Nature, Ends, Normativity

From an Aristotelian point of view, the works of nature result from an ordering of ends. In modern terms, nature for Aristotle is not “value free”, and I take this to be a good thing. But from a strict Kantian point of view, we are the bearers of value, and the attribution of ends to nature independent of us is only a kind of beneficial heuristic projection. But if we radicalize the Kantian primacy of practical reason in the way that Brandom sees Hegel as doing, then all our theoretical accounts of nature, including those commonly regarded as value-free — and everything else we think, feel, and do — ultimately have a dependency on our inquiries into value and normativity.

From a Kantian point of view, our only access to objective nature is through our rational, discursive understanding. The very objectivity we attribute to nature depends on the objectivity of our understanding of it. Objectivity itself is a normative attitude. I think Kant and Aristotle ultimately agree in recognizing that we don’t have direct access to how things are in themselves, and that how things are in themselves is always a matter of discursive inference, in which the last word is never said.

Hegel emphasizes that the objectivity of understanding we achieve in this way is not a private possession, but something larger than us in which we participate. (See also Hegels’ Preface; Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot; Adverbial Otherness; Time and Eternity in Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True.)

Legal Uses of “Cause”

According to Wikipedia, two main kinds of “cause” are used in (U.S.) legal assessments of liability: cause-in-fact and proximate cause. A cause-in-fact is anything without which something would not have happened. The same event could clearly have multiple causes-in-fact. Cause-in-fact is a necessary but not sufficient condition for proving proximate cause. Proximate causation involves the additional element that the causing event be sufficiently related to the injury for the courts to consider it “the” cause of the injury for purposes of liability. I think it serves effectively as a kind of model for talk about “the” cause of something in general.

The notion of proximate cause seems close to the naive notion of cause that Russell wanted to remind us plays no role in modern science, and at the same time to the intuition of causal efficacy that Whitehead took to be involved in the common-sense apprehension of medium-sized wholes. I have associated both of these with what I have called “causality in the modern sense”. Proximate causes differ from these insofar as the law is only concerned with the proximate causes of particular events or states of affairs, whereas Russell and Whitehead were both concerned with what are taken to be repeatable cases of causal efficacy.

It is important to point out that the notion of proximate cause is explicitly tied to questions of legal liability. In the wake of Kant and Brandom, it should not be surprising to find that more generally, the descriptive “causality in the modern sense” that allows us to reductively talk about “the” cause of something has this close connection to considerations of blame and culpability. Similarly, Aristotle’s “categories” are etymologically kinds of accusations, and Locke spoke of the person as a “forensic” concept.

Ethical Practice

In Kant, practical means ethical. This initially seemed counter-intuitive to me. Like many, I used to think of the “practical” in technical and utilitarian terms, as how we realize desired results. I also used to think considerations of value needed to be guided by considerations of truth, and that pursuing the truth far enough and sincerely enough would spontaneously provide sufficient answers to ethical questions. I would no longer put it that way. I now think that the pursuit of truth, taken far enough, shows things to be “normative all the way down”, in Brandom’s phrase. Even the most narrowly technical considerations ultimately involve questions of value. Conversely, inquiry into values is the one kind of inquiry that need not presuppose any other.

Ethics are not a spontaneous byproduct of inquiry into the truth. In order to sincerely inquire into the truth, we need to deliberately focus on all the questions of value that come up along the way and affect our judgments. As a result, I now think of ethical practice as subsuming every other kind of practice.

Ethical inquiry is concerned with what we should do, which includes the details of how we do it. Every kind of doing is subject to this kind of consideration.

Engineering, to take one non-obvious example, is not just about coming up with designs that “work”, but about coming up with good designs. Various kinds of arguments that are relatively “value free” can be made about criteria for good design in specific contexts, but ultimately what matters most is that the design be “good” or better than the alternatives, however that is to be understood in the particular case.

An ethics-first view of philosophy puts ethics or “axiology” (inquiry into values) before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic in the order of explanation.

