Interrogating the normative

The Causal Power of Social Structures
Dave Elder-Vass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, £50.00, 240pp.

Explaining the Normative
Stephen Turner, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010, £18.99, 240pp.

Normativity is a concept with a contentious history. While most would accept its centrality to everyday human experience, the question of what exactly it is and how it is to be explained has rarely, if ever, commanded widespread agreement. In this review essay I will consider two important recent contributions to this debate, summarising and evaluating each in turn before attempting to draw out the important issues these books raise for work on normativity.

In Explaining the Normative, Stephen Turner seeks to unpick the messy intellectual history of normativity and, through doing so, offer an account of exactly where the debate about the notion has gone wrong and how it might be put right. He suggests that the pervasiveness of the issue within the contemporary philosophical landscape is a consequence of normativity’s historical position at the interface between philosophy and the social sciences. With the emergence of social science and the continual growth of its explanatory ambitions, many philosophers have sought to stake out a particular area of human life unamenable to causal explanation.  Normativity represents ‘a more or less self-conscious attempt to take back ground lost to social-science explanation’ (Turner 2010: 5).

The first chapter of the book attempts to draw out the common features which philosophical accounts of normativity tend to share. While recognising the diversity which characterises normative arguments, he nonetheless claims the existence both of a strong family resemblance and an array of generic problems which afflict theories of normativity. Perhaps the most pertinent of these is what Turner calls the ‘does it matter problem’. The normativist must say that norms are ineliminable from explanation. Yet while ‘ordinarily the explanation of action involves beliefs’, the validity of those beliefs (i.e. the usual subject matter of the normativist) ‘is not explanatory in itself’ (Turner 2010: 13).

The second chapter of the book interrogates the explanatory conflict between philosophical and sociological accounts of normativity. Much of this discussion hinges on what explanatory role normativity can play and how this issue has generally been framed from within the two disciplinary perspectives. Normativists argue that normative facts cannot be explained in non-normative ways. One can point to the sociological fact of adherence to a norm but this in itself cannot constitute genuine normativity. Yet this sociological fact is nearly empirically equivalent and usually seems explanatorily adequate to account for why people do the things they do. So social scientists have tended to ask what role there actually is for normativity.

The third chapter takes a slightly different direction, exploring the normativity of law as a case study. Turner traces development in the thinking of the great 20th century legal theorist Hans Kelsen who spent a lifetime trying to establish the normativity of law. While some of this discussion might be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the subject area, it functions effectively as a case study, illustrating the generalised and abstract points draw in the first two chapters at a much more substantive level of intellectual debate.

The fourth chapter uses the practice of anthropological explanation to explore the normativity of concepts. The discussion centres around the work of Peter Winch, taken as a writer who typifies the normativist tradition within social science, for whom ‘social or natural explanations of essentially conceptual or normative subjects are always inadequate to account for the phenomena properly described in their full conceptual significance’  (Turner 2010: 110). The fifth chapter explores the possibility of grounding normativity in an account of collective intentionality. As Turner writes, ‘collective intentionality does appear to provide something objective, at least for a community or collectivity: a standard that is factual in some sense and at the same time normative’ (Turner 2010: 121). However he argues that such accounts fail because they presuppose ideas about collectivity which are themselves ungrounded.

The sixth chapter draws together many of the ideas articulated earlier in the book and represents the fulfilment of Turner’s titular promise to explain the normative. The crux of his argument is this: why invoke a special domain of fact outside the stream of ordinary explanation when the things we would locate within it can be explained naturalistically? Intriguingly Turner draws on cognitive science and neuroscience to posit empathy as a naturalistic explanation for apparently normative phenomena.  He argues that ‘the ‘norms’ that govern meaning, the meanings of terms applied to the world, may be readily understood in nonnormative terms: as empathic projections that are confirmed, sustained, corrected and improved through interaction with others’ (Turner 2010: 177-178). In doing so he cuts through the gordian knot  at the heart of the debate about normativity: how to explain normative phenomena in a naturalistic way without explaining them away. Empathy has a ‘natural process underlying it: both the capacity, actually employed, of emulating or following the thought of another and the feedback generated by actual social interaction’. As he points out, these are ‘facts of social theory (and of neuroscience)’ (Turner 2010: 205).

