Naess’ concept of normative system

1. The word “system” has different meanings, but here it refers to a system of ideas which can be expressed in ordinary language – a philosophical system.

2. The word systéma (from the Greek σύστημα) “is a combination of syn, together, and a form of the Greek verb histémi, to set up. To systematise is to make something fit together as a whole.” (Naess & Rothenberg 1989, 72). Thus “system” literally means a combination or an assemblage of elements, that is, a whole composed of parts.

3. A philosophical system is an assemblage of statements structured in a coherent way to form a whole. It is a linguistic construction.

4. A normative system is a philosophical system which consists of two kinds of expressions: hypotheses and norms.

5. Hypotheses are statements that can be true or false. They state something about the world, or reality, or existence. They are thus ontological in nature. An example of an hypothesis would be: “The Earth is round.”

6. Norms are imperative sentences. They establish rules of behavior, stating how we should act, or not act. They are thus ethical in nature. An example of a norm would be: “Recycle the waste!” Norms are indicated by ending the sentence with an exclamation sign.

7. Norms can be fundamental (that is, non-derived), or they can be derived from other norms and hypotheses. There are in principle many possibilities of derivation of a given consistent set of norms and hypotheses from a less numerous set.

8. Both hypotheses and norms are tentative and reversible: there is no way of absolutely guaranteeing the truth of a hypothesis; there is no way of absolutely validating a norm. It is better to think of them as bets on certain outcomes. “A systematization is a methodological device made by certain persons for certain purposes. It has no independent authority.” (Naess 1977, 178)

9. The aim of normative thinking is the formulation of guidelines for decisions. Decisions “are absolutistic in the sense of being either carried out or sabotaged” (Naess, 168). On the basis of the outcomes of decisions, a normative system can be either supported or reformulated.

10. The sentences that compose a normative system need not convey the same meaning to every person (see: Arne Naess’ Empirical Semantics). “Certain approximations are all that can be expected” (Naess 1977, 168).


Næss, Arne. 1977. “The Methodology of Normative Systems”, in: Alan Drengson and Bill Devall (eds.), The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010): 167-180.

Næss, Arne; Rothenberg, David. 1989. Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

This entry was posted in Education, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *