Normativists vs. Naturalists Revisited

[Not exactly Highway 61, but bear with me…]

Here’s the foil for the article: Stephen Turner, Paul Roth, and David Henderson characterize their debate opponents, Joseph Rouse (for Turner), Karsten Steuber (for Roth), and Mark Risjord (for Henderson and Roth) as “normativists” (only Turner uses the term, but it fits nicely with Henderson’s and Roth’s critiques), implicitly distinguished from their own views as “naturalists” (none of these authors uses this term to characterize themselves, but it tracks well with their basis for arguing against the normativists). In short, the Turner-Roth-Henderson axis views itself as defending the social sciences and its adjunct philosophy from the “supernaturalism” of projects such as those pursued by Rouse-Steuber-Risjord, that attempt to insert “normativity” as, TRH allege, a form of non-causal causality into the causal workings of the natural world.

One point that strikes me about this presentation is that all three of TRH’s foils (RSR) take pains to defend their positions as consistent with naturalism. I won’t argue here whether I think they’re successful or not (though I definitely lean RSR’s way), but will instead simply offer a more complex, quatrite range of positions. In lieu of the binary of naturalist – normativist, I propose:

     postivist – naturalist – normativist – supernaturalist

The distinction between the positivist and naturalist camps is debatable, but certaintly TRH all are aware of the failings of positivism, and see themselves, I take it, more as post-Quineans. The critical question is whether their conception of naturalism is really rich enough for their distinction from positivism to make a difference. If TRH reduce the ontology of human social world to the operations of efficient causality, then their recommendations for the methods of the social sciences and for the philosophy of social science aren’t likely to depart dramatically from that of, say, Carnap and Hempel. It seems they could only advocate a sort of polished positivism, employing more contemporary forms of causal and ontological analysis — a “compassionate conservativism” for this subdiscipline.

Conversely, TRH similarly try to collapse the positions of the normativists into those of supernaturlists. I think “obiwanky” won’t mind me lifting part of one of his earlier comments here (thanks for the contribution):

“What is wrong with supernaturalism? The Lakota Sioux, for instance, make a distinction between the natural and supernatural, but the supernatural pervades the world. Obviously, supernatural is equivocated here, but the point I’m pushing is that the rejection of the supernatural is systematically Modern-European.”

Obi states clearly here the sort of neo-Winchean view that either (a) that some sorts of supernatural “causes” are at work in the world, (b) that because certain people believe (a), doing justice to their social worlds requires some sort of non-judgmental acknowledgement of those beliefs, or both. Winch certainly argued this way, and it’s hard to read Risjord, Steuber, and Rouse without noting the care with which they try to make thier positions consistent with naturalist approaches. They have an interesting task. In key respects they are philosophically closer to the naturalists than to the supernaturalists, yet they can’t make sense of the social world without appealing to normativity. And for their trouble, they are booted from the naturalists camp, into a supernaturalist camp that probably wouldn’t accept them either.

So, is the normativist position the truly principled one, the view that takes the best of the other two main camps and provides a satisfying synthesis that opens up new vistas for philosophical and scientific investigation? Or is it neither fish-nor-fowl (perhaps like the “squirrel fish” I saw on a menu for a Chinese restaurant near the West Virginia – Virginia border long ago, which the server could only clarify was neither squirrel nor fish), a soulless, successless attempt at a fool’s compromise?

I’m enough of a naturalist to want to avoid accepting Obiwanky’s suggestion that there’s nothing wrong with embracing supernaturalism (though I acknowledge some of the problems to which he alludes), but simply can’t make sense of the social world on purely causal terms. So I’m rooting for the normativists. They’re my peeps, as it were.

So, how to make this case best? I will grant TRH that RSR haven’t really made that case yet, for all the honor of their attempts. What’s the next step?

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4 Responses to Normativists vs. Naturalists Revisited

  1. Obiwanky says:

    Well, first, spell out a clear naturalist position. Ok, ok, I know, read RSR. Well, when I have time, maybe. I guess what strikes me on this post is that you specifically address whether anything separates the THR group from positivists but I do not see it addressed whether RSR are distinct from the supernaturalists. So, what do you think separates the RSR from the supernaturalists? And then I’ll decide if I am truly a supernaturalist or whether I am a RSR normativist.

    Second, if we take Taylor’s point that practices are both ideal and material, then it seems to me that THR cannot be right. They are treating practices as simply material, which, to their chagrin I would imagine, leads to an Althuserian-Foucauldian view of reality.

    Third, Tolkien, in his On Fairy Stories, talks about how the author has to treat the faerie realm — and particularly the magic — seriously as if real. If there is any doubt on the author’s part, then the tale comes across as false and even comical. I find this true in my own writing. As I write my vampire hunter story from a Lakota viewpoint, I have to believe that the magical elements are real. This can be a struggle, of course. But it also opens up meaning for the character, the author, and I hope the reader.

    Finally, USE A LARGER FONT when posting such a long post. I’m an old man.

  2. mrsaturdaypants says:

    I take the core naturalist position in this debate to be the conviction that all events have natural causes, i.e. ones whose explanations must be at least consistent with the theories of physics, chemistry, and biology. Any account that appeals to “causes” not consistent with those theories is supernatural. At issue is whether the normativists’ appeals to norms should be taken as appeals to the supernatural.

    I think if you explained your Taylorian point to THR, you would get stone-faced grimaces. That said, though I’m inclined to put the point a little differently, your comment gets at where Greig and I plan to take our paper.

    I will work on the font, old man.

  3. Obiwanky says:

    Old man… Dude! I don’t turn fourty for another year and few months!

    But if all the THR are looking for are causal explanations in that sense, they seem to reduce to positivism. That might be something to pursue in a different paper.

  4. mrsaturdaypants says:

    Counter-dude: you called yourself an old man! I was only repeating the slander.

    In practical terms I see little that separates the naturalists from positivism, at least on this set of issues. I’m not sure I’m going to stress that in the paper, but if we get in, we can mention it at the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable. They’ll be there, so that should be fun.

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