Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation – Part 2.

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that we have looked at some of Schnarch’s ideas regarding sex, intimacy and relationships lets turn our focus toward his main thesis, that is: differentiation. But, what is it?

The polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell, differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It’s the process of grinding off our rough edges through the normal abrasions of long-term relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly form arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 51)

Of course Schnarch’s thesis applies to almost anybody, in the sense that it applies to any person in relation to another person, he simply couches his terms in marriage. To Schnarch well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves”,  similarly they can also disagree without feeling “alienated and embittered” (p. 56), they can “stay connected with people who disagree with them and still ‘know who they are’. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.” (p. 56) He states that a lack of differentiation can come from many sources (most notably the level of differentiation you learned from the family unit you come from), such as the perception of what he calls “fusion fantasies” that is the illusion we have that our partners are supposed to be as part of us, like one organism operating under the control of a single mind. This “emotional fusion” is the opposite of differentiation, in which he describes it as an “invisible-but-tenacious emotional connection” (p. 57), and here he states is an important lesson, differentiation is not simply a lack of connection, it is of a different kind, in which you can “stay in connection without being consumed by the other person” (p. 56), it is a ‘higher-order’ process that balances connection and autonomy. A lack of differentiation states Schnarch alienates us from those we love; emotional fusion is also a tricky problem to solve as popular culture has adopted it as the default position to be in, thus leading to us to think we’re not connected at any sign of an issue thereby forcing us to retreat in defense: “But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us. Or, unable to turn away, we turn ourselves over to the connection, but it feels engulfing.” (p. 57) It’s important to note that differentiation isn’t about alienating yourself either, Shnarch states differentiated people have strong emotional bonds, that is they “don’t require physical distance, infrequent contact or totally consuming careers to maintain their separate identities or moderate their reactivity to others” (p. 64), it is more about the ability to choose which contacts they will indulge in, out of deep liking, not compulsion. Going further Schnarch presses this point stating that those who urge for space within a relationship, are not highly differentiated people, that although defining boundaries is an important early step in differentiation, it is done so within the relationship “(that is close proximity and restricted space)” (p. 67). On the other side Schnarch states poorly differentiated people try to “keep the door open”, or “bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up.” (p. 67) Working on being able to maintain your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your own level of differentiation.

Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when your partner is away or when you are not in a primary love relationship. You value contact, but you don’t fall apart when you’re done. Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism”, which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connection. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy and independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partners needs and priorities into account. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 67)

Schnarch states that having a solid core of beliefs and values allows the differentiated self to be solid yet permeable, this way if your partner tries to mould or manipulate you, you can retain your identity, or as you choose, incorporate new information as you see fit. Schnarch is quick to note however that this can be a slow process, out of “soul-searching deliberation” , not simply as a response to the pressures posed by others. One might wonder if this is only an intellectual exercise that divorces feeling from thought, connection from relationship, Schnarch says no: “Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions…” (p. 68), it simply means that you form bonds that do not involve being swept up in such, that you don’t get caught up in your partners emotions, you can subjectively and objectively evaluate your and your partners feelings, in short: you feel, but you are not defined by your feelings. Nor is this differentiation selfish, you do not put yourself ahead of anyone, you can if you choose allow yourself to be as emotionally influenced by your partner as you want, but it is this expression of autonomy, that is an expression of differentiation. It is more about the awareness that your partner is their own person (complete with their own genetic, historical, culture familial experiences which shape who they are), and their wants and needs are just as important as yours, you allow yourself to see merit in their positions even if they aren’t congruent with yours, and even in circumstances where they conflict.  Schnarch calls this “mutuality”: “Differentiation is they key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship” going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partners happiness and well-being.”  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 68) (See how this touches on other philosophers thoughts here, and here). Finally Schnarch states two important principles we can look at here:

First, we emerge from our family of origin at about the highest level of differentiation our parents achieved. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

The author states our level of differentiation is established during our adolescent years and can remain at that level for life.

In the process of regulating their own emotions, poorly differentiated parents pressure their children for togetherness or distance, which stops children from developing their ability to think, feel, and act for themselves. They learn to conduct themselves only in reaction to others. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

How do we escape this conditioning? Schnarch states it isn’t easy, and that we can raise our level of differentiation through concentrated effort (like therapy), or through crisis (as commonly occurs through marriage, family, friendship and career). Mostly our level of differentiation stays as it is  generation to generation, and usually only changes when a family member is motivated to do so. This view too differs from the popular one that our spouse is our supposed to be our savior, pulling us out of our woes, or your family’s grasp.

Second, we always pick a martial partner who’s at the same level of differentiation as we are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

To Schnarch if one partner is disproportionately differentiated to the other, the relationship generally ends, sometimes one is only a half-step further along their path than the other (he accentuates that they’re only a half-step). Thus we need to give up the illusion that we might be so much further along than our partners or so much more healthy, moreover Schnarch states three things are implicated when you think/argue this way:

  • You have about the same tolerance for intimacy, although you may express it differently.

  • You and your spouse make splendid sparring partners because you have roughly the same level of differentiation.

