Monday, 24 March 2008

Semantic normativity, finally

On a wet Thursday in Preston, just before the Easter break and with a campus empty of students, Gloria, Natalie and I met in the Equator to discuss semantic normativity. We didn’t come to any agreed conclusion. But I was struck by a difficulty of the debate.

In the context of debate with someone - a normative sceptic - who denies that semantics are normative, ie. that there is a prescriptive ought in play, it is hard to provide an appropriate argument. The two-fold problem is that if one attempts to characterise a clearly prescriptive claim, such as that truth imposes an obligation on assertion, it is easy for the sceptic both to deny that the norm actually holds and, in any case, to suggest that is not a specifically semantic norm. If, on the other hand and to avoid that problem, one focuses more closely on the link between, say, conceptual thought and what satisfies it (for want of a better general word), there does not seem to be a way to gain independent enough purchase to argue that the link is prescriptive.

Wittgenstein characterises this relation in a way that seems normative:
A wish seems already to know what will or would satisfy it; a proposition, a thought, what makes it true - even when that thing is not there at all! Whence this determining of what is not yet there? This despotic demand? [Wittgenstein 1953 §437]

But the sceptic seems to be able to argue that, although there is a relation of fit here, that need not imply that there is normative prescription in place.

One possibility, suggested in the Equator by Gloria, is that whilst a third person account of someone else’s use might be adequately characterised in merely descriptive terms, charting what is correct use, when one turns to a first person perspective, correct use takes on a prescriptive character, perhaps because one needs to be guided by the idea of making correct uses. I am suspicious of this idea, plausible though it seems, because of a long-standing doubt about the philosophical significance of the first person. In this case, there seems to me to be the same need to characterise third person usage as guided.

I think that the best approach to normative scepticism, like all forms of scepticism, is to block the argument against normativity before it gets going. In Kusch’s and Hattiangadi’s books it is the forced choice between constitutive and prescriptive forms of norms that looks to be the decisive moment. (The decisive moment in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.) But if so it seems to give the wrong account of paradigmatically normative phenomena with which languages are often compared: rule governed games.

In these, the rules (at least partly) constitute the games but are prescriptive nonetheless. Kusch strangely says that one cannot break constitutive rules because, I assume, if one does so then one is really just playing a different game. But this is clearly not the case. One can intend to follow a constitutive rule and fail. Thus the forced choice can surely be rejected. If so, the ground rules for the debate change and Wittgenstein’s description can be taken at face value again.

See earlier posts on this here and here.