Two approaches to understanding normativity

The Causal Power of Social Structures
Dave Elder-Vass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, £50.00, 240pp.

Explaining the Normative
Stephen Turner, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010, £18.99, 240pp.

Normativity is a concept with a contentious history. While most would accept its centrality to everyday human experience, the question of what exactly it is and how it is to be explained has rarely, if ever, commanded widespread agreement. In this review essay I will consider two important recent contributions to this debate, summarising and evaluating each in turn before attempting to draw out the important issues these books raise for work on normativity.

In Explaining the Normative, Stephen Turner seeks to unpick the messy intellectual history of normativity and, through doing so, offer an account of exactly where the debate about the notion has gone wrong and how it might be put right. He suggests that the pervasiveness of the issue within the contemporary philosophical landscape is a consequence of normativity’s historical position at the interface between philosophy and the social sciences. With the emergence of social science and the continual growth of its explanatory ambitions, many philosophers have sought to stake out a particular area of human life unamenable to causal explanation.  Normativity represents ‘a more or less self-conscious attempt to take back ground lost to social-science explanation’ (Turner 2010: 5).

The first chapter of the book attempts to draw out the common features which philosophical accounts of normativity tend to share. While recognising the diversity which characterises normative arguments, he nonetheless claims the existence both of a strong family resemblance and an array of generic problems which afflict theories of normativity. Perhaps the most pertinent of these is what Turner calls the ‘does it matter problem’. The normativist must say that norms are ineliminable from explanation. Yet while ‘ordinarily the explanation of action involves beliefs’, the validity of those beliefs (i.e. the usual subject matter of the normativist) ‘is not explanatory in itself’ (Turner 2010: 13).

The second chapter of the book interrogates the explanatory conflict between philosophical and sociological accounts of normativity. Much of this discussion hinges on what explanatory role normativity can play and how this issue has generally been framed from within the two disciplinary perspectives. Normativists argue that normative facts cannot be explained in non-normative ways. One can point to the sociological fact of adherence to a norm but this in itself cannot constitute genuine normativity. Yet this sociological fact is nearly empirically equivalent and usually seems explanatorily adequate to account for why people do the things they do. So social scientists have tended to ask what role there actually is for normativity.

The third chapter takes a slightly different direction, exploring the normativity of law as a case study. Turner traces development in the thinking of the great 20th century legal theorist Hans Kelsen who spent a lifetime trying to establish the normativity of law. While some of this discussion might be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the subject area, it functions effectively as a case study, illustrating the generalised and abstract points draw in the first two chapters at a much more substantive level of intellectual debate.

The fourth chapter uses the practice of anthropological explanation to explore the normativity of concepts. The discussion centres around the work of Peter Winch, taken as a writer who typifies the normativist tradition within social science, for whom ‘social or natural explanations of essentially conceptual or normative subjects are always inadequate to account for the phenomena properly described in their full conceptual significance’  (Turner 2010: 110). The fifth chapter explores the possibility of grounding normativity in an account of collective intentionality. As Turner writes, ‘collective intentionality does appear to provide something objective, at least for a community or collectivity: a standard that is factual in some sense and at the same time normative’ (Turner 2010: 121). However he argues that such accounts fail because they presuppose ideas about collectivity which are themselves ungrounded.

The sixth chapter draws together many of the ideas articulated earlier in the book and represents the fulfilment of Turner’s titular promise to explain the normative. The crux of his argument is this: why invoke a special domain of fact outside the stream of ordinary explanation when the things we would locate within it can be explained naturalistically? Intriguingly Turner draws on cognitive science and neuroscience to posit empathy as a naturalistic explanation for apparently normative phenomena.  He argues that ‘the ‘norms’ that govern meaning, the meanings of terms applied to the world, may be readily understood in nonnormative terms: as empathic projections that are confirmed, sustained, corrected and improved through interaction with others’ (Turner 2010: 177-178). In doing so he cuts through the gordian knot  at the heart of the debate about normativity: how to explain normative phenomena in a naturalistic way without explaining them away. Empathy has a ‘natural process underlying it: both the capacity, actually employed, of emulating or following the thought of another and the feedback generated by actual social interaction’. As he points out, these are ‘facts of social theory (and of neuroscience)’ (Turner 2010: 205).

