Some notes on naturalism

Much of Charles Taylor’s work has, in effect, been variations upon a theme. This was an overriding concern to argue against the understanding of “human life and action” implicit in an influential “family of theories in the sciences of man” as he puts it in the Philosophical Papers volume 2 (all references from this). The common feature of these theories is an “ambition to model the study of man on the natural sciences” and they tend to either “show themselves up” or “avoid the interesting questions” (pg 1). While there are certainly differences within this family, in some cases reciprocally conflictual ones, it is such differences which account for the variations upon Taylor’s overarching theme. However his underlying point concerns their shared allegiance to naturalism and the understanding of human agency implicit within it. By ‘naturalism’ Taylor means “the view that man can be seen as part of nature – in one sense or another this would surely be accepted by everyone – but that the nature of which he is a part is to be understood according to the canons which emerged in the seventeenth-century revolution in natural science” (pg 2). One key methodological injunctions flows from a commitment to naturalism: the need to avoid subjective properties entering into explanation and to give an account of things in entirely objective terms. How stringently this is interpreted varies but the result is varying degrees of suspicion of properties of objects which are dependent upon subjects i.e. those features which only exist in experience.

The impulse is one which seeks to expunge subjectivity, so as to clear away unreliable experience and leave us with cold hard facts. The problem here is a simplistic treatment of the distinction between what John Searle describes as intrinsic and observer-relative features of the world, such that objectivity is seen to be exhausted by the former and the latter is left as (unreliably) subjective. Instead Searle offers us a more complex understanding of contrasting ontological and epistemic senses of objectivity and subjectivity. ‘Objective’ and ‘subjective’ can be features of objects (describing their mode of existence) or they can be features of judgements (describing their relationship to the external world):

  • Ontologically objective entities (or types of entity) do not depend for their existence upon any perceiver. In many ways the sun rise depends for its existence upon perceiving subjects but the sun itself exists independently of our perception of it.
  • Ontologically subjective entities (or types of entities) depend for their existence upon a perceiver. For instance pain is real, in the sense that it doesn’t go away simply because we wish it to do so, however it can’t exist in the absence of a subject feeling pain.
  • Epistemically objective judgements (or types of judgement) are true or false in virtue of ontologically objective states of affairs. Two competing theories of the formation of stars are in conflict precisely because they make irreconcilable claims about the same ontologically objective type of entity.
  • Epistemically subjective judgements (or types of judgement) lack this connection to ontologically objective state of affairs. To say one star is more beautiful than another does not easily permit reasoned argument. Obviously the distinction between epistemically objective and epistemically subjective is a matter of degree however in a way that is not the case for the ontologically objective/subjective distinction.

The problem with naturalism in social sciences is that it seeks to expunge the ontologically subjective and epistemically subjective from social inquiry. Taylor’s underlying point is that the methods of the natural science are fundamentally inapplicable to the social sciences because the objects of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to those of the social sciences. Crucially, human beings use language and interpret their own behaviour and position within the world. Furthermore, these self-interpretations are partly constitutive of what human beings are. My understanding of who I am, what I’m doing and why I’m doing it are characteristics of me as an entity susceptible to investigation. In so far as it leads this dimension to be excluded from inquiry, or treated as an epiphenomenon of an underlying objective process, then we are left with an absurdly lopsided view of the domain we attempt to study. As Taylor puts it: “our personhood cannot be treated scientifically in exactly the same way we approach our organic being” (pg 3). For Taylor the necessity of interpretation follows directly from this.

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