Ken’s Unfinished Project

27 December 2019

One Sunday in the spring of 2007, John and I walked into the back room of KALW to find Ken singing. Back then I was both Ken’s PhD student and the director of research for Philosophy Talk, so it was always a treat to catch my advisor and boss being playful. He was coming up with different lyrics for Sinatra’s classic “Love and Marriage.” He sang:


Norms and Nature!

Norms and Nature!

Go together like a…


Ken, who had a lovely singing voice, was keeping his alive for the promos we were about to record. (Ben Manila, then producer of Philosophy Talk, was insistent on such things.) But Ken was also, in his way, announcing the theme of a book project that would occupy him on and off for the next twelve years.


That book would argue something big. Normativity—along with us humans steeped in it—does not fall metaphysically outside the natural order; rather, it falls squarely within it. There may appear to be a conceptual chasm between nature, governed by physics and chemistry, and the normative orders of meaning, rationality, value, and ultimately morality. But Ken wished to argue that that chasm is not conceptually impossible to cross. We just have to get the details right and understand what natural structures constitute meaning and value. Once we clear away certain philosophical obstacles—erroneous assumptions about language, etc.—the right theoretical bridge can be built.


In 2007, Philosophy Talk was still young. So at that time, Ken had two fledgling intellectual projects that were dear to him: his radio show with John, and his nascent book. Both went on to grow over the years—the radio show publicly and his book project privately. But after multiple drafts of chapters and various practice articles, he just recently settled on a title that he liked for the progressing book: A Natural History of Normative Consciousness.


Most academic philosophers know Ken for his technical work on language and mind. But it always seemed to me that this project on norms and nature, which ranged from metaphysics to metaethics, was closest to his heart. Somehow, all that other stuff—cool as it was—was a prelude.


Here’s an example. Ken’s latest book in philosophy of language, Meaning Diminished: Toward Metaphysically Modest Semantics, came out this year with Oxford University Press. But the Meaning Diminished manuscript really started out its life as a preface to his Natural History. It was meant to clear up some metaphysically burdensome views about language in order to make way for a realistic portrait of normativity. Just the work was so substantial that the preface became its own book.


Convinced of the importance of Ken’s normativity project, and with the support of my departmental chair Eddy Nahmias, I invited him to Georgia State for an extended visit this past September. At about twelve years in, the book as a whole had become an adolescent and was thus ready for a workshop. So on September 13, the project that Ken sang about all those years ago saw an introduction to the world—or at least to a motley collection of philosophers from around Atlanta, along with Axel Mueller of Northwestern and Ram Neta of UNC, whom we had invited as commentators.


It would be futile for me here to try to describe in any detail the systematic structure and argumentation of Ken’s manuscript. Still, I want to give a taste of his approach, of how he thought that from this “vast and layered labyrinth of nature” something extraordinary could emerge, which he called “norm mongering creatures engaged in a dialectic of ratification and resistance.” In other words: humans.


So Ken’s project was constructive. Part I (two chapters) sketched how it was possible to construct, out of the relatively basic resources of information responsiveness and logical syntax, a creature that had some forms of rationality, selfhood, and a quasi-Kantian ability to prescribe rules to oneself. Part II (three chapters) put the rational creatures thus constructed into societies with one another, in which these norm-mongers inevitably came into group and individual conflict and had to negotiate which entitlements would be endorsed and ratified—and which wouldn’t—and how what emerges from this can suitably be called normativity in a natural world. Part III then explored the moral and metaethical consequences of I and II. Its two chapters would discuss two things: (i) how to be a relativist and (ii) how to “vanquish the lingering shadow of the long-dead God.”


All that will strike most readers here as dense and theoretical, and it is. Yet in the workshop itself, Ken managed to outline and discuss his project with, as Axel later put it, a sense of “liberty, air, and creative-while-rigorous exploration of profound matters among equals.”


I have often wondered why this project, of all things in philosophy, was so dear to Ken. I don’t think I can say. But a story that Ram told me from the night of Ken’s manuscript workshop will give a sense. Ram, Ken, and Axel were taking an Uber from dinner back to the hotel, and as Ram puts it:

That same day, it was reported that the California state legislature had just voted in favor of a bill that would require Uber and Lyft to provide full-time employee status for all of their drivers. As soon as we got into the car, Ken mentioned this fact without editorial and then asked the driver what he thought of the measure. The driver didn't approve of the measure, and Ken proceeded to ask why. Soon, all four of us were talking animatedly with each other about the personal and social benefits and costs of employment versus freelancing. For that brief period of his life, the Uber driver had become a philosopher at Ken's invitation.

Thus, in the back of an Uber, Ken was putting into practice the rational dialectic of ratification and resistance that he so eloquently portrayed in his never-to-be-finished writing.

Norms and nature . . . go together like a . . . what? After fishing around for the right word all those years ago, Ken never finished the rhyme to his song. Life moved on and we had to record promos. I am filled with sadness every time I think that he will never finish his great book project either. 