While Turner makes a powerful case about the function of empathy, it would be a mistake to see this as the central feature of his book. What makes Explaining the Normative such an impressive book is the way that Turner’s argument is grounded not just in a vast knowledge of historical debates but in the intellectual biographies of individual theorists who grappled with issues relating to normativity. For instance he traces the development of Kelsen’s thought over his lifetime, showing how his engagement with the problems of normativity ultimately forced him to reject many of the characteristic normativist claims, leading him to see the notion of a ground for legal normativity as fundamentally fictitious. Similarly he shows how Winch’s attempt to come to terms with the strange case of the Azande (who seemed to reason in ways which violated the norms of their own thought) led him to abandon the idea of internal relations: ‘logical relations between concepts, or concepts and actions, which are intrinsically normative: they specify the standards of correctness and are conceptual rather than merely psychological and causal’ (Turner 2010: 103). Instead Winch introduces the notion of ‘intellectual habits’, cognitive dispositions which we must understand in order to interpret other cultures. In doing so, he introduces a parallel natural order of dispositions and habits which is more than capable of doing the explanatory work necessary to explain the practice of the Azande. As with Kelsen, Winch’s attempts to grapple with the normative ultimately led him away from normativism. Turner’s approach to such cases makes the problem of normativity come alive, as the lived concern of real persons, rather than an abstract object of philosophical wrangling. The result is that his own positive account, relatively brief though it is, possesses much more force than it might if stated outright as a free-standing thesis.

In the Causal Power of Social Structures, Dave Elder-Vass sets out to provide a comprehensive realist solution to the problem of structure and agency, encompassing a whole range of issues within a lively and multi-faceted discussion. While only one chapter of the book deals explicitly with normativity, it is considered in its entirety here because of how closely Elder-Vass’s arguments hang together. The first three chapters of the book set out a realist account of emergence and causality. He advocates a relational theory of emergence which understands the causal powers of any given entity as a function of its internal relations over a range of ontological strata. As with other sections of the book, the conceptual clarity which Elder-Vass shows in his writing really illuminates a discussion which might otherwise have been technical and obscure. Furthermore while these chapters offer an admirable contribution to the philosophy of social science in their own right, they also stand as the theoretical architecture which Elder-Vass draws upon in articulating his social theory. Such logical consistency is evident throughout the book and it’s one of the most impressive features of it.

The fourth chapter offers an instructive overview of prevailing accounts of structure within social theory. Elder-Vass explores these accounts in terms of the questions of social ontology dealt with in the first few chapters before offering his own: ‘to the extent that it refers to something genuinely causally effective, the concept of social structure refers to the causal powers of specific social groups’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 86). As such, questions about structure are irrevocably linked with questions about agency for Elder-Vass. These are dealt with in the fifth chapter, where much of the discussion centres around an ambitious attempt to synthesise the work of Margaret Archer on reflexivity and Pierre Bourdieu on habitus into what Elder-Vass calls an ‘emergentist theory of action’Though neither theorist would likely accept the ensuing account, his reconciliation of deliberation and habitus is an intriguing proposition, which is thoughtfully grounded in human neurobiology.

The sixth chapter is where Elder-Vass explores normativity through his notion of ‘norm circles’.  Elder-Vass argues that norm circles, a concept derived in part from Simmel’s conception of social circles, have ‘emergent causal powers to influence their members, by virtue of the ways in which those members interact in them’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 122). These powers are founded on the commitment which members of the circle have to endorse and enforce practices which are congruent with the norm in question. Such a circle is centred around the collective intention which members have to support the norm and the individual behaviours which flow from this intention:

‘They may support the norm by advocating the practice, by praising or rewarding those who enact it, by criticising or punishing those who fail to enact it, or even just by ostentatiously enacting it themselves. The consequence of such endorsement and enforcement is that the members of the circle know they face a systematic incentive to enact the practice.’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 124).

