Normativity


It appears that I’m having trouble falling asleep this evening, which isn’t good as I have to be up early. In response to my last post, Tom of Grundledung was kind enough to remind me of a post I wrote nearly a year ago on the issue of normativity. On the one hand, I’m pleased by this post as it seems that my thoughts have been fairly consistent on these issues since they last flared up. On the other hand, as I review Tom and Pete’s comments, I find myself even more perplexed and wonder if we aren’t just talking about entirely distinct issues (i.e., talking past one another).

In a passage I quote in the post from last year, Pete writes:

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.

I find myself grumbling a bit at Pete’s these that argument is necessarily grounded in certain norms. While I share with Pete a commitment to the principle of non-contradiction and identity, I also believe that we should look to rhetoric and how real life arguments function when raising this sort of question. The rhetoricians, I think, would have a very different perspective on this issue. With that said, I’m willing to follow him here.

For me the problems emerge when Pete asserts that deontology (and again, is this a specific Kantian reference or is “deontology” being used in a broader sense with which I’m not familiar) is indeed prior to ontology. What exactly is being claimed or asserted here? Is Pete making the claim that certain normative commitments are prior to inquiry, or is Pete making the claim that normativity is prior to being. These two claims are very different and have very different implications. If the former, then I don’t think the speculative realist, of whatever stripe, really has much of a dispute with Pete. Such a thesis doesn’t, I would think, commit one to correlationism or undermine realism. The realist here, I think, can simply shrug his or her shoulders and say “sure, there are norms that govern inquiry.”

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Over at Poetix Dominic has an interesting post up responding to Pete’s recent discussion of normativity over at Speculative Heresy. Dominic writes:

The crux here seems to be that “man” is not in himself a normal animal: normative accounts of human being are best taken as descriptions of the commitments we make to ourselves and others as preconditions for various kinds of social being, and the capacity to bear such norms is rather haphazardly instantiated in our animal selfhood.

This split between the normed human being and the ab-normal human animal plays out in Badiou, for example, as a tension between the “de-subjectivising” pull of egoic self-interest and the possibility of constructing a political “subject” which affirms (or “verifies”) egalitarian norms. But there’s a problem here: egoic self-interest is arguably also a normed expression of human being – neo-liberalism explicitly affirms it as a norm, as a precondition for higher forms of social organisation (e.g. those based on competitive markets). The conflict between Badiou’s ethical “good” (tenacity in the construction of truths) and “evil” (de-subjectivation, the saggy victory of the flesh) can be seen as a conflict between rival normative commitments rather than between committed and uncommitted being as such. What Rowan Williams calls the “false anthropology” of neo-liberalism does not merely declare, in social Darwinist fashion, that human beings are intrinsically self-seeking creatures: it also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.

There’s a good deal more in Dominic’s post, especially with respect to heteronormativity and discussions of heterosexuality coming out of the Christian Right, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular as I think it represents something that is truncated or underdetermined within the framework of critiques of neo-liberal capitalism. While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology.

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Seventy more essays to grade and a mind that has been reduced to mush as a result of reading student writing. At least I’m finally making some progress in the face of the pile of grading that’s been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.

As I reflect on a number of debates surrounding Speculative Realism and, in particular, its object-oriented variant, it seems to me that a few distinctions haunt all of these discussions, rendering them very difficult. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of me venting frustration at the tendency for any evocation of realism to be understood in terms of representational and epistemological realism, Melanie– who always sees what I need to see but am not yet ready to see –asked if this is a battle that I really want to fight again and again, a point that I endlessly want to reiterate with each new audience I encounter. She has a point. And as Graham suggested a while back– I can’t find the original post now –perhaps the term “realism” has outworn its usefulness. Given the historical resonances this term has, the question arises as to whether this term doesn’t obscure more than it illuminates. The problem is that I’m not really sure what to replace it with.

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Over at Deontologistics Pete has written a massive post outlining his position on normative theory and deontological moral theory and responding to some of what he takes to be my position on these issues. Given the length of the post and the fact that I am currently drowning in grading, it is unlikely that I will be able to address it for some time. In our last discussion Pete criticized me for not addressing all of his posts. With posts this lengthy, however, it is difficult to respond completely in a reasonable fashion. Perhaps it would be better to divide such posts into series so specific points can be more readily responded to. This aside, I will make a couple of points.

First, in glancing over Pete’s posts and reflecting on other comments Pete’s made, I get these sense that we’re using the term “deontology” differently. Pete seems to use the term generically to refer to any discourse having to do with norms. I get the sense that this is what allows Pete to characterize my rejections of deontological norm based systems as a rejection of norms tout court. I, however, use the term “deontology” in a highly specific fashion. In my view– and hopefully I’ll be forgiven for putting it crudely as I’m currently on the fly –a deontological ethical system is any ethical system that 1) carefully distinguishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, 2) holds that norms must be a priori and universally binding for all times and places, and 3) holds that we must ignore any considerations pertaining to the pathological or being when engaging in normative deliberation. By the “pathological”, I am not referring to mental illness, but to the Greek sense of “pathos“, or anything pertaining to bodily passions, inclinations, preferences, or affects. For example, from a deontological perspective I take it that considerations of whether or not someone is your brother are irrelevant to questions of whether or not this person should be reported to the police for committing a crime. Any affection or family bonds (pathological considerations) I might have towards my brother are, from a deontological perspective, irrelevant to the course of action that ought to be taken in this situation. Nor am I necessarily in disagreement here. I only give this example to illustrate the idea of pathological motivations.