  • Assume you are emotional “equals” even if you’d like to believe otherwise. If you want to discover important but difficult truths hidden in your marriage, stop assuming you’re more differentiated than your partner. Look at things from the view that you’re at the same level and you’ll soon see the trade-offs in your relationship. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

As Schnarch states becoming differentiated is the most loving thing you can do in your lifetime, for those you love and yourself. This process however is not easy, as he says no-one ever wants to differentiate, and you’ll probably do it for the same reasons everyone else does: “differentiating eventually becomes less painful than other alternatives.” (p. 74) Don’t’ expect the process to be pain-free, as love can be both beautiful and painful, so too can differentiation. The reward is, at a high level of differentiation you will be able to tolerate, enjoy and see the meaning in the pains and joys of love.


Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation: Primer – Part 1.

August 13, 2014 2 comments

Schnarch has some interesting ideas regarding marriage, intimacy and relationships that I intend to share here, to him society generally has distorted our view of sexuality, love, relationships, communication and intimacy. For example we have taken an idea about intimacy, namely that our partner accepts and validates us, and convinced ourselves that this is the totality of what intimacy has to offer, thus placing the burden of being accepted and validated exclusively on our partners. He states that sociologists have suggested we crave “intimate union”, but Schnarch disagrees in that he believes something else is going on, in that we appear to crave intimacy but what we actually are searching for is someone to make us feel “acceptable and worthwhile” (p. 39).

We’ve assigned the label “intimacy” to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us – while keeping true intimacy away. We’ve distorted what intimacy is, how it really feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 39)

Similarly Schnarch states we do something similar with communication, in that we expect to be understood the way we want and be answered with the response we want, he wants however to shift the focus away from making our partners do the impossible task of fulfilling our thoughts, desires and projections (they are not mind readers, they can only accidentally get your expectations right), and to turn the compass inwards, to look at ourselves as the source of our validation, or at least able to structure intimacy in a way that our partners aid us in a “self-validating” intimacy. Thus in turn reflectively enhancing your relationships net intimacy and sexual connection.

This goes too for sex in which Schnarch believes we have rooted sex and sexuality in a “biological hunger”, much like the desire for food, and thus low sexual functioning is labelled “sexual anorexia”, a sexual “eating disorder”. This places couples under an enormous amount of pressure to fulfill their partners and perhaps even their own expectations about sex and sexuality,  after all how messed up would you be if you didn’t want to eat? The same is thought of sex.

We don’t realize that seeing sex as a “drive” makes us focus on relieving sexual tension rather than wanting our partner. It may be true that the more tension (“horny”) people feel, the more they tend to seek relief – but if that’s the only reason you think your partner wants to be with you it tends to kill sex and intimacy in marriage. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)

Thinking of sex as a biological drive states Schnarch sets us up to believe we’re supposed to know how to have, enjoy and appreciate sex, and it also makes us think we should want it all the time, but this does not take into account the mental aspects of sex and sexuality:

Until couples go beyond viewing sex as a biological drive, they presume sexual behavior is a good measure of sexual desire and orgasm always involves high arousal and satisfaction. Common experiences of married couples disprove both assumptions.(Schnarch, 2009, p. 41)

Just what alternative view should we have of sex? Schnarch does offer some insights here (p. 75), but perhaps we can look at that later. In our next post we will begin to discuss Schnarch’s interesting and complicated differentiation thesis.


Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Foucaultian Histories: ‘Archaeology’ And ‘Genealogy’- Part One.

June 4, 2014 2 comments

Foucault’s histories are broken down into two classes, ‘archaeology’, and ‘genealogy’, Gutting states he does not locate Foucaultian histories in any strict scientific sense of the term, as in they are not archaeological in the scientific sense, but rather are located in a much more fluid realm in which they are “retrospective” descriptions, and are “driven much more by the specific historical subject matter than by prior methodological commitments”. As such he proposes

…tracking Foucaultian histories along four dimensions: histories of ideas, histories of concepts, histories of the present, and histories of experience. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7)

Keen observers will see in this language a similar use to the metaphysical discussions of philosophers of the Enlightenment, Gutting notes that Foucault speaks ill of these traditional  theories, but still parallels his histories of ideas (in particular) along them sometimes, for example a central theme in his The History of Madness is Descartes’ discussion on the possibility that he is mad as a grounds for doubt. Due to my recent investigations into pragmatism I might surmise that Foucault’s discussion of ‘concepts’ will bring him into conflict with philosophers of science, as surely an atheistic, naturalistic analytic philosopher who discusses the categories of scientific investigation will have differing thoughts to a Continental Postmodern, post-structuralist (if these labels even apply) philosopher like Foucault who discusses concepts, and conceptual structures across disciplines, but alas, I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Gutting states that much of Foucaultian histories fall under the genre of “the history of concept’s” which he adopted from his friend and mentor Georges Canguilhem:

This approach flows from an insistence on the distinction between the concepts that interpret scientific data and the theories that explain them. By contrast the standard Anglo-American view (…) is that theories are interpretations of data and therefore define concepts in terms of which data are understood. On Canguilhem’s view, concepts give us preliminary understanding of data that allows us to formulate scientifically fruitful questions about how to explain the data conceptualized. Theories then provide different – and often conflicting – answers to these questions… As long as concepts are regarded as functions of theories, their history will be identical with that of the development of theoretical formulations. But for Canguilhem concepts are “theoretically polyvalent”; the same concept can function in quite different theoretical contexts. This opens up the possibility of histories of concepts that are distinct from the standard histories that merely trace a succession of theoretical formulations. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7-8)

