In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Normativity and Social Explanation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Communities and Collective Intentions
  • Norms and the Space of Reasons
  • Sellars and the Two Images
  • Legal Normativity
  • Social Science Accounts of the Normative
  • Science Studies
  • The Natural and the Normative
  • The Justification of Normative Claims
  • Rules, Rule Following, and Normativity
  • Normativity and Meta-Ethics

Philosophy Normativity and Social Explanation
Stephen Turner, Peter Olen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0235


Normativity is what gives reasons their force, makes words meaningful, and makes rules and laws binding. Onora O’Neill, in her introduction to Christine Korsgaard’s influential The Sources of Normativity (1996), says “normativity is everywhere.” Normativity is present whenever correctness is present. What normativity is taken to inhere in varies, but in general the normative is taken to be a class of facts, or a class of things accepted to be true, valid, or otherwise indispensable to thought or science. Defenders of such claims argue that normative facts are not empirical facts, not reducible to empirical facts, and, crucially, cannot be explained away by ordinary “scientific” or naturalistic explanations. This bibliography is concerned with a subset of the problem: the cases in which explanations of normativity compete with cognitive science and social science explanations of human behavior, intentions, actions, and linguistic practices. The candidates up for explanation in the cognitive and social sciences vary, depending on the philosopher in question. The usual candidates are often such things as rationality, practical reason, modal logic, concepts, inferential relations, correct linguistic usage, rule following, and ethical norms or behavior. A model form of the distinction is this: predicting that I will arrive at work at nine o’clock tomorrow is different from promising that I will, and promising cannot be reduced to prediction or mere expectation; rather, it creates or invokes a sui generis normative relation, binding or committing the speaker, which allows the speaker to be held accountable by others. Yet normativists, the philosophers committed to this idea, admit that the idea of a noncausal normative realm and a body of normative objects is spooky (McDowell 1994 cited under General Overviews), and they are reluctant to embrace a metaphysics that is sharply at odds with broadly naturalistic explanations. This tension is the source of the problem of naturalism and normativity. Is it possible to account “naturalistically” for the normative by explanations that are part of the normal stream of cognitive science or social scientific explanation? Put simply, it is one dimension to the question of whether science, in some sense, can explain everything that needs explaining. Normativists claim that there are essential things that science in the narrow sense cannot explain. But in order to avoid dualism, they often argue for a liberal naturalism that allows for some kind of normativity.

General Overviews

Although initially philosophers interested in offering normative explanations usually focused on one specific topic (e.g., rule-following considerations in the philosophy of language), a number of contemporary texts address a variety of topics surrounding normative and social explanation from a holistic perspective. That is, some philosophers have attempted to offer broad accounts of normativity that encompass a number of topics (usually the mental, perception, language, persons, and action) in an effort to offer a unified and interrelated explanation for all topics under consideration. Thus one finds in Brandom 1994 and Wedgewood 2007 an attempt to offer an explanation that, if correct, would necessarily entail a normative understanding of the mind, language, and persons. McDowell 1994 and McDowell 1998 offers a slightly more focused account of normativity than Brandom 1994 or Wedgewood 2007. Nonetheless, McDowell’s texts do attempt to convey the purportedly interconnected nature of the mind, meta-ethics, perception, and language. Other holistic accounts, such as Millar 2004 and Knowles 2003, address a variety of philosophical topics that confront anyone interested in defending normative explanations. Owens 2000 is of particular interest as he attempts to connect issues in meta-ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology in order to shine new light on debates between internalists and externalists in epistemology. Yet not all holistic accounts of normativity defend normative explanations. Turner 2010 offers a broad critique of normative accounts that covers issues in the philosophy of language, mind, and law. Machery 2009 examines the conflicts between philosophical accounts of concepts and psychological and cognitive science accounts. Although most of these accounts address a number of different topics and traditions; what unifies their approach to understanding normativity is their interest in offering a broadly holistic, normative explanation of a variety of topics.

  • Brandom, Robert. Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    Brandom’s text focuses on offering a broadly normativist and expressivist conception of persons and the mental. Specifically, chapters 1–4, 8, and 9 address issues surrounding norms and action, perception, meaning, mental representation, and social practices, among other topics.

  • Knowles, Jonathan. Norms, Naturalism, and Epistemology: The Case for Science without Norms. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230511262

    Although Knowles claims to focus on epistemology, broadly construed, the bulk of the text acts as an advanced source for arguments over the relationship between unflinchingly naturalist accounts and thoroughly normativists approaches to epistemology and science; this is mainly for those interested in the clash between naturalized and “non-naturalized” epistemology. Despite the title of this book, see Owens 2000 for a more epistemologically centered account of normativity.

  • Machery, Eduard. Doing without Concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195306880.001.0001

    One of the essential moves in normativism is the claim that the indispensable “concept” of concept is itself “normative.” Machery systematically reviews the various psychological theories of concepts, together with the supporting empirical evidence, to show how poorly the philosophical approach matches the evidence and raises the question of what is indispensable for cognition.

  • McDowell, John. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    This now-classic work addresses a number of issues surrounding perceptual knowledge, mental content, and the relationship between the natural and the normative. In McDowell’s account issues surrounding normativity are exhibited in his discussion of conceptual and nonconceptual content as well as the induction of individuals into the “space of reasons.”

  • McDowell, John. Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    This collection of McDowell’s previously published essays contains a number of entries that touch on normative concerns. More specifically, the relevant essays focus on standards of correctness in relation to meaning and mental content. McDowell 1994 is a better starting point for the unacquainted.

  • Millar, Alan. Understanding People: Normativity and Rationalizing Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199254408.001.0001

    Millar’s text offers a broad account of the issues facing those that defend normative explanations of persons. This constitutes an “overlooked gem” in the debates over normative explanation and is a great starting point for the unfamiliar.

  • O’Neil, Onora. “Introduction.” In The Sources of Normativity. Edited by Onora O’Neil, xi–xv. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Oneil’s introduction to The Sources of Normativity offers a broad account of the role of normativity in Korsgaard’s philosophy and touches on general issues surrounding normative accounts of human action. See the introduction in Millar 2004 for a more detailed exposition of similar issues.

  • Owens, David. Reason without Freedom: The Problem of Epistemic Normativity. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203464601

    Owens’s work creates a middle ground between internalist and externalist concerns about knowledge and presents an expansive analysis of the necessary views of freedom and responsibility that are a consequence of his view (as well as those presupposed by externalism and internalism).

  • Turner, Stephen. Explaining the Normative. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

    Turner examines the influential kinds of circular, transcendental, and tu quoque arguments for normativism and contrasts these arguments to standard social science explanations, showing that normativism relies on dubious social theory. See the Oxford Bibliographies article on Normativity and Social Explanation. Turner 2010 is a good counterbalance to the rest of this section.

  • Wedgewood, Ralph. The Nature of the Normative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199251315.001.0001

    Wedgewood’s main argument rests heavily on the idea that normative claims are strongly supervenient on factual claims. The normativity of the intentional is one example: intentional claims are strongly supervenient on facts about the world in the sense that for an intention to change something in the non-intentional world must also change. But the facts in the nonintentional world do nothing to warrant the kinds of considerations that are inferentially linked to intention, such as the possession of the concepts relevant to having the intention.

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