Back in January, Nick wrote a post arguing that questions of ontology and questions of politics should be sharply delimited. Nick’s controversial thesis– which looks obvious to me –is that ontological and metaphysical questions should not be decided by political considerations, nor do ontologies entail any particular politics. In my book, Difference and Givenness, I groped towards something similar without quite being able to put my finger on the problem. One of my great discontents with so much of the secondary literature on Deleuze was that it seemed to decide ontological and epistemic questions on normative grounds, rather than grounds internal to their theoretical coherence and adequacy. Thus you’ll come across books and articles that denounce Kant or Hegel because they are “State Thinkers”, but what does being a State Thinker have to do with the adequacy of Kant or Hegel’s metaphysics or epistemology?

In the spirit of Hume’s famous Is-Ought Fallacy where ethical reasoning encounters a logical leap when it attempts to derive an “ought” from an “is”, it seems worthwhile to coin a converse fallacy called the “Normative Fallacy”. The Normative Fallacy would occur wherever one seeks to either discount or infer an “is” from an “ought”. To be clear, one is not committing the Normative Fallacy when they judge some state of affairs as being unjust or unethical. If this is not an instance of the Normative Fallacy, then this is because the person is not denying the existence of what is, but rather arguing that things should be otherwise. This is perfectly legitimate and is operative in nearly all our reasoning about the world insofar as we must perpetually think in terms of potentialities in order to reason about anything at all.

read on!

The Normative Fallacy occurs, rather, when someone attempts to argue that something is not the case or is the case based on a set of ideological, ethical, moral, political, or other normative commitments. I often sense this sort of reasoning at work in some appropriations of Foucault, though generally it takes the form of an enthymeme. Foucault, in his later work, shows how certain formations of knowledge in the human science are products of power. From this it often occurs that the person infers that these formations of knowledge are not, in fact, instances of knowledge but merely “power structures”. The missing or unstated premise is that if knowledge is based on power it must necessarily be illegitimate or untrue. Because power is [implicitly] held to be “reprehensible” or “unjust”, it is concluded that anything based on power must not be. But clearly this does not follow.

More recently, here on this blog, the Normative Fallacy reared its head around discussions of Catherine Malabou’s engagement with neurology and with respect to discussions of pharmaceuticals. In the case of Catherine Malabou, it was strongly implied that because she shows an ideology at work in neurology, neurology must be false or a sort of illusion. However, it is difficult to see why the fact that contemporary business models as analyzed by Boltanski and Chiapello are non-linear, non-hierarchialized networks undermines the claim that synapses are plastic and behave in a particular way. Likewise, it is difficult to see how the use and prescription of psychotropics is an instance of neo-liberal ideology has anything to do with the efficacy of these drugs. The point isn’t that neurology has gotten it right with respect to the nature of synapses or that psychotropics are indeed efficacious. Neurology might very well be wrong and psychotropics might very well be no efficacious than placebos (the research indicates the latter), though placebos are a lot more interesting than we ever imagined (via Nick at Speculative Heresy). The point is that the normative does not tell us what is and is not. Rather, if we are to demonstrate these sorts of things we need a different style of argument that matches “is” with “is”, showing how these claims are mistaken.