I’d like to thank Rachel Lehmann, Axel Mueller, and Ram Neta for their help with writing this piece. Photo by Melanie Fan, Georgia State University College of Arts & Sciences.

Comments (7)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, December 27, 2019 -- 11:29 AM

Awesome write up Neil.

Awesome write up Neil.
Thanks for this.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, December 29, 2019 -- 11:08 AM

Just for fun (or is it?):

Just for fun (or is it?): Norms and nature; norms and nature; go together in the nomenclature. Like your love for mother; you can't have one without the other---I could go on, but song lyrics are a hobby I have little time for these days; gave up the music business many years ago. We most certainly are 'norm mongering creatures', who ratify and resist, argue and debate, bicker, barter, and, often, compromise---as all humans are wont to do.. Ken Taylor's unfinished book sounds a daunting task. I predict that a. someone will finish it, if permissions be obtainable, or b. someone else will write; has written; is writing something measurably similar, if actually reaching different conclusions. As to a remark made by Mr. Smith on a difference of opinion regarding one twentieth century philosopher's writing, my only response is this: I would not viciously derogate anyone's work---not even if I violently disagreed with it (which in Searle's case I do not). Such outbursts are unhelpful, seems to me. I don't think Philosophy Talk is about that at all. If you want to 'question intelligence', go trolling somewhere else..

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 -- 6:36 AM

That is fair and Searle is

That is fair and Searle is smart. Attaching your own thought to others is not smart. You do so with all that comes with it. I was short there, would answer there, but if you would call that out here so be it...

I like Searle's ideas but find his haughtiness and behavior well within reproach. That is not trolling it is sentiment born of fact.

I do not question his intelligence nor yours. In fact I am reading Rorty on your recommend... I am finding much to question there but nothing which you might find “trolling.”

When Searle comes clean with a public statement of responsibility I will bend "trolling" to a new purpose instead of culling truth from decadal old insult to philosophia.

Let us stick to philosophy and agree to dislike whoever we want. The majority of the cannon is despicable, including that coming from female auteurs (like Simone de Beauvoir – whom I have also criticized on this blog and will forever as she was likewise unrepentant.)

Searle is worthy of discussion not excessive praise nor, if Berkely is any indicator, affiliation. You are what you do. Searle is not done, so like Habermas I will reserve final judgment... but not judgment. At no time will I withhold it in lieu of being called a troll. I relish that role when known by its provenance (hmm… how could I say that more clearly… it takes one to know one.) Harold you throw out Searle with affiliation of thought. I throw him out. That is not trolling if the other is not. In brutal fact the other is a name I will not call.

Disagree with that if you want. You calling out Searle as a model is stinky cheese - and, again, I don't call that what it is. It is enough that I have to think about his Chinese room every day in my thought and work.

Philosophy is a brutal occupation, taken on by trolls and bloggers – it can get ugly. Bloggers don’t have reputational turds to polish, publishers or fellow academics to suit.

That said let me round this back to Neil’s post. Searle is as likely a candidate as any to pick up Ken’s quest. His derisive take down of Derrida is on point and would bridge norm and nature. I think Ken was going there and rue the fate that didn’t see him do that very thing. I Frege’n don’t think it can be done but would read the book.

Best to you Harold as always, but not to John Searle... for the time being at least.

P.S. I don’t like Pete Rose either and am an eternal Reds fan. Lee May perhaps… not Pete.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, March 28, 2021 -- 6:52 AM

So, time goes by and we all

So, time goes by and we all miss Mr. Taylor. I think there should be someone who might take it on. I sorta understand the premise (I think), but could not capture any going forward strategy without scrupulous research, and am, as a practical matter, way too old to tackle the import of the project. Would Ken have wanted someone to carry on with this? You folks knew him. I did not. Just thinking what others may have already... It seems important.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 4, 2021 -- 1:16 PM

I suspect you,are someone

I suspect you,are someone from past years. You sound like that person Won''t mention names or blog handles. Needless. Find a clam though, you may find a pearl. Anyway, you may have noticed my remarks about form vs. substance. What say you? Have always, though not in all ways,found your insights helpful. Hope your life goes well
I just want to die, naturally. Yeah. I missed you, too...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, May 15, 2021 -- 2:30 PM

You have some access to

You have some access to Taylor's work and research, right? Why doesn't someone get on this. What are you waiting for? Or is it that you just don't have the will or commitment to take it on? Got my own work to do. And no worries about stepping on toes. Well, maybe a few...

agotrackball's picture


Thursday, January 18, 2024 -- 12:42 AM

Someone ought to be able to

Someone ought to be able to take it on, in my opinion. I believe I comprehend the theory somewhat, but without meticulous investigation penalty kick online, I could not come up with any moving forward plans, and I am practically much too old to take on the project's significance.

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