Politics: Normative Theory vs. Diagnostic Practice (A Terse Comparison)

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] Sluga notes that this propensity among normativists was inherited from Plato and Aristotle,[5] 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,[6] 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.[7] 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…”[8]

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.”[12] 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.


[1] Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 6-7.

[2] Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 93.

[3] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 11.

[4]“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).

[5] Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 34.

[6] 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.)

[7] Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 18.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, 25.

[11] Ibid., 33.

[12] This would be akin to Sluga’s description of political judgments in the form of verdicts. (Ibid., 14).

Categories: Philosophy

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7 replies

  1. Sapere Dude! You missed me on this one. My minor in philosophy wasn’t enough to catch up. I think I got the gist of your argument but wasn’t sure of the main point. Was it that we accept as proof arguments that lack merit or … ?

    • Greetings, Steve! 🙂

      In short, I have been struggling with distinguishing, fundamentally, between normative theory and political diagnostic practice. For the sake of clarity I’ll explain a little about both, so bear with me if you’re familiar with any of it. Also, with the exception of note 6 (Kant’s criterion for simple ideas), this was not meant to be an epistemological refutation. In other words, I don’t believe political norms are possible, but I wasn’t trying to argue that.

      Normative theory claims that the only way we can assign value judgments to particulars is to retreat from society (think Plato’s cave) and develop abstract notions of justice, equality, etc. Once this is done, the normativist returns to the cave to enlighten society by providing an objective framework of a “just” or “good” society. All of this is done, supposedly, without consideration for the philosopher’s prejudices, historical factors, etc. – it’s supposed to be completely abstract. It is supposed to result, moreover, in universal concepts and it’s the job of the philosopher (you and I are excluded from the process).

      The diagnostician, conversely, believes that we should make use of the empirical. We should, that is, employ the same methods as medical doctors (hence the name) to diagnose society’s problems and form practical solutions in the process. This is broken into seven or eight steps, depending on the philosopher, and one step is the prescription. Yet prescriptions are recommendations of what OUGHT TO be done. In other words they are normative statements. So even after examining the empirical, acknowledging one’s prejudices, etc. it would seem that we return to normativism. Hence my introduction with respect to perfunctory conclusions. I concluded, early on, that there was no difference before fully considering the argument. The difference, however, at least as far as I can tell, is that the diagnostician employs grammatical terms such as “ought to,” but only in a modest sense. Usually ought-statements are taken as universals, but the diagnostician seems to use them in a relativistic sense.

      That’s the main gist of my argument… not sure that helps, though.

      I see you have been keeping AE up and running. I’ll have a rather large article ready for AE in three weeks about Death and Grief. Wish I had more time to keep in touch with everyone… Will be in touch more often though.

      • So welcome back from your stay in the cave. 😉 Your more regular appearance on these pages would be appreciated because, according to Plato, philosophy develops in dialogue 🙂

        If I understand that right, if Bob swallows poison and Alice, the doctor, pumps out his stomach to save his life, she might be making a mistake because maybe he wanted to kill himself. She starts with the normative assumption that she ought to save his life. So empirical diagnosis (diagnosis of the poisoning) is used to make prescriptions (pumping out the stomach) seem objective, although there are always values involved.

        • I’m going to do my best, nannus! 🙂

          I love your example, so hopefully you will indulge me.

          In order to save Bob’s life, Alice ought to pump his stomach. This is clearly the path forward if she hopes to save his life, so if the question is approached narrowly — that is, “What should Alice do to save Bob’s life?” — there is an objective answer. However, this question doesn’t account for Bob’s desires; namely, does Bob want to live and should this desire be honored? Thus, if we expand the scope to include Bob’s potential desires and whether they should be honored, our question may resemble something like this: “Should Alice save Bob’s life even if she is made aware that Bob does not want to live?” This is in the form of a normative question, but unlike the first question, I’m not sure there is an objective answer to it. That is, there are too many exogenous factors that remain unknown. Does Bob have kids? how will his suicide effect them? how does euthanasia effect our society as a whole? etc.

          So, I don’t think empirical diagnosis “is used to make prescriptions seem objective,” because clearly under certain circumstances there are objective answers. However, I think the goal of empirical diagnosis is to consider as many factors as possible, including the knowledge that one cannot possibly know all of the factors, in order to arrive at a “conditionally objective” solution. Does that sound right?

  2. Interesting piece. If the diagnostician’s empirically-derived prescriptions are essentially normative recommendations, then the two philosophies should produce similar practical results from different paths. This conclusion, if I’ve assessed it correctly, constitutes a primary justification for authoritarianism; that is, the belief in the superiority of decisive action exercised through consolidated power where the objectivity or subjectivity of its prescriptions are arbitrarily ignored.

    • I suppose it’s possible that both systems could produce similar solutions, but I believe the reason for this is epistemological, which I didn’t address in the above. That is, I don’t believe that it is possible to produce norms, so the “norms” that are produced are merely called norms but in reality they are closer to empirical prescriptions.

      With regard to authoritarianism, there is definitely a connection with normativism, but I’m not sure the same could be argued with regard to diagnosticism. I must confess, however, that I’m not sure I understand your comment completely. Would you mind elaborating?

      • The administration of law, with respect to governing, has been influenced through normative interpretation and application. Laws “ought” to work a certain way – ostensibly from sound, objective principles – and are seen as immune from circumstances on a case-by-case basis. This philosophy creates rigidity in the law which often leads to ineffective or dysfunctional government – a triggering mechanism for authoritarianism.

        If the diagnostician’s empirically-derived prescriptions, also with respect to governing, are essentially normative recommendations (something we “ought” to do based on current circumstances), then greater flexibility in the law can be enabled as long as sufficient consensus exists. The absence of consensus will produce similar practical results as normativism, ineffective or dysfunctional government, even though its incidental path is quite different.

        I’m emphasizing the “if” here. I see great distinction between normative constructs and empirical conclusions. I believe it’s imperative that human societies evolve beyond the subjective power of opinion and begin to govern themselves through the objective synthesis of factual information. Normativism cannot be objective, in my view.

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