Normativity and Ontology

I seem to have gotten quite a lot of traffic over the last few days, so thankyou to all of you taking time to visit. I must break my promises again, and write about something entirely different to what I have so far suggested. Someone pointed me in the direction of the Grundlegung blog (now linked in the sidebar), which I’m finding very interesting. It’s nice to see someone else interested in contemporary ontology and the philosophy of normativity at the same time. Specifically, I was very interested by his musings on how to reconcile a univocal account of Being and  the essentially normative character of rationality/subjectivity. This seems to be an ongoing discussion with Levi at LarvalSubjects (now also linked in the sidebar) to which I chipped in a little bit. I have promise to chip in more however, and so I’m going to try and explain the outlines of my own work on the relation between normativity and ontology. This also expands on a discussion I was having with Ray Brassier at the last speculative realism conference, about how to reconcile the normativity of thought with ontology.

Coming out of the discussion between Tom and Levi, there seem to be three major issues that need to be addressed:-

1) In what sense is the philosophy of normativity (or deontology) prior to, or foundational for, ontology?

2) If we understand subjects as uniquely normative, how can we reconcile this with a univocal ontology in which no kind of being has any ontological privilege?

3) If ontology is somehow grounded in the normative, how do we account for the ontological status of norms, and how do we avoid the same problems vis a vis univocity?

The first question can be dealt with on its own, and will set up the resources for dealing with the other two questions. I will deal with it in this post. The latter two questions need to be answered through roughly the same framework, and although I will gesture towards the way in which they must be answered here, I will try to provide a more satisfying answer in a subsequent post.

1. Fundamental Norms

As I started to explain in my comment on Levi’s blog, there is a certain kind of norm that we are all bound by insofar as we want to engage in discourse at all. We might call these the fundamental norms of rationality. These are the norms which actually describe the process of making claims, and giving and asking for reasons for those claims, in short, the process of reasoning as such. We can offer certain simple examples of such norms, such as ‘One should divest oneself of incompatible commitments’, or ‘One must demonstrate entitlement to any commitment that is appropriately challenged’, although it must be noted that these norms are not really intelligible in isolation from their place in the set of rational norms (for instance, what a commitment is, what incompatibility is, and what constitutes an appropriate challenge are all determined by further norms).

The binding character of these norms can be demonstrated by that fact that we cannot coherently argue about whether we are indeed bound by such norms. There are certain non-fundamental norms involved in argument, such as those governing the usage of particular terms (e.g., ‘justice’) that we can disavow in the course of an argument. So, if we have an argument over whether a particular act is just, there may come a point at which I say something like ‘I just use the word ‘justice’ differently from you’, thereby claiming that we are bound by different norms governing the use of the word, albeit it that in my case the authority over the applicability of the norm rests solely with myself. This is a frustrating move in argument, but a legitimate one. It also effectively ends the argument, unless we can find different grounds to argue on, by, for instance, by breaking down our opposing definitions about what constitutes ‘justice’ and then arguing over whether the act meets the various conditions specified. What is interesting is that we cannot make this kind of move in relation to the norms of argument. We may indeed argue over the precise content of the norms of argument (‘I think ANY challenge obliges someone to demonstrate entitlement’, ‘Whereas I think that a challenge must meet certain conditions to have that force’, etc.), and we may argue over how they should be applied in a given case (‘Your challenge isn’t legitimate’, ‘Yes it is’, etc.), but one can never coherently make a claim of the form ‘I just argue in a different way than you do’, i.e., one can never claim to be bound by a different set of norms of argument than one’s interlocutor.

I’m provisionally calling this the primary bind. It is the fact that we are bound by the fundamental norms of rationality insofar as we engage in discourse at all (implicit in this is the Brandomian claim that there is no discourse without the potential for reasoning). One could potentially abandon such norms, but one could only do it by becoming entirely irrational, by becoming such that we could not legitimately ascribe contentful beliefs to you.

The crucial idea that follows from this is a Brandomian/Kantian one: that what it is to be a subject is to be rational, i.e., to be bound by the fundamental norms of rationality. The subject is (just as the Kantian transcendental subject) just the unity of its responsibility in relation to such norms (which are analogous to Kant’s categories, as the fundamental rules governing cognition). The additional Kantian point is that the subject is only insofar as it binds itself to these norms, insofar as it makes itself responsible for its actions in accordance with them. However, one can only be responsible, i.e., one can only bind oneself to other norms, insofar as one is bound to the fundamental norms of rationality. This is to say that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality. This parallels the transcendental subject in Kant, which is just the unity of its binding itself to the categories. It is a kind of immaculate conception of both normativity and subjectivity. I’ll leave this point for now, as it isn’t well developed enough.