All doing has ethical implications of one sort or another, and all inquiry (also a kind of doing) ultimately involves questions of value.

Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Husserl on Normativity

Translator J. N. Findlay ranks Husserl (1859-1938) with Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, and calls Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1899-1901) his greatest work. My previous acquaintance with Husserl has been limited to his later, explicitly “phenomenological” period.

In the first two chapters, Husserl surveys and criticizes the then-dominant views of Utilitarian John Stuart Mill and his followers on the nature of logic, objecting that they reduced it to a “technology dependent on psychology” (p. 56). Frege had already introduced mathematical logic, but the great flowering of the latter had not occurred yet. Husserl in these chapters is particularly concerned with the objectivity of knowledge, and with principles of validation.

I was initially confused by his polemic against the claim that logic is a “normative discipline”. To me, “normative” means “axiological”, i.e., concerned with value judgments. I take the Aristotelian view that judgment refers first of all to a process of evaluation, rather than a conclusion. In this sense, judgment and normativity inherently involve a Socratic dimension of genuinely open inquiry about what is good.

All versions of normativity involve a “should”. But it turns out that the view Husserl is polemicizing against treated a “normative discipline” as one that takes some particular and predetermined end for granted, and is only concerned with what we “should” do to realize that predetermined end. On this view, “normativity” is only concerned with necessary and/or sufficient conditions for achieving predetermined ends. Thus Husserl associates it with a sort of technology, rather than with something ultimately ethical. So, what he is doing here is rejecting a merely technological view of normativity.

There is also a theoretical-versus-practical axis to Husserl’s argument. Aristotle had contrasted the ability to successfully perform an operation with the ability to explain the principles governing it. One does not necessarily imply the other. Husserl notes how many activities in life are merely oriented toward operational success, and says that most of the practice of modern sciences — including mathematics — has a mainly operational character.

Elsewhere I have contrasted “tool-like” reason with what I like to call ethical reason, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, and my notion of “tool-like” reason has potentially rather more positive connotations than that toward which Husserl seems to be leading. I don’t take the fact that engineering tends to drive science to be inherently bad. I think engineering can drive science in a good way, involving an integral consideration of ends; a concern with good design guided by those ends and the best practices we can come up with; and a recognition that the real world doesn’t always cooperate with our intentions.

On the other hand, I also find that the best engineering relies more on fundamental theoretical insight and well-rounded judgment than on sheer technology. This is a perspective that is simultaneously “practical” and concerned with first principles. When Husserl argues for the priority of theoretical disciplines over practical ones, he is mainly arguing for the importance of a concern for first principles. While I generally prefer the Kantian/Brandomian primacy of practical reason, I find common ground with Husserl in the concern for principles.

Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

Potentiality and Ends

Perfection for Aristotle is an attractor and not a driver. To be an unmoved mover and to be an efficient cause in the “driving” way this was commonly interpreted in the later tradition are mutually exclusive. Pure act does not act in the normal sense of the word. I am reminded of Lao Tzu, that other great minimalist teacher of unmoved moving.

Plotinus and the later neoplatonic schools reworked the notion of unmoved moving, from Aristotle’s modest notion of the attraction of potentialities to the good, to a principle of overflowing, superabundant positive power that spontaneously generates beings and effects, as a necessary consequence of its very superabundance. Aristotle’s “first cause” affects everything, but only through the collaboration of secondary causes. Though developing nuanced accounts of the grand cycle of procession from the One and ultimate return, the neoplatonists tended to reduce secondary causes to mere effects of the One.

Authors like Aquinas engaged in a tricky balancing act, wanting to assert the supremacy of God while simultaneously recognizing the ethical and epistemological value of Aristotle’s emphasis on the reality of secondary causes. But according to Gwenaëlle Aubry, the theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and others annulled what I take to be that good Aristotelian concern of Aquinas, completely subordinating nature, truth, and the good to the arbitrary will of God.