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I’m feeling pretty demoralized this evening, so the only thing to do is try and distract myself so I don’t have to think about things.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about transcendental arguments and their status. I have written this post a few times already in the past, but like a person working through a trauma who must repeat it endlessly in the form of nightmares or neurotic symptoms, I believe I must go over this ground once again. And if I must repeat, then this is because I am myself a reformed transcendental idealist who must therefore marshal arguments convincing to myself. In many respects, the transcendental argument is Kant’s central contribution to thought, his ultimate secret ninja judo move. Outside of philosophy I get the sense that there’s a lot of confusion as to what a transcendental argument is. I often hear it confused with an appeal to the transcendent. However, in many respects, the transcendent and the transcendental are opposites. When we appeal to, for example, Platonic forms to account for justice or to God to account for moral laws we are making an appeal to the transcendent or that which is beyond and independent of both the world and the subject or mind. Take the standard Platonic argument for the existence of the forms (and here I’m presenting a vulgar, cereal box version of Plato).

The argument runs something like this: When faced with all the the things to which justice pertains, we note that they are very different and share no resemblance to one another. For example, in what way do serving one’s function within the polis and getting a coke out of a coke machine when you put a dollar in the machine resemble one another. Both of these events are instances of justice, yet when we examine the properties or qualities of these events, we find no quality shared by the two. Similarly, when we enter into debates and discussions about justice, we seem to all approach justice in different ways. However, apart from the crassest Protagorean relativist, we all nonetheless agree that while we might not know what it is, there is a truth of the matter or fact of the matter concerning justice. In short, justice is not simply a subjective sentiment or opinion, but something real that exists in its own right. But what is this real thing that exists in its own right? Plato’s proposal is that the just is a form, a universal, that exists in its own right, independent of all instances of the just and all opinions about the just. The form of the just is ideal, but its ideality is not a subjective ideality. Indeed, as Derrida likes to point out, the ideal is the most objective of all. It is neither an object in the world (a material object), nor an idea in the mind (a subjective entity), but an ideal entity that is entirely real, eternal, universal, and so on. For Plato, even if all humans ceased to exist, even if there were no individual objects in the world, the form of the just would continue to exist for all eternity. The forms are thus transcendent to subjects and objects. They are the most real things of all.

read on because having arguments for abstruse and abstract issues is concretely important!
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Jodi Dean has a couple of absolutely chilling posts up on plutonomy (here and here). I don’t know what is more harrowing and depressing here: The fact that the document Jodi links to reads like a mad scientist version of Marxist thought that uses analysis of the structuration of our contemporary situation not as a means for emancipation and developing alternatives but to even more effectively exploit us, or the poster that responds to the Citigroup document by pointing out that it contains bad grammar, that the author is stupid, and that they’re just “wicked”. I don’t find the author of the document particularly stupid– in fact the bits Jodi cites strike me as uncanny and frightening and inverted doubles of something one might find in a “radical political theory” journal or book –rather, what is so upsetting about the document is how clear sighted the author is about the economic structuration of our moment and all the injustices it contains.

Rather than seeing this as impetus for emancipation, the author instead sees it as opportunity for even more effective exploitation. What does strike me as stupid is the idea that somehow suggesting the author of this document is stupid and wicked constitutes an adequate response to such reasoning. The author of this piece is obviously what Zizek characterized as a “knave” or someone who cynically serves the ends of dominant power. The person that denounces such reasoning on abstract normative grounds is clearly the leftist fool that believes he’s won some sort of important victory when secretly not holding the testicles of the lord that claims the right to prima nachte as he rapes the serf’s wife on the dusty road and commands her husband to hold his balls as he does so. The leftist fool thinks he’s here gotten away with some radical victory after not preventing the lord’s testicles from getting dusty as commanded. Unfortunately, his wife has still been raped.

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Reflecting on the normativity debates that have been waging recently, I’ve increasingly found myself thinking of Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”:

As I try to put my finger on just why transcendentalist positions cause me so much uneasiness (as well as certain ways of modeling truth and inquiry), the association that comes to mind is that of wanting one’s “money for nothing”. To get money, of course, one must work in some way. That is, acquiring money has a thermodynamic dimension that requires work, labor, and friction with a world independent of us. Indeed, this is true even of counterfeit money that requires all sorts of labor to be produced. “Money for nothing” would be the fantasy of a production of value in a frictionless universe that requires no expenditure of energy, nor any engagement with resistance to produce itself.

Perhaps the clearest symptoms that transcendent and transcendentalist accounts of normativity want their money for nothing are to be found in the vigorous defense of the is/ought distinction, the imprisonment of normativity in a transcendental subject completely independent of the body, the world and society, or the imprisonment of norms either in the mind of God or in a Platonic realm of the forms. In all these cases, transcendentalist (Kantian and post-Kantian) and transcendent (Platonic and theistic) construct a theory of normativity that carefully divorces norms from thermodynamic questions of work and labor. By taking the norms out of the world and treating them as non-existent yet nonetheless binding, transcendental approaches carefully separate normativity from the frictions of the world.

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