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John Skorupski's The Domain of Reasons is a kind of book that is not often seen in what can be described as the contemporary analytical tradition in philosophy. Such qualification is justified by the fact that it is -- in terms of the structure, some of the problems it addresses, its conceptual framework, and its author's ambition -- reminiscent of, for instance, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Fichte's Science of Knowledge, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit or The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. The position defended in The Domain of Reasons, however, is very much a product of the contemporary philosophy, and that of metaethics in particular. Having this in mind, Skorupski's book provides a challenge to and requires attention of scholars who are quite familiar both with the history of philosophy in general, and with its development from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.
The reader is introduced into the book by a clear exposition of its main aim, which is to work "out consequences of an account of normativity according to which all normative properties are reducible to what I call reason relations, so that normative propositions in all fields are propositions about reasons" (Preface). That all normative propositions are propositions about reasons is one of the four main theses defended in the book (29; see also Appendix); it without a doubt addresses one of the main concerns in contemporary metaethics -- viz. the concern for the nature of normativity (including moral authority, moral evaluation, moral knowledge, moral norms, etc.), which hinges on the question whether moral judgments capture moral properties that are reducible to some sort of facts (relations) or not.
The ambition of Skorupski's work, however, goes beyond the field of metaethics, which is clearly visible in the fact that he wants to establish "The Normative View", or "Normative Critical philosophy", which purports to explain the "relation between self, thought, and the world" (1). Developing an explanatory account of the complex relation between the subject and the world, which would make the world "ours" yet not susceptible to authority (or caprice) of individual subjectivity, is an ambition the roots of which predate the philosophy established after the publication of Moore's Principia Ethica. 18th and 19th century German philosophers like Kant, Jacobi, Reinhold, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, for instance, were obsessed with finding a solution to the problem of the subject's epistemic relation to the known world. When morality is concerned, however, Skorupski's work can also be seen as a continuation of the pre-Kantian debate between 16th and 17th century moral rationalists and sentimentalists, which was concerned with the question of the ontological status of moral properties, as well as with the question whether moral evaluation is an epistemic product of reason or sentiment.
The author explains that his work inherited the ambition of the "Critical Philosophy", the most significant exponents of which are Kant, Wittgenstein, and representatives of the Vienna Circle. The merit of the Critical philosophy lies in the fact that it confronts the position defined by the author as "Global realism", which defends two theses: "(1) "factualism: to assert any proposition is to say that some fact obtains, (2) cognition independence: facts are cognition independent" (7). Skorupski explains that Global realism leads either to scepticism or dogmatism (absolutism), which, according to the Critical philosophy, offer equally unsatisfactory theoretical explanations of the nature of the relation between cognition, feeling, and action on one side, and the world on the other. Skorupski argues that the primarily epistemic project of Critical philosophy could not have been completed in the past due to incorrect views on ontology of objects of human knowledge. Skorupski's idea is that this project can succeed if it is grounded in what he calls 'the domain of reasons'.
The domain of reasons is constituted by the existence of three main kinds of distinct and irreducible reasons, albeit unified in terms of their epistemic and ontological status: epistemic reasons (reasons to believe), practical (reasons to act), and evaluative reasons (reasons to feel). What lies behind are 'reason relations' -- i.e., 'specific relations', 'overall', and 'sufficient relations'; and it is in virtue of the "existence" of these relations -- one needs to be cautious in the use of the term 'existence' due to the specific ontological status of reason relations -- that Skorupski defines his own position as "irrealist cognitivism" (Preface). According to irrealist cognitivism, knowing subjects have cognitive and epistemic access to reasons as special kinds of facts (which is yet another of the four main theses defended in The Domain of Reasons) -- viz. facts that are "[actual,] objective but nonetheless irreal" (29-30, 434). These 'nominal facts' differ from 'putative' and 'fictional' facts, and, more importantly, they differ from 'substantive facts' (i.e., "brute facts") in two respects: first, reason relations do not have the causal standing which is attributed only to the "real" (30), and second, the notion of 'ontic cognition-independence' cannot be applied to nominal facts (405).
Skorupski intends to show that adoption of the normative view "points to the dictum that 'The world is our [emphasis added] world…in the sense that the concept of the world is itself an internal concept. It is in terms of norms that hold relative to our nature, and in terms of our cognitive tradition, that we understand it…These norms are neither facts about the world nor facts about us. They are objective universal truths about reason relations: irreal, pure objects of cognition that mediate between knowing subject and known world" (504). Skorupski explains that the norms in question are a priori truths, knowledge of which is acquired via the "normative insight", which must be distinguished from the faculty of 'intuition' posited by the "intuitionistic realism about the a priori" (137-141).
