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.

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.


In the last post I gave positive mention to an “instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation”. I think an instrumental view of science is the natural one from an engineering point of view, which the philosophy of science ought to take very seriously. I actually work as an engineer in my day job, and have a bit of engineering education. Though these days I privately think of myself mainly as a moral philosopher, I truly enjoy engineering for its practical orientation. Engineers learn that the real world doesn’t always conform to theoretical simplifications, and they have to make what are actually value judgments all the time.

Curiously, it seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with technology and all the stereotypes about nutty scientists, engineering as a discipline doesn’t have nearly as much social prestige as science. For the reasons just mentioned, I think engineering deserves the higher status, as the actually more comprehensive concern. Modern science is first and foremost a tool used in engineering. But in our culture’s mythology of science, there is a popular prejudice that engineers — unlike real scientists — just make rote applications of formulae developed by scientists. Meanwhile science students — if I may be forgiven a broad-brush picture — all too often seem to get the message that the latest Science is Truth, and everything else is irrelevant. This can unfortunately make them arrogant and dogmatic in later life. I think engineers on the whole are more attuned to the provisional status of assumptions.

On the historiographical side, I think the over-propagandized scientific revolution was actually more of an engineering revolution. The design of experiments can be considered a kind of engineering, as can the development and use of therapeutic techniques in medicine. The very practical, experiment-oriented work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in its broad parameters at least is a much better model for science in the modern sense than the new mechanist/voluntarist dualist world view promoted by Descartes, or even the empiricism of Locke. In terms of the long time-scale of human development, engineering long predates science, and I think that generally speaking, historical causality flows that way, with engineering driving science rather than following it.

These varied considerations seem to me to jointly favor an “instrumentalist” view in the philosophy of science. This is another example of the mediated or “long detour” type of approach to knowledge that seems most sound to me.

In analytic philosophy in recent decades, there has been a big debate about realism versus anti-realism. Implicitly, this mainly applies to the philosophy of science, but in many circles there are still prejudices that theory of knowledge comes first in philosophy, and that science is the most important kind of knowledge. This can make it seem as if realist or anti-realist positions in the philosophy of science must be applied across the board at a sort of ontological level, but I want to argue against that.

I think that ethical reason and interpretation come before the theory of knowledge in the overall order of explanation relevant to human life, and that normative practical judgment actually grounds what we think of as exact knowledge. From an ethical standpoint, it is vitally important to recognize there is a “push-back” of reality we need to respect and take into account, so I want to argue for a kind of realism. The true home for a respect for realism, I want to say, should be ethics and not the philosophy of science. We can meet all the ethical needs related to concern for objectivity in a way that is entirely compatible with an instrumentalist and “anti-realist” philosophy of science. Meanwhile, a more modest view of science — as a valuable tool rather than a source of ultimate truth — can help heal the false rift between science and values that permeates our culture. Further, if science is a tool and we also say that higher forms of faith are expressed not in propositions but in action and attitude (as I would respectfully suggest), then in the world of what should be, there is no possibility of conflict from either side. (See also Kinds of Reason.)

Meant Realities

In speaking of meant realities, my purpose is to suggest a contrast both with a view that meaning pertains to mental representations, and with anything purely formal in the modern syntactic sense, though meant realities may be understood as a sort of pure forms in an Aristotelian sense (see Mutation of Meaning).

I am not thinking of direct reference or correspondence. Reference and correspondence do come into play, but only circuitously. In the first instance, meant realities emerge with relative robustness from the cross-referencing, cross-checking, and mutual involvement — or preconscious Kantian synthesis — of many meanings, affirmations, and values.

The expression of meant realities in ordinary language forms the subject matter of material inference.

Common sense, ordinary language use, and the unconscious all jump over processes of synthesis to a taking of meant realities as they currently appear in context. Such practically necessary but always implicitly provisional shortcuts can be deconstructed again through interpretation and dialogue. (See also Reality; Substance; Beings; Reference, Representation.)


Some people have argued that a fundamentally ethical notion of practice is not sufficient to ground a full, well-rounded account of the varieties of human activity. I used to be one of them, but no longer.

Judgments of utility may on the surface seem mainly to involve various sorts of calculation, but ultimately they involve considerations of what is better or worse for the realization of some purpose.

Judgments of fact may also appear on the surface to be value-neutral, but ultimately they involve questions of what it is reasonable to believe, which also involves judgments of value.

What about physical operations? Physical operations always implicitly involve questions of how to proceed, and answers to these questions involve judgments of utility and judgments of fact, both of which involve judgments of value. (See also Practical Judgment; Choice, Deliberation; Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness; Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy; Normative Monism.)

Varieties of Ethics

Particularly in the analytic tradition, writers on ethics since the early 20th century have debated about the right high-level view of the subject. Aristotle is identified with what is now called “virtue ethics”. Kant is said to embody a conflicting approach based on deontology, or rules and duty. Others have advocated an alternative based on axiology, or a general theory of values that could also include aesthetics. These are sometimes presented as the three main competing views. Still other writers have stressed the importance of situations, which might be taken as a fourth alternative.

Worthwhile things have been said from all these perspectives, but I don’t like this sort of division and narrowing of discourses. What is actually most essential in ethics — and could be taken as a sort of common denominator to charitable readings of all four of the approaches mentioned above — is the role of reasonable interpretation and processes of judgment. (See also Choice, Deliberation; Reasonableness.)

Aristotle’s emphasis on what modern people might call emotional intelligence, acquired over time, as a basis for ethical skills (see also Ethos; Ethos, Hexis) always made a lot of sense to me, but I take those skills to be embodied in practical doings revolving around interpretive judgment and follow-through, and want to emphasize the details of the doing, rather some achieved state. For Aristotle, a person’s virtue can only be assessed in terms of a complete life. Virtue is certainly a goal, but applying it as a criterion requires conversion to a subjunctive form, as in what particular doings would be consistent with virtuous life. People after Aristotle have too often found it too easy to substitute a double presumption that whatever is done by people we presume to be virtuous is right. Aristotle himself avoids this, and does not use the subjunctive form, either. Instead, he suggests we should deliberate directly about what is the right thing to do.

The rules-and-duty approach, or deontology, I find generally unappealing because rules and duty are often taken in a dogmatic or traditionalist sense that seems to deny the need for interpretive work, and tacitly or overtly to substitute for it one-sided appeals to authority. But this need not be the case. Notably, Kant and Brandom emphasize higher-order rules that require interpretive judgment in the application of very abstract principles to concrete situations, and Kant sublimated duty for duty’s sake into a meta-commitment to unity of apperception.

Talk about values goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In the analytic tradition, this is associated with what is called axiology. Modern presentations of this have often had a subjectivist slant, reducing values to valuations, but there is nothing essential in this. Importantly, it seems to me that everything Brandom says about the objective but not pre-given status of norms can be easily applied to values. In discussing Brandom’s contributions, I sometimes prefer to substitute “values” for “norms”, because it seems to me the term “norms” often carries an unwanted connotation that we are talking about norms that empirically exist or that are in fact accepted, which is not what Brandom means. It also seems to me that higher-order rules function more like values than like first-order rules, so I think it is not inappropriate to translate Kant and Brandom’s talk about rules into talk about values. Serious engagement with values again involves a commitment to interpretive work.

Talk about the interpretation of situations also goes back to Aristotle. Some modern presentations have stressed a sort of common-sense or immediate assessment of situations that downplays the role of interpretation, but again there is nothing essential about this.

In any case, an open-ended work of reasonable interpretation and judgment (along with follow-through) seems to me like the most fundamental thing in ethics.