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Review of Venusa Tinyi's book by Aribam Uttam Sharma

Aribam Uttam Sharma

Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, North-Eastern Hill University

Dec 28, 2023

Book review of Venusa Tinyi's On the Foundational Concepts of Norms and Normative Systems (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, 2023)

The author, Venusa Tinyi, makes a case that formalizations that aim to clarify normative concepts like obligation, permission, and prohibition that have a bearing on our actions are inadequate. Based on this claim, the book offers to make amends by proposing a model that offers an alternative approach.

The book assumes that there is more to logic than its concern for truth. If logic is understood as a language and the business of language is more than making assertions (Austin 1962), then it should not surprise us that logic's concern cannot be contained by the concern for truth. This wider concern now accorded to logic plays out in the book's take on the prescription/description distinction. Here, the distinction incarnates as that between "What ought to be the case" and "What ought to be done". Whether the logic of norms ought to be theoretical or practical in intent forms a motivational undercurrent of the book.

At the center of logic is the notion of logical consequence, i.e., what follows from what. Deontic logic deals with the theoretical interests of how normative concepts contribute and act in logical consequence (McNamara and Putte 2022). Since normative concepts are supposed to inform our actions, any study of them has to be sensitive to their pragmatic aspect. Thus, deontic logic inherits something of the tension between the prescriptive and descriptive in classical logic.

Tinyi rehearses the problems inherent in the formalization of normative concepts and the logic of norms, especially deontic logic. He asserts that there is no aspect of deontic logic that is not fraught with difficulties. He gives attention to von Wright-Anderson debate on the attempts to reduce deontic logic to alethic modal logic. He does this to show that such reduction is futile. Jorgensen’s dilemma, which arises due to the difficulty of reasoning about norms within truth-functional logical apparatus, drives home this point. The particular difficulty encountered in interpreting negation prefixed to an act category also suggests that the logic of norms is a different beast altogether from other standard forms of logic.

Deontic logic has been identified as modal logic (Sider 2010). Yet, drawing parallels between it and other well-known modal systems is ungainly. The author notes that the Axiom of Reflexivity, which says that necessity implies actuality, cannot be adopted in deontic logic. An act, which is obligatory (read as necessary), need not be performed (read as actualized) with or without the pain of punishment. At least in this world, sinners do escape punishment. Around this difficulty, and on the question of the externality of sanction to norms, H. L. A. Hart’s critique of Hans Kelsen and J. L. Austin is given an exposition. The author enters these debates to stress that values, desires, and intentions cannot be divorced from norms. Any formalization, analysis, or reduction that attempts this divorce is deemed inadequate.

The author forays into the nature of legal systems. von Wright, the pioneer of modern deontic logic, and whom the author credits for inspiring his book, erred, according to the author, when he tried to analyze deontic terms through legal terms like immunity, liability, punishment, and so on. The  author takes this failure as a sign  that deontic concepts do have an "axiological" tint that cannot be done away with without making it grate against our intuition. 

Difficulties and inadequacies give impetus for developments and corrections. This applies to the development of logic too. When one finds problem in the formalization of a domain of reasoning, the usual course of action can either be i) augmentation of the expressive power of the initial formalism, if the fault lies in the inadequacy of expressive power of the said formalism or ii) replacement or modification of the initial formalism, if there is a fundamental problem with the initial formalism itself (McNamara and Putte 2022). Tinyi finds that the problem with the logic of norms (deontic logic) is of a fundamental kind. So, the book sets out to make amends by replacing/modifying the initial formalism. But he takes this amendment in a novel way. For the same reason, this is a high-stakes approach. When he proposes a quasi-theoretical or quasi-formal model named D-Model, he avoids overhauling the semantics of existing formalism that he has found faulty i.e., modal logic. Rather, he provides a model, which would capture our intuition about basic normative concepts that in one way or the other formed the conceptual base of hitherto existing formalisms.

The heart of the book lies in the author's development of D-model that captures our intuitions about normative concepts and the roles they play in the normative aspects of our lives. The proposal is based on the author's conviction that the semantic tools meant for propositional logic (descriptive expressions) cannot determine the significance of deontic expressions. Here the book traces a genealogy of ideas that led to D-model. In this vicinity, a bit of caution is called for. In the D-model context, the reader must be ready to modify the standard understanding of models associated with the semantics of logical systems. And again, since there is already a well-known model called Model-D in modal logic, care could be taken not to mistake the D-model for its more famous kin.  

The construction of D-Model takes cues from possible world semantics. The basic normative concepts that play central roles in deontic logic are analyzed and put in relation through attendant concepts that are developed around this construction. Deontic heaven, deontic hell, repressive norms, restorative norms, and prospective norms are some of these attendant concepts. 

There are times one might feel that the author's focus on the analysis of normative concepts pays scant attention to questions of validity, proof procedures, soundness and completeness. But this relegation, to defend the author's intent, is understandable. The author takes D-Model to be "metaphorical". It is not intended to be part of a formal structure that would be prescriptive of normative reasoning. Metaphor, the author observes, is to be judged by the degree of illumination it affords. Measuring by this yardstick, D-model provides illumination on some alternate pathways to understand the core concepts operative in deontic logic, the logic of norms, and our intuitions about these concepts. Through the notion of a deontological gap — the difference between worlds like ours, and the worlds that we would like to be in —  the purpose and significance of norms are analyzed as that which induce the narrowing of such gaps. 

Tinyi gives reasons for not amending the problems of deontic logic with a different formal apparatus. Logical principles, which were once considered unassailable —  for example, the traditional laws of thought —- have been challenged via formalisms in which they are locally or globally made to break down. We find this in the logical treatments of paraconsistency, intuitionism, possibilism (Mortensen 1989). The author cites this fact to warrant the novel approach he takes. Another, perhaps better, reason for this novelty, which the author mentions, is the difficulties that are engendered by a model-theoretic approach to the semantics of deontic logic. These are unique to deontic logic and are not encountered in other standard logical systems. 

Russell once said to Wittgenstein, "Are you thinking about logic or about your sins?" "Both," Wittgenstein replied (Russell 1968). One could take Wittgenstein's reply as an affirmation of a deep link between logic and ethics. The logic of norms therefore has held interests not only to logicians but also to those concerned by how one should act.

Those with interests in logic, ethics, legal studies, the history of philosophy, and their interfaces would find Tinyi’s book engaging and rewarding.


Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

McNamara, Paul and Frederik Van De Putte, "Deontic Logic", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.).

Mortensen, Chris. 1989. "Anything Is Possible." Erkenntnis (30): 319-337.

Russell, Bertrand. 1968. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1914-1944. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Sider, Theodore. 2010. Logic for Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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