Notes On Nicholas Rescher’s ‘A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. II': Values – Rationality And Cultivation Hierarchies.

February 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Rescher’s ultimate goal in this work is to outline the significance of values and evaluation in his overall theme of philosophical idealism, but more than this he focuses on values because of their centrality to understanding, both of ourselves and the world we live in.

[His book] It’s key thesis – which is argued pragmatically from various angles and points of departure – is that rationality as such and in general is bound up with the theory and practice of rational evaluation. A rational being must view in the light of this rationality not only its beliefs but it’s values as well. Valuation is an inherent part of the life of reason – moral evaluation included. For such a perspective to make sense it must show that value is not merely a matter of taste… Evaluation must be acknowledged in its objective, rational mode as dealing with facts of the matter (albeit evaluative rather than descriptive facts). (Rescher, 1993, Introduction)

And it’s in this section that the focus of this particular blog will be, after all the ‘subject/object split’ has been a problem for philosophers for centuries, made even more problematic when we move from the realism of simply coming to know what exists external to us (which has its own problems), to the axiological nature of ‘what values should be interpreted from what exists?’ Rescher’s project aims at discovering how one might go about combining two seemingly in-congruent positions, (1) the claim to objective (one might assume this to mean transcendent, or perhaps absolute) values and valuation, and (2) the subjective versions of such. But, how can a theory of rationality, especially regarding something as seemingly relative as values, claim to be transcendent to the subject perceiving such? What is a value, but what we make it to be, based on our specific cultural, historical epoch (as Foucault might say, see here and here)?

Rescher begins broadly with rationality, which he describes as the “intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives – of proceeding in what we do with cogent reasons.” (p.3) As such to him rationality has two aspects, and its in these differences that we can see the germ of how one might separate the relativism of the subjects particular valuation from the overall process of valuation that applies to us all.

  1.  The personal/private/particular: to Rescher at this level of rationality what is rational or not turns on what is so for the agent, “duly considering his or her own personal situation and circumstances” (p. 3). More than this however this level also relies on a host of other subjective rules, such as: “the agent’s idiosyncratic information, experience, opportunities, capabilities, talents, objectives, aspirations, needs and wants.” (p.3) Inclusive in the list Rescher notes is not just the outward situational aspects but also the inner states related to a specific persons psychology or physiology.
  2. The impersonal/public/universal: this level relies on advisable standards that are “person indifferent and objectively cogent for anyone in those circumstances to proceed in a ‘rationally appropriate’ way…” (p.3) These standards fall at the highest level of abstraction, being general and unrestricted, meaning that what is rational for one person to do, would also be rational for anyone in the same position,

Rescher states this standard of rationality to be relatively trivial in nature, and that moreover this is how rationality is standardly conceived, but what exactly does it mean to be rational?

For a belief, action or evaluation to qualify as rational, the agent must (in theory at least) be in a position to give a “proper account” of it on whose basis others can see that “it is only right and proper” to resolve the issue in that way.” (Rescher, 1993, p.3)

To Rescher a rational act is such that a detached, intelligent observer could observe the facts of the matter (of someone else s particular choice) and be in a position to see that action as the rational thing to do even if they do not value the particular observed choice. To Rescher circumstances differ but the standards of rationality do not, and it’s in the very nature of rationality that this pertains: “It lies in the very meaning of the concept of rationality as such that if something is indeed the ‘rational thing to do’, then it must be possible in principle for anyone to recognize the rational sense of it once enough information is secured.” (p. 3) Moreover, the matter of good reasons and cogent grounds for action or belief is not something subjective, but rather is such that good reasons are good reasons for everyone, and thus objective.

It is important to note that just because there are standards of rationality, does not mean there is only one rational thing to do in a given situation, Rescher speaks of a rational resolution rather than the rational resolution to a given problem, meaning there might be a number of significantly reasonable options for a subject given a particular choice or situation.

Rescher recognizes all too well that the circumstantiality of reason contains “an unavoidable element of person relativity.” (p.4)

Our concrete rational commitments are indeed universal, but only circumstantially universal in a way that makes room for the variation of times, places, and the thousands of details of each individual and situation. (Rescher, 1993, p.4)

This speaks to the fact that what is rational for one to do or think hinges on the particulars of how one might be circumstanced, which will differ from person to person. Specifically Rescher notes that the subject acts rationally only when ones actions are subsumed under a universal principle of rationality that holds for everyone. (p.5)

This might seem to cloud the issue somewhat, after all, how can we have a standard of rationality that caters to the relativity of the subject, but which also pertains to us all? Moreover how can this standard have any meaning at all in light of such? Rescher answers this via his “cultivation hierarchies” in which he breaks rationality up into different “intermediate levels, or strata” of consideration in which the basic principles of rationality are broken up into general rational guidelines that eventually get more specific in nature, finally ending the particulars, which I will now share with you:

Display 1.1 Stratification Levels of the Norms of Rationality

  1. Characterizing aims of rationality. Rationality calls for the intelligent pursuit of appropriate objectives.

  2. Defining principles of rationality. The basic principles that delineate and specify rationality’s requirements. (For cognitive rationality, for example, the project at issue turns on the pursuit of truth and the achievement of correct answers to questions. It seeks “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”) These principles provide our criteria for assessing acceptability and adequacy of rational norms and standards of rational procedure.

