The social roots of normativity


This paper introduces the Special Issue: ‘The Roots of Normativity. Developmental, Comparative and Conceptual issues’. The contributions collected in this volume aim to present a picture of contemporary accounts of normativity that integrate philosophy and developmental and comparative psychology and purport to provide the reader with new insights regarding a classical debate about what makes us human: being governed by norms and being able to orient ourselves in the light of them. This introduction presents a broad picture of the issues at the heart of traditional discussions on normativity and lays out a set of conditions which a proper account of normativity should meet. In so doing the main common themes that unify these papers are brought to the fore. In particular, all of them share the idea that human-specific norms are themselves social. Once questions concerning the evolution of normative capacities and their development are considered, however, they pose - so it is argued - specific challenges to an account of normativity. While the traditional approaches fail to face such challenges, it is the main aim of the papers in this Special Issue to meet them. In concluding, a brief overview of each paper is provided.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    I am following here a rather ‘loose’ interpretation of the Wittgensteinian considerations on rule-following that I have defended elsewhere. This ‘loose interpretation’ can be seen as describing a Wittgensteinean trend in thinking of normativity that includes the ideas of Davidson, Sellars and Brandom among others. For more details see Satne 2008 and Satne 2015.

  2. 2.

    Even this is so within limits, as not all series allow a formulation in terms of rules, e.g., identity judgments, simple empirical judgments such as ‘this is green’, and simple series (e.g., ‘2,2,2…’) do not. See Wright 2001, 2002 and Satne 2008.

  3. 3.

    Among those that have defended this conceptual distinction, see Glüer and Wirkfoss 2009; Boghossian 2005; Davidson 1992; Wright 2002, and Kripke 1982. Also Brinck and Rochat in this volume.

  4. 4.

    One might have an alternative characterization of how rules are socially instituted, for example one might think that we-intentions on the part of individuals institute them and give them their normative role. See Searle 1990, Rakoczy, this volume, and Rakoczy and Tomasello 2007.

  5. 5.

    Cf. Brandom 1994.

  6. 6.

    In the minimal sense, shareability of a norm N can be captured by the idea that two subjects A and B can both have N as the intentional correlate of their mental states. A discussion of this aspect of norms can be found in Roessler & Perner (this volume) who understand early forms of normativity in terms of the grasping of reasons for action that are publicly shared (see also, in this volume, Brandl et al. who discuss how this shareablity can be experimentally tested).

  7. 7.

    Cf. McDowell 1984; Brandom 1994; Wright 2001 among others.

  8. 8.

    This specification is neutral as to the kind of awareness involved. A form of minimal awareness such as the one involved in implicit knowledge where the subject cannot formulate her knowledge in terms of a rule or entertain it as an explicit content may be sufficient.

  9. 9.

    A number of authors have made this a central feature of norms, starting with Kant’s conception of self-consciousness as giving form to every rational rule. See among others Anscombe 1978; Rödl 2007; McDowell 1984; Kripke 1982 and Brandom 1994. In this issue, this aspect is addressed explicitly or implicitly by all the papers: While Roessler & Perner, Rochat and Rödl, give a central role to this aspect in their analysis—Rochat, for example, takes this aspect to be the defining feature of the uniquely human kind of normativity—it also figures eminently in Rakozcy’s conception of social rules and in Brinck’s and Brandl et al.’s analysis of normative behavior in experimental tests.

  10. 10.

    Objectivity here is supposed to account for the fact that for something to be a norm it needs to set a standard that establishes determinate constraints of correctness independently of my opinion as to whether I am fulfilling them or not (see Wittgenstein 1953, §§ 201 and 258). The condition as just described is meant to be neutral about the controversy on whether objectivity requires facts independent of communitarian consensus or not. For a defense of this condition of adequacy see McDowell 1984; Wright 2001. This aspect is explicitly addressed by Roessler & Perner, this volume.

  11. 11.

