The Fictions We Create 5: Descriptive sentences and evaluative statements

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It is clear that the term *language* has a technical meaning but that it is also used to refer to what humans — but also some other species, e.g. monkeys, — do when they “chatter”! In the first sense, language is a form of communication viewed as acts during which specific messages are passed from one individual to others.

An example often cited in the past was to the “language” of bees, a field of research associated with the work of Karl von Frisch (Nobel prize, 1973) and his discovery that bees inform members of their hive of the location of honey sources by a dance. Here an individual message has content, that is, it is about something, refers to some distinguishable happening or event which may be significant or important to communicants. Yet every message may only be a constituent of a wider language. A piercing cry may be a message — as may be a whimper — but it is not part of a language unless there are additional messages which supplement such singular cries.

A language, in short, usually features many messages and — as we have learnt over the past few hundred years following the publication of several dictionaries — each human language shows that it can grow by leaps and bounds within a relatively short period. In short, a cry can become part of a vocal language, but may not do so consistently. There may be many “cries” which can become an aspect or feature of a language, but need not do so. (For example, “ouch” is a cry of pain, but it is in English.)

A human language has many features by means of which messages are passed from one individual to others of a group, from one to one or among many. Each message has some content — what it is about — but it also possesses a formal structure, which becomes part of its referential meaning. It is therefore incorrect to advertise only the semantic aspect of a term, since each message also occurs in a context which contributes to some degree to what is normally referred to as its meaning for both the sender and the recipient of the message. The prototypical and well-known example of how structure determines meaning is “the cat is on the mat” versus “the mat is on the cat”. There are many versions of this.

As already stated, language is a form of communication viewed as acts of passing messages from one individual to others of a group. But messages by humans are communicated not only by spoken words, but also by gestures, hand signals, etc. Indeed, many modern commentators refer to “body language” to convey that there may be additional meaning to a statement made in written or some other form, e.g., when a poet reads his work in public. Thus one may hear a comment that, “Mr. T asserts ‘xyz’ but his body language tells a different story.” It gives us a different story than if only his words were used to interpret his meaning.

Let us now clarify two terms which may make my position clearer, namely descriptive sentences and evaluative sentences.

Descriptive sentences refer to those elements of a spoken or written language which are presented in the form of statements whose function is to assert that some particular event, x, has a general quality, q. For example, “the sky today is blue” describes x by ascribing one of many possible, suitable, likely attributes to x. Important: the letter q does not refer to an evaluative property of the event (like “beautiful”, “desirable”, “ghastly”, “horrendous”) but refers to a feature which in combination with other features makes the event unique or different from other events, including what it is made of, e.g. a horse of flesh and bones, or a horse made of wood!

Evaluative sentences, on the other hand, refer to sentences of a language which ascribe value to an event, which order or locate that event on a scale of desirability, preferability, usefulness, etc. These are all qualities of the object which reflect its value but does not add to its description. Such evaluations are invariably relative to some other, perhaps comparable, items or events. These therefore do not describe the object by reference to its so-called “defining” properties. To refer to a vase as “in the shape of a bottle with ugly decorations” is a mixed description — and in that sense is no more helpful than talking about it as being “shaped as a bottle with additional decorations”! By adding that the decorations are “ugly”, the object is classified as existing on a scale of values which reflect something about the speaker and not the the object! It is similar to asserting “I love dogs but not cats”, which states a personal preference and clearly has nothing to do with either dogs or cats: in short, being liked by me is not descriptive of either entity or object!

We therefore divide our world into (a) items, events, situation which are describable, can be described, in contrast to (b) rating each of these on a scale which reflects our personal appreciation and reaction to it. We customarily talk about (a) as involving objective description and (b) as involving our personal, subjective, reaction to some event.

In some sense, therefore, descriptive statements may be true or false, whereas evaluative statements only reflect the views and opinions of the speaker, namely, his or her preferences and opinions. To refer to them as being true or false violates the rules of language use. The statements themselves have no epistemic validity, since this quality of a statement cannot be tested without reference to “data”.

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One Response to The Fictions We Create 5: Descriptive sentences and evaluative statements

  1. Pingback: The Fictions We Create 6 : Flawed diamonds — description or evaluation? | Harry M B Hurwitz

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