  3. Governing norms and standards of rationality. Standards for appraising the “rules of the game” governing the rational transaction of affairs. (For cognitive rationality these norms are afforded by desiderata such as coherence, consistency, and simplicity.) These norms provide our criteria for assessing the acceptability and adequacy of our rules and practical procedures.

  4. Rules of rational procedure. Rules for the rational resolution of choices. (In the cognitive case, rules like modus ponens in deductive inference or trend extrapolation in inductive reference.) These rules constitute our criteria for assessing the rational acceptability and adequacy of particular resolutions.

  5. Rationally warranted rulings. Resolutions with respect to particular issues arising in particular concrete cases, such as: “Do (or accept) X in the existing circumstances.” (Rescher, 1993, p.8)

More simply Rescher notes it takes the format, (1): governing “finalities” (or governing principles), (2): implementing policies (guiding norms, desiderata etc), (3): methods of procedure (operating rules), (4): specific rulings. (p.8) As such from here we can use the example of medicine:

  1. Finalities (defining principles). “Maintaining health,” “curing illness and disease ” “restoring and maintaining normal bodily functioning,” “removing painful symptoms.” (Note that if these things are not at issue, then medicine is not at issue. An enterprise not concerned with any of these, whatever it may be, is not medicine.)

  2. Implementing norms, standards and criteria. “How is one to assess ‘health’?” “How is one to construe satisfactory ‘normality’?” “How is one to identify a ‘symptom’?” “Just what constitutes an ‘illness’?” (Note that for the Greeks, unlike ourselves, the idea of an illness without subject-experienced symptoms was scarcely conceivable. At this level there is already some room for variation.)

  3.  Rules and procedures. The modus operandi of medical practices – surgery or chiropractic treatment, drugs or psychotherapy, and the like. (These of course differ drastically from age to age and culture to culture.)

  4. Rationally warranted rulings. The specific interventions, prescriptions, and medical measures adopted in particular cases. (“Take two aspirin and get some rest.”) (Rescher, 1993, p.9)

Rescher notes that his strata start at the most abstract levels of uniformity and fixity, and that as we move down to the level of particular cases we gain more and more concrete detail, and with this detail brings variation.

Thus while the top-level is itself absolute and constant, there is “slack” at each step down the ladder, leaving (appropriate) room for an increasingly large element of variability and differentiation. (Rescher, 1993, p.9)

This might be enough for today’s purposes, that is to simply outline his basic thesis (and I say basic because we have barely begun to touch on it). In the next series I can delve deeper into what exactly his theory means and how he might defend it.


Rescher, N. (1993). A System Of Pragmatic Idealism, Volume II. The Validity of Values, a Normative Theory of Evaluative Rationality. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation: Sex – Part 3.

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Schnarch attempts in his work here to deny the old adage: “save the beauty in sex for marriage” (p. 71), he is attempting to expand awareness of the beauty of sex, by looking at our sexual potential, that is he wants to “take a deeply sex-positive stance by examining a superficially sex-positive philosophy.” (p. 71) He states that saying the above adage is like saying that the beauty of sex is in sex, as if you could extract it with the one you marry if only you have love and technical proficiency, and likewise destroy it if you share it with the wrong person.

Here’s my point: there’s no beauty in sexthe beauty is in people. You can’t save the beauty in sex, you have to put it in. We all develop inner beauty to varying degrees. Sex becomes beautiful when we bring our personal beauty to it. The issue isn’t simply who your partner is, whether you’re in love, or how good you can do it. It’s who you are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 71)

Schnarch states that some of the problem comes from a common view of sexuality that we accept that make it difficult to live the above, that is: we often confuse genital prime with sexual prime. To Schnarch this mistakes a part for the whole, in that sexual prime has something to do body development, but sexual prime also has something to do with who you are as a person and that’s the authors point about needing to inject the beauty into sex: “if you’re interested in sex with intimacy there isn’t a seventeen-year-old alive who can keep up with a healthy sixty-year-old!” (p. 76) He asks us to meditate on that point, if intimacy is about disclosing yourself through sex, people who are more open to letting themselves be known are more likely to have more profound sexual experiences. A seventeen-year-old is going to get more erections and have shorter refractory periods than their older counterparts, but they are still establishing their masculinity states Schnarch, they are still developing emotionally. Think of that sixty-year-old, who has more “personhood”, that through the successes and failures of life know themselves, they may not like and accept everything about themselves but they’re on the path, Schnarch says they bring more “self” to sex, and the “differentiation to disclose themselves, unvarnished.” (p. 77)

