Disambiguating Normativity

marx+fem+dialecticI’ve grown increasingly frustrated with a certain type of argument about the use of norms in academic study. It usually goes something like this: “If we accept poststructuralist critiques of the field, everything is imbricated with values and power relations—these are, a priori, inescapable. As such, there are no grounds for excluding value-laden approaches from the field. On the contrary, constructive normative or theological approaches should be as acceptable as critique.”

To offer just one example, consider Thomas A. Lewis’ recent book, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (Oxford University Press, 2015; I pick out Lewis merely because his book was the last I read that made this sort of claim ). He writes,

[t]oo often, we distinguish those who are doing normative work—ethicists, theologians, and philosophers of religion, for instance—from those who are doing more descriptive work—such as historians—as engaged in fundamentally different activities. … [However,] all are making normative judgments; much of what distinguishes them is that the first category are more likely to be reflecting explicitly on the justification for their normative claims, whereas the second are more likely to focus their energy elsewhere. … Nonetheless, both are making normative claims. (53)

Lewis’ conclusion? “Normative claims are inevitable in the study of religion (as in most if not all disciplines). What is important is not to try somehow to exclude normative claims but rather be willing to offer justification for the norms that we invoke” (45-6).

The problem with this, from my perspective, is that it collapses together what I would prefer to separate out as different types of normativity. That is, this argument strikes me as a bit ham-fisted, and I think we need to disambiguate further.

As a poststructuralist, I’ve long since given up on the dream of objectivity or objective truth, and thus I’m completely in agreement with the basic premise of this type of argument. However, I still find it both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)—and it is this concern for intersubjective verification that drives me to seek to disambiguate different types of normativity. Let’s consider four different types of cases.

  1. Scholarly investigation may be motivated by normative concerns or sympathies, e.g., an individual or collective desire for social equality between men and women, or a desire for economic equality.
  2. Scholarship may employ a grid of classification that incorporates normative standards, e.g., “advanced” vs “primitive” societies.
  3. Similarly, scholarship may use evaluative concepts, either praiseworthy or pejorative, e.g., the first generation of sociologists talked about “healthy” and “sick” societies.
  4. Scholars may explicitly make normative recommendations or “should” statements regarding the relationship between the academy and the world at large, e.g., we “should” promote social justice or “should” foster certain values or virtues in our students.

What does intersubjective verification have to do with these examples? I would argue that even when sympathies or antipathies are divided, we can potentially still have intersubjective verification in the first type of case, but not in the latter cases.

Many feminist scholars of religion are motivated by normative concerns about patriarchy. Thus a feminist historical-critical reading of the Torah might demonstrate that the text depicts women as subordinate to men in a variety of ways, and that interpretations of this authoritative text have been used to reinforce patriarchal social relations in Jewish and Christian communities over the last couple of millennia. Provided we’re clear about our stipulative definitions of “Torah,” “women,” “men,” “patriarchy,” etc., even someone who shares no feminist sympathies could potentially agree with the historical-critical analysis. Although normative feminist concerns may have driven the analysis in the first place, the conclusions are, in principle, intersubjectively verifiable even by those who feel antipathy toward feminism.

The same would not be true of the other three cases provided above. As concerns the second and third cases, someone with competing sympathies would likely object to the implicit normative standards set up in the discourse at hand. Of course I can understand why, from Durkheim’s European perspective, he depicted “advanced” societies as superior to “primitive” societies. However, insofar as I don’t share his social or political sympathies or his normative assumptions about which kinds of societies are better or worse, I would wholly reject these normative evaluations embedded in his grid of classification. It would be intersubjectively verifiable—independently of one’s sympathies—that Durkheim made these valuations. But those of us who aren’t sympathetic to the devaluation of kinship communities could not verify the truth of Durkheim’s claims, precisely because we’ve rejected his grid of classification in advance. For those of us with different sympathies, we couldn’t verify Durkheim’s claims any more than a modern doctor could verify the truth of a claim about the balance of the four humors in a human body.

Similarly, the fourth case involves a type of normativity that would not be intersubjectively verifiable by those with competing sympathies. “We should promote equality between men and women” could only be agreed upon by those who share feminist sympathies. Individuals or groups who hold patriarchal norms cannot intersubjectively verify the truth of this “should” claim.

As a poststructuralist, I accept that everything we do is imbricated with norms and relations of power—whether we like it or not, our work is motivated by social concerns and can advance or retard varying social interests. As Foucault claims, knowledge is a weapon of war. However, because not all forms of normativity are equally intersubjectively verifiable, I still draw the line at negative critique (even as I recognize that critique may be motivated by norms or sympathies), and I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as “should” statements about our objects of study.

Of course, this normative conclusion could be intersubjectively valid only for those scholars who, like me, value intersubjective verification.


About Craig Martin

I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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One Response to Disambiguating Normativity

  1. Pingback: Derrida, Critical Religion, and the Potential of Post-Critical Possibility – The Seminar Room

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