Foucault demonstrates this use of Canguilhemian concepts through many different forms, provided by Gutting, the most interesting of which is the way in which Foucault, provides accounts of the empirical sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in his The Order of Things. Although Gutting admits this text is a simple history of the relevant concepts of this field, Foucault goes further on Canguilhem’s method in this work;

For Canguilhem concepts correspond to disciplines, and the history of a concept is written within the confines of the relevant discipline. But Foucault links apparently very different disciplines by showing similarities in their basic concepts. (Gutting, 2003, p. 9)

An example of how he does this is when he argues that the Classical empirical sciences of “general grammar, natural history, and analysis of wealth” share a closer common conceptual structure with each other than their modern counterparts, that is philology, biology and economics (one might feel a twinge of Wittgenstein’s “language games” and “forms of life” as a possible explanation of this phenomenon), Foucault calls this phenomena an “episteme”: that is a “system of concepts that defines knowledge for a certain era” (p. 9). The result of this method by Foucault means that now the historian is now not limited to define a discipline by its own terms, one may deal with the first-order concepts of say biology (such as nervous systems, gaseous exchange), but one may also use second-order concepts as Foucault did such as “representation and historicity” (p. 9) that, as Gutting states are the “conditions of possibility for the first-order concepts.” (p. 9).

As Gutting mentions this discursive look at the “intellectual subconscious” of  scientific practices was the focus of much of Foucault’s work, predominantly handled by his archaeologies:

Archaeology is an important alternative to the standard history of ideas, with its emphasis on the theorizing of individual thinkers and concern with their influence on one another. Foucault suggests (…) that the play of individuals’ thought, in a given period and disciplinary context, takes place in a space with structure defined by a system of rules more fundamental than the assertions of the individuals thinking in the space. Delineating the structures of this space (the goal of the archaeology of thought) often gives a more fundamental understanding of the history of thought than do standard histories centered on the individual subject (…). (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)

Foucault’s motives for embarking on this journey are due to the fact that he finds the current institutions, disciplines, and social practices “intolerable”, his archaeologies are about using the past to point to some aspect he felt needed addressing in the present, usually to the aformentioned categories. That Foucault used the past to speak about the present might be considered standard fare states Gutting, particularly for Enlightenment thinkers who might think that where we are now is inevitable given our history, where Foucault’s thought is unique is in his ability to show the contingency of history and thus current thought:

Intolerable practices and institutions present themselves  present themselves as having no alternative: How could we do anything except set up asylums to treat the mentally ill? How deal humanely with criminals except by imprisoning them? How attain sexual freedom except by discovering and accepting our sexual orientation? Foucault’s histories aim to remove this air of necessity by showing the past ordered things quite differently and that the processes leading to our present practices and institutions were by no means inevitable. (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)

The example Gutting uses to demonstrates this is Foucault’s history of madness in which Foucault assaults our modern conception of madness and mental illness, stating there have been alternative conceptions of madness throughout history (such as madness as a “moral fault” in the Classical Age, rather than as antisocial and/or dangerous behaviors as we do now), but that neither definition and practice of madness and the treatment thereof deserve special placement as having access to the “truth about madness”, no, to Foucault they are “social constructions, intelligible and apparently compelling in their own periods…” (p. 11) Moreover Foucault sees modern psychiatry as less about being a triumph of scientific objectivity and more as a “product of scientifically and morally suspect forces peculiar to the social and intellectual structures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (p. 11)

This is a very short look at Foucault’s histories and an even briefer look at his archaeologies, Gutting goes into an interesting analysis of Foucault’s views of ‘man’ for example how he is in a perplexing position to be “both an object in the world, but also an experiencing subject through which the world is constituted.” (p. 12) Modern thought takes this to be the only such conception of man, but as Foucault notes this is just “one contingent construal of that reality” (p. 12) Although as interesting as this analysis is, it only serves to demonstrate the same critique presented by Foucault’s look at psychiatry and as such I left it out. In our next post we will look at his genealogies.

***Edited*** I’m adding here what I thought would turn into a second blog, but as I’m not reading this book anymore, I’ll simply attach my final notes:

Finally let us look at Foucaultian his genealogies. Gutting states:

We have seen how Foucault’s archaeological method is an outgrowth of his use of Canguilhem’s history of concepts. Similarly his genealogical method can be understood in terms of his desire to write histories of the present.  In fact, in one use of the term, Foucault simply identifies genealogy with history if the present, regarding it as any effort to question the necessity of dominant categories and procedures. More narrowly, genealogy is a history of the present specifically concerned with complex casual antecedents of a socio-intellectual reality (in contrast to archaeology, which is concerned only with the conceptual structures subtending the reality). (Gutting, 2003, p. 12)

As we see above to Foucault his histories are less about objective facts, and more about perspective, that is he adopts different different historical approaches to discuss particular historical realities. In particular his genealogies are an out and out attack on Enlightenment notions (grand narratives) of ‘inevitable progress’ by tracing the origins of practices and institutions to their ‘contingent’ and ‘petty causes’ (p. 14). This view has been criticized, many think that Foucault should not be called a historian, and thus not judged by the standard norms of histiography, and Gutting agrees, insofar as he thinks Foucaultian histories have an agenda, but, even if looked at from a strict historiographical perspective Foucault’s histories may still provide us with a solid historical footing “they may still be adequate to their task of grounding a historical critique of current malpractices.” (p. 15)


Gutting, G. (2003). ‘Introduction’, in G, Gutting (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, New York, New York. Cambridge University Press.



