The biggest buzzword in contemporary philosophy is normativity. Volume after volume has been churned out defending the idea that normativity is real, indispensable, even the single metaphysical basis for everything, including nature. The past of philosophy, especially Kant and German idealism, has been reinterpreted as being about normativity. Wittgenstein has been made into a defender of normativity against naturalism. And the rejection of normativity is characterized as irrationalism because reason is a normative concept. The term has crept into social theory as well, with Habermas and his endorsement of arguments taken from Robert Brandom.
So what is normativity? The one thing it is not is the sociological fact of people behaving in a certain way, using certain terms, and believing certain things. Behavior can be contrary to the relevant norms, and beliefs can be false. Genuine, as distinct from sociological normativity is the thing that makes behavior wrong, usage genuinely meaningful, and beliefs false. Without genuine normativity, there is no meaning, no truth or falsity, no act correct or incorrect. And this has implications for Asociological accounts of the social world: without accepting the reality of genuine normativity we can’t even describe the social world as we know it, because the world as we know it is constituted by these normative distinctions.
How do we know all this? Regress arguments. When we use normative language, or even reason about something, and are asked for a justification of our reasoning, we get back to a justification in the same normative language. The mere fact that people expect a promise to be fulfilled doesn’t make it a promise or generate an obligation. Only a norm, one that says something like one should fulfill ones promises and justifies our saying that someone who fails to fulfil a promise has done something wrong. Merely violating our expectations is not wrong.
This, at least, is the conventional wisdom in philosophy. But philosophers ordinarily keep an eye on the shiny regress arguments and avert them from the trainwreck of the metaphysics behind it. What is this normativity that lies at the end of justification? Is there really a realm of the normative? Is it really the case that every time one uses a normative term, such as correct,and that one invokes this netherworld of normativities? Does appealing to genuine normativity actually explain anything in this world? And if so, how does this kind of explanation relate to the kinds of explanations social scientists have given of normative facts? What is the source of normativity? There seems to be little agreement, and wide variation, in answers to these questions, where there are answers at all. And when we look at the answers, they turn out to be all over the place: from a system of proprieties co-extensive with language, to presuppositions that flash into existence whenever they are needed, to the Kantian norms of reason, to the tacit rules behind the meanings of sentences, to the normativity embodied in and created by collective intentions, and on and on. This should be an embarrassment, but no one seems to be embarrassed about it.
There is also a puzzle about what exactly normativity explains. Does it explain something real that the social sciences don’t explain? In the case of science, this problem has been discussed in two ways. One argues that science is a normative activity and therefore any sociology which purports to account for science must be insufficient. The other says that philosophy of science is an attempt to make normative sense of science, and that this activity does not compete with explanations of science or the course of scientific development: the project of fashioning a normative lens for science and the project of explaining what scientists believe to be true are different enterprises, that do not compete. One could extend this to other forms of normativity: there is what people say and understand, and what they believe to be correct speech; then there is what is really correct speech. Social science is concerned with the former, normativity with the latter.
Normativists say that social science explanations don’t explain normativity: they are only about regularities or probabilities, expectations, perhaps, but never the normative fact, and therefore the meaning, of promising itself. Is this really true? A simple example is the explanation of Maori gift customs in Marcel Mauss’s classic The Gift. The Maori think there is a spiritual substance, Hau, that attaches to a gift and must be returned by the giving of another gift. They acknowledge that hau is a mysterious thing. Nevertheless, they believe in it, and organize their social and economic life around this substance. Hau is a Good Bad Theory: good, because it co-ordinates behavior and motivates compliance; bad, because hau is an non-explanatory, false, and fails to fit into our ordinary stream of explanation, which is why the Maori treat it as a mystery.
This standard social science explanation works just fine for the Maori. It is difficult to imagine even a normativist philosopher quibbling with it. But it also raises a tough question: why don’t explanations like this apply just as well to our own moral beliefs? If we think we are obligated to return a phone call, is the obligation any more real, or is our belief that this obligation is real any different than the beliefs of the Maori about hau? Isn’t the whole concept of normativity suspiciously like the concept of hau, namely a false belief wrongly used to explain something that isn’t there in the first place?
In a way, this one has an easy answer: there is no difference. And there is nothing mysterious that is left over after the social science explanation is given. For beliefs like this, it makes sense to be a relativist. But things appear to be different for reason or rationality itself. How can we treat that as a superstition? We rely on it. It is not a good bad theory, but a good good theory, if it is a theory at all. Here, it seems, the regress arguments work: there is no denying rationality, because justifying our denial would assume rationality, the rationality of the speaker and the person persuaded. And rationality is normative.
Or is it? Do we really appeal to rationality when we try to persuade someone or communicate with them? When we try to communicate anything, we have to say something that is intelligible. And we hope that the listener will understand it and see it is true. But that is not the same as invoking a norm. But something is right in the normativist argument. What we do need, to communicate or to reason with another person, as the normativist argument suggests, is a stopping point: an end of the regress, something that is in common that the justifying can close with. The normativist thinks these stopping points must be norms because they are not causes or data.
But there is another possibility, found both in the philosophical tradition and in the social science tradition Brentano’s notion of Evidenz, which appears also in Weber in relation to empathy. Evidenz is defined by Brentano as being evident to all. The things that are evident to all though the all needs to be qualified might include steps in reasoning, or ostensive definitions that were understood by others, which are the kinds of regress-stoppers that are needed. Brentano thought of Evidenz as an alternative answer to the problem of grounding mathematics, which bedeviled Frege and Husserl. The alternative was derived as Apsychologism and the concept of Evidenz as subjective. But the critics were wrong, and they misrepresented it.
Today we can construe these points of mutual obviousness in terms of cognitive science concepts. The mirroring system in humans, the basis for empathy, is a good candidate for naturalizing Evidenz, for accounting for such things as our capacity to understand others without appealing to normativities, hidden structures of norms, and the like. These systems are objective. They do much of the explanatory work that the mysterious notion of normativity is claimed to do. We can do without these mysteries.