While Turner makes a powerful case about the function of empathy, it would be a mistake to see this as the central feature of his book. What makes Explaining the Normative such an impressive book is the way that Turner’s argument is grounded not just in a vast knowledge of historical debates but in the intellectual biographies of individual theorists who grappled with issues relating to normativity. For instance he traces the development of Kelsen’s thought over his lifetime, showing how his engagement with the problems of normativity ultimately forced him to reject many of the characteristic normativist claims, leading him to see the notion of a ground for legal normativity as fundamentally fictitious. Similarly he shows how Winch’s attempt to come to terms with the strange case of the Azande (who seemed to reason in ways which violated the norms of their own thought) led him to abandon the idea of internal relations: ‘logical relations between concepts, or concepts and actions, which are intrinsically normative: they specify the standards of correctness and are conceptual rather than merely psychological and causal’ (Turner 2010: 103). Instead Winch introduces the notion of ‘intellectual habits’, cognitive dispositions which we must understand in order to interpret other cultures. In doing so, he introduces a parallel natural order of dispositions and habits which is more than capable of doing the explanatory work necessary to explain the practice of the Azande. As with Kelsen, Winch’s attempts to grapple with the normative ultimately led him away from normativism. Turner’s approach to such cases makes the problem of normativity come alive, as the lived concern of real persons, rather than an abstract object of philosophical wrangling. The result is that his own positive account, relatively brief though it is, possesses much more force than it might if stated outright as a free-standing thesis.

In the Causal Power of Social Structures, Dave Elder-Vass sets out to provide a comprehensive realist solution to the problem of structure and agency, encompassing a whole range of issues within a lively and multi-faceted discussion. While only one chapter of the book deals explicitly with normativity, it is considered in its entirety here because of how closely Elder-Vass’s arguments hang together. The first three chapters of the book set out a realist account of emergence and causality. He advocates a relational theory of emergence which understands the causal powers of any given entity as a function of its internal relations over a range of ontological strata. As with other sections of the book, the conceptual clarity which Elder-Vass shows in his writing really illuminates a discussion which might otherwise have been technical and obscure. Furthermore while these chapters offer an admirable contribution to the philosophy of social science in their own right, they also stand as the theoretical architecture which Elder-Vass draws upon in articulating his social theory. Such logical consistency is evident throughout the book and it’s one of the most impressive features of it.

The fourth chapter offers an instructive overview of prevailing accounts of structure within social theory. Elder-Vass explores these accounts in terms of the questions of social ontology dealt with in the first few chapters before offering his own: ‘to the extent that it refers to something genuinely causally effective, the concept of social structure refers to the causal powers of specific social groups’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 86). As such, questions about structure are irrevocably linked with questions about agency for Elder-Vass. These are dealt with in the fifth chapter, where much of the discussion centres around an ambitious attempt to synthesise the work of Margaret Archer on reflexivity and Pierre Bourdieu on habitus into what Elder-Vass calls an ‘emergentist theory of action’Though neither theorist would likely accept the ensuing account, his reconciliation of deliberation and habitus is an intriguing proposition, which is thoughtfully grounded in human neurobiology.

The sixth chapter is where Elder-Vass explores normativity through his notion of ‘norm circles’.  Elder-Vass argues that norm circles, a concept derived in part from Simmel’s conception of social circles, have ‘emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 122). These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centred around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

‘They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticising or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124).