Categories: Philosophy, Postmodernism

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Social Naturalism.

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

So, I haven’t posted on here for a few months, partly due to a holiday to Japan for my sisters wedding, then the collapse of the gym I was working for and the following mad scramble for employment, and then losing track of my thought process with Nielsen’s incredibly complex work. With that in mind, I’m going to scrap the previous investigation I was doing and focus instead on the naturalism that Nielsen actually espouses, namely: social naturalism.

To Nielsen we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” (p. 57)

This social naturalism is also a nonscientistic naturalism. It rejects, as a piece of incoherent metaphysics, the Quinean, Smartian, Armstrongian belief – the belief of metaphysical or “scientific” realists – that physics, or natural science more generally, yields our best approximation of the one true description of the world and that any further filling in of that must be done by physics or a science based on physics… I think that is nothing more than a scientistic metaphysical dogma. By contrast I argue that there is no one vocabulary – or for that matter several vocabularies taken in conjunction – that can tell it like it is and that science is not privileged here such that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 57)

Nielsen goes further to state in Wittgensteinian fashion that our “knowing and conceptualization” is perspectival, that is there are different “discourses” and “language-games” that we use to explain different social practices for different purposes.  Nielsen thinks it a mistake to put the discourse of physics ahead of say the discourses of politics, literature, social anthropology, poetry etc, as if these disciplines were not discussing reality, or indeed had nothing to say about it. They all have their place, but no one discipline leads us closer to the “truth” about reality or even “ultimate reality” Nielsen states, anymore than the other, nor can we even make any sense of what “ultimate reality” is like from the sciences over what poetry might be able to tell us or indeed, what it even is:

We do not know what we are talking about in speaking of “ultimate reality” or of “reality in itself” or even about just plain old reality full stop. Both the sciences and poetry as well help us cope with reality though in quite different ways and for very different purposes. We learn from reading poetry about human sensibilities, feelings, and conceptions of life. These tell us about realities, but different realities, realities we can be interested in for different reasons than the realities chemistry and physics tell us about. But there is no sense in saying that one reality rather than the other is “really reality”. Both tell us about things that are “equally real” but answer to very different human interests.  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 58)

From here Nielsen states that his social naturalism is a form of historicism in that there is no “over-leaping history”, that to Nielsen our attitudes, conceptions and beliefs are embedded and part of social practices that are located historically and are culturally “distinctive and determinate” (p. 58) He is quick to note that this does not relegate us to “imprisonment” in relativism, of any kind. We can alter our social practices as they come in contact with others and indeed as they come into contact with other cultures. Through this process Nielsen believes we can critically alter our social practices, as we operate in them, we can operate on them, but he states we can never stand completely free of them to the point of view from the universe: “There is no ahistorical perspective – no “perspectiveless perspective” or “God’s-eye perspective” (p. 59) Again he denies relativism here stating that it is possible to, from wherever we stand, “look back at previous ways of life or look sideways at other extant ways of life, and sometimes see how we have now come to have either a more adequate or less adequate cluster of social practices than these other ways of life.” (p. 59) To Nielsen we can never stand free of culture, but this does not mean that these are bounded systems in which we cannot escape entirely, sometimes we remain untouched within our own cultures of certain cultural practices, without ever standing outside of it.

To Nieslen his social naturalism is nonscientistic and “nonutterly biological”, moreover it is a “contextual-historicist naturalism”, which he believes escapes the common criticism of naturalism that it makes a religion, or ideology out of the natural sciences that are supposedly there to tell us how the world really is for humans and nonhumans alike, with all other perspectives being illusory. Nielsen thinks that scientific naturalisms claim to be continuous with science, and scientific themselves but end up being “ersatz science”, and although these type of naturalisms reject, as Nielsen does, appeals to the spiritual entities of theistic metaphysics, they no more “fix belief” by the scientific method “than does Thomistic-Aristotelianism”. No, Nielsen claims that in both cases we have metaphysical theories “whose theories are so problematical as to be arguably incoherent or at least best set aside as yielding very little, if anything in way of understanding. Nielsen’s social naturalism, according to him, is not metaphysical and thus not held hostage to said difficulties. (p. 60)

Nielsen does still want to address, indeed needs to how the scientific picture fits into his social naturalism; how does he think at one time that as stated above “we are “irreducibly” social, and self-interpreting animals, and that it is partly in social relations that constitute what it is to be human. To Nielsen this aspect of humanity is not simply a “dangler” to be snipped off to reveal “the purely biological nature of what it is to be human.” while accepting a scientific view of the universe, how does he avoid reductionism and scientism?

