Henrik Lagerlund

Norms and Nature from Plato to Hume

A striking thing about us humans is that we have values. We think that some things are better than others and that some things could have been better than they are. Value judgments, or judgements about what ought and ought not to be the case, are called ‘normative judgments’, and ‘norms’ has become an umbrella term for anything involving value or oughts. Such judgments are also, at least nowadays, distinguished from judgments of facts, suggesting that there is a distinction between a world of facts and a world of norms. But if the world of norms is distinct from the world of facts, or nature, then where are norms located, and how do they occur in the first place? The purpose of the proposed scientific meeting is to initiate a research program, which will take a systematic look at how philosophers viewed the relationship between norms and nature from the time of Plato and Aristotle in Ancient Greece to David Hume in the eighteenth century. It attempts to trace a story of how norms went from being considered more fundamental than nature, and as properties of nature, to being considered separate from, and even as projections of sentiments onto nature. This will take us through some of the most important events and some of the most important philosophers of the history of philosophy from Ancient, Medieval (both Arab and Latin), and Early Modern times.
Final report

Norms and Nature from Plato to Hume

1. Aim
The aim of the application was to organize a meeting which would become the basis for a program application to RJ. The program aims to investigate how philosophers have understood the distinction between norms and nature from Plato to Hume. The aim it to clarify how norms, which in Plato and Aristotle, are more fundamental, or part of nature, successively came to be seen as separate from nature and finally in Hume be seen as projections onto nature. The research would include some of the most important philosophers from ancient, Hellenistic, medieval and early modern times.

To reach this aim we organized a workshop on May 11-12, 2018, and a brainstorming meeting on the 13th. The workshop included presentations from several well known and established scholars. The thought was for them to give their individual take on our overarching research question. The aim was to inspire an interesting discussion for our meeting the day after. All speakers and several others participated in our subsequent meeting.

2. Result
The workshop was a huge success. We organized it in such a way that Calvin Normore (UCLA) gave an overview of the problem on the afternoon of the 11th and the day after we had six talks, two on ancient, two on medieval, and two on early modern. The program was the following:

Norms and Nature from Plato to Hume
May 10-11, 2018
Chair: Henrik Lagerlund (Stockholm)
Calvin Normore (UCLA): Norms in Nature and the Nature of Norms: How ‘Law’ became Ambiguous
Friday, May 11, 2018
Venue: Gula villan
Chair: Svavar Svavarsson (Reykjavík)
Francesca Masi (Ca’ Foscari): Norms and Atoms: Epicurus on Agency
10:00-10:30: Coffee
Chair: Tomas Ekenberg (Uppsala)
Peter Adamson (LMU/KCL): Against Nature: Two Critics of Naturalism in the Islamic World 11:30-12:30:
Chair: Peter Kail (Oxford)
Michael Gill (Arizona): Shaftesbury on Nature, Religion, and Aesthetic Norms
12:30-1:30: Lunch
Chair: Mikko Yrjönsuuri (Jyväskylä)
Helen Hattab (Houston): Hobbes and Spinoza on Constructing a Science of Virtue without Universal 'Humanity'
2:30-3:00: Coffee
Chair: Miira Tuominen (Jyväskylä)
Martina Reuter (Jyväskylä): Gender as a Battlefield of Norms and Nature
Chair: Øyvind Rabbås (Oslo)
Katja Vogt (Columbia): Good for Human Beings in Aristotle

The meeting on the 13th was also a great success. We had distributed a project description before the meeting and most of the participants had read it. Perhaps the most exciting result of the meeting was that the first plan we had was completely changed as a result of the meeting. Instead we started thinking about a new division of the history of philosophy and how it would better reflect the division between norms and nature. We also started to think in terms of a few themes that in various ways would reflect this division. These were terms like ‘environment’, ‘animals’, ‘slavery’, ‘genus’, ‘race’, ‘skepticism’, ‘relativism’ etc. They came to form the basis of the new project.

The first result of this meeting was an application to the European Research Council (ERC) – Advanced grants competition. We submitted that in August this year and the second step in a program application in January next year to RJ. There are also other results in forms of the publication of the speakers talks in volumes and journals and we have as a result of the meeting made crucial connections with important scholars for this new project, many of them will take part in the project and come back to Sweden and Stockholm.

3. New research questions and the continuation
The next step is to develop the meeting into a program application. As mentioned our draft went through quite some revisions after the meeting. The new suggestion has three main aims: (i) to historically explain the Modern conception of norms and nature, (ii) to give a historical background to our notion of environment, and (iii) to lay the foundation for a new division of the history of philosophy.

The dualism between norms and nature encapsulates other dualisms, such as mind and body, value and fact, and reason and passions. I aim to explain the historical origin of these enormously influential dualisms. To study the sharpening distinction between norms and nature I look at shifting views of, and attitudes towards, particular societal phenomena such as gender, race, slavery, and exploitation of natural resources, and certain attitudes that have influenced our Modern notion of normativity like epistemological skepticism and moral relativism.

The dualisms dominating Modern philosophy have made concepts like ‘environment’ exceedingly problematic, and makes it hard to subscribe intrinsic value to nature. The proposal makes ‘environment’ a guiding concept and aims to historically explain our present concept.

The project also suggests a new periodical division of the history of philosophy into Ancient and Modern, with the death of Thomas Aquinas and the 1277 Condemnation as the watershed. The Modern period is distinguished by its move away from Aristotle and diversification of philosophical thought.

Grant administrator
Stockholm University
Reference number
SEK 155,000.00
Research initiation