This is another example of the logical consistency exhibited by the book’s arguments. As advocated in the meta-theory of social ontology elaborated in the first section of the book, Elder-Vass seeks to identify the causal power of specific social groups rather than subsuming such crucial ontological questions under a general account of normative social institutions. In this case he argues that specific norms circles, obtaining for particular norms, account for the normative causal influences which individuals experience in their daily lives. The relations between members of such a norm circle ‘provide a generative mechanism that gives the norm circle an emergent property or causal power: the tendency to increase conformity by its members to the norm’ (Turner and Elder Vass 2010: 124). Given the normative heterogeneity which is evident in contemporary society, every individual is embroiled in a whole array of intersecting norm circles such that they must ‘sometimes negotiate a path that balances normative commitments that are in tension with each other’ (Turner and Elder Vass 2010: 143). If followed through empirically, this insight about normative intersectionality transforms ‘norm circles’ from a seemingly quite formalistic concept into an extremely incisive one, able to gain considerable explanatory purchase upon our everyday experience of normativity.

The seventh chapter extends this approach to social theorising in order to offer an account of organizations. As with other chapters, he proceeds through the identification of specific social groupings, the internal relations of which give rise to emergent powers at the level of the whole. One particularly intriguing aspect of this discussion is his use of Goffman’s notion of ‘interaction situations’ as a way of founding his claims about social structure on an analysis of the experience of individual actors in concrete situations. The eighth chapter draws on the preceding work to articulate an analytical typology of social events, identifying both the ontological basis of each and the explanatory practice best suited to it.

The conclusion aptly draws together the diverse strands of the book, restating them in a succinct and clear way which helps him situate them within their wider intellectual context. In fact Elder-Vass exhibits this skill throughout, with a similar review of his arguments at the end of each chapter. This goes hand-in-hand with another defining feature of the book, noted earlier, which is the logical consistency evident throughout. It is an impressive feat to cover so much ground within a single text and yet still maintain such interdependence between arguments, as well as a striking unity of intellectual purpose.

Explaining the Normative and the Causal Powers of Social Structure are two important contributions to research about normativity. Superficially they seem quite different, with the former’s focus on the history of philosophical thought and the latter’s concern with social ontology. However one important aspect they both share is the central role which the findings of neuroscience play in their conclusions.

Turner looks to the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, which activate both when we perform an action and when we see another perform the same action, as a way of explaining many of the phenomena which normativists have tended to claim as their own.  This inbuilt capacity to understand the behaviour of others transforms empathy from ‘an intellectual process bound up with the error-prone folk language of intentionality’ into a ‘fact of science with a discoverable set of features located in specific neuronal processes’ (Turner 2010: 176). The conclusion Turner draws is that the ‘‘norms’ that govern meaning, the meanings of terms applied to the world, may be readily understood in nonnormative terms: as empathic projections that are confirmed, sustained, corrected and improved through interaction with others.’ (Turner 2010: 177-178). Similarly Elder-Vass invokes neuroplasticity, the manner in which the networks of neurons in our brain are conditioned and configured by experience, in order to explain the processes of emergence through which our capacity for action results from the biological without being reducible to it.

Though these are different ideas, utilised by each theorist for a different purpose, a similar direction of thought can be seen in both accounts. As Elder-Vass puts it ‘we can explain the powers of human individuals without explaining them away’ (Elder-Vass 2010: 93). This is also Turner’s great insight, although he does not express it quite so succinctly. What Explaining the Normative does do however is foreground the way in which underlying human concerns and cross-disciplinary disputes  have shaped the historical debate about normativity. On one side the normativists have sought to defend the distinctiveness of the human against the expansion of naturalistic explanation.  On the other naturalists have tried to causally explain human experience, against the mystifications of transcendental philosophy, though have too often explained it away. Taken together these two books illustrate powerfully that the dichotomies underlying this debate have been too starkly drawn. It is possible to defend the distinctiveness of the human without invoking the mysteries of a transcendental domain undergirding the aspects of human experience which have been subsumed under the banner of normativity. In fact it is only through rejecting the terms of this dichotomy, with the causal on side and the normative on the other, that we might begin to fully understand what it is to be human.

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