Skip to main content

Explaining the Normative

Explaining the Normative

Stephen P. Turner

ISBN: 978-0-745-64256-7

May 2010, Polity

240 pages

In Stock



Normativity is what gives reasons their force, makes words meaningful, and makes rules and laws binding. It is present whenever we use such terms as ‘correct,' ‘ought,' ‘must,' and the language of obligation, responsibility, and logical compulsion. Yet normativists, the philosophers committed to this idea, admit that the idea of a non-causal normative realm and a body of normative objects is spooky. Explaining the Normative is the first systematic, historically grounded critique of normativism. It identifies the standard normativist pattern of argument, and shows how this pattern depends on circularities, assumptions about the unique correctness of preferred descriptions, problematic transcendental arguments, and regress arguments that end in mysteries.

The book considers in detail a paradigm case: legal normativity as constructed by Hans Kelsen. This case exemplifies the problems with normativist arguments. But it also shows how normativism was constructed as an alternative to ordinary social science explanation. The normativist argument is that social science explanations themselves are forced to rely on normative conceptsÑminimally, on normative rationality and on a normative view of ‘concepts' themselves.

Empathic understanding of the reasoning and meanings of others, however, can solve the regress problems about meaning and rationality that are central to the appeal of normativism. This account has no need for a parallel normative world, and has a surprising and revealing lineage in the history of philosophy, as well as a basis in neuroscience.

Introduction vii

Chapter 1 What Is the Problem of Normativity? 1

Chapter 2 The Confl ict with Science and Social Science 29

Chapter 3 A Paradigm Case: The Normativity of the Law 66

Chapter 4 Lustral Rites and Systems of Concepts 95

Chapter 5 Communities, Collective Intentions, and Group Reactions 119

Chapter 6 Rationality or Intelligibility 150

Epilogue 186

References 206

Index 216

"When it comes to producing thought-provoking pieces of academic writing, Stephen Turner is indefatigable. More than this, the quality never slips."
Thesis Eleven

"A very important stimulating addition to current philosophical discussion; it presents arguments every normativist should come to grips with."

"Turner has done contemporary philosophy and social science a great service by holding up a mirror to some forms of normativism; he has given it the best gift one can: geniunely struggled with it, tried to give it voice, and then said how he feels about it. He has also, in his best moments, helped create a clearing where more fruitful dialogue between normativism and naturalism can take place. Let us wait and see whether those who identify with normativism can come to meet him there."
Human Studies

"Turner's very clear and measured writing can easily underplay the significance of his message, which needs to be taken very seriously by anyone concerned about the future of philosophy and the social sciences."
Times Higher Education Supplement

"This book does to the many overblown claims concerning 'normativity' what Turner previously did against fashionable ideas of 'social practices': throws cold water on extravagant claims made on behalf of norms as a distinctive and unavoidable basis for social inquiry. The real strength of this analysis is the way that Turner shows that the current debates about norms have a long history, the consideration of which is essential to understanding the current discussion for good or ill. The book is certainly the best of its kind and an important contribution."
James Bohman, Saint Louis University

"This is the most systematic discussion of normativity by a social theorist (or philosopher of the social sciences). The argument is forceful and original throughout. Turner brings together considerations from a variety of different fields - philosophy of law, philosophy of the social sciences, philosophy of mind and language, cognitive science - and these different strands re-enforce and strengthen one another. It is particularly intriguing to see how philosophers defending normativity have in many ways 're-invented the normative wheel' that some social theorists have used for a long time. This book should be obligatory reading for philosophers and social scientists alike."
Martin Kusch, University of Vienna


• This is a high-quality book in the philosophy of social science.
• Turner tackles one of the central questions in the philosophy of social science - namely, the question of whether social relations are ‘normative' in character, in a way that implies that the study of social life must be fundamentally different from the study of the natural world.
• The author is well-known and highly regarded in the field.
• This will be read by academics and used on graduate courses and advanced undergraduate courses in the philosophy of social science.