The research of Jeremy Koons, associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar (GU-Q), was featured recently in a CIRS Faculty Research Workshop about his co-authored book manuscript Unity Without Uniformity: A Synoptic Vision of the Normative and the Natural. The full day event, held March 8, 2015, included 11 participants from Europe and the greater Middle East region.
The manuscript, co-authored by Koons and Michael P. Wolf, associate professor at Washington and Jefferson College, draws on the pragmatist tradition of philosophers Wittgenstein and Sellars to defend an alternative conception of normative discourse. It also draws on other elements of the pragmatist tradition, stretching from philosophers Peirce to Brandom, to show how normative claims are constrained and how this constraint, combined with the way in which normative claims are accountable to reason and argumentation, prevents any fall into relativism.
The CIRS Faculty Research Workshop is a closed-door, one-day seminar that brings together select renowned scholars for a focused discussion on a GU-Q faculty member’s book manuscript that is in its final stages of development. All participants receive the entire manuscript in advance of the meeting and each scholar leads a focused group discussion on an assigned chapter.
This research workshop featured a talented group of esteemed philosophers who specialize in Sellarsian and pragmatist philosophy. Participants engaged in a series of structured brainstorming sessions that led to a critical and thorough discussion of the book manuscript.
Participant Niklas Möller, associate professor in philosophy at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, said “ever since I first read [Brandom’s book] Making It Explicit, I have felt the need for a serious attempt at addressing moral normativity from a socio-pragmatist perspective. And now you are doing exactly that (and more), which I find to be a very exciting project indeed. I think you are doing something very important and impressive, and I am happy to have been invited to engage with the text.”
Attendees included Bana Bashour and Ray Brassier, American University of Beirut; Erhan Demircioglu, Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey; Anjana Jacob, GU-Q; Daniele Mezzadri, United Arab Emirates University; Niklas Moller, The Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden; Jim O’Shea, University College of Dublin; John Ryder, American University in Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates; Matthew Silverstein, New York University in Abu Dhabi, UAE; Lucas Thorpe, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul; and Jack Woods, Bilkent University, Turkey.
Koons received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University in 1998. He teaches a wide variety of philosophy courses on ethics (theoretical and applied), social and political philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of mind and language, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He publishes articles on ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. His book, Pragmatic Reasons: A Defense of Morality and Epistemology, was published by Palgrave in 2009.
Unity Without Uniformity: A Synoptic Vision of the Normative and the Natural
Our lives ineliminably involve the normative. We make moral judgments. Scientists and laymen alike make epistemic and methodological judgments (judging a theory as rational, a method as biased, and so on). We make prudential judgments. But we have to make the normative fit within our dominant, naturalist view of the world: in some sense, science offers a privileged account of what there is, and other disciplines cannot make claims incompatible with our scientific world-view. A longstanding challenge for philosophers has been to fit the normative within this naturalistic picture of the world.
Dominant naturalist approaches to this challenge try to fit normativity into our scientific world-view by showing how normative claims describe some aspect of physical reality. We argue that this approach is fundamentally misguided, and fails to do justice to the prescriptive (‘ought-to-be’ or ‘ought-to-do’) element of normative discourse.
Drawing on the pragmatist tradition of Wittgenstein and Sellars, we defend an alternative conception of normative discourse. On this conception, to make a normative claim (“You shouldn’t have done that”; “The study results were biased”; “Eating a ghost pepper is foolish”) is not to state a fact, not to make a descriptive claim, at all. Rather, such discourse serves a fundamentally action-guiding role: it prescribes behavior (or proscribes it), or recommends a course of action (or recommends against it), and so on.
Even though normative claims are not descriptive claims, such claims can be true, and indeed non-relatively true. Drawing on other elements of the pragmatist tradition, stretching from Peirce to Brandom, we show how normative claims are constrained by how the world is even though they are not in the business of describing this world. This constraint, combined with the way in which normative claims are accountable to reason and argumentation, prevents any fall into relativism.
Of course, once normative facts drop out of the picture, there is nothing left to offend against a scientific world-view. Thus, we defend not only the objectivity of norms, but also a robust version of naturalism which accords science privilege in describing how the world is and what it contains.
Finally, we show the various ways in which descriptive discourses—such as scientific and social-scientific discourses—and normative discourses mutually contribute to each other in fruitful ways. The result is a picture of normativity that is robust and truth-apt, sewn into a new take on the naturalist tradition.