Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.