Criticising the Hard Normative Stand in Philosophy

A historical idea has long existed that there is, or needs to be, a thought discipline that has monopoly over saying how various things of the world, of Existence, and of Reality, including Existence and Reality themselves, ought to be, and which types of questions, problems, and desires ought to be treated by which particular thought or practical discipline. Naturally, many philosophers gave Philosophy this crown jewel of thought; philosophy was and is still seen by them as possessing the monopoly of the ‘ought-to-be’. This is what is called in the discipline the ‘normative aspect’ of philosophy. Kant is for example famous for his contribution to Normative Ethics, Aristotle for seeking normativity in both Logic and Metaphysics, and Descartes for seeking normativity in Epistemology. In all cases, despite great, and in many cases indispensable, contributions, all these renowned thinkers remained short of their initial ambitions. However, the urge towards normative approaches in Philosophy is not only a historical, long-gone practice; it continues to exist in our more modern times with, for example, Habermas and his idealised thresholds (for legitimacy for example) in political theory and discursive agreement, or Popper and his several failed attempts at formalising his philosophy satisfactorily.

The dream of making Philosophy the driving normative discipline of Reality, Existence, and Knowledge has failed on multiple intellectual and practical accounts – we shall briefly talk about a few below.

On the intellectual front, David Hume, the eminent Scottish philosopher, whose ideas continue to find validity centuries later, was the first to formulate the difficulty with normative approaches in a clear manner in his famous ‘Is-Ought Problem’. Hume’s basic idea on the subject is simple: we observe the world around as it is, while when we seek to create norms (as that is what is sought by normative approaches), we are actually looking to talk about the world as it ought to be – whether be it from a moral, scientific, religious, political or other perspectives. For Hume, all of our ideas are based on our observations of the world as it is, and hence, there is no clear basis really in this jump we make from observing the world to saying how it ought to be; pretty simple and perplexing indeed.

Now for a practical account: historically, it is the other ‘lesser’ disciplines, as some might be inclined to call them, rather than Philosophy itself, that contributed more to what is at the core of the scope of normative approaches. For example, Physics contributed more to understanding Cosmogony than Philosophy, Formal Logic to understanding Epistemology, and Cognitive Sciences to understanding Phenomenology. But many philosophers still believe that Philosophy as a discipline is superior to Natural Sciences or Mathematics, or that it has the right to define what these other disciplines should treat and in which manner.

And thirdly, for an ontological account: since everything is interrelated and of the same fundamental nature, as I hold, and since all things are ultimately circular, then all events are ultimately at-par, and hence the idea of monopoly over norms of any discipline is a flawed one. There is no clear premise for why a series of events that has as role to analyse other events, as it is the case of any discipline of thought, should have some sort of fundamental superiority, or for that matter, be more influencing. And it is also likely that, because of the circularity, not only of the world of thought but also of the material world, all efforts towards developing detailed norms will remain ontologically inadequate (although existentially necessary for humans in some areas such as Ethics).

I am not trying to attack Philosophy in general in this short article; rather, I am directing criticism towards a particular form of arrogance in few philosophical circles in claiming monopoly over norms of the world of Thought, of Reality, and of Existence. Philosophy does remain the most adequate generalist discipline for asking the right questions and pointing to the specialists some of the areas on which it may be more worthy to focus. Philosophers can still attempt, and should still attempt, to hold together all the various thought disciplines in a whole that makes sense, no matter how much more difficult this has become of late with the advances of many specialised disciplines. The philosopher is a man or a woman who holds all the strings of human activity together; is torn between them; makes continuous efforts not to succumb one way or another; endures constant accusations of being wrong in what she/he does or says; and yet continuously perseveres. But centralising Thought does not mean monopolising it, and in a spherical geometry, there is no peak, there is no summit, but only interlinked parts.

On a final note for the specialists: the only normative ‘power’ out there, if there is one, is in Mathematics, in particular, in Set Theory, which is reducible to second-order logic. And even there, we still face the difficulty of ontological commitment, which we need not to detail on here.

JHTF

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