This is another example of the logical consistency exhibited by the book’s arguments. As advocated in the meta-theory of social ontology elaborated in the first section of the book, Elder-Vass seeks to identify the causal power of specific social groups rather than subsuming such crucial ontological questions under a general account of normative social institutions. In this case he argues that specific norms circles, obtaining for particular norms, account for the normative causal influences which individuals experience in their daily lives. The relations between members of such a norm circle ‘provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm’ (Turner and Elder Vass 2010: 124). Given the normative heterogeneity which is evident in contemporary society, every individual is embroiled in a whole array of intersecting norm circles such that they must ‘sometimes negotiate a path that balances normative commitments that are in tension with each other’ (Turner and Elder Vass 2010: 143). If followed through empirically, this insight about normative intersectionality transforms ‘norm circles’ from a seemingly quite formalistic concept into an extremely incisive one, able to gain considerable explanatory purchase upon our everyday experience of normativity.

The seventh chapter extends this approach to social theorising in order to offer an account of organizations. As with other chapters, he proceeds through the identification of specific social groupings, the internal relations of which give rise to emergent powers at the level of the whole. One particularly intriguing aspect of this discussion is his use of Goffman’s notion of ‘interaction situations’ as a way of founding his claims about social structure on an analysis of the experience of individual actors in concrete situations. The eighth chapter draws on the preceding work to articulate an analytical typology of social events, identifying both the ontological basis of each and the explanatory practice best suited to it.

The conclusion aptly draws together the diverse strands of the book, restating them in a succinct and clear way which helps him situate them within their wider intellectual context. In fact Elder-Vass exhibits this skill throughout, with a similar review of his arguments at the end of each chapter. This goes hand-in-hand with another defining feature of the book, noted earlier, which is the logical consistency evident throughout. It is an impressive feat to cover so much ground within a single text and yet still maintain such interdependence between arguments, as well as a striking unity of intellectual purpose.

Explaining the Normative and the Causal Powers of Social Structure are two important contributions to research about normativity. Superficially they seem quite different, with the former’s focus on the history of philosophical thought and the latter’s concern with social ontology. However one important aspect they both share is the central role which the findings of neuroscience play in their conclusions.

Turner looks to the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, which activate both when we perform an action and when we see another perform the same action, as a way of explaining many of the phenomena which normativists have tended to claim as their own.  This inbuilt capacity to understand the behaviour of others transforms empathy from ‘an intellectual process bound up with the error-prone folk language of intentionality’ into a ‘fact of science with a discoverable set of features located in specific neuronal processes’ (Turner 2010: 176). The conclusion Turner draws is that the ‘‘norms’ that govern meaning, the meanings of terms applied to the world, may be readily understood in nonnormative terms: as empathic projections that are confirmed, sustained, corrected and improved through interaction with others.’ (Turner 2010: 177-178). Similarly Elder-Vass invokes neuroplasticity, the manner in which the networks of neurons in our brain are conditioned and configured by experience, in order to explain the processes of emergence through which our capacity for action results from the biological without being reducible to it.

Though these are different ideas, utilised by each theorist for a different purpose, a similar direction of thought can be seen in both accounts. As Elder-Vass puts it ‘we can explain the powers of human individuals without explaining them away’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 93). This is also Turner’s great insight, although he does not express it quite so succinctly. What Explaining the Normative does do however is foreground the way in which underlying human concerns and cross-disciplinary disputes  have shaped the historical debate about normativity. On one side the normativists have sought to defend the distinctiveness of the human against the expansion of naturalistic explanation.  On the other naturalists have tried to causally explain human experience, against the mystifications of transcendental philosophy, though have too often explained it away. Taken together these two books illustrate powerfully that the dichotomies underlying this debate have been too starkly drawn. It is possible to defend the distinctiveness of the human without invoking the mysteries of a transcendental domain undergirding the aspects of human experience which have been subsumed under the banner of normativity. In fact it is only through rejecting the terms of this dichotomy, with the causal on side and the normative on the other, that we might begin to fully understand what it is to be human.