This whole historical discussion is greatly complicated by the very different ways in which the same key terms have been interpreted. For example, it makes a great difference whether we consider the art of building or the hammer’s blow to be a better model of the efficient cause. The art of building could be a sort of derived unmoved mover, but the hammer’s blow is a moved mover.

Previously, I have emphasized an interpretation of potentiality in terms of Brandom’s talk about robust counterfactual conditions on the one hand, and a loosely structuralist notion of structure on the other. I read Hegel as recognizing the essential role of this kind of potentiality in any formation of a determinate view of things.

This may sound remote from Aubry’s emphasis on potentiality as a tendency to be attracted by an end, but there is actually a deep connection. Hegel emphasizes the role of potentiality in determination, whereas Aubry emphasizes the role of potentiality as contingency. But Brandom’s counterfactual conditions (an interpretation of Hegelian potentiality) just are contingencies; they are not univocally determined to occur. From the ground up, a kind of pluralism of multiple concrete possibilities is built into the determination of determination.

As Leibniz said, all necessity is of a hypothetical, if-then form. As Kant and Hegel also reminded us, judgments of determination always involve interpretation, and ultimately have a normative form. Brandom makes a similar Kantian point that causality in the modern sense is a product of judgments and inference. These are far from arbitrary; they are subject to a kind of objectivity grounded in counterfactual robustness and mutual recognition. But that objectivity is itself ultimately a normative concept. As Abelard said, the good comes first. (See also Form as Value; Aristotelian Causes.)

Form as Value

Plato’s most famous discussions of form involved things like the form of virtue, of justice, or of the Good. These are questions that perplex the wise and the sincere inquirer. They therefore could not be the objects of any simple dogma.

In Aristotle there is a deep connection between form and ends. For both Aristotle and Plato, “essence” is never merely factual but always has what analytic philosophers call a normative dimension. It is not the kind of thing that could be simply given (see Form, Substance).

Brandom says that for Kant and Hegel, concepts always have a normative dimension, and intentionality is to be explained in terms of normativity rather than vice versa.

The necessity in formal logic and mathematics also has a normative character, but it is different from the previous examples in that it is univocal and definitely knowable. Things that are “formal” in this modern sense are quite different from form for Plato or Aristotle, which is closer to what Brandom would call conceptual content (see Mutation of Meaning). Well-founded certainty is only possible in domains that are purely formal in the modern sense.

Anything involving the “real world” involves interpretation, which is never finished. In life we work, act, and love on the basis of partial interpretations of the forms of things.

Normativity in Kant

Wikipedia actually has several decent articles on normativity (compare my own capsule account here). Under “Normative” it currently says “Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm in this normative sense means a standard for evaluating or making judgments about behavior or outcomes….  One of the major developments in analytic philosophy has seen the reach of normativity spread to virtually all corners of the field…. [I]t has become increasingly common to understand normative claims as claims about reasons“. “Normative ethics” is simply ethics as distinct from meta-ethics. Under “Norm (philosophy)” it says “Norms are concepts… of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express”.

Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard’s Tanner lectures were published as The Sources of Normativity (1996). Her first sentence says “It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values” (p. 1). She notes that “Plato and Aristotle came to believe that value was more real than experienced fact, indeed that the real world is, in a way, value itself”.

In Korsgaard’s account things begin to turn subtly in a modernist direction, broadly resembling the modernist sentiments in Brandom I occasionally have trouble with. “For Plato and Aristotle, being guided by value is a matter of being guided by the way things ultimately are…. The form of a thing is its perfection, but it is also what enables the thing to be what it is. So the endeavor to realize perfection is just the endeavor to be what you are — to be good at being what you are” (pp. 2-3).

While there is a big boulder of truth here, I think formulations of this sort carry the danger of greatly underestimating the extent to which — even though we grasp things well enough to act with practical confidence — the “way things ultimately are” becomes more problematic the more seriously we consider it, which I think Plato and Aristotle well recognized. Further, while talk about the singular form of a thing is not out of place in Plato, Aristotle’s versatile notion of form (especially in the Metaphysics and the biological works, and in sharp contrast to scholastic “substantial form”) overflows any such simple conception (see Form, Substance).

