March 12-14, 2009

Texas A & M University




Panel Presentation Proposal:


The Life of Norms:

The Pragmatic Difference of Understanding Norms as Living


Number of Confirmed Participants: 3





The Life of Norms:

The Pragmatic Difference of Understanding Norms as Living

This panel proposes to investigate the problem of normative ideals in pragmatic contexts, paying particular attention to the issue of viewing norms as living components of ethical activity. This position strongly contrasts the model of norms as propositional statements that define ethical behavior. In this sense, the positions discussed by these papers all reject the claim that normative action is only understood cognitively or ratiocentrically, but do so in ways that demonstrate the relevance of normative ideals to embodied, living activity and human flourishing. In making these arguments these papers not only invoke and further arguments about norms and ideals found in the thought of different American philosophers, but seek to shape a discourse that can be accessed from a variety of philosophical positions. The further relevance this has to wider social implications is that these papers suggest that norms can be pursued, apprehended, and practiced in ways that are not characterized by authoritarianism or social injustice. In this sense, this panel attempts to open a discussion not only about what it means when we discuss the life of norms, but how norms live well.

The first paper employs the philosophy of Charles Peirce to help answer the question of what pragmatic difference it makes to consider norms as living. The paper employs Pierce’s notion of Thirdness in order to discuss ethical activity in realist terms instead of nominalist terms. In particular the paper argues for understanding ethics in terms of futurity to show how the pursuit of ideals corresponds with Peirce’s emphasis on the importance of synechism. The paper then further demonstrates how Peirce’s views can be distinguished from his idiosyncratic view of god, which allows Peirce’s to be made applicable to a wider audience.

The second paper, “A Pragmatic Confucian Apprehension of Norms: Excellence, Imagination and Social Flourishing,” argues that the apprehension of normative standards can occur in ways that do not depend on authoritarian imposition, and that this apprehension relies on lived social encounters with exemplary figures. This occurs through observation of embodied activity which raises in the observer an awareness of how human activity can be understood in normative terms, how excellent human activity creates ideal standards, and how living in the pursuit of ideals leads to actual human flourishing. As part of making these arguments this paper turns to an unusual source, the philosophy of Confucius, which is in turn employed to help argue against authoritarianism and social injustice in relation to normative activity.

The final paper, “Knowing the Good Self: Character as a Prerequisite to Being Good,” responds to the first two papers and investigates the issue of why merely knowing norms is necessarily morally insufficient.  Moral discourse privileges “knowing that” over the “knowing how” of embodiment and frequently equivocates on the distinction.  The equivocation privileges “knowing that” and forgets that the known good lives and dies in the reflective moment unless embodied.  Moreover, his privileging gets it backwards, as John Dewey wrote that “Only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is” (MW 14.26).   Drawing on this claim, this paper argues that authentic moral activity requires not only an apprehension and internalization of norms, but also the continuous re-apprehension and habituation of these norms through socially embodied activity.

Calling Peirceans to the Living Ideal:

Ethics, the Summum Bonum, and Synechism


“…[T]he True Ideal is a living power….  That is, the esthetic ideal, that which we all love and adore, the altogether admirable, has as ideal, necessarily a mode of being to be called living.”  --Correspondence of C.S. Peirce to William James, date July 23, 1905


In his 1898 lecture, “Philosophy and the Conduct of Life”,[1] Peirce advocates what he calls ‘sentimental conservatism’, distinguishing between ethics and morality, as well as advocating the impracticality of philosophical knowledge to ‘matters of vital interest’.  Morality is the living of life according to principles taught us not by reason but by instinct and tradition, and we feel (rather than know) the reasonableness of morality; ethics is a matter of the head trying to grasp what in morality is grasped by the heart, and as such, ethics is a rather poor source for guidance in questions of what specifically one ought to do (which is, of course, how ethics is usually conceived).  This is rather jarring to those are accustomed to prioritizing the Popular Science series of 1877-78, divorced from the rest of his thought, for it appears as if Peirce has rejected precisely what is attractive to such thinkers—that we can and should use reason to determine how we ought to orient ourselves to the world, including in matters of morality.  The problem, I suggest, is that these readers of Peirce misunderstand his meaning when he uses terms like “pragmatism”, and that it is this sort of misreading that leads to accounts like that of Goudge, namely, that there are really two “Peirces”, a hard-nosed scientific realist and a transcendentalist given to wild metaphysical and cosmological speculations (the corollary being that no right-minded philosopher could take such ‘unscientific’ speculations seriously).

