Friday, 4 January 2008

Community and normativity

In recent months, I’ve been increasingly drawn into recreational running, including off road running. (I’m now equipped, thanks to my brother, with some snazzy new off road shoes which will oblige me to keep it up.) Aside from rational considerations of health and so on, usually in full view at this time of year, there’s another reason in play which has made has helped motivate me. In Kendal, it seems harder to find people who do not run regularly than those who do. The implicit presence of the community of like minded people makes going out on cold winter days so much more normal and thus so much easier. Running is, in this context, just the right thing to do. But in general I don’t actually run with other people. I haven’t, eg., joined the Helm Hill Runners who run on my local hill. So what difference should a largely implicit community make?

In Wittgensteinian philosophy, there’s a tradition of arguing for a fundamental role for a community in sustaining the normativity of judgement (and hence conceptual thought as a whole). According to a communitarian interpretation, only relative to the performance of a community can an individual’s judgements be deemed false or true. The very idea of following a rule, of going on correctly, on this view, depends on, implicit at least, comparison with others. Since judgement is rule governed, judgement requires a community.

But there are real problems with communitarian Wittgensteinianism. Simon Blackburn suggests the following principle when approaching necessary conditions for rule following. Whatever the constraint is, it had better be the case that one’s favoured instance of rule following (eg. public, communal judgement of everyday objects) meets it. And, in fact, once one has got one’s teeth into arguing that isolated individuals cannot follow a rule, it becomes quite hard to retrieve rule following for communities.

I think that the best communitarian Wittgensteinian is Meredith Williams. But even her account (which in retrospect had a significant but insufficiently explicit influence on my own book on Wittgenstein) seems to beg the question at the key moment when she suggests that individuals’ behaviour cannot manifest a correction of an earlier judgement and thus cannot manifest a distinction between being right and only thinking that one is right.

So is there any other account of the connection between a community and normativity explored in philosophy? Strangely it might be found in philosophy of psychiatry where there is the beginning of a fresh discussion (obviously influenced at a distance by Foucault) of the familiar idea that madness is a form of other behaviour: the behaviour of a kind of lost tribe. Practically, there is the reciprocal idea within the service user movement that it can and should reassert a kind of positive tribal identity in, eg., Mad Pride. What’s missing as yet is a good philosophical story about just how the community and personal identity can stand in a mutually constitutive relation (I’m suspicious of constructivist constitutive claims in which relations to the community constitute identity) but the agreement that there’s a phenomenon to be explored seems promising even for less concrete communities, such as the wider community of Kendal runners.

For links to later post on normativity see here.