Last year my friend Craig Martin made an interesting post on the subject of normativity – what we might, for lack of a better word, call value judgements – in academic religious studies. I disagree with almost all of it, and I think it’s helpful to spell out the reasons for doing so.
Craig situates himself as a poststructuralist who does not accept “the dream of objectivity or objective truth”, but nevertheless deems it “both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)…” The problem is that the “intersubjective verification” described in this post sounds, to my ears, almost exactly like the old-fashioned empiricism that poststructuralists are (rightly) supposed to be rejecting. As it is applied in this particular context, “intersubjective verification” seems to be little more than a fancy way of maintaining the empiricist’s fact-value distinction: “intersubjective verification” is something we can reach about empirically verifiable facts, but not about those silly insubstantial value judgements.
The basic problem with such an approach, for Craig as for the empiricists, is that such a standard of intersubjective verification is itself a value judgement of exactly the kind that it urges we avoid. The problem may be best captured by repeating one of the post’s last statements: “I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as ‘should’ statements about our objects of study.”
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