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25 replies »

  1. A very interesting and incisive review. I am not sure, however, why it is so imperative to deny the transcendental in the explication of normativity. Why not concede it? One cannot disprove it, after all.

  2. I did not say it was. But by assuming from the start that the transcendental is to be avoided, the burden of proof is upon you.

    • Why? I’m actually much more sympathetic to the idea of the transcendental than I was when I wrote that, albeit defined rather idiosyncratically. But I just don’t see why the burden of proof is on the person seeking to avoid positing transcendental factors in their account. It’s like saying that a moral philosophy that doesn’t posit God has to devote time & energy to justifying why it doesn’t.

  3. I am glad about your open-mindedness. The reason why the burden is on you is that ordinary intuition tends to support a non-naturalistic account of the ultimate source of normativity. And I do think that any credible naturalistic moral theory would have to justify itself in the way you dismiss.

  4. Say you wanted to write a pure Idealist or Subjectivist treatise. At some point you’d have to explain why most people believe, au contraire, in the reality of an independent, external world. I think that it is the same case for works on normativity.

  5. The difference between writing as an idealist or subjectivist (and carrying the burden of proof re the external world) and then writing as a naturalist is as follows: everyone believes in the same external world, but supernatural beliefs vary. There are some good attempts at explaining this variation naturalistically (see Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber etc.).

    I’m not convinced that ‘ordinary intuition tends to support a non-naturalistic account of the ultimate source of normativity.’ How do you know this? (Please don’t say introspection, for goodness sake…)

    One thing the review fails to point out is that the concept “normativity” in fact has a very short history, as well as a contentious one (see line 1 above). I don’t think you’ll find any references to ‘normativity’ before the 1920s, and its only with the growth of a particular kind of technical (and arguably vacuous) moral philosophy in English speaking universities from the 1950s onwards that anybody has tried to place any real weight on it at all. We do not need it, and we need actively to attack it whenever it is used (for example by Rawls) to justify abhorrent social arrangements which it is in many of our interests to attempt to dismantle.

    • Dan I thought I was going to be in agreement with you when I first read Alistair’s reply. Sadly not…

      “We do not need it, and we need actively to attack it whenever it is used (for example by Rawls) to justify abhorrent social arrangements which it is in many of our interests to attempt to dismantle.”

      I’m sure you’re astute enough to recognise the self-reference problem inherent in saying that we need “actively to attack” normativity talk when it is used “to justify abhorrent social arrangements” – so I assume you have an extremely narrow definition of what normativity is or there’s some point that I’ve failed to grasp. Perhaps part of the issue here is the conflation of philosophical and sociological accounts of normativity? I can perfectly understand scepticism towards the former (though I don’t share it, I think it’s quietism at its intellectual laziest) but I find scepticism towards the latter bewildering. Perhaps it’s better if we talk about ‘normativity’ in the philosophical sense and ‘evaluation’ in the sociological sense? Evaluative orientations cut throughout social life and I can take seriously a consistent scepticism which treats all evaluative claims expressively but a scepticism that repudiates any attempt to discuss foundations to evaluation and yet wishes to retain political commitment to overturning ‘abhorent’ circumstances seems obviously contradictory to me.

      • Or to put it another way: there’s vast and longstanding traditions of empirical research into normativity (in the sociological sense) in both psychology and sociology. There probably are in other social scientific disciplines as well. I read what you’re saying as an argument that understands itself as attacking philosophical hubris but, from my point of view, it hubristically dismisses vast swathes of empirical social science on what are essentially a priori grounds.

      • When you say… “I think it’s quietism at its intellectual laziest” to be sceptical about philosophical normativity, I can’t help thinking it might have been more intellectually proactive to tell me why. Which research have I ignored? (I’m not sure I’ve done anything “a priori”.)