In fleshing out what he means by human beings being complicated animals, Rorty stresses the usual thing that they are language-using animals and that with that there goes the ability to think, to reflect, to be self interpretive, to make critical and reflective endorsements – all the conceptual reflectiveness that McDowell takes to be essential to his relaxed naturalism or what Putnam calls a sane naturalism (McDowell 2998; Bernstein 1995). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

It is in this line of thought that Nielsen places his naturalism:

Complicated language-using animals are still animals, macroscopic objects, part of the space-time world. Still reason – it is no longer viewed as Reason – has been naturalized without losing its normativity… There is no conflict between my social naturalism and anti-scientism, on the one hand, and my regarding, on the other hand “that over and above the space-time world, there is nothing further that exists” (Armstrong 1999, 86).  (Nielsen, 2001, p. 436)

Nielsen’s naturalism is not a “scientific naturalism” nor is it an unscientific or antiscientific one, instead and in the vain (as mentioned above) of Putnam and McDowell it is a relaxed one that does not consider there to be one way to view the world, no “one true description”  of the world or one way it has to be, there are Nielsen states: “various accounts embedded in different practices answering to different interests and needs none of which are “closer to reality” or more of a telling it like it is than the others. What should be thought and said depends on the context and what interests are at issue. What is apposite to believe depends on the context.” (p. 443) For Nielsen, it is a piece of common sense that the sciences are the best way to understand the structure of the physical world, he does hold to a cosmological naturalism that the object of the sciences, that is the spatio-temporal world is the only reality we can talk about, where it is coherent to do so at all. There may be other context dependent realities, or worlds to talk about, as in the political, the artistic, the human, the moral, things that lead to Nielsen’s social naturalism, but they are so because they are not independent of the physical world, indeed “there would be none of these realities if there were not physical-realities – space-time entities.” (p. 446)

This is only a very brief look at what Nielsen’s social naturalism entails, consider it a taste if you will. Whether I investigate it further or offer strict arguments for it, will depend on my capricious nature, as such you can accept it or deny it as you will. I have not demonstrated it to be true, only briefly what it entails.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.



Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Methodological Naturalism.

January 11, 2014 Comments off

Thus far we have looked at some basic terminology regarding naturalism (see here), we have very basically looked at cosmological naturalism (see here), we have looked at some criticisms of cosmological naturalism (that may also apply to naturalism as a whole, for them see here), and we will continue to develop and address those criticisms over the course of the series, but for now, let us look at methodological naturalism and allow Nielsen to briefly define it for us:

2. Methodological naturalism is a methodological commitment to employing inquiry only the norms and methods of inquiry of the empirical sciences together with their logico-mathematical auxiliaries. This the claim is, is the only way we legitimate and securely can fix belief. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

As stated it is the sciences which are used to determine both the categorical terms that are taken as basic, including those terms used to characterize the generic traits of nature, as Nielsen states:

Different naturalists will take different categories to be basic, but they will all agree on the use of the scientific method as the proper way of fixing belief – including belief concerning which categorical terms to adopt. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 145)

Some clarifications before we move on: what exactly is the scientific method in our conversation here today? How can it be the sole fixer of belief, and be reliable enough to establish a worldview around? (The term “fixing belief” has been used, but what does this mean? Essentially it is the method we attempt to attach our beliefs to, for example Pierce would state that the scientific method is the tool that gives us the most access to facts (others such as metaphysics or theology have been used) and thus is the most reliable method for us to fix our beliefs to, for more see here). Hook and Nagel define their use of the scientific method as an empirical one, a “hypopthetico-deductive-inductive method” (p. 169), that as Pierce called “the combined use of induction, deduction and abduction” (p. 169). Hook and Nagel’s project was to shirk extraneous philosophical posturing, to avoid the philosophical urge to look for “first principles” (naturalistic or otherwise), specifically our underlying presuppositions, to them there is “no special philosophic knowledge, or philosophic wisdom that can be otherwise gained or warranted” (p. 169) instead their focus was on the “working truths on the level of practical affairs which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs, viz., the effective use of means to achieve ends”.  (Nielsen quoting Hook, p. 159) Nielsen states that these working truths are not necessary ones, but rather more reasonable than their alternatives (whether this has been demonstrated is a source of disagreement), they avoid pedantic discussions (usually held by and between philosophers) about the problems of looking for first principles; in the same way that the results of science can be known without locking down every principle and presupposition of scientific reasoning (we can after all know that obesity is related to dietary and lifestyle factors rather than the position of the sun).  Some examples of possible categories, or working truths determined by the scientific method were mentioned in the last blog (see here), “structure, function, power, act, cause, relation, quantity and event.” (p. 145), these are not factually true or false, so the argument goes, but are “proposals about how to conceptualize things whose use is to be justified pragmatically.” (p. 162)

We are more confident of the warrant of those beliefs … than of any first principles that people might appeal to for their justification. (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2003, p. 160)

From here Hook states:

The choice… of which categories to take as basic in describing a method depends upon the degree to which they render coherent and fruitful what we learn by the use of the method… [it is a non sequitur states Nielsen] to assume that because one asserts that the fundamental categories of description are X, Y, and Z, and that they hold universally, one is therefore asserting that the world cannot be significantly described except in terms of X, Y and Z. (Hook 1961a, 191)  (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 169)

To Hook and indeed Nielsen the above is not to say that the world consists of nothing but X, Y and Z, we can also use A,B and C which might not be categorical and still say as nonreductive naturalists: “that the conditions under which any existing thing is significantly describable in terms of A, B and C are such that they are describable in terms of X, Y and Z.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p.169) The example he uses to demonstrate this is Nielsen himself moving a pen, we can describe the movements of such in terms of intentional acts, and in terms of bodily movements (without reference to intentional acts).

