Peter Railton (University of Michigan): "Sentimentalism and Neo-Sentimentalism - Facts and Values"

Thu, Nov 16, 2017, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
Wallace Hall, Room 300

Abstract: Sentimentalism and Neo-Sentimentalism, Facts and Values
Normative judgments and practices are pervasive features of our lives as individuals and communities.  Understanding the normative thus is a central explanatory task of moral and political theory alike.  The attempt to provide a theory adequate to normative phenomena has driven over a century of theorizing, yet led to what some regard as an impasse:  while some theories seem able to account for the cognitive character of normative thought and language (the attempt to be objective, the giving of evidence and argument, the existence of genuine disagreements), and others seem able to account for the practical or motivating force of making or accepting normative judgments (the role of such judgments in shaping choice and guiding action, the social dynamics of normative discourse), no one theory seems able to unite these features in a way that does full justice to our shared normative practices. 

Recent years have seen a resurgence of theories of the normative that take their inspiration from the “sentimentalism” of Hume and Smith.  These views seek to explain a broad sweep of normative phenomena in terms of a distinctive kind of mental state, sentiments, that both present the world as being a certain way (in the manner that fear, for example, presents its object as dangerous) and motivate a response appropriate to that representation (in the manner that fear involves a syndrome that reorients attention, thought, and motivation toward finding ways to cope with, or avoid, danger).  Normative or evaluative judgments, it is claimed, can be explained in response-dependent terms via conditions of aptness for sentiments, yielding a contrast with descriptive or factual judgments where response-independent truth conditions can be given. 

But this might not be the most plausible way to develop the insights of sentimentalism.  Hume, for example, could not have had this contrast between sentiment and factual judgment in mind, since he took it to be one of his chief discoveries, and central to his argument against rationalism, that ordinary belief is itself a sentiment.  This view, which has long been seen as an unpromising quirk of Hume’s, fits well with a growing empirical literature on the ways the mind and brain actually represent credence and uncertainty.  Indeed, many features of belief that are puzzling on more orthodox conceptions fall into place on the sentimentalist view.  It follows that there is little reason to think that appeal to sentiment should lead us to place normative or evaluative phenomena in a separate, non-representational category—they can be seen as an integral part of how we represent the natural and social world, and navigate our individual and shared paths within it.   

Bio: Peter Railton is the G.S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  His main research has been in ethics and the philosophy of science, focusing especially on questions about the nature of objectivity, value, norms, and explanation. Recently, he has also begun working in aesthetics, moral psychology, and the theory of action, and on the bearing of empirical research in these areas.  Among his publications are Facts, Values, and Norms (Cambridge), a collection of some of his papers in ethics and meta-ethics, and Homo Prospectus (Oxford), a joint project with psychologists on basic mental architecture.  He has been a visiting professor at Berkeley and Princeton, and he has received fellowships from the ACLS, the NEH, and the Guggenheim Foundation.  He is a former President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.