Moving on, what we can see here is the potential for a kind of metadiscourse that can come before all other discourses. This is that discourse in which the very structure of discourse itself is at stake, the argument regarding the structure of argument itself. No philosophical position (not even Hegel’s) can absolve itself from engagement in this discourse. This metadiscourse must of course be approached in a rigorous way, with a maximally critical methodology. I won’t go into that in full detail here (this will have to wait for another post at a later date), but we can gesture in the direction of what it would look like. What we require is something analogous to Husserlian phenomenology, but without its concern with givenness. Instead of bracketing the holding of any particular evidence, in order to get to the structure of evidence itself, we must bracket the holding of any claims, in order to get to the structure of claiming itself. This is to do for Pyrrhonian skepticism what Husserl took himself to do to Cartesian skepticism. Importantly however, the structure that is to be uncovered is a normative structure. The claims which cannot be bracketed are claims about what we are obliged and permitted to do in a discursive context.

2. Deontology and Ontology

What then does this have to do with ontology? Well, if my above claim is correct, we at least can engage in this metadiscourse prior to engaging in any ontology, both because ontology would fall within that which is bracketed out in such metadiscourse, and because one cannot legitimately opt-out of such metadiscourse. This does not yet show that we must engage in it prior to ontology. It does not show that we need to do deontology before ontology.

However, we must consider what ontology demands of us. This I believe is still Heidegger’s greatest insight at the beginning of Being and Time: we must formulate the question of the meaning of Being, so that we know what it demands of us, before we make any claims about the nature of Being. If we are to do ontology, it must be methodologically sound. I have many disagreements with Heidegger, but he has two great sub-points in his discussion of how to formulate the question of Being:-

1) In order to formulate the question of the meaning of Being, we must understand the structure of questioning as such, so that we can grasp what is distinctive about the structure of the question.

2) In virtue of a preliminary analysis of questioning, we know that there must be some pre-ontological understanding of Being which orients our inquiry into the meaning of Being.

On the first point, my most important disagreement with Heidegger is that I believe that we cannot understand questioning in isolation from discourse, and thus from reasoning. Whereas Heidegger takes the inquiry into the structure of questioning proper (as opposed to his preliminary analysis in the introduction) to be the inquiry into the Being of the questioner (Dasein), and thus to be co-extensive with the existential analytic, I take it that the inquiry into the structure of questioning is the uncovering of the fundamental norms of rational discourse, i.e., it is just part of the metadiscourse I have been talking about.

On the second point, where Heidegger and I are in fundamental agreement is that the inquiry into the meaning of Being proceeds in two stages: the explication of the pre-ontological understanding of Being, and then its hermeneutic elaboration into a proper account of Being as it is in itself. For Heidegger, the existential analytic plays the role of explicating the pre-ontological understanding of Being, because such understanding just consists in Dasein’s disclosedness (the complete intertwined set of existential structures), and the hermeneutic elaboration of this was meant to be Divison 3 of Part 1 of Being and Time (Time and Being), which was of course never published. My disagreement with Heidegger here is that I take the explication of the pre-ontological understanding of Being to be the explication of the fundamental norms of rationality, and that the interpretation of the meaning of Being proper (ontology) proceeds on the basis of this.

The important thesis is thus this: our pre-ontological understanding of Being consists in our implicit grasp of the fundamental norms governing discourse.

I imagine that this claim will seem quite strange to a lot of people. However, I’ll attempt to very briefly show why it isn’t so strange. The question of the meaning of Being can be interpreted (as Heidegger himself does in his lectures on Aristotle) as the question of the unity of the various ways in which ‘Being’ is said. Heidegger does not explicitly take up the question in this way in Being and Time, or anywhere else for that matter, as it would involve doing what Aristotle did, namely, providing an exhaustive list of the different senses of ‘Being’ and then attempting to understand their interrelation. There are places where Heidegger provides indications that he is attempting to unify various senses of ‘Being’, but he never provides us with anything like an exhaustive list, nor does he proceed through an attempt to work out the interrelations of such a list (the place where he gets closest to this is probably Basic Problems of Phenomenology).

However, we can put forward what I believe is a good list of the senses of ‘Being’, which is quite different from Aristotle’s: identity (‘a is b’), predication (‘a if F’), essence (‘a just is F’), existence (‘a is’), truth (‘p is the case’), and the slightly more controversial sense, which I’m still trying to find a good name for (‘world’, seems wrong, as does ‘absolute’, ‘universe’, ‘the true’ or any of the other classic alternatives), which is equivalent to the totality of what is true, very simply, ‘what is the case’. You might disagree with this list, and indeed there are good questions about how one picks such an exhaustive list, which I won’t tackle here. What is important is that if we accept that at least some of these are the problematic senses of ‘Being’, the underlying unifying structure of which must be uncovered, then we can begin to see why our pre-ontological understanding of Being would consist in our implicit grasp of the norms of discourse. It is within our implicit grasp of the norms of discourse that our grasp of the purely formal structures of identity, predication, existence and truth consist (and less obviously essence and ‘what is the case’).

This identification of the pre-ontological understanding with a grasp of the formal structures of discourse should not be taken to imply a Quinean formalism with regard to Being. I do not think that there is nothing more to Being than the existential quantifier (or the other aspects of symbolic logic). Far from it. Those who’ve read any of the blog already will know I have a profound sympathy for high metaphysics, specifically, for Deleuze’s metaphysics. Nonetheless, it is the elaboration of this purely formal understanding which places constraints on the way in which we develop a contentful account of Being.

