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Review of R. Krishnaswamy's Book

Adreeja Sarkar

PhD Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Jun 2, 2024

Book review of R. Krishnaswamy's book The Call for Recognition: Naturalizing Political Norms (Routledge 2023).

In our decision-making procedures, our reasons for actions are ushered by norms, whether they be of the informal kind or in the form of decrees and sanctions. Norms are effective means to acquire and conserve social welfare. Like symbiotic fungi that enable nutrient transfer and ecological restoration, norms are the ties that bind us in a system of social cooperation and collective growth. The relation between norms and agents is thus, a mutual one. Agents in any social group or collective need norms for the proper functioning of the group just as norms require performing agents to coordinate and cooperate so that the overall normative framework of the group can evolve for the better. The relation is also dynamic because in order to evolve together, both norms and behavioural attitudes and actions of agents demand flexibility and openness to change as prerequisites.

The structure of norms appears to be (a) heavily influenced by the socio-cultural contexts from which they arise while simultaneously aiming towards (b) a 'transcendence' through the attainment of universalizability. Even though parochial socio-cultural group beliefs may differ in character, there prevails some homogeneity among the contents of specific norms despite differences. There is an everlasting debate regarding whether normativity [1] arises through social agreement (anti-foundationalism) or is it entirely objective in nature (essentialism), i.e., where the truth or 'rightness' of values have an 'essence' (independently) existing out there in the world, free from any subjective preferences. Analyzing the structure of social norms constitutes a critical step in the process of interpreting social justice. If norms are solely anthropological, then they eventually suffer from absolute relativism. Contrarily, if norms are solely objective or universal then justice or fairness becomes a very rigid domain ignoring socio-cultural specificities. The sources of these norms aren't easy to decipher, more so, when one delves into their formation, functionality, purpose and impact in our everyday lives. One also needs to bring into the discussion the concepts of identity, autonomy, intention, motivation, behaviour and action in both individual and collective contexts.

Krishnaswamy’s book can be considered as an inquiry into the grounds of normativity involving these aspects. He takes up questions like – what constitutes our social and political norms, how do we understand social agency (in theory and praxis) and how a right political institution can be crucial in enabling the required grounds for these norms. In the process of doing so, he provides a panoramic picture of the traditional and current interpretations of political agency and the interactions between socio-political principles and subjecthood. The book, as he states in his introduction, can be divided into two phases. In the initial chapters, he performs the job of a critic by assessing the various traditions of political theories and citing the incompatibilities or dis-connect existing between their notions of the right political institution and social agency. The latter chapters focus more on constructing a different perspective in viewing norms, social agency and the roles of a political institution. At the heart of his normative framework lies the shaping of our identity as political subjects on the basis of ‘recognition’. Simply put, he provides a recognitional model [2] as a normative ideal in understanding our behaviour as social agents. In a recognitional model, political agency is understood from an inter-subjective perspective as in, how we recognize the other and are recognized by them. To recognize any entity, he states, is to apply a social identity to that entity which further reveals the various relations that the said entity exists in, within a community. We are first and foremost, social beings and any talk on normativity has to take into consideration our existence in relations. However, this model of recognition is not a mere static representation of reality for the author. He considers it to be a dynamic and flexible process where we not only learn how to situate each other socially but also moderate social categories while acknowledging novel experiences individually and collectively. Recognition, to him, acts as a way out of the extremities of subjectivism and objectivism in the analysis of normativity.

The normative agency in a recognitional model is a social given. There are no prior conditions that might act as a foundation to what an agent ought to do. In fact, that one is an agent is sufficient enough a reason to consider her as a legitimate subject for (a) dispensing social categories and (b) being the bearer of social norms. Krishnaswamy argues that the need for equal normative status is justified by the mere existence of a 'society' and the existence of people living in the society. Social violence or silencing occurs when any agent is denied their fundamental normative right i.e., the right to participate in any normative discourse within the society.

One of his major claims in the book is that only a recognitional political framework, through its non-essentialist, relational ethic can help us arrive at the legitimacy of norms in attaining collective welfare. The method he cites in developing such a recognitional framework is to first situate agency and autonomy as inseparable from the natural and social environments they are based in. Accordingly, he goes on to explain that intentionality/self-realization emerges as a normative quality guided by biological forces. He interprets internalization of laws as the recognition or knowledge that – "the patterns of behavioural change are consequences of other normative rules which dictate how naturalistic laws inform our agency".[3] In the following phase of the analysis, he aims to show that the standards for normative actions are public in nature by virtue of containing shared intentions. Norms become public due to the intentional performance of the individuals of a group and eventually become historical, capable of providing motivational impact over longer periods of time. Regarding the interrelation between normative behaviour and natural dispositions, Krishnaswamy (following anti-essentialist claims) argues that our reasons for actions cannot belong to a different cognitive realm from the actions themselves. Here, he uses the example of learning languages (where one needs to follow rules but a cognitive grasp of the rules prior to speaking doesn’t necessarily help in actually speaking the language) to reiterate that situating norms in a different realm separate from pre-cognitive level of conscious actions would rarely help in comprehending the structure of our normative behaviour. Norms are constructed out of the interpretations and reactions of multiple agents of the collective towards each other and their immediate environment. Social coordination among individuals of a collective arise due to shared intentions.[4] Planning structures of individual agencies form the connecting link between individual and shared agencies. Our capacity for planning agency, as Bratman puts it, is a core capacity that underlies interrelated forms of mind-shaped practical organization: cross-temporal organization of individual agency, shared agency, social rules, and rule-guided organized institutions. One function of our capacity for planning agency is the preference for these forms of practical organization.[5] These planning structures lead to the continuity between individual agency and shared agency.

