitting? Why does it most befit ‘human life’ to have normative explanation and does this only apply to human life?

    My second question touches on the same thing as Pete above. I wonder if you might give me an example of the type of thing you have in mind when you claim that “…natural events can be legitimately characterised in normative terms without a regression to pre-scientific rationalism.”

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your comment; apologies for not getting back to you sooner.

      Firstly, when I say that normative vocabularly is ‘befitting’ of descriptions of human life, there are a few things I have in mind. Initially, I want to maintain that a characterisation of a situation in normative-laden terms can be just as legitimate as a more physicalist one — no error goes on here (contra Brassier et al). So, when we say ‘Hitting him was cruel’ then this is not a second-rate description which employs bogus folk-concepts or which must be understood as shorthand for a more fundamental natural-scientific description. In fact, this is not just an acceptable mode of description, but one that can arrive at truth, and not merely some way of talking licensed by the peculiarities of the practical standpoint presupposed in deliberation. I have tried to highlight some of the controversial moves in modern philosophy and social life that makes it seem that such truth would have to be off-limits.

      Here, there is no absolute restriction of normative explanation to human life. We can appeal to a kind of Aristotelian scala naturae here, which stretches from complex systems, life-forms, agents and those engaged in ethico-linguistic deliberation (the best account of this so far is Thompson’s pathbreaking Life and Action, reviewd here). Normative description is most at home in the upper layers, since human life (but potentially that of any similarly structured life-form or computer) has a distinctive sort of structure: agents who are goal-directed, relatively reflective and self-correcting with respect to coherence constraints, organised into social groupings which transmit concepts, traditions and social roles, inclusive of inter-social assessments of propriety. All these things provide the context for making sense of talk about reasons being in play. It is primarily through thinking about responsiveness to reasons that marks out human life from other animals and the non-biological world (though again no non-natural ‘faculty of rationality’ gets invoked here; becoming responsive to reasons is part of the natural development of humans who mature in communicative groups).

      Thirdly, when I say, “natural events can be legitimately characterised in normative terms without a regression to pre-scientific rationalism,” I am mainly thinking about human activity understood as a natural occurence. For example, ‘Maria was justified in thinking the Higgs Boson would never be found, even though her colleagues disagreed’ or ‘You ought to have helped out: it’s cowardly not to do something when people are so upset’. So, for my purposes here, the idea is simply that these general types of descriptions are not bogus in the way that those like ‘Thunder means that the gods are angry at us’ are. But I also think that we can stretch to kinds of immanent teleogy in the non-human world: a bear’s heart can be said to be working correctly or incorrectly in light of its functional role in a complex system (and perhaps the same can be said for a thermostat and boiler combination). However, I do not think that the rest of my position relies on defending this sort of claim, which can be open to familiar anti-animist worries or the charge of projecting human interests onto nature.

      In a nutshell then: I think that normative-laden descriptions can be true, not just warranted; they are especially suited to human life because of the place of responsiveness to reasons in our form of life; and they are a form of description of things in the natural world which neither take natural-scientific form nor embrace disreputable types of natural or mystical teleology.

  5. This is a very nice read.

    If you haven’t come across it already, I thought I would point you in the direction of a forthcoming article by Terry Pinkard. He seems to at least acknowledge the exchange, and I think rightly draws our attention to the particular pertinence Merleau-Ponty may have in resolving some of these issues; that is, offering us a richer account of nature/second-nature in its non-discursive, non-propositional, albeit normed/normative, form that I find conspicuously absent in both McDowell and Pippin’s accounts.

    So, here is the link, enjoy:

    Click to access Transcendental%20philosophy%20%26%20naturalism.pdf

  6. Hi Tom,

    Been looking for a wider perspective on Speculative Realism and OOO (the depths of which I have only just started to plumb), and stumbled upon your blog.

    “We cannot intelligibly think from a perspective of cosmic exile and must accept the finitude of our cognitive capacities… Our finitude, properly understood, ought not impune normative realism, and we should not be carried away by the characterless world presented by natural science.”

    This is a marvellous sentiment, and one for which I have great sympathy. Part of my own philosophical project is concerned with freedom of belief, and an Arendt-esque acknowledgement that the world is something constituted *between* people.

    It seems to me, from my narrow investigation into these fields thus far, that to think in terms that exclude people from the wider equation is to abandon the world we share in favour of the mere physical world. This stikes me not as a rejection of anthropocentrism but merely a particularly narrow-minded form of it – one in which a particular perspective (uniquely?) accessible to our species is reified as highest truth.

    The “view from nowhere” can be a useful tool, but to deify it is pure ideological idolatry; I will hold my tongue on expanding this view here, however, as it is perhaps inappropriate at this time. 🙂

    Have subscribed to your feed… expect further ramblings in due course.


    PS: how exactly shall I quote you in my books and papers if you provide only a forename… 😉

  7. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your comment.

    When it comes to these issues, I am always trying to chart a path between the poles of rampant physicalism and rampant anthropocentrism. Sometimes that’s a bit tricky and invites criticism from both extremes; but I’m enough of a Hegelian to hope that we can find a middle ground that does justice to the radical insights of both traditions. I’m glad you liked my attempts to do so here. As I say in the post, much of my thinking on these issues has been shaped by John McDowell’s work, and the phrase ‘cosmic exile’ is one I borrow from him.

    Your blog looks good — the posts of the Critique of Judgement in particular have caught my eye. I’ll certainly dig into the archives when I’ve got a bit of spare time.

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