On the Complex Ontology of Norms: from Deontic Sentence to Deontic Noema


Human beings (and possibly other animals) live in a normative landscape. They continuously act with reference to a plurality of norms, some of which are believed to have an objective existence in their environment. There are many sciences and disciplines that investigate or presuppose the existence of such norms.

What is a norm, however? A shared and univocal answer to this question can hardly be found, and no general agreement exists even on what ontological domain of phenomena norms belong to. Norms and normative phenomena appear indeed to be complex phenomena intersecting different domains of reality, such as the psychical, linguistic, logical, biological, social, legal, and so on, and they can hardly be reduced to one single domain. The impression may thus arise that the very concept of “norm”—diffracting and refracting into heterogeneous, mutually irreducible and interfering phenomena and conceptualizations—dissolves and fades away.

Instead of trying to single out the very reality of norms in one single domain, I will map the different phenomena the word norm may variously refer to, in order to better clarify their possible relationships. Expanding the five referents distinguished by Conte (2007; 2012), I consider seven possible referents of the word ‘norm’: this word may alternately refer to a deontic sentence, a deontic utterance, a deontic proposition, a deontic state-of-affairs, a deontic noema, a deontic conduct and a deontic object.

Many theories of norms, especially in the philosophy of law, focus on the most “tangible” referents of ‘norm’, such as the deontic sentence or the deontic proposition expressed by it: they thus conceive norms as linguistic entities which are the product of specific linguistic normative acts.

I will challenge this linguistic conception of norms under two respects.

First, I will consider the existence, within societies and legal systems, of non-linguistic and language-independent norms. It is the case, for instance, of customary norms established before and independently of their linguistic formulations. I will construe such customary norms in terms of “athetic deontic states-of-affairs”, as suggested by Conte (2007; 2012).

Second, rather than focusing exclusively on the side of norm-creating acts—which are generally privileged in legal theory—I will highlight the other side of normative phenomena, that of the experience of norms. I will construe norms as “deontic noemata” correlated to specific “deontic noeses”. Under this phenomenological perspective it is possible to account also for the experience of norms that are not issued by an authority through specific linguistic norm-creating acts, as well as for spontaneous norms experienced by a subject independently of their linguistic formulation, and possibly (if other “nomic animals” exist besides human beings) of norms hypothetically existing in animal communities. Furthermore, it is only on the presupposition that human beings, as “nomic animals” (Lorini 2018), are capable of having such normative experiences that all the remaining levels of normative phenomena make sense.


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