In order to establish the larger aim of his thesis – that rules or norms have to emerge out of people’s natural and social contexts – he points at how intentions while being collective also need to be cognitively 'recognized' by agents. Normative political programmes will always be lacking in their discussions about justice and fairness if they ignore the realities of our practical lives. The far removal from practical predicaments would result in a dissonance between how people cognize they should act and how they actually act in everyday circumstances. According to him, norms are created through collective action by 'joint agreement'. Mutual commitments and obligations arise from the moral grounding that our social and cultural realities provide. Our understanding of moral right or wrong arises from our lived experiences. Practical instances in life almost often inculcate implicit agreements that make joint action towards shared goals possible. This differs from how joint agreement works in social contract frameworks where agreement is required to be individualistic and explicit. Krishnaswamy claims that the fact that we can plan and intend goals is what gives us the capacity to commit. Following Gilbert[6], he argues that collective goals are separate from personal goals, and normative commitments are social in nature. He shows how singularist accounts of intentionality and normative commitments lead to individualist political philosophies. To create a good social and political theory of obligation we ought to begin with exploring how norms are a natural part of our collective existence. He further argues that if norms are public and are generated out of collective behaviour then rules of social action get their power to be obligatory only when they are recognized by all the members of that group. The formal conditions for institutional behaviour is based on collective dispositions, i.e., the recognition of norms along with relevant normative expectations shared by agents.  The recognition of norms entails the acceptance of that norm and the readiness to bind ourselves to the norm. Political institutions since they aim to regulate behaviour through collective rules need continual performative reinforcement by the people to whom those rules are directed. It becomes important that institutions then take into consideration the natural social conditions of the people by analyzing pragmatic instances. It is through this that social silencing and injustice can be checked. Political injustice occurs either through coercion or the deliberate or non-deliberate overlooking of contextual differences prevailing in intersubjective recognition.

Recognitional ethics requires equal participation of agents as well as institutions in rule formation and enactment. Krishnaswamy quite aptly puts forward one limitation of such a normative framework. While normative reflexivity of agents is a product of inter-personal interactions, interpretation of norms is bound to vary from person to person. Demands for conformity among group members may lead to coercion or ostracization if some members do not conform to the group identity. He holds the opinion that group conformity might not always ensure the absence of discrimination. In order to avoid such cases, political institutions must create safe spaces where silencing and feelings of hurt and discrimination can be conceptually addressed. The book aims to analyze natural social conditions phenomenologically to find solutions to the limitations of the objectivist idea of justice. His stance of political naturalism is a novel interdisciplinary attempt to bridge the gap between objectivist and relativist approaches to social reality and justice.

A Few Challenges

The author does not, however, draw a very distinct line as to where the 'natural' ends and the 'social' begins in the 'natural social conditions' that he talks about. As such, the sources of normativity or normative agency remain a bit hazy.

Intersubjective understanding and knowledge demands detailed analysis of how a recognitional model would define collective intentionality. Whether collective intentionality and group agency are reducible to individual intentions or whether it is the case that one common intention is jointly shared by all the members need to be assessed. The recognitional model has to explain how to bridge the gaps between emotivism and intuitionism when it comes to intersubjective interpretations. (Assuming that a recognitional model implements the concepts of empathy and trust for its functioning, it also needs to be addressed how empathy and trust would function in intersubjective interpretations.)

If joint agreements imply individual planning capabilities for forming norms and institutions, what ensures agent A that another agent B would respond likewise? If we base our inter-subjective interpretations on ‘collective intentionality’ while simultaneously retaining intentional capabilities of individual agents, then this would lead to the problem of circularity. How should we then understand the plurality of subjectivity in contexts involving collectives like institutions as well as contexts including random groups?

Again, in a country like India, for instance, with diverse inherent contextual features, how should the justification of uniform truths/norms be done? Krishnaswamy’s book initiates interesting arenas for further discussions on the concepts of coordination, agreement and collaboration in dealing with epistemic injustice. His recognitional model takes up a naturalistic approach to social construction. For the model to be seen as an explanation, some clarification about its justification is needed.

The Call for Recognition: Naturalizing Political Norms sets up room for interdisciplinary analysis and will be an intriguing read for scholars of law, social and political philosophy, social epistemology, meta-ethics and social ontology.



[1] Normativity is the capacity to describe any claim as action-guiding in the sense of right/wrong and good/bad.

[2] Influenced by Hegelian anti-essentialism.

[3] Chapter 6: Socio-Natural Embeddedness, p-123. The Call for Recognition: Naturalizing Political Norms. 2023

[4] Bratman, 2014; Gilbert, 2006; Velleman, 2000

[5] Bratman, Planning and Its Function in Our Lives, Volume41, Issue1

Special Issue:Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Lecture 2023 Symposium, p-1-15, feb 2024.

[6] Gilbert, 2006.


  • Bratman, Michael. (2014). Shared Agency: A Planning Theory of Acting Together. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 

  • —- Planning and Its Function in Our Lives, Volume41, Issue1. Special Issue:Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Lecture 2023 Symposium, p-1-15, feb 2024.

  • Gilbert, Margaret. (2006). A Theory of Obligation Membership, Commitment, and the Bonds of Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  • Velleman, David. (2000). The Possibility of Practical Reason. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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