        I’m not sure what the contradiction you’re charging me with is supposed to be. Is it (a) having political views and being sceptical about philosophical uses of the concept “normativity”, (b) having political views and being sceptical about sociological uses of the concept (which I never said I was, but I might be), or (c) a combination of the first two?

        If it’s (a), then I think the answer is pretty straightforward (if it’s (b) or (c), I don’t understand the point). Why – ? – can’t I accept that the grounds of my political views are likely to be at least partly if not wholly determined by considerations much less like Rawls’ (i.e. what would I say behind the veil of ignorance) and more like these: what side I was born into, what opportunities I have in virtue of my social position, whether my family were killed by British, American, Israeli, Palestinian, or ISIS explosives, what I’ve got to lose or gain, who my friends are, how hungry I am, how educated I am etc. etc. If politics is about these things, the “normative” becomes a rhetorical arena, the continuations of Hobbesian/Machiavellian/Nietzschean (/Weberian?) politics by other means. Being “right” is only a part of winning, and it is in the interests of those currently dominant to sustain the idea that there is any such thing as “right” at all. The general acceptance of a conservative view of its content helps keep people in their place.

      • I’m talking about large swathes of research in moral psychology, the sociology of morality and the sociology of religion – I’m not saying you ‘ignore’ them, I’m saying that you render them methodologically untenable and this is tantamount to dismissal.

        I don’t think your political views are “determined” by anything but that’s a pedantic point. There’s a large gap between “the grounds” of your political views being “partly” and being “wholly” shaped by social and political circumstances. I have absolutely no problem with the former view, it’s the latter I find problematic. To insist on the latter shuts down a vast space of empirical and conceptual questions that I’m much more interested in opening up. I’m not denying the ‘rhetorical arena’, I’m only suggesting that we lose sight of an important dimension to its reproduction and/or transformation if we don’t take experience of values seriously.

  6. Thank you very much for taking the trouble to join this debate that I seem to have initiated.

    Hmm. A few points. Your first point is a very good one. The situations are indeed structurally different in the way you identify. Nevertheless, I think my contention holds that a treatise on moral theory must engage with the widespread belief in normativity’s non-naturalness.

    My basis for this? Most people believe in God; any poll will tell you that. Relatedly, most people experience moral imperatives as somehow transcendent. Introspection is part of this, to be sure. Nothing wrong with that.

    Your final point I struggled to understand. Rawls is the greatest moral and political theorist since T. H. Green and J. S. Mill. Part of that greatness was precisely his restoration of normative philosophy. The content of his political philosophy–social democracy–was also, I think, largely correct, and was certainly not destructive of most people’s interests.

  7. Rawls we can agree to disagree on… I don’t think it’s as simple as polls about theism or picking up on transcendental sounding language in moral-phenomenological reports. The relation between avowed beliefs and actual behaviour is complicated. (Strangely, how many people go to church and *don’t* believe in a god?) Theism varies and the variation can be explained (fairly convincingly, but it’s always going to be a work in progress). People’s use of a “transcendental” vocabulary can mean all sorts of things about their beliefs or feelings depending on the context – not least that they don’t know how to explain or justify them. The point is that some people (mainly anthropologists, it would seem) do “engage” the great variation in odd-sounding beliefs, practices, aesthetic preferences, etc., and do a fairly good job of explaining them naturalistically; this doesn’t mean that they need take a different approach when approaching that strange tribe, the normative philosophers. I’ll accept the burden of proof on these things if someone will lend me a unicorn to carry it.

    When you said above (I missed this the first time): “And I do think that any credible naturalistic moral theory would have to justify itself in the way you dismiss”, you seem to be suggesting that any of us want to engage in something called ‘moral theory’. But I don’t see why any of us should, so, putting unicorn’s aside for a minute, perhaps there’s no real question of the burden of “proof”.

    • I think there are strong prima facie grounds to assume that transcendental vocabulary implies transcendental commitments! There are many cases where this won’t be true but I don’t see the desirability of replacing a first person vocabulary with a third person one unless there’s some extenuating factor which suggests this is necessary to preserve the adequacy of the explanation.

