The Abnormal “Normative”

One of the more interesting exchanges I had with a faculty member in Boulder last week came over my offhand remark during questioning that I, and most conservative academics I know, tend never to use the term so common to academia in the social sciences: “normative.”  I think my interlocutor wondered whether I was going to repair to some kind of antediluvian challenge of the infamous “fact-value” distinction that is the cornerstone of modern positivistic methodology in all the sciences—physical and social alike.  If you think climate science is “settled,” just try re-opening the fact-value/is-ought problem for discussion.  Most people regard it as a stale debate, fully played out decades ago decisively in favor of the positivists.

Max Weber

But it is not necessary at all to repair to that axis of the issue to disdain the debilitating effect of the “normative” treatment of ethical and moral principles.  One can, for example, recur to the language of Max Weber himself.  Weber, one of the pre-eminent authors of the normative-positive distinction of social science methodology, wouldn’t use the term “normative” if he were speaking to students today.  One way we know this is to see the language he did use with students and in his most vibrant writing, especially his classic lectures “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation.”   While Weber championed scientific, bureaucratic administration, he also said in doing so we’d be fashioning the new “iron cage” of our own captivity, and that the kind of managerial indifference typical of the DMV would result in bureaucrats who would be “specialists without spirit or vision, and voluptuaries without heart.”  Who talks that way in the classroom today?  The Weber who wrote of the “trans-valuation of values” because of the twin revolutions of modern science and philosophic nihilism would likely today recognize our dusty language of “normative” values as the “de-valuation of values.”

Lionel Trilling

Or perhaps a better and more accessible example is Lionel Trilling’s observation in The Liberal Imagination about how the positive language of modern social science was infecting all of the humanities, literature included:

A spectre haunts our culture—it is that people will eventually be unable to say, “They fell in love and married,” let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, “Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”

No wonder students stare at their Facebook pages in lecture halls, and run to business courses instead of the humanities.  So let’s get rid of “normative” and talk like normal human beings again.

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