            I argue that this partial reading of Peirce frequently tends (unwittingly) to run afoul of two of Peirce’s central principles, namely, his Realism and his Synechism.  In fact, it is precisely his Realism and his Synechism that lead Peirce to articulate what is, I argue, one of his most valuable contributions to ethics, namely, that we ought to think of ideals (including ethical ideals) as both real and living in a non-figurative sense.  In order to make my case, I will discuss ethics as the second of the Normative Sciences, and then will explain how Peirce relates ethics to the Summum Bonum.  Peirce speaks of Ideals as Thirds, and as such, they are living reasonability, active in the world.

            The Summum Bonum is what is admirable per se, without reference to anything else, and this is the proper object of ethics (which relates deliberate action to its proper ends).  As David Pfeifer observes, Peirce’s notion of the Summum Bonum undergoes a process of development,[2] but his final position is that the Summum Bonum is “the continual increase of the embodiment of the idea-potentiality.”[3]  The Summum Bonum is the proper object of ethics because it relates the phenomenon of action to the end of action in the most general (and hence, most synechistic) way, rather than the use of this or that ideal to determine what, rationally, we ought to do.  Rationality in this latter sense (which characterizes ethical cognitivism) is decidedly un-Peircean, for hidden within it is an implied opposition between the rational (as a conscious content) and the irrational, rather than the synechistic notion that the emotions (and pre-reflective behavior) are continuous with the rational and reflective; it is also un-Peircean because it tends to overvalue the powers of insight of individual ‘rational agents’, atomizing them and thus ignoring that synechism about reasonableness requires that minds be continuous (both within themselves and with other minds) and that rationality not stand in sharp contrast to what is not rational but rather is intermingled with the not (or not yet) rational.

The value, I propose, of thinking of Ideals as real and living is that it avoids thinking of ideals in what is ultimately a nominalistic way:  as propositional contents to be judged through ratiocination.  This conventional, cognitivist way of considering ethical ideals is nominalist for two reasons—it posits a sharp polarity between the rational and the irrational (and denies that Ideals engage both what small and tentative share of reason we individually possess and the pre-rational portion of us.  If ethical ideals are both real and living, then growth is possible, and, more importantly, since the Ideal is not a fixed content but rather is the semeiotic growth in the embodiment of potentiality.

            To many, speaking of the Summum Bonum and ethical values as living strongly suggests theism, which is a position repugnant to many philosophers.  While it should be pointed out that Peirce’s God is rather idiosyncratic (from the viewpoint of classical theism), this does little to mitigate the more than understandable allergy many philosophers have toward all God-talk.  I propose that we see in Peirce’s identification of the Summum Bonum with God not a fundamental piece of Peirce’s system (i.e. that a thorough-going Peircean must be a theist of some sort) but rather a hypothesis about the final meaning of speaking of Thirds as active rationality in the world.  If Peirce’s God-talk is a hypothesis about his system and its meaning, then it is to be confirmed or denied inductively, through further reflection upon experience, for it is a hypothesis that will eventually either be confirmed or disproven.  In the meantime, those who cannot seriously entertain any version of the God-hypothesis can fruitfully explore Peirce’s notion of Ideals as living by framing the issue (hypothetically, of course) in explicitly non-theistic terms.  Inquiry into the nature of ideals as living ought to be conducted from multiple starting points (both theistic and non-theistic), and the resolution of these disparate ways of reading Peirce is to be awaited in the future, not something demanded today.


