Norm fever

 

Pär Segerdahl

How does one become a Platonist; a person who believes in a world of pure ideas? This blog post tries to give an answer.

If I were to use one word to sum up the character of everything that agitates people, it would be: normativity.

As soon as we are engaged by someone’s hairstyle, by a political program, or by how some researchers treated their research participants, we perform some form of normative activity.

Think of all the things we say daily, or hear others say:

  • – It looks better if you comb it like this
  • – What a beautiful coat
  • – Do you still buy and listen to CDs?
  • – That’s not a proper way of treating people
  • – To deny women abortion violates human rights

All these normative attitudes about the tiniest and the greatest matters! Then add to this normative murmuring the more ambitious attempts to speak authoritatively about these engaging issues: attempts by hair stylists, by orators, by politicians, by ethicists, by the Pope, by sect leaders, and by activist organizations to make themselves heard above the murmuring.

A person who was troubled precisely by the latter attempts to speak more authoritatively about the issues that engage people was Socrates. He asked: Are these wise guys truly wise or just cheeky types who learned to speak with an authoritative voice?

Socrates wandered around in Athens, approaching the cockerels and examining their claims to know what is right and proper, genuine and true. These examinations often ended in acknowledgement of lack of knowledge: neither the cockerel nor Socrates himself actually knew.

Socrates’ examinations look like a series of failures. No one knows not what he claims to know. None of us even know what knowledge is!

For Socrates, however, failure is success. He converted another mortal and helped his soul discover a more ideal orientation towards pure normativity: the eternal standards of all that is. No mortal has normative authority, only the norms themselves have. You must search for them, rather than follow orators or sect leaders who just want to make themselves heard. You must orient yourself towards normativity as such, and strive towards perfection.

Socrates was feverishly attracted to this dream of pure normativity. He called his dream “love of wisdom”: philosophy. But for the dream to be more than a feverish dream the dream must be real and reality must be a dream. Another aspect of Socrates’ art of conversation was, therefore, a series of myths, parables and stories, which suggested a more real world beyond this one: a realm of eternal pure norms, the ultimate standards of all things.

One such story is about a slave boy who, although he was illiterate, could be made to “see” a truth in geometry. How was this possible? Of course, because the slave boy’s immortal soul beheld the norms of geometry before he was born among us mortals! Reminiscence of more original normative authority, truer than any mortal’s loud-voiced pretentiousness, made it possible for the slave to “see.”

Something similar occurs, Socrates implied, each time we see, for example, a beautiful building or a brave soldier. Something more primordially real than the house or the soldier – pure norms of beauty, courage, buildings, soldiers – shine through and enable us to see what we naively take for granted as reality. Primordial reality – a realm of pure norms – illuminates all things and enables us to see the beautiful building or the brave soldier (if they resemble their standards).

If normativity sums up the character of everything that engages us, it is perhaps not surprising to find that it easily makes us dream feverishly about a realm of ultimate normative authorities, called “pure ideas.”

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog

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