  8. When you say “I think there are strong prima facie grounds to assume that transcendental vocabulary implies transcendental commitments!”, I take it that the exclamation mark is supposed to suggest that this is something obvious that I have missed. However, I didn’t talk about “transcendental vocabulary”, but “transcendental sounding language”, for precisely the reason that the empirical jury is always out as to whether and to what extent the behaviour, including linguistic behaviour, we are faced with is most usefully described as “transcendental”. Philosophers are often very quick at this stage because they want to recruit intuitions to their cause, but sociologists and anthropologists should take professional pride in avoiding this. So-called “prima facie grounds” are useless here – there are only better and worse overall explanations.

    When you say… “There are many cases where this won’t be true but I don’t see the desirability of replacing a first person vocabulary with a third person one unless there’s some extenuating factor which suggests this is necessary to preserve the adequacy of the explanation” …I’m afraid I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean.

    • “When you say… “There are many cases where this won’t be true but I don’t see the desirability of replacing a first person vocabulary with a third person one unless there’s some extenuating factor which suggests this is necessary to preserve the adequacy of the explanation” …I’m afraid I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean.”

      I’m saying we should assume people mean what they say unless we have a reason not to. My objection to what you’re saying is both methodological and ethical.

      “I didn’t talk about “transcendental vocabulary”, but “transcendental sounding language”, for precisely the reason that the empirical jury is always out as to whether and to what extent the behaviour, including linguistic behaviour, we are faced with is most usefully described as “transcendental””

      I suspect we’re talking at crossed purposes here. All I was originally trying to claim was a point about moral phenomenology and normative beliefs – in so far as people use “transcendental sounding language” to describe and explain their experience of such matters, we should resist the injunction to explain this away, which is what I take you to be doing in effect. Perhaps wrongly, it’s hard not to get the feeling we’re all talking at crossed purposes.

      • That’s the problem with you idealists, you’ll always think it’s a matter of mere misunderstanding!

        I think this debate needs to become either a serious philosophy of social science argument (where we’d start with Weber’s ‘Objectivity’ essay, naturally), a discussion of some particular cases (where we would *start* with someone like Runciman), or just stop. It’s been fun.

      • Well I’m tempted to say that I think you can’t adequately explain the politics of the religious right in America without admitting the causal power of ideas (which in my terms is what this disagreement basically comes down) but I should probably reread my thesis instead given my viva is impending and I’ve basically forgotten what my PhD was about…

  9. I would quite like to challenge you on Rawls a bit further, but will leave that aside if you wish. My points on normativity too simplistic? Easy to say that. Easy too to liken belief in God, or the transcendent more generally, as on a level with belief in unicorns, but a tad Dawkinseque. Shall I quote Otto, Weil or Tillich, say, instead? Moreover, you seem to me to be assuming precisely what I am trying to problematise, when you say that anthropologists can explain away naturalistically the idea of the normative. As for SocIm’s observation about legitimacy of first-person perspective: Like! If that is intuitionism, fine.

    • I didn’t say your points were “simplistic”, Alistair, I said that it’s not as “simple” as taking polls or reading off what to you and many others seems to be transcendental sounding language. I certainly didn’t mean this in an ad hominem way. It’s not as “simple” as polls etc. because these polls – these data – themselves raise a complex range of options. Dawkins-esque? Only if Dawkins is Nietzsche-esque, or Hume-esque, or Lucretius-esque… Dawkins has been useful in some ways in terms of public debate, but I understand his gene-centred evolutionary theory is a bit hopeless (John Dupre is good on this in “Darwin’s Legacy”…)

      But all of this misses the point. I’m not suggesting that I have a knockdown argument against the people I think are deluded (and I do think they are). The original dispute was about the burden of proof; the minimal conclusion I am arguing for is that there is no burden of proof. The project of naturalistic explanation does not commit to providing a moral (or indeed a political) theory. It clearly doesn’t need to accept anything as genuinely normative (in the “normativist” way) to succeed on its own terms. If someone then wishes to criticise a particular naturalistic explanation in detail, then if part of this criticism involves positing something non-natural (like a unicorn, or a god, or a somehow-universally-binding-moral-principle) then this person may carry the burden of proof to this limited extent: if they want to convince the naturalist. But I don’t see any *general* requirement that the naturalist and the non-naturalist should have anything constructive to say to each other at all.