Let us finish with one last quote from Nielsen who asks if methodological naturalism is a good policy, in reply he states that it comes from a tradition of philosophy which has tried to explain reality via metaphysics, that has tried methods other than the scientific to fix belief, what we “might reasonably take to be true or take for truth or to be warrantedly assertable” (p. 149). Nielsen states that, as the argument goes:

But, at least during the modern period with its extensive pluralism, there never has been with these other methods of fixing belief anything but local and temporary agreement with no progress in the direction of reflective and informed consensus… The scientific method, though through and through fallibalistic, works and carries with it a considerable consensus about its working. So if we want to be reasonable we will stick with the scientific method and leave metaphysics to spirit-seekers and other crazies. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 149)

How well methodological naturalism works as a worldview will be addressed later. Of course this blog is only very short and shallow in its descriptive content, but the discerning reader will see there will be problems with questions of meaning and morality with a scientistic worldview, even if it is nonreductive, these issues and more will be addressed later.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Criticisms Of Cosmological Naturalism.

December 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Now that we have looked at defining and very basically defending the view of cosmological naturalism let us turn to some criticisms of it. When the cosmological naturalist states, to put it rather crudely, but accurately, that nature is all, we see that, as Jean Hampton states we have no understanding of what naturalism is, no notion of the natural, or what natural entities are or what a nonnatural entity is or what makes a theory scientifically acceptable or unacceptable. (p. 138)  and Nielsen might add, that it is hard to find those answers without begging the question.

Nielsen sets the scene by stating: “Naturalism sets out to accept only natural categories and to reject all supernatural or transempirical categories and to show how this is justified…” (p. 154) Hook and Nagel at least (as well as Dewey) as we have seen were proponents of an antireductionistic naturalism; “Of course, if in its aversion to reductionism, it simply says whatever we encounter in whatever way is natural, then, to put it minimally, little is accomplished.” (p. 154) To Nielsen we need some way to demarcate the two positions of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ or ‘nonnatural’  to show that “the former alone are real or nonillusory.” (p. 154) Traditionally naturalists had simply stated that their “basic category was matter or material substance” (p. 154) and this alone had independent substance, the problem has been that the current developments in physics has made such an explanation “nonexplanatory”. To get around this Hook and Nagel have changed the definition of “material” to “refer to ‘the subject matter of the physical sciences.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 155) Other naturalists have more recently articulated the basic categories of naturalism as: “event, relation, and quality and it is the factors of process, quality and relation ‘which contemporary naturalism takes to be the constituents of all that occurs, of all that exists.'” (Nielsen quoting Dennes, 2001, p. 155) This definition works, so the argument goes, because on such an account the explanation of a natural event does not require an external grounding or cause, on this view only other events could cause events to occur as “the constituents of all that is real are events, relations or qualities and the processes that go with them. (Qualities and relations being qualities and relations of events). When we ask for a cause on such a view we are asking for some “stretch of natural processes (a distinctive relation between events) and an explanation of events could only be found in the qualities and relations of such events.” (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 155) The charge of circularity is in this definition too states Murphy, in that it is tautologically, and thus trivially so “if events, qualities, and relations are basically, or in the final analysis, the constituents of all there is. If this naturalistic claim is right then nothing else at all could serve as an explanation (Murphy 1963, 207). (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 155)

So the fundamental naturalistic claim, Murphy has it, is the momentous one that “nature is all that natural processes (including those of human living) do not imply anything beyond themselves and do not require for their existence or for their explanation any grounds but the further stretches of natural processes which we observe or inductively refer or to be their contexts, that in the world in which there is one event (that is, in which anything happens) we can distinguish and significantly infer or speculatively suppose nothing, but further events and their relations and qualities” (Murphy 1963, 207 quoting Dennes 1944, 288). (Nielsen, quoting Murphy, 2001, p. 156)

