latourTom of Grundledung writes a terrific response to my perplexity regarding issues of normativity. As Tom writes:

When normativity has come up in relation to discussions of speculative realism and OOP, it is usually metanormative issues which are in play. Metanormative questions concern the nature of first-order normativity. For example: Do ethical arguments presuppose facts about rightness
independent of how we think, feel or act? What is it for a belief to be justified — being formed through a reliable process, the consent of a community, conformity to the canons of scientific methodology, endorsement by an ideal observer, or something else? Does it even make sense to say we ought to act or think in a certain way? Or even ‘ Is not the normative theorist ultimately making a causal claim or a claim about what would be the case if only people assented to these things?’ (And to which I think the answer is ‘No!’, but that’s a debate for another day.) Asking these sorts of question need not peg someone as a moralist, although many people have been suspicious of the idea that normative and metanormative inquiry can go on entirely separately.

Deontologist makes a similar point, clarifying the issue further:

I think the best point that can be made here is that there is more to normativity than ethical normativity. There is at least also rational normativity, which is prior to, and a necessary condition of, anything like ethical normativity. I would claim that it is indeed impossible to coherently deny the force of rational normativity. Regardless of the specific content of the fundamental norms of rationality (though we could suggest, for instance, the obligation to divest oneself of incompatible commitments), one must acknowledge that if one is engaged in an argument, then one is bound by norms which determine how the argument should take place, and that they are the same norms that one’s interlocutor is bound by. To put it another way, one may at time make claims like ‘well, I just use the word ‘justice” differently from you, but one cannot claim ‘I just argue differently than you do’.

This fact testifies to the binding character of certain fundamental norms that we implicitly acknowledge insofar as we engage in discourse at all. Some, myself included, think that this provides the possibility of a foundational approach in philosophy, in which deontology is indeed prior to ontology, grounded in that which none of us can deny insofar as we want to say anything at all. Whether or not such fundamental deontology can be extended beyond the theoretical into the realm of the practical and thus the ethical (as discourse ethicists like Habermas and Apel have attempted) is another matter.

In his post, Tom goes on to situate these concerns in the context of debates surrounding speculative realism:

I think some of the suspicion concerning new forms of realism in continental philosophy arises from either its seeming lack of concern with these questions or its giving a nihilistic dismissal of them (e.g. Brassier — though I wish his book wasn’t so expensive so I could actually read all the details).

This is particularly pressing insofar as many people (like Asher Kay above) think that metanormative questions are prior to metaphysical ones. The thought here is that all inquiry implicitly assumes some standards which inquirers treat as demonstrating whether they are making progress. (This is, of course, not to say that they need a whole epistemology before they start: there does not have to be any ‘knowing before one knows’ as Hegel puts it.) I think the worry would be that the new realisms have not indicated how they will vindicate any such standards, even in the long run. The more eliminativist strands of SR in particular, with their sparser versions of materialism, may have trouble in doing this — in denying any robust ethical normativity, they may cut off the branch they are sitting on in respect of the theoretical norms required to articulate and assess their own position.

Previously, you’ve have set out what you’ve called a correlationist ethical approach, which joins a venerable tradition of ethical anti-realism. One question would be whether this is consistent with your ontology, where the propspects seems far rosier in light of the ontological pluralism of onticology. So, I think you’re in a more secure position than Brassier (and perhaps also Nick Srnicek) on this one.

I think Tom is right about eliminativist strains of speculative realism. If flat ontology is anything, then it is a pluralistic ontology that refuses sortings of the “really real” and the human, instead affirming only a single plane consisting of the world among which humans and human productions are counted as well. In this regard, I’ve come to shift my position with regard to Meillassoux’s sorting of the world into primary and secondary qualities as a result of my encounter with Latour and his understanding of “collectives” of which I hope to write more in the near future. Following Latour, what is to be avoided or overcome is the modernist move of sorting the world into two absolutely distinct ontological realms wherein the first consists of a closed totality of natural objects governed by nothing but causal relationships, and the second consists of a completely self-enclosed world of the human consisting of language, signs, norms, autonomy, minds, and so on. In place of this, Latour proposes a single plane consisting of collectives of both humans and nonhumans.

My apologies for the brief, impressionistic and overly quotational nature of this post. I’m in a hurry to get to the college and wanted to get my thoughts out before heading to the office. Three more or less interrelated issues concern me in Tom and Deontologist’s characterization of normativity. First, in describing the deontological as a condition for the ontological, normative approaches seem to be the mirror image of the reductivism they criticize in the eliminativist. Where the eliminativist is guilty of grounding everything in material reality, the normative approach is guilty of grounding everything in normativity. This repeats the modernist move of dividing the world into two entirely distinct ontological realms. The thesis that ontology is grounded in deontology strikes me as no more desirable than the thesis that deontology is grounded in [materialist] ontology. In both cases one ends up affirming a dualistic ontology and one is simply granting primacy to one or the other side of the divide. Second, and in a related vein, the manner in which the distinction between facts and values operates in these discussions also repeats this ontological divide. Value gets thought as a realm entirely independent of fact, such that facts can have no bearing or impact on issues of value. Again the point here is not to reduce values to facts, but rather to think collectives on a single ontological plane. To what degree is it possible to think of values emerging out of facts?

Finally third, whenever, after the fashion of Habermas or Brandom, one evokes the notion of norms implicit in practice, I find myself getting nervous because the implicit thesis seems to be that these norms are a priori in the robust sense of being fully formed and constituted, and therefore lacking in genesis. Here, perhaps, I am being unfair or do not understand what it is that these theorists are claiming, but rather than seeing norms as implicit in practice in the sense of “already being there”, it seems to me more desirable to treat, to take Brandom’s expression, the activity of “making things explicit” as instead being an activity of genesis where the norms are not already there and operative, but rather where we are actually creating norms governing inquiry through the activity of attempting to render them explicit. Just as the novel is not “already there”, fully blown and constituted, in the novelists mind when he sets out to write it but is rather constituted in the activity of making it explicit, so too would norms not be “already there” fully constituted, but would undergo a constitution in the process of being collectively articulated and debated. The appeal to norms would not be an appeal to a priori universals in a sort of “deep structure” that we all already employ without knowing it, but would instead be moves in collective debate wherein these norms come-to-be. When articulated a sort of optical illusion would get produced wherein it seems as if norms were always already there, in much the same way that the novelist experiences the final result of his written novel as always already having been in him. Accusations of nihilism aside, I think this is part of the greatness of Nietzsche and Freud. They recognized that norms do not fall from the sky like eternal and unchanging Platonic forms, but that they must be the result of a genesis. We might disagree with the details of their particular stories as to how certain norms came to be constituted, but the recognition that the issue of normativity should be approached within the framework of a genetic approach strikes me as the right way to go. Alright, it’s time for me to scoot.