    There is widespread agreement that a condition like this is required to account for conventions and other social norms. See for example Grice 1957, 1969; Lewis 1969; Bratman 1992 and also Hume 1752. Rödl (this volume) examines what is required to have this kind of joint consciousness with a partner in interaction, specially focusing on joint intentional action. This view can be extended to other cases of joint consciousness, as is the case of social norms in Rödl’s view (see Rödl 2007, and Rödl 2014).

  12. 12.

    Rakoczy, Rochat, and Rödl (this volume) address the issue of which of these features are characteristic of human normativity and which are present in the case of non-human primates and other animals.

  13. 13.

    How is social normativity to be understood as such defining trait is open to debate among the different contributions. Some would argue that primitive forms of social normativity might be found in other species to various degrees. That notwithstanding, the full-fledged kind of social normativity characterized by the features described above seems to set apart human adults from all other beings.


  1. Anscombe, G. E. M. (1978). Rules, Rights and Promises. Midwest Studies In Philosophy, 3(1), 318–323.

  2. Boghossian, P. (2005). Is Meaning Normative?” in Christian Nimtz and Ansgar Beckermann (eds.): Philosophy—Science—Scientific Philosophy. Main Lectures and Colloquia of GAP.5, Fifth International Congress of the Society for Analytical Philosophy, Bielefeld, 2003, Mentis.

  3. Brandom, R. (1994). Making it explicit. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bratman, M. (1992). Shared cooperative activity. The Philosophical Review, 101(2), 327–341.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Brinck, I. (2015). Understanding social norms and constitutive rules: perspectives from developmental psychology and philosophy. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. doi:10.1007/s11097-015-9426-y.

  6. Davidson, D. (1992). The Second Person. In Donald Davidson (2001), Subjective, Intersubjective and Objective. Oxford: Oxford UP.

  7. Glüer, K., & Wirkfoss, A. (2009). Against content normativity. Mind, 118(469), 31–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Grice, P. (1957). Meaning. The Philosophical Review, 66, 377–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Grice, P. (1969). Utterer’s meaning and intentions. The Philosophical Review, 68, 147–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hume, D. (1752). Essays moral, political, literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987.

  11. Kripke, S. (1982). Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Lewis, D. (1969). Convention. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

    Google Scholar 

  13. McDowell, J. (1984). Wittgenstein on Following a Rule. Synthese, 58, 325–364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rakoczy, H., & Tomasello, M. (2007). The Ontogeny of Social Ontology: Steps to Shared Intentionality and Status Functions. In S. L. Tsohatzidis (Ed.), Intentional Acts and Institutional Facts: Essays on John Searle’s social ontology (pp. 113–137). Berlin: Springer Verlag.

  15. Rochat, P. (2015). Self-conscious roots of human normativity. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. doi:10.1007/s11097-015-9427-x.

  16. Rödl, S. (2007). Self-consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Rödl, S. (2014). Intentional transaction. Philosophical Explorations: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Mind and Action, 17(3), 304–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Satne, G. (2008). Normatividad sin reglas. In Conceptos, creencias y racionalidad. Córdoba: Brujas.

  19. Satne, G. (2015). What Binds Us Together. Normativity and the Second Person, Philosophical Topics, forthcoming.

  20. Searle, J. (1990). Collective Intentions and Actions. In P. Cohen et al. (Eds.), Intentions and Communication. Cambridge: Bradford.

  21. Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations (abbreviation: PI), Eds. G.E.M. Anscombe & E. Rhees, transl. G.E.M. Anscombe, Blackwell, Oxford.

  22. Wittgenstein, L. (1983). Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. (abbreviation: RFM) Ed. by G. von Wright, G.E.M Anscombe, R. Rhees and G.E.M. Anscombe, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

  23. Wright, C. (2001). Rails to infinity. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Wright, C. (2002). What is Wittgenstein’s Point in the Rule-Following Discussion?” published online:…/rules/…/Wright.pdf

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Glenda Satne.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Satne, G. The social roots of normativity. Phenom Cogn Sci 14, 673–682 (2015).

Download citation


  • Human normativity
  • Social norms
  • Development
  • Non-human primates
  • Normative behavior
  • Phylogeny