The Normative view is made possible by the fact that a human being is "self-determining" being, or a being acting from reasons -- i.e., responsive to what one as an individual take sufficient reasons to be -- as well as by the fact that an individual is epistemically reflective or self-auditing being -- i.e., one assessing reflectively what one has reasons to believe (i.e., what one sees as sufficient reasons), "and in particular whether one has reason to inquire further" (508). Only reflective assessment of reasons one has (i.e., of 'sufficient reasons') can lead one towards the knowledge of 'warranted reasons' (see Chapter 5 for more on the distinction between the two), which are the source of all autonomous action, and provide an answer to the question: "'Do I have sufficient reason for this belief, sentiment, or action?'" (21)
Since reason relations have a specific ontological status, propositions about them differ from factual propositions in two main respects: a.) in their ontological status -- the former are synthetic a priori propositions, which means that "all (synthetic) a priori propositions are in the first place normative [this is the third main thesis defended in the book]" (29); and b.) in their epistemic status -- our epistemic access to propositions about reason relations is not 'receptive' (hence, the epistemic material is not just "received" by or independent of the self-determining thought, as is the case with 'substantive' or "brute" facts), but 'spontaneous' or explainable only in terms of the spontaneous response of "belief, will, and feeling" to synthetic a priori normative truths. The distinction between 'receptivity' and 'spontaneity', and the corresponding ontological distinction between two kinds of facts that provide us with the epistemic material, are crucial in establishing the claim that factual propositions and propositions about reason relations differ in terms of their ontological and epistemic status; which is the last of the four main theses of The Domain of Reasons (509).
The book is divided into four main parts. Part 1 introduces the concept of reason relations, and that of the corresponding notion of the domain of reasons. It discusses the logical structure of propositions about reasons, and provides analysis of the concepts of universalizability (all reasons are universal), normativity (opposed to the concept of descriptivity), and warrant (as distinct from 'knowledge' and 'justification'). Part 2 is concerned with epistemic reasons, and exposition of the thesis that concepts of aprioricity, analyticity, necessity, evidence, and probability, are all normative concepts analysable in terms of the concept of reason. Part 3 is concerned with morality, and provides an account of practical reasons for action, and that of evaluative reasons for feeling. As far as morality is concerned, the unity of reasons thesis -- i.e., the thesis that all reasons "have the same epistemological and ontological standing" -- will allow Skorupski to argue that one's moral claims can be epistemically warranted as all other claims about reasons can: "Claims about moral obligation are a special class of claims about evaluative reasons, and evaluative reasons are neither more nor less problematic, meta-theoretically [not substantively], than other reasons" (402). Both Part 2 and Part 3 contain not only second-order analysis of moral concepts, but also a discussion of substantive (first-order) normative theses and controversies -- about epistemic norms (Chapters 8 and 9), and about normative sources of practical reasons (Chapters 11, 13, and 14).
Finally, Part 4 presents meta-theoretical arguments on epistemology, semantics, and ontology of reasons (Chapters 16 and 17). Skorupski here provides analysis of Wittgenstein's discussion of the 'rule-following' against "normative naturalism", and Moore's 'open question argument' against "normative realism", to argue that both Wittgenstein and Moore can be interpreted as at least leading to irrealist cognitivism, if not even as being its representatives (Chapter 18). Chapter 19 is concerned with concepts that are crucial for understanding the notion of 'self-determination': 'apperception', 'grasp of reasons', 'the self', 'will', 'freedom', and 'other persons'. Part 4 concludes with "The Critique of Reasons" (Chapter 20), which provides us with a review of the account of normativity developed in the preceding chapters, as well as that of its place in the tradition of Critical philosophy.
Is Skorupski's project complete or without flaws? If one wants to go into a detailed evaluation then the answer will undoubtedly be negative. For instance, and this is a hint only, one cannot but ask whether the radical divide between cognition and feeling, which Skorupski rightfully rejects, has not been replaced by an equally radical (and problematic) divide -- "bedrock dualism" as the author calls it (434) -- between receptive and spontaneous knowledge. One cannot but agree with Skorupski's insight that epistemic arguments depend on the establishment of subtle conceptual distinctions between terms like 'existence', 'objectivity', 'reality', etc., which must be accompanied by the development of the rich ontology of different kinds of things that provide content to our thoughts (namely, substantive facts, nominal facts, putative facts, fictions, etc.); but this insight, and the distinctions it calls for, are in need of a better or more developed grounding.
Speaking from a wider historical perspective, I have found it somewhat disappointing that The Domain of Reasons does not have to say more on Hume's metaethics. This is especially significant if one has in mind the influence of a wide range of (often mistaken) traditional and, it must be added, dogmatic interpretations of Hume's theory in the debates between cognitivists and non-cognitivists, realists and anti-realists, and naturalists and non-naturalists; which is a Gordian knot of metaethics that Skorupski intends to cut (402; see also Chapters 10 and 17) by arguing against "a profoundly false contrast between 'Reason' and feeling" (26).
The Domain of Reasons, however, need not be evaluated only by a meticulous analysis of its arguments; no work of philosophy is immune to it. What makes Skorupski's project truly remarkable is the fact that it makes an attempt to reconcile a kind of ontological scepticism with epistemic optimism, so to speak. In other words, the project is based on the "clear-cut removal of metaphysical background of realism" (504), yet without its author falling pray to or being steered towards cognitive or epistemic scepticism. In addition, The Domain of Reasons is an expression of a valuable theoretical approach, according to which the history of philosophy (including both "the continental" and "the analytical" tradition) and contemporary theory are to be seen as a single continuous undertaking, rather than distinct enterprises with only limited points of contact. The cultivation and development of this kind of approach can, I believe, make a contribution to metaethics in general, and to moral epistemology in particular.
© 2012 Dejan Simkovic
Dejan Simkovic, PhD candidate at The University of Sydney.