Korsgaard presents later emphasis on obligation as a “revolution” ultimately completed by Kant. This emphasis on obligation rather than value per se is what analytic philosophers call deontology, on which I’ve commented several times.

While I fully agree that normative force is real, for serious philosophical purposes it is an error to think it ever has completely univocal meaning. That is why Hegel thought every truth eventually has to make way for some further truth. I agree that Kantian obligation adds something to ethics and makes Kant the next great contributor to ethics after Aristotle, but I see it as a refinement or addition to a basically Aristotelian account along the the lines suggested by Paul Ricoeur, and not a revolution.

I’ve previously mentioned Nancy Sherman’s elaboration of implicit Aristotelian themes in Kantian ethics. Barbara Herman in The Practice of Moral Judgment (1993) argues forcefully against the highly contracted notion of judgment commonly attributed to Kant, and for a positive concept of values in Kant. I’ve referred several times to the outstanding book by Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993), which develops a very rich, multilayered concept of judgment out of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I think Brandom relates Kantian judgment to an entire unity of apperception and its ongoing repair of errors (see Autonomy, Normativity; Brandom on Postmodernity). Hannah Ginsborg in The Normativity of Nature (2015) finds a rich general concept of judgment in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and concludes that “there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about regarding natural phenomena in normative terms” (p. 345; see Natural Ends; Kant’s Recovery of Ends).

Brandom comes close to identifying deontology with ethics tout court. Initially I found this very unattractive, but Brandom is no advocate of excessive univocity, as his favorable remarks about the “new” notion of determination in Hegel and truth as a process make clear. He uses the language of deontology and modality as a way of combating arbitrariness and indistinction.

In summary, though Kantian obligation is an undeniable contribution, I think a very strong case can be made that the most important element in normativity is really values and not obligation per se.

Incidentally, it is nice to see so many female philosophers at work in this area.

Reality of Ends

Are Aristotelian non-mental ends really compatible with Brandomian normativity in an account of the same things? I want to say yes.

Aristotelian ends have frequently been read as somehow pre-existing. Later commentators in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin traditions certainly most often took such a view, but in so doing they were more faithful to the values of neoplatonic or traditional monotheistic theology than to the Aristotelian text.

Aristotle pioneered the idea that ends come first in the general order of interpretation relevant to life. I see this as ancestral to Brandom’s idea that normativity comes first in the same context, even though Brandom himself does not really engage with pre-modern philosophy. Brandom’s main source for this is his reading of Kant and especially Hegel, but Hegel is also the modern author who began the restoration of Aristotle to his proper place in the history of philosophy.

To come first in the order of interpretation and explanation is not necessarily to pre-exist. Consideration of the order of explanation is after all only relevant to processes of explanation. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom are all very process-oriented.

Brandom, drawing on Kant and Hegel, offers a broadly pragmatist account of the objectivity of values and reality, in terms of a counterfactual robustness of practical judgments ultimately grounded in mutual recognition and an ongoing commitment to the repair of errors. Such an account of a process of truth-and-error provides for everything involved in the normative sense of what we call objectivity, while making pre-existing truths superfluous.

In a much simpler but still very nuanced way, Aristotle often informally refers to existing realities. He usually starts with an optimistic and charitable approach to the deliverances of common sense in everyday life, only refining and superseding them as the need arises, but epistemic modesty prevents him from turning these into strong theoretical claims. Dialectic — i.e., exploratory discursive reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty — rather than demonstration from presumed truths is the main theoretical tool actually employed throughout Aristotle’s works.

On a more theoretical level, Aristotle provocatively suggests that something need not have actual existence in its own right in order to deeply affect the shape of reality (see The Importance of Potentiality). I take Aristotelian ends to be things of this sort.