From here Nielsen asks how one might justify such a claim, as he states we would not want to simply and arbitrarily stipulate it as so, nor would a naturalist want to take it as dogma, or as a synthetic a priori truth (that we somehow know by intuition). Nielsen asks, that to see these claims as “very general empirical hypotheses we would have to be able to say what it would be like for them to be false or at least to be able to say what it would like to infirm them. (p. 156) Can we do this? How would we go about doing this? Again as we will see, in finding our way around this dilemma we come up against the charge of circularity yet again, for example, Nielsen asks how we can know that the only existents are event, relation and qualities? We can’t intuit it, if we state it as an empirical claim we must then provide its testability, truth or at the very least assertability conditions, and also we would need to determine what would need to be the case for that statement (about relations and qualities) to be false, or disconfirmed, or infirmed. We cannot say that an observation of a supernatural substance is disconfirming (directly or indirectly Nielsen states) as the naturalist would “deny that that could be a genuine falsification or disconfirming instance because such substances are not discoverable or in any way ascertainable by the use of the scientific method – even in principle by the use of the scientific method.” (p. 157) Nor are they he continues “observable or inferable from what is observable.” (p. 157) What does Nielsen mean here? He states that no such “spiritual substances are recognizable or acceptable or even coherently describable given such categories.” (p. 157) This too might appear as question-begging, in that we seem to a priori be ruling out other assumptions (say Christian or Aristotelian ones), Nielsen says, combating this that we want our categories to fit the facts, and our naturalistic categories do just that, but yet again the question returns “how do we know or even warrantedly believe that is so?” (p. 157)

Do we just intuit it? Do we without categories just observe it to be so? But how can we possibly make such observations? Moreover, and perhaps more fundamentally, what do we mean when we say a set of categories fits or fails to fit the facts? We have little in the way of lucidity here. Indeed it does not look like we have anything coherent here. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 157)

Moreover Nielsen states we could look at our categories as a fundamental linguistic framework or proposal concerning “how to talk and how to conceptualize things” (p. 157) and of course we can and should ask why we should accept this, with question-begging following us all the way down.  One possible hope for this quagmire is in what Nielsen calls the “Kantian-historicist” turn or the “historicist-Kantian” turn,  what is this?

Naturalists should not take “The only existents are qualified and related events” as a synthetic statement, either empirical or a priori, of the way things are, or worse still of the way things must be, however tempting the former may be, but as a fundamental proposal about how best to describe things at a very basic level and to conceptualize the world. We should not be fooled by its surface grammar into thinking it makes sense to take it as anything other than a proposal about how to conceptualize and categorize the world. There are, we should realize, just different ways of talking and coping with things, things, none of which are specifiable or even thinkable independently of some particular conceptual framework with its categories, which are not found but somehow “chosen” – perhaps as the result of “historical choices” – choices made, and in return repeatedly modified, over a long period of time which by now are so firmly socialized in us that they do not feel like choices at all. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 158)

In this we seem some of what will be articulated as Nielsen’s social naturalism, that is a naturalism located within a human context (in this case largely a historic one), with principles coming naturally from human development. There are Nielsen states however, problems even with this turn in that it opens us up to what he calls “linguistic idealism” which forces this supposed answer into being a reductio, and we need to head back to the drawing board to find a “proper form of naturalism”.

This might be a good time to leave it here. There are of course more rebuttals and criticisms to follow, which I may do after my next post on methodological naturalism. At the very least we see there are logical problems even at the definitional level with (some?) naturalism(s?), and the use of science as part of an atheistic worldview, this is why philosophy can be important to us. Without it’s guiding light, these questions are left to naturalisms detractors, with nary a response. To be consistent, to be robust, we need to tackle these questions, and most importantly, to be justified, we need to answer them.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Kai Nielsen’s ‘Naturalism & Religion’: Cosmological Naturalism.

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

In breaking down and analyzing the naturalism of Hook and Nagel, Nielsen first defines where the discussion on naturalism is at this stage; he hopes to distinguish between four species of naturalism that is “cosmological (worldview) naturalism, methodological naturalism, ethical naturalism and scientistic naturalism (the last being principally a subspecies of methodological naturalism exemplified paradigmatically by Bertrand Russell and W.V. Quine).” (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135) Nielsen states  that all of these naturalisms have a common belief (except necessarily ethical naturalism) that “everything belongs to the world of nature and can be, and indeed should be, studied by methods appropriate for studying that world.” (p. 136) Nielsen covers all four naturalisms but today we will focus specifically on Ernst Nagel’s cosmological naturalism.

1. Cosmological (worldview) naturalism is at least a putatively substantive view which holds that everything is either composed of natural entities or is dependent for its existence on natural entities. In so speaking of naturalism, the aim is to capture the distinction between (putative distinction) between the natural and the supernatural, where “nonnatural” or “supernatural” refers to such things as the objects of many of the distinctive and central beliefs and conceptions of theism, deism, idealism, to noumena the elan vital, spirits, and the like. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)

Nielsen states that Nagel’s conception of this type of naturalism (a naturalism he, that is Nagel, Hook and Dewey hold to) does not make claims distinct from scientific claims or a scientific world-perspective, Nagel et al then are proponents of scientism (or at the very least a naturalism congruent with such), though they are not reductionists, that is they (Nagel, Hook and Dewey) reject reductionist physicalist or materialist worldviews. Nielsen states that this is not a philosophical naturalism to Nagel, one that is distinct from science that outlines the underlying presuppositions of science in some “sort of independent ontology or metaphysics” (p. 140); Nagel (along with Quine and Rorty) would reject such metaphysical attempts. It is important to note, that it seems Nagel at least was not dogmatic in this naturalism, that is he saw that it “merely formulates what centuries of human experience have repeatedly confirmed” (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 140) moreover he takes it to be a “sound generalized account of the wold encountered in practice and in critical reflection.” (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 140) We might ask, what else did Nagel’s cosmological naturalism hold to?

