Wednesday, 17 August 2011

John Skorupski and the Domain of Reasons

Due to the postings on this blog concerning Derek Parfit's magnum opus On What Matters being distributed on Twitter I was contacted by Constantine Sandis who suggested an alternative work to Parfit's that deals, in some respects, with similar questions. This alternative is provided by John Skorupski in his book The Domain of Reasons. It has to be said that whilst Skorupski's book is not as lengthy as Parfit's it is almost certainly as dense. In this posting I will only lay out the basic points made in the Introduction to Skorupski's book about the content of the claims he will make and how they relate to the structure of the work.

Skorupski opens the introduction by describing the book's concern as being to do with normativity and reasons, two topics of wide contemporary currency but also states that by the work's conclusion we will come to see it as ultimately addressing themes concerning the relations between self, thought, and world. Since the latter appear, at least plausibly, as metaphysical topics whilst the former appear, rather, parts of a theory of practical reason, it would seem that the work intends a kind of integration of theoretical and practical concerns with reason. The fourth part of the book, which is headed "normativity", is apparently where all this is meant to come together.

The project of the book, like that of Parfit's, is very ambitious and perhaps hard to imagine being achieved. So Skorupski, more modestly, indicates that his work hopes only to give a comprehensive solution "to which at least some people can give serious and settled assent". Even this may be rather too ambitious. 

The first section of the introduction sets out a general picture of the project of the whole work and in it Skorupski indicates that "normative" is intended primarily as a contrastive term to "descriptive" and that this is why investigation of it extends to epistemology as much as ethics and aesthetics. The basic concept of the work, as indicated in its title, is, however, the idea of a "reason" and thus in this respect its overall concern appears to mesh with the first part of On What Matters. Skorupski even suggests that thinking in general is no more than "sensitivity to reasons", a claim that ensures that the whole region of conceptuality is at issue for him in addressing reasons.

This basic claim stakes a view of the 'pervasiveness' of reasons but, least it be assumed that it commits Skorupski to an intellectualist conception, he is quick to include sentiments under the heading of reasons (thus implicitly demarcating his conception from a Humean one). If the pervasiveness claim is bought partly at the cost of apparently diluting what is specific to the notion of a "reason" it is also coupled with a claim concerning the 'primitiveness' of reasons to the effect that "a reason" is the basic normative concept. This primitiveness claim is what Skorupski terms the "Reasons thesis".

The "Reasons thesis" itself can be taken in stronger and weaker senses but the stronger sense - leading to the view that normative predicates can be reduced to reasons predicates - is not ultimately going to be supported by Skorupski. Rather, the weaker form of the thesis is what he will be supporting, the claim, basically, that the concept of a reason is the sole normative ingredient in any normative concept. 

Added to the pervasiveness thesis and the primitiveness thesis there is also a constitutive claim to the effect that what enables us to say that thought is occurring is that response to reasons is taking place. This includes the view of thinking that suggests a kind of apperceptive feature in thought or, as Skorupski puts it, that there is a capacity for epistemic self-audit. 

If these are the three major claims about reasons that Skorupski wishes to advance the question next concerns how the structure of the work supports them and the points involved in assuming that the argument concerning them leads us finally to views about the relations between self, thought, and world. The first part of the book concerns the "structure of normative concepts" and it is here that Skorupski promises the arguments concerning the "Reasons thesis" or the weak form of the primitiveness claim. The way I understand Skorupski's subsequent claims about the structure of the work is that the second and third parts of the book (concerning epistemic and evaluative and practical reasons) aim to show the case for the pervasiveness claim and that the fourth part (on the normative view) then concludes with an argument for the constitutive view.

Given that this is the overall structure of the book it follows that it is not Skorupski's primary purpose to advance theses in normative ethics (or normative epistemology either) so that any specific claims that the book contains about these areas will only be of second-order importance. However, despite this being apparently true, the third part of the book will present a number of substantive claims about the normative structure of practical reason. In this respect the third part of Skorupski's book is likely to contribute to controversies within the area of normative ethics in a way that the second part is unlikely to in the area of normative epistemology.

One of the reasons Skorupski gives for this difference between ethics and epistemology is that in the former area there is less agreement about the basic structure of reasons. Skorupski indicates early that he takes there to be an heterogeneity of sources of practical reasons. 

The concluding fourth part is meant to take us into the terrain of the broadest account of the metaphysics of reasons. This circles on the question of epistemic norms and reasons for taking epistemology to be a normative subject. 

Skorupski's general project is set up, in some respects like Parfit's, in opposition to non-cognitivism but, despite this, and unlike the case with Parfit, Skorupski does not wish to endorse realism. Cognitivism minus realism is a combination that already suggests a connection between Skorupski's project and the Kantian one and I'll explore more of the introductory ways in which Skorupski distinguishes his account from Kant's in future postings. 

The basic ground for Skorupski not being a realist is his simple commitment to the view that normative propositions do not represent states of affairs or, otherwise put, that they are starkly different from anything descriptive. So if this is so then propositions which concern reasons do not concern the world (which appears to reinstate a kind of Humean view despite the earlier claim that sentiments belong under the heading of reasons being non-Humean). 

Skorupski's ultimate position of cognitive irrealism is what he terms a "meta-normative" view and the support for it is provided in the fourth part of the volume. It is not directly entailed by the normative views provided earlier so it is in principle possible to accept the claims of pervasiveness and primitiveness without agreeing with the constitutive claim. The second part of the introduction begins to lay out the meta-normative claim's relation to the Kantian view and I will turn to this in the next posting on Skorupski.

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