Normative Cultures

By Robert Cummings Neville

Subjects: Philosophy
Paperback : 9780791425787, 280 pages, August 1995
Hardcover : 9780791425770, 280 pages, August 1995

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents



Preliminary Remarks: On Synopsis

1. The Problem of Theory

I. New Requirements for Theory

II. The Timeliness of Theory

III. Theory as Synopsis: Importance, Unity, Diversity

IV. Orientation: Responsibility through Theory

2. Importance

I. Value-ladenness in Theory

II. Value-blindness in Theory

III. The Nature of Importance

IV. Comparison as the Synoptic Display of Importance

3. Unity

I. Vagueness and Specification

II. Selection and Trivialization

III. Comparative Categories

Theory: A Process of Comparison

4. Deference

I. The Infinite and Incomparable Value of Each Thing

II. Pious Deference

III. Theory as Responsible Deference

IV. Theory: A Process of Dialectic—Tragedy and Promise


Preliminary Remarks: The Pursuit of Responsibility as Practical Reason

5. Ideal Norms

I. Norms of Order

II. Norms of Deference

III. Norms of Engagement

IV. Norms of Identity

6. From Objective Obligation to Personal Responsibility

I. Obligation and the Human Condition

II. Personal Responsibility, Universal, and Individually Channeled

III. The Social Public and the Creation of the Private

IV. Normative Identity for Persons and Communities

7. Ritual and Normative Culture

I. A Conception of Ritual

II. The Objective Types of Norms

III. The Subjective Types of Norms

IV. Normative Culture: The Roles of Ritual

8. Practical Reason

I. Public Practical Reason

II.Personal Practical Reason

III. Theory as Orientation for Practical Reason

IV. Normative Cultures




This is a philosophic study of theory and practical reason focusing on social obligation and personal responsibility. It draws on Chinese as well as Western Traditions of philosophy.


The great civilizations of the world are very different from one another, indeed more strangely different the closer they come in economic, social, and cultural interaction. Yet each claims to be a normative way of being human. At the very minimum human achievement requires competence in the conventions of one's own civilization. To be human is to participate in a conventional culture, and the normatively human conventional cultures are different. Here is the "clash of civilizations": Without commitment to some conventions of civilized humanity, no one can be human; yet the conventions are different, perhaps even opposed.

Two problems bring philosophy to the refiner's fire. How can we conceive of human culture across the differences of civilized cultures? This is a problem about the nature of theory itself. It calls for a new theory of theorizing that at once provides synoptic understanding and recognized differences and incommensurabilities. Many postmodern critics have thundered against theories that oppress by the value-laden bias of their own forms, and by the interest guiding their forms. Neville provides a theory of theories that responds to these challenges and addresses the problem of theorizing across different cultures.

The other problem is how to exercise practical reason across cultures expressive of different civilizations. How can human beings be responsible in a world where all values seem culture-bound and the obvious solution seems to be moral relativism that trivializes responsibility? Neville presents a theory of practical reason oriented to objective norms determined cross-culturally and based on a Confucian sense of the ritual character of the most important levels of moral life.

This book completes Neville's series, Axiology of Thinking, a trilogy of systematically related studies of valuation in four kinds of thinking: imagination, interpretation, theorizing, and the pursuit of responsibility. Reconstruction of Thinking and Recovery of the Measure, both published by SUNY Press, are companion volumes.

Robert Cummings Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University where he is also Dean of the School of Theology. He is past president of the American Academy of Religion, the Metaphysical Society of America, and the International Society for Chinese Philosophy. Neville has also written Behind the Masks of God: An Essay Toward Comparative Theology; New Essays in Metaphysics; The Puritan Smile: A Look Toward Moral Reflection; and The Tao and the Daimon, all published by SUNY Press.


"The subject of Neville's Normative Cultures is the rebirth of philosophy as a 'worldly' enterprise. There is no topic more significant than this one for the philosopher truly responsive to the present demands of his discipline." — David L. Hall, The University of Texas