Our impartiality is all too often diverted by perfunctory conclusions. We permit, that is, ourselves to be distracted by the appearance of defects in philosophical arguments, and rather than suspect the foundation of our skepticism, we steadily persist in our opposition. This reflection is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the common objections to the diagnostic political practice; namely, that diagnostic prescriptions find purchase in normative concepts and therefore the diagnostic practice as a whole is no different, fundamentally, from normative theories. This, as I will demonstrate, is a facile argument. I will endeavor to reveal that although diagnostic prescriptions may grammatically take the form of ought-propositions, they are in no way a priori derivatives, and as such they do not contain the characteristics of normative theory – specifically, universality.
Now, the normative political tradition was consigned to posterity by Plato and Aristotle. It involves the examination of particulars, the relations therein to other particulars, and finally the rational extrapolation of these observations to form ideals, norms or universals. For instance, to arrive at an ideal of justice – the universal – one would compare particular examples of just acts in reality. The commonalities found between just acts would then serve as a foundation to determine the ideal of justice a priori. These particulars, or just acts, however, are not identical with justice; rather, just acts ought to resemble the a priori notion of justice. So, once an a priori conception of justice has been formed, it is argued, universal prescriptions may then be proffered. In this way it is supposed that universal solutions to specific political issues can be made available for practical implementation.
It is this attraction with objectivity, which, perhaps, drives the fascination and parochial attitude towards normativism. That is to say, we seem to be attracted to normativism because it offers definitive answers to subjective and context-specific questions. This much can be seen in the writings of eminent philosophers such as Leo Strauss, in which he defines “philosophy” as not only a quest for wisdom, but a quest for “universal knowledge.” And he takes it a step further by asserting that because we can question what is “good,” an objective answer necessarily exists, which can be characterized as (universal) knowledge. Sluga notes that this propensity among normativists was inherited from Plato and Aristotle, so Strauss is simply keeping with their traditional epistemological viewpoints.
At any rate, the normativist would have us believe that they can retreat from society, abandon their prejudices and formative experiences, and return with a wholly abstract notion that can then be applied to particulars in reality. By returning to the political sphere we are then led to believe that the value – i.e. whether it is good or bad – of particular political realities can be assessed by reference to abstract norms. These abstract norms, by definition, are universal and as such apply to all particulars. In other words, they are unconditional truths which take into account absolutely no context or specificity. And, conceding that the formation of political norms is epistemologically possible, there persists the issue of communicating these norms.
In other words, how does the normativist “return to the cave” to communicate his abstract discoveries? Upon returning to the political sphere, the normativist is forced to make use of the empirical. He will have to explain these concepts using language that everyone else understands, and in doing so dissent will inevitably arise since the political sphere – the one fraught with disagreement, and the one he has rightly rejected as capable of forming universals – will struggle to make sense of his concepts. Furthermore, in assessing these particulars he is committing a philosophical fallacy, as Sluga cleverly points out: “The normativist believes it possible to move from the context-bound, personal, local political judgments to unconditional philosophical truths; but it is precisely this last step that is in question… [it is] an instance of a well-known philosophers’ fallacy: the fallacious jump from some to all…”
Now, even if we concede that this – communicating his norms unambiguously – is possible, an additional problem materializes in consequence of political norms. Norms can be understood as rules, and rules require regularity. Thus to appeal to political norms would require political regularity. No such regularity can be found in politics. Instead, we see disorderly, context-specific conditions which necessarily preclude the application of norms. This reality, perhaps more than any other, drives the diagnostician towards his practice; that is, it is the realization that (1) the political plain is mutable, and (2) that its mutability necessitates political plasticity which is intellectually persuasive. Thus the diagnostician, in acknowledgment of this mutability, directs his attention to the present while concurrently looking to the past.
Yet, despite all of this, he does not necessarily reject political theorizing; rather, he endeavors to unite theory and practice. This unification, however, is performed in a moderate sense. It is performed, that is, sans universals and by relegating the a priori secondary to the a posteriori. For instance, if event X occurs in political plain Y, the diagnostician will begin by making some general phenomenological observations, then he will attempt to describe and compare these observations to events both within and without that political plain. Next, the diagnostician will make use of these comparisons to determine the potential cause for event X, and then he will attempt to predict the likely course event X will take should it remain uninhibited. The prescription, finally, will be issued relative to the specific event, in the specific political plain.
To be sure, the prescription can take the grammatical form of an “ought,” but it does so in a tempered sense. The diagnostician, for instance, could opine something to the effect of, “Political plain Y ought to enact solution Z, here and now, to alleviate it of the unpleasant consequences of event X.” Note the specificity of time and place, which distinguishes these prescriptions from those of normative theories. The normative is concerned with the universal – the timeless and unconditional – while the diagnostic is concerned, relative to the application of its prescriptions, only with the present.
Since the present, moreover, is all one can hope to affect, the diagnostic practice underlines the importance of active political participants. It is dependent, that is, on the body politic as a whole, because each individual within the body politic is himself a diagnostician. This, too, is in dramatic contrast with the normative approach to politics, wherein a detached form of philosophizing is emphasized which excludes the body politic. So where the diagnostic is inclusive, the normative is exclusive. To put it another way, the normativist attempts to compress his orderly judgments into chaotic particulars of which he hasn’t the slightest understanding – at least not until after he has prescribed a solution – and he believes himself to be the only one capable of such instruction. One would have to be confused, therefore, to posit that the diagnostic practice is no different, fundamentally, from normative theory. The two employ completely different epistemological approaches and apply radically different scopes to their solutions. Thus, even with ought-propositions, the diagnostic practice is ultimately an empirically motivated, adaptive, inclusive attempt at achieving the “good,” whatever that may be for the time and place in question.
Kant, Immanuel. 1899. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: The Colonial Press.
Russell, Bertrand. 1997. The Problems of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sluga, Hans. 2014. Politics and the Search for the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Strauss, Leo. 1959. What is Political Philosophy? Glencoe: The Free Press.
 Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 6-7.
 Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 93.
 Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 11.
“But thought of better or worse implies thought of good. The awareness of the good which guides all our actions has the character of opinion: it is no longer questioned but, on reflection, it proves to be questionable. The very fact that we can question it directs us towards such a thought of the good as is no longer questionable – towards a thought which is no longer opinion but knowledge.” (Ibid., 10).
 Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 34.
 Curiously, Kant’s criterion for distinguishing between “pure and empirical cognition” reveals that concepts such as justice simply do not exhibit the requisite qualities to be considered universals. A universal, according to Kant, must exhibit “strict and absolute” necessity; that is, it can admit of no possible exception. As such, universals constitute simple ideas such as numbers or geometric shapes. The number “7” is absolute, and similarly the concept of a “triangle” never wavers. The concept of justice, on the other hand, is multifarious – different societies have formed different conceptions of justice. To be sure, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that an abstract notion which exhibits strict necessity exists, and that we simply have not conceived of it, or are ignorant as to the criterion for distinguishing between the various notions that do exist; but the very fact that it is possible for it not to exist would seem to demonstrate an exception, and therefore render it multifarious. (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 2-3.)
 Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 18.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 22.
 Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 25.
 Ibid., 33.
 This would be akin to Sluga’s description of political judgments in the form of verdicts. (Ibid., 14).