A Pragmatic Confucian Apprehension of Norms:

Excellence, Imagination and Social Flourishing

This paper proposes to give an account of the Confucian apprehension of normative ideals through a pragmatic aesthetic approach, similar to the aesthetics of experience found in the philosophy of John Dewey. The purpose of bringing Confucianism into this dialogue is two-fold: first to continue the comparative dialogue begun between Confucianism and Pragmatism in the works of Roger Ames, David Hall, and Joseph Grange; and second, the purpose of engaging Confucianism here is that Confucianism provides an explicit vocabulary of exemplarity and ritual and self-cultivation, which allows us to understand how the apprehension of normative ideals can occur in a rich interpersonal social environment, and in such a manner that is conducive to creating human flourishing.

The current dialogue between Confucianism and pragmatism focuses heavily on political and moral comparisons, but the recent work of Joseph Grange provides extrapolates a Confucian model of experience using Dewey’s model of aesthetic experience. This aesthetic model provides a critical tool for illuminating the Confucian emphasis on ritual: contrary to viewing ritual as an oppressive tool employed for social manipulation, Confucianism views ritual in broad linguistic terms. Confucianism employs ritual for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are self-cultivation and education, but also for making distinctions and differentiations within our experience, which are in turn organized into coherent aesthetic expressions.

This pragmatic-aesthetic approach provides the foundation for understanding how the apprehension of ideals can occur through intimate encounters with exemplary figures. These encounters with exemplary figures not only provide explicit models of behavior, but more importantly create awareness within the participants of the possibility for adopting, applying and achieving normative standards through their own self-directed activity. In other words, witnessing excellence within others provides inspiration for understanding how one’s own self is capable of not simply achieving norms, but how pursuing, embodying and practicing ideals is actually a better way ( or dao) of living.

The presentation will then discuss the concepts of (ren = exemplarity), 礼 (li = ritual), and (he = harmony), for the sake of (1) providing a brief but necessary into the key Confucian vocabulary and (2) for demonstrating how we can understand exemplary behavior functioning pragmatically within a community. The key with Confucianism is that exemplary behavior provides norms in such a way that effects personal transformation. And what is especially critical is that this transformation occurs in a way that is not imposed or forced, but in a manner in which creates growth and meaning.

From the discussion of these terms we can then argue this manner of apprehension is critical to social flourishing while preserving a morally viable sense of self. In this sense, apprehension of normative ideals in Confucianism occurs through the observation and interaction with exemplary figures, whose behavior does not impose a normative ideal, but rather awakens within the individual an awareness of her own situated embodiment within an environment and the ideal possibilities she can pursue. The power of this account is that it provides a critical challenge to the idea that the imposition of norms is a violation of selfhood, and instead demonstrates how normative apprehension can be understood as a key part of the process of self-becoming. This is especially poignant due to the fact that Confucianism is often criticized as being a philosophy of authoritarian control, when Confucius himself explicitly condemns forceful imposition.

This paper will then discuss how this healthy apprehension of norms helps create harmonize social relationship, by an in-depth analysis of Analect 2.1, where Confucius compares governing through exemplarity to being the pole-star. The metaphor demonstrates how exemplary conduct not only transmits normative standards in a peaceful, non-violent, non-invasive manner, but also how this transmission acts as an agency of social harmonization. As part of this explanation, this presentation will then further argue that social harmonization in the Confucian sense does not mean forced conformity to externally imposed standards, but rather is grounded in a complex understanding of human beings as socially constituted beings who have a variety of different needs and undergo lifelong process of learning, change, and creative expression.

Space permitting, the paper will conclude with a discussion of how these ideals provide mesh with Dewey’s ideas of democratic behavior, and help provide tools for discussion how ideals and exemplary behavior function within democratic processes. Given the limitations of the conference space, such discussion will be necessarily brief, but should provide the impetus for continued and further discussion.


Knowing the Good Self:

Character as a Prerequisite to Being Good

         Human goodness requires self-knowledge.  This treatise addresses the question, "what self-knowledge is necessary for being good?"  This is an ancient question, whose answer was once sophrosune, a consciousness and mastery of self necessary for being virtuous.  However, the import of the question has changed, for we find the self to be "decentered," "fragmented," and "multiple," and hence self-knowledge can no longer be a harmonious unity of the soul-self for us.  My goal in this treatise is to rethink "self-knowledge" to ask this ancient question again and to suggest an answer.  I find the question worth asking, for some contemporaries believe that the question can no longer be asked given our decentered, post-modern selves.  I disagree.  This essay argues that the life of being good requires self-knowledge sufficient for the cultivation of character.

         John Dewey offers an answer.  We are habitual selves and to know ourselves we must cultivate our habitual character.  Character is the interpenetration of habit, and its cultivation is the further integration of habit, which governs the having of experience and our behavior.  Character is of utmost concern because it thereby governs the apprehension of the good, which occurs in and so depends upon experience.  Moreover, the good lives in experience after the initial moment of apprehension has passed.  Hence, Dewey would say that the concern for habitual constitution, character, is necessary for the apprehension and continued objective constitution of the good.  This essay focuses on the latter, the life of the good, yet this is a paradoxical life as will now be shown.

         To know ourselves we must cultivate our character, an intelligent readjustment of habits, yet this requires an adjustment of that which does not explicitly emerge in reflective experience (experience as known).  If this cultivation is to lead to self-knowledge, then how can the readjustment of the non-reflective lead to knowledge?  Does this not seem to be a paradox—how does one cultivate the unknown?  As Meno once asked of Socrates in the Meno, how does one come to know what one does not already know?  Socrates believes that it must be possible, for in the Charmides he assents to sophrosune as the knowing of the unknown in order to know thyself.  Dewey would tell us that this is a false dilemma; reflective experience emerges from non-reflective experience, and likewise experience emerges from the environment in part.  Because reflective experience emerges from non-reflective experience, the latter must be taken into account.

         The contemporary practice of morality is too focused upon what occurs in reflection.  This is a problem because, first, the pre-reflective significantly determines what occurs in reflection, and second, many significant moments do not enter into reflection.  The pre-reflective cannot be ignored; all reflective ethics must engage this problem or fail to be relevant to practice.  Although, not all ethical theories are reflective, e.g. sentimentalism/emotivism.

         Some might say that we could not have known what we were doing while not reflecting, therefore we are not culpable.  This presumes that moral culpability requires knowledge.  To take it one step further, they might say that we could not have intended what we were doing, because we cannot intend that of which we are not aware.  This presumes that moral culpability requires intention.  Am I saying, an incredulous interlocutor might ask, that I hold people culpable for what they neither knew nor intended?  Yes.  On this, John Dewey writes, "Only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is" (Human Nature and Conduct, MW 14.26).

         The way out of this seeming paradox and towards self-knowledge is to realize that we can have knowledge of our character.  Character is the totality of our habitual constitution that informs habitual action and the constitution of experience in which the good lives in thought and deed.  In response to the question "what self-knowledge is necessary for being good?," Socrates might say "sophrosune" or “self-mastery.”  With Dewey, I say a "creative, intelligent adjustment of character" as habitual character constitutes the experienced life of the good.



[1] Reasoning and the Logic of Things, edited by Kenneth Laine Ketner (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 105-122.  Selections from this lecture, as well as part of an alternate version of the lecture, can be found at 1.616-677 in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Paul Weiss and Charles Hartshorne.

[2] The Summum Bonum in the Philosophy of C.S. Peirce.  (Ph. D. Dissertation:  University of Illinois, 1971). 

[3] MS 283, 102-104, quoted in Pfeifer, p. 135.