Review of Social Goodness: On the Ontology of Social Norms, by Charlotte Witt [Book Review]

Mind (forthcoming)
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Charlotte Witt covers a remarkable amount of ground in this concise and elegantly written book. Coming in at under 150 pages, she artfully weaves together Aristotle’s theory of functions with contemporary work on cultural transmission and apprenticeship, ideas about self-creation with theories of aspiration and transformative experience, and reflections on the relationships among social norms and games with thoughts about social roles and the nature of hierarchy. At the heart of it is an elaboration and defense of a thoroughly externalist account of social normativity. Witt takes skilled experts, especially artisans like chefs and carpenters, as paradigm cases for theorizing about social normativity. She uses them to argue that the ultimate source of many normative obligations is found not in the acquiescence, attitudes, or any other features internal to those on whom those obligations fall. Rather, the demands are rooted in the world itself, and flow from specific circumstances, especially from the constraints those circumstances impose on different actors in virtue of the tasks they need to perform. The result is a view that depicts social normativity not just as external to individuals but also unavoidably role specific; what is right for a chef is not necessarily right for a carpenter, and what makes for a good nurse might make for a poor drill sergeant. Witt’s presentation of this package of ideas is both careful and austere, and it makes for a wonderfully thought provoking read. Social Goodness: On the Ontology of Social Norms will reward the careful attention of anyone interested in social ontology, especially the metaphysical foundations of normativity, the nature of social norms, and the relationship between social roles and the self.

Author Profiles

Katherine Ritchie
University of California, Irvine
Daniel Kelly
Purdue University


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