  10. Thank you for your clarifications in para 1; much appreciated. Two points: I think to put belief in unicorns on a level with belief in God (or the transcendent, numinous, etc, more generally) is unfair, and you must know this. Dawkins knows this too, but continues to belittle theism in that way. He has, I think, done a disservice to what Rawls would call reflective equilibrium by making fundamental discussion less civil. Nietzsche poisoned debate in his day in the same way, not sure about Lucretius, Hume was better-mannered. Thanks though for your point about his gene ideas. May pursue after retirement!
    On your second para. I think a comprehensive account of normativity is obliged to account for its full phenomenology, including the sense for most people, intuitionistically, of its transcendent quality. Can I perhaps recommend that you look at my book A Normative Theory of the Information Society, reviewed this week (p. 45) in Times Higher Education. I argue that the normative belongs to the right, but originates in the good. If you don’t have time, no problem, but perhaps we should park the discussion and agree to differ?

  11. Thank you for the reference to your book (I’m afraid I don’t have £30 at the moment, but it might crop up in the library…). Certainly, let’s stop – for this little debate to be worth continuing, we’d need to start talking about specific cases and specific explanations.

    I’m not sure civility is always a desirable quality in public debate (precisely because I don’t think there’s anything like ‘reflective equilibrium’ or ‘ideal speech’ to do a disservice [odd word that, in the history of rhetoric…] to). Civility (or the ‘shallow husk of politeness’ as I think Westermarck called it) is just one among many styles of rhetoric, the function of which varies historically. (Was Hume considered civil in his day? Not by all, for sure. As for Nietzsche: one man’s poison…)

    I don’t think it’s unfair (or indeed ‘easy’ as you put it above) to put belief in unicorns in the same category as belief in a god. It actually requires a fairly sophisticated analysis to see that they’re both violations of expectations associated with ordinary ontological categories (PERSON and ANIMAL) . We should certainly try to explain the difference in their popularity: why does the ‘god’ concept seem to have spread better than ‘unicorn’? There are various reasons why this could be, not least that a counter-intuitively powerful person, as opposed to a counter-physiologically endowed animal, is much more useful for imposing and sustaining particular kinds of social arrangement. People are interested in ideas that more obviously relate to themselves, and there’s a greater incentive for imaginative people to invent concepts that help them manipulate this. (I’m ripping-off Boyer a bit here.) This begins to “to account for [the] full phenomenology” of one particular “normative”, “transcendental” concept: what it’s like to have the concept and be involved in the forms of life associated with it is exactly what explains its cultural survival.

  12. I think we must agree to differ on (a) the form of debate generally (I think you are badly mistaken to think that civility is not essential in public debate, and (b) the content of our specific debate (I remain of the view that to equate belief in God or the transcendent generally with the absurd belief in unicorns, is palpably unfair, as well as false). Maybe you could get your library to get my book, and we could revisit the problem of normativity at a later date. (I sent my author copies to Jurgen Habermas, Julian Assange, me mum, etc.)

    • I remain unclear about quite why you think it’s ‘unfair’ or ‘false’ to analyse similar psychological processes (with radically different social outcomes) in the same way. And the same goes for your insistence on ‘civility’. You’ve not argued for either of these thoughts (which is fine, in one way, but it doesn’t give me any reason to share them). But yes, let’s stop.

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