It is a view that goes beyond a purely methodological one, a methodological view utilizing fixing belief what he and Hook – both following Pierce and Dewey – call the method of scientific intelligence. It proffers in addition a substantive view “on things in general” (Nagel, 1956, 6). It is “a generalized account of the cosmic scheme and of man’s place in it, as well as a logic of inquiry” – so we have in Nagel’s account both what I called a cosmological and a methodological naturalism. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 140)

Nielsen states though that the logical status of this cosmological naturalism (we will address Nielsen’s thoughts on methodological naturalism in another post) is “rather puzzling for, unlike idealist, realist or Kantian metaphysical worldviews, it does not claim to be a priori true or to be established by pure reflection or logical demonstration.” (p. 140) It has, as Nielsen puts it no transcendental grounding, and moreover rejects man as being in some position of special philosophical knowledge. As the discernible reader will tease out here, there is a seeming inconsistency, after all this view is not a claim of the sciences, but, as Nielsen states: “there is no such thing on their view as a special philosophical claim or way of knowing that could yield some knowledge not attainable by science or serve as a ground for a guardianship or a monitoring of science. It has no such Kantian pretensions.” (p. 140)  This naturalism is not a theory like Newtonian mechanics provides a theory of motion states Nielsen, nor is it looking to create a ‘First Philosophy’, a grounding of special knowledge that science cannot determine or that justifies the grounding for the theories of the sciences, nor are they admits Nagel scientific statements themselves. We are right to be, with Nielsen, confused here, we might ask how this cosmological naturalism makes any sense. It is clear Nagel et al want to shirk philosophical traditions in metaphysics, they also want to plant their naturalism in the idea of an empirical-hypethetico-deductive method to investigate claims, and have ‘man’ as the center of that worldview which focuses on the natural world (problems with the natural/supernatural split will be covered later), but how does Nagel juggle all these balls convincingly? He proposes two theses central to naturalism, (1) “the existential and causal primacy of organized matter in the executive order of nature”, and (2) that of pluralism rather than monism. Before we get to those lets see how Nagel sets the stage:

The account of things proposed by naturalism is a distillation from knowledge acquired in the usual way in daily encounters with the world or in specialized scientific inquiry. Naturalism articulates features of the world which because they have become so obvious are rarely mentioned in discussions of special subject matter, but which distinguish our actual world from other conceivable worlds. The major affirmations of naturalism are accordingly meager in content; but the principles affirmed are nevertheless effective guides in responsible criticism and evaluation. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 141)

From this “distillation” we get our two theses, let us deal with them in turn, starting with (1):

This is the assumption that the occurrence of events, qualities and processes, and the characteristic behaviors of various individuals, are contingent on the organization of spatio-temporally located bodies, whose internal structures and external relations determine and limit the appearance and disappearance of everything that happens. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 141)

Moreover Nagel adds “that this is so is one of the best-tested conclusions of experience”. Nielsen states as we have already seen that this is not a reductive materialism or even a reductive naturalism as it contains talk of relations of meaning, or modes of actions, joy, plans aspirations and such which are not (as such) those material bodies or indeed “organizations of material bodies”. How might this still be a naturalism? Especially of the species Nagel espouses?

 [What naturalism espouses] as a truth about nature is that though the forms of behavior or functions of material systems are indefeasibly parts of nature, forms and functions are not themselves agents in their own realization or in the realization of anything else. In the conception of nature’s processes which naturalism affirms, there is no place for the operation of disembodied forces, no place for immaterial spirit directing the course of events, no place for the survival of personality after the corruption of the body which exhibits it. (Nielsen quoting Nagel, 2001, p. 142)

What about Nagel’s second thesis? Nielsen states that according to Nagel, in line with what has been stated there is no “ground-floor, fundamental stuff, no homogeneous reality, no substance that makes up the universe or transempirical substance that underpins or grounds the universe or is constitutive of the universe.” (p. 142) To Nagel there is a causal link between discrete things, but no substance by which all of them inhere. Nagel’s naturalism is neither atomistic nor monistic but pluralisitic “where the links between the different things that make up the world are contingent and they are constantly changing.” (p. 142) We can see in Nagel’s naturalism a rejection of reductionism when we see that to him:

Human traits and human beings as well as other animal life and indeed nonanimal things are not everlasting and are “dependent on a balance of forces that doubtless will not endure indefinitely” (Nagel 1956, 8). All things including organisms are as much a part of the “ultimate” furniture of the world as atoms or neutrons or stones, or stars or water. None are forever, nor are any of them “the ultimate stuff” (as if we understood what that meant), and all are part of integrated systems of bodies, including ones such as biological organisms “which have the capacity because of their material organization to maintain themselves and the direction of their characteristic actives’ (Nagel 1956, 8). Irreducible ‘variety and logical contingency are fundamental traits of the world we actually inhabit.” (Nagel 1956, 9). (Nielsen, 2001, p. 142)

Nielsen states that it is in such a framework, offered by Nagel that naturalism “envisages the career and destiny of human beings.” (p. 142)

As ths post is getting a little long, I will leave a simple presentation of cosmological naturalism here, and will draw out some possible criticisms and weaknesses in my next post.


Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Categories: Philosophy, Science, Secular

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