The proposal is thus as follows: by performing a kind of fundamental deontology, we uncover the fundamental norms of rational discourse, these norms at once explicate both the structure of normativity as such, the structure of the pre-ontological understanding of Being required to inquire into the structure of Being itself, and the structure of the inquiry itself (i.e., of ontology as a discourse).

3. A Strategy for Handling Questions 2&3

To understand how we answer the additional questions it is important to understand one way in which my above proposal differs from that of Heidegger. Heidegger assumes that the capacity to question, and the pre-ontological understanding which comes along with it, consists in the peculiar kind of Being of a particular being (Dasein). This is why both the inquiry into the structure of questioning and the explication of the pre-ontological understanding of Being are both carried out by the existential analytic of Dasein, i.e., by the inquiry into that peculiar kind of Being. Heidegger’s account of Being is thus doomed to equivocity from the start, because for him there are already two distinct kinds of Being (existence and extance), or two different ways in which Being is said of beings.

It is important to note that my proposal does not make any similar such move. The fundamental deontology I propose is not equated with an account of the Being of subjectivity, or of normativity for that matter (be it of the subjects of norms or the norms themselves). For this reasons I take it to be methodologically purer than Heidegger’s approach, because it does not make any ontological assumptions prior to engaging in ontology. This is not to say that it mandates univocity, but rather that from this standpoint it is indifferent. In the course of the inquiry into Being, Being may turn out to be univocal or equivocal.

The strategy that I intend to adopt for answering questions 2&3, is to push the fact that deontology makes no ontological claims further, and to claim that in fact, subjects and norms have no Being. This is a peculiar way of answering Levi’s worry about the dominance of deontology over ontology. He thinks that giving grounding ontology in normativity requires that we thus give norms some ontological privilege, which conflicts with univocity. In response to this, it is my claim that the privilege is not ontological but methodological, and that it is a privilege that comes from the norms themselves. We are obliged to do deontology before ontology, but we are likewise obliged to treat norms as having no Being, or as pseudo-beings. However, this is not to claim that there are then no legitimate questions are to how norms are manifest in the world (in real beings), or how this manifestation is generated. It is simply to say that there is no illuminating ontological answer to the question “What are norms?”, the answer can only come in the form of a description in the ways we are obliged to talk about norms and act in relation to them, i.e., an answer which is itself in normative terms.

Hope this is of interest, I’ll try to expand on this strategy soon. I actually had about 3,000 words written on it, but decided it needs reworking and I needed to put down some of this background information first. Anyway, happy criticizing!

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

10 thoughts on “Normativity and Ontology”

  1. Wow, this is really interesting. I don’t agree with all of it (normativity before ontology? bah!), but I do like all of it. That being said, the idea that there’s a methodological primacy, rather than an ontological primacy, and that norms have no being, is really intriguing, and I’m interested to see you explicate it in the future!

  2. Pete, I hope you don’t mind if I comment as I read your back-catalogue, so to speak? If you do – which would be totally fair – I can save it all up for a huge note-taking post, which you can then ignore or attend to as you please. For now though…

    One should divest oneself of incompatible commitments

    How do you respond to something like the famous quote from Whitman’s Song of Myself?

    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

  3. A related question: what if it is part of the nature of human subjectivity to have incompatible commitments – what if this is intrinsic to the nature of the beast, and we cannot divest ourselves of this quality without divesting ourselves of, so to speak, ourselves.

  4. Hi Duncan,

    I don’t mind you commenting as you read, feel free! Just bare in mind that I might not be prompt in my responses. On this topic of incompatible commitments, it’s handy to remember that one *can* have incompatible commitments, and one *can* even refuse to divest oneself of them, but one *shouldn’t* in either case. It’s important to bare in mind here that there are consequences of failing to divest oneself of incompatible commitments. In Brandomian terms, if someone is committed to two incompatible claims, we must preclude them from being entitled (i.e., justified in holding) either, and thus preclude them from being entitled to any claims that are based upon them. This is a matter of what Brandom calls discursive scorekeeping.

    Now I’m actually with Brandom in thinking that we will always discover that the commitments that constitute the content of our concepts imply contradictions, and thus the process of divesting ourselves of contradictory commitments (insofar as this is concomitant with the process of inquiry or the acquisition of new commitments) is never ending. Nonetheless, I don’t think this has anything to do with the nature of ‘the beast’. As I’ve been trying to argue, the structure of rationality is not an empirical matter (and the capacities required for rationality are multiply realisable), and this is a matter of the structure of rationality itself. It is of course possible that we could systematically err in following rational norms because of some in built mechanism, but I don’t think this is a serious problem for my position.

    If you’re interested in Brandom’s ideas about contradiction, read this paper he wrote about Hegel:

    I highly recommend the paper. It’s not a complete view, but I’m very tempted by it.

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