Schnarch criticizes certain models of sex such as the reductionist “hormonal model” of sex by stating that hormones never determine when you have sex, who you have it with and what it means to you, and moreover he asks:

If our models for human sexual response have no component for intimacy or salience, how do we talk about sex having “meaning” without it sounding like conservative proselytizing or religious moralizing? If we can’t show our kids the dynamics of sexual desire or eroticism, how do we explain the sexual advantages of age and maturity? (Schnarch, 2009, p. 78)

Schnarch also criticizes what he calls the “piece of meat” model of sex, that is we have become fixated on as he states “tight buns”, and “flawless skin” as the “height of sexual attraction” (p. 79), we worship youth as the essence of eroticism, although he notes there’s no use in simply letting your body go as a response to this model, rather we could also focus on the emotional development that comes with increased sexual intimacy. But, with all this criticism what model does Schnarch himself employ? This he calls the “quantum model”, but what is it? The analogy Schnarch uses is to that of quantum physics and quantum theory which essentially studies “dynamic variables that specify a system’s behavior”, but more than that Schnarch’s quantum model offers a multilevel view of sexual functioning.

At its most basic, the quantum model explains how you function sexually – what’s required to make your genitals “work” and reach orgasm. But its real strength is helping people go beyond utilitarian genital function. At the limits of their sexual potential, humans are capable of bringing “high meaning” to sex and integrating sexuality and spirituality in mutually enhancing ways. In short the quantum model is easy to learn, and many people have used it to resolve sexual dysfunctions and explore their sexual potential. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)

Schnarch explains his thesis by starting with the physical dimensions, that is what physically happens to you during sexual stimulation, and is arguably the easy part during sex:

When your body detects sexual stimulation, it responds. The key is when your body detects it. When you are sufficiently aroused, your genitals respond. Become more aroused and your body reaches orgasm. At their simplest biological level, genital response and orgasm reflexes occur whenever sufficient stimulation has occurred.  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 81)

Schnarch asks us to imagine that your body has two “response thresholds” that is two sexual trigger points, (1): one for arousal (genital response) and (2): one for orgasm. When your body exceeds its physiological threshold for arousal your body reacts by preparing for sex (vaginal lubrication in women and an erection in men), when your level of arousal exceeds your orgasm threshold, you reach orgasm, Schnarch states that reaching orgasm and arousal thresholds are dubbed “normal sexual functioning”.

Of course this isn’t the entire spectrum of human sexuality for Schnarch, as he states some 400,000 years ago our species underwent some extraordinary changes, in that women stopped going into “heat” and started menstruating, meaning they had year round sexual desire, this led to men and women staying together longer, and led to the rise of families, societies and most important for us here today: the neocortex evolved. This opened up new avenues and problems for human sexuality, human sex and sexuality took on a mental aspect as well as a physical one, with humans being able to emotionally connect during intercourse, and desire a specific partner rather than simply responding to sexual tension.

But when our ancestors traded hormonally programmed regularity for the ability to bring meaning to sex, we became more susceptible to sexual dysfunctions and “inhibited sexual desire”. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)

We use our neocortex for self-awareness, thus making intimacy possible, but it can also drive us crazy as Schnarch says “spectatoring” ourselves and our performance during sex. Thusly our neocortex has become integral to our sexual functioning, the meanings we perceive during sex can determine how your body functions and how satisfying that functioning is. Schnarch states his quantum model takes into account the mental and physical aspects of sex by realizing that we are biologically based creatures that can bring meaning to sex, our feelings he says can have a bigger effect on arousal than can physical touch hence why his model attempts to look at the physical aspects of sex only after he’s addressed the mental.

We need a new mental picture of what constitutes sexual responsiveness. The total sexual stimulation you require to reach either your arousal or orgasm threshold stimulation is made up of sensory (mostly touch) stimulation you’re receiving from your partner plus your feelings and thoughts – feelings and thoughts about what you’re doing, whom you’re doing it with, and what it implies to you. Total stimulation is therefore more than friction of mucous membranes (as it is in more primitive species) and more friction plus fantasy. So to restate what we said earlier: when the combined stimulation of sensation plus feelings and thoughts reaches your threshold for arousal, or orgasm, the response you expect occurs. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 83)


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

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 33 other followers

%d bloggers like this: