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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

Competent to judge

Making sense and making the world are not distinguishable activities for Onuf, and it is in embracing this premise that Onuf comes into conflict most directly with the orthodoxy of modern Realism. If the very sorts of human activity that make sense of the world are also world changing, then no positivist demarcation between knowing subject and worldly object is possible. It cannot be, Onuf reasons, because language is always both a tool for populating the world with objects and a social performance. Resting on the foundation of Austin and Searle’s linguistic philosophy, adapted in subtle ways, World of Our Making develops the argument that language constitutes exactly three sorts of performances: assertion, direction, and commitment. These performances take place in the world (where else?). And so, “saying is doing: talking is undoubtedly the most important way that we go about making the world what it is” (Onuf 1998b, 59). There is no understanding or reasoning about the world without the tools of speech, but speech is intrinsically part of world itself, and so the world as we understand it is also intrinsically social.

These propositions are developed carefully by Onuf (1989, 66-95), accepted by many Constructivists, and rejected by most positivists. We might sum them up by saying that the human capacities for speech, for thought, and for understanding are all intimately connected and interdependent.

There is at least one other immediately relevant human capacity - apart from the ability to speak and to reason - about which Onuf has little to say: memory It is necessary for what comes next in the final chapter of World of Our Making, which is Onuf’s own discussion of competence. This is prefaced by a lengthy discussion of cognition, so perhaps memory is assumed to be one of the chief cognitive functions. In the interest of clarity, however, it is worth pointing out that the ability to retain information is necessary for processing it. At the same time, Brenda Milner’s (1972) classic study of a patient known as “H. M.” whose hippocampus had been removed showed that the ability to process information is linked to the structures of the brain’s medial temporal lobe and is necessary for memory (Squire, Stark, and Clark 2004). There is no retention of memories without cognitive processing, and no processing without language. In fact, the same part of the brain chiefly responsible for processing sensory stimuli and encoding memory is also responsible for many aspects of semantic processing and language use (Hickok and Poeppel 2007). To perform the cognitive operations of which the brain is capable, to reason and even to remember, is both a social and an individual task.

Ironically, many Constructivists themselves perceive an important line of demarcation somewhere between the physical and individualist ontology of cognitive psychology and the social ontology of Constructivism. But Onuf’s work, like that of Harre (1979; 1998; also Harre and Secord 1973), is a warrant to regard this antinomy as overwrought. The interaction of cognition and memory, of information processing and information encoding, is carried out by the physical structures of the brain, but it is also necessarily a process carried out by societies. It does not proceed without categories that depend on our social competence as language users.

We are competent to reason because we are competent as individuals (possessed of the necessary physical and cognitive structures) and as social beings (possessed of the necessary linguistic and institutional structures). We are not born fully competent in either the individual or the social sense, but rather become competent through developmental processes that are again both individual and social (see Onuf 1989, 110-119, for his discussion of Piaget and Kohlberg). Through these processes, we learn to make sense of the world. Our ability to do so is developed individually from childhood, and it is developed socially over many generations.

The topic of the final chapter of World of Our Making is comparison and judgment, however, rather than understanding. Inevitably, we wish to pass judgment on the world as we understand it. The distinction between understanding and judging is provisional, because Onuf’s model of language supports the argument that each accompanies the other. Understandings are not ethically neutral and no one has done more to develop this proposition than Jurgen Habermas (1979; 1984). Even simple declarations, no less than promises or demands, involve a transaction between the speaker and the audience. To acknowledge such declarations

accepts a speech act offer and grounds an agreement: this agreement concerns

the content of the utterance on the one hand, and on the other hand, certain

guarantees immanent to speech acts and certain obligations relevant to the sequel of interaction.

(Habermas 1984, 296, emphasis in the original;

quoted in Onuf 1989, 84)

To acknowledge another’s declaration, in other words, creates an obligation to agree or disagree, although this may be only what both Habermas and Onuf consider “a weak normative bond” (Habermas 1984, 304; Onuf 1989, 84).

If our individual and social capacities to make meaning permit meaningful speech, and if this speech in each of its three forms (assertive, directive, and commissive) is inevitably normative, then we would appear to have a satisfactory account of the human competencies necessary for the emergence of ethical systems. Much of World of Our Making is devoted to elaborating on the social architecture of the way we move from linguistic rules to normative systems of social rule.

There is one additional competence, implicit in the linguistic transaction just described by Habermas and Onuf, that is essential to the emergence of normativ- ity. It is our valent reaction to the world, our emotional sense that things matter. Emotion gets no entry in the index to World of Our Making, and only scant attention within its pages. But of course we are not indifferent to the world. And so, when Onuf turns in the final chapter of World of Our Making to reason, he construes reason as comparison among states of affairs and thus acknowledges at least implicitly that we have feelings about the states. “A chooser compares alternative states of affairs, one against the other, for optimal fit to her preferences. She avers, I want as much as I can get” (Onuf 1989, 266). This is a very cognitive presentation of choice making, but it nevertheless presumes an emotional orientation toward different states. We must not only perceive, but also want. If we do not want, we cannot choose.

We want what is good and reject what is bad. In so doing, we put into practice what Rom Harre (1986) called the principle of bivalence. We make a distinction between good and bad and feel about them accordingly either because of the way the world is or because of the way we are. Scientific Realism, as Harre presents it, understands bivalence to be a quality of the world. Things are either so or not so because that is the way the world is, and claims are thus either true or false, good or bad. Aristotle took a similar position as an empirical realist. In his account of virtue as moderation, however, Aristotle is harder to parse. Moderation and excess might also be seen as properties of the world - that is to say that things are either moderate or extreme - but virtue appears to describe our orientation toward moderate or extreme things (cf. Hutchinson 1986). If we understand the world itself to be the arbiter of our orientation toward it - that is, we either succeed or fail in understanding the world as it is, good or bad - then we have a position similar to Harre’s. This appears to be Onuf’s (2013, 61ff.) reading of Aristotle and bivalence.

It is probably fair to say that most psychologists understand bivalence to be a feature of individual subjectivity instead. The considerable literature on emotional states (see, e.g., Ortony, Clore, and Collins 1988) understands valence as the basic emotional reaction of people toward the world, either positively or negatively. If this reaction is determined by the individual, not the world, then it is perhaps more resiliently individual than any of the other competencies (language, reason, beliefs, even memory) considered so far. We are competent to feel even without the social context that enriches our ability to think about, describe, and act on these feelings. We can feel what we cannot put into words.

Nevertheless, as with so many other binary oppositions, a neat formulation of valence as either an external worldly phenomenon or an internal subjective one is not intellectually sustainable. Aristotelians (and realists like Harre) believe that bivalence, as an emotional principle, derives from the world because the state of affairs to which it refers cannot simultaneously be true and false. A fundamental principle of Aristotelian Realism is that things either are or are not the way we say they are (cf. Bhaskar 2009, 3). Yet even if bivalence is fundamental, for scientific realists at any rate, this certainly does not exhaust the catalog of emotionally laden moral orientations that people experience towards the world. Aristotle also held that “emotions are the things on account of which the ones altered differ with respect to their judgments, and are accompanied by pleasure and pain: such are anger, pity, fear, and all similar emotions and their contraries” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1378a20-23, in Leighton 1982, 144). Our emotional states are thus our own, at least in part, and ontologically prior to reason, belief, and speech.

Yet the majority of the ancient Greeks did not stop there. For Plato, our differences in kind suited us to interact with the world in different ways, relying on our physical prowess, our spirit and bravery, or our mental acuity. We are thus different types - gold, silver, or bronze - according to our intrinsic capacities as individuals, and these types correspond to the dominant aspects of our psyche (Cornford 1912). We are not equally suited to all tasks by virtue of the way we are. We may be able to alter our behavior, some more easily than others, but our behavior nevertheless depends on what we do not share as well as what we do share.

One might argue that the Platonic account of people as different in type commits the fallacy of composition, and that all people have capacities for endurance, bravery, and wisdom, though perhaps in different degrees. This argument voices the contemporary liberal commitment to the notion that people are created equal - that we are all equally endowed with the necessary faculties to participate in public life. We are all, in other words, alloys of Plato’s pure metals. Utilitarian philosophers and economists may emphasize our appetitive nature, whereas enlightenment philosophers focus instead on the crucial annealing role of reason. Richard Ned Lebow (2008) has even made the case that we ignore spirit, the third of Plato’s metals, at our own peril in accounts of international relations, given the continued relevance of considerations such as status and prestige. Yet again, the analogy to metals suggests that the soul (as Plato’s yu%n, or psyche, is often translated) is really a crucible wherein the components of human nature are blended together.

Onuf (2009) borrows a psychological term closely linked to the study of emotion and calls these accounts of motivation - of the different ways, that is, that we are motivated to interact with our world, driven by reason, will, or appetite. If it seems that the distinction between typological and “shared competency” accounts of motivation is arbitrary, or a matter of perspective, that is indeed part of what I wish to argue. And because it is arbitrary, the sharp ontological distinction between emotion and social faculties of judgment and language used to buttress the argument that people differ in strictly pre-social ways in their emotional make-up and basic motivation is also untenable.

Recent developments in moral psychology make a similar case. The CAD triad hypothesis, for example, links three emotions (contempt, anger, and disgust) to violations of three associated moral codes (community, autonomy, and divinity) first articulated by Shweder and his colleagues (Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, and Park 1997; see Rozin, Lowery, Imada, and Haidt 1999). Haidt and Joseph (2004) reformulated this as “Moral Foundations Theory” (MFT) with four moral “building blocks.” MFT has since evolved (see Graham et al. 2011; Haidt 2012) to comprise five pairs of emotions and associated moral codes: suffering and an ethic of care exploitation and fairness; betrayal and loyalty; disrespect and authority; and finally disgust and sanctity. Psychologists such as these join David Hume (1788, 470) in contending that morality “is more properly felt than judg’d of,” that emotion is the root of moral judgments. “Since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas,” Hume contends, “it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion, that we are able to mark the difference betwixt them” (Hume 1788). Hume argues that we generalize from these feelings and our generalizations are the basis of moral arguments. Paul Grice (1991, 107-109) calls this the “Humean projection.”

Yet if we project our feelings onto society as a moral argument, moral foundations theorists argue for a reverse projection as well: in socializing us to feel in different ways, society projects certain sentiments onto us, changing the way we feel. To support this claim, Haidt (2012) relies on scholarship in the past two decades that has rehabilitated the notion of group selection (see, e.g., Richerson and Boyd 2005) and reinforced the argument that natural selection occurs at multiple levels. Multilevel selection theory, or MLS (Wilson 2002; Wilson and Wilson 2008), holds that evolution operates not only at the genetic level, but also at the higher levels of the cell, the organism, and even the social group. Functional differentiation within a beehive is adaptive for the colony itself, for example, though not necessarily to the benefit of every individual bee or its own genotype. Of course, cooperative behavior is often to the advantage of individual organisms, a point that was the heart of Williams’s (1972) influential critique of group selection. But as Haidt explains, certain circumstances may encourage and reinforce group selection even when it does not work to individual genetic advantage:

If the key to group selection is a shared defensible nest, then shared intention- ality allowed humans to construct nests that were vast and ornate yet weightless and portable. Bees construct hives out of wax and wood fibers, which they then fight, kill, and die to defend. Humans construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods that, even in the twenty-first century, they fight, kill, and die to defend.

(2012, 207)

The shared norms and institutions of a moral community constitute the human “nest” that makes moral communities beneficial in an evolutionary sense (see also Wilson 2002). But the building blocks in Haidt’s evolutionary story are emotions. Our emotions may help us, as Hume argued, to fashion moral communities. But the success of these communities also alters us and makes us capable of feeling the necessary things. It is in this sense, the moral psychologists argue, that our emotional capacities are themselves evolutionary adaptations.

The synthesis of moral psychology with evolutionary arguments makes it seem that ethical systems rest on building blocks. So does Habermas’s notion of communicative rationality And the final chapter of World of Our Making, in its focus on judgment, connects these pieces together into a general account of moral systems. When we understand all the building blocks - when we understand all the parts - then it appears that we understand everything necessary for ethical systems. We have “solved” the problem of ethical origins. The psychological proponents of MFT appear to make just such an argument.

But this misconstrues what ethical systems do. We are accustomed to thinking of obligations as things that, if they exist, constrain our behavior. So we must either prove or disprove their existence. Yet Onuf (1989) helps us to conceive instead of ethical systems - not just the capacity for moral judgment, but ethical systems as they operate socially - in a very different way: as solutions to a problem that we, as social scientists, didn’t know we had.

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