The Fictions We Create 7: More on descriptive (empirical) and evaluative terms

This article continues an argument started in article #6 of this series, The Fictions We Create 6: Flawed diamonds —
description or evaluation?

Can *flawed* (in the sense that some items fall short of a proposed standard) and its antonym, *unflawed*, be viewed as descriptive terms? Both are used evaluatively and do not describe in the ordinary sense of that word (referring to features). We may talk about a diamond being “flawed” but mean that the gem has features which make it less than perfect. In the eyes of experts this may degrade its market value, but it does not determine whether the item belongs to the class of diamonds or is cut glass.

Similarly, a farm chicken which has lost its feathers — it was plucked by one of us! — is still a bird, although it is the worse for receiving such uncharitable, cavalier treatment. My argument hopefully is clearly Aristotelean since it starts from the premise that a bird is an object which is defined by a finite list of qualities which make it “bird-like”, which give it bird-status! (This is not how modern biologists view species!)

Admittedly, although “definitions” may be useful tools for sorting a heap of bric-a-brac into smaller managable categories, definitions of names should not be confused with efforts to discover why each differs from others, or what makes a bird different from a rodent! Nor should this be confused with a search for explanations, e.g., why a bird is what it is (or seems to us), how differences between events (and objects) originally arose and have come about, or what caused — in the sense of created — a difference between events.

These questions are historical and therefore should be answered using primarily historical methods. It requires, inter alia, that answers state how different (specificable) states changed over time and circumstances, what it was that specifically promoted such changes. It is a case where we wish to have knowledge about circumstance (specific and in general) which give rise uniquely or in general to such changes, as when we comment that “this stone moved its position since I last saw it!”. The answer to this particular quesion may be “Someone deliberately moved the stone up the mountain” or “It must have fallen or have been washed down the hill during recent rains.” Note, however, that in both cases the question of its change of location was answered by referring to an outside (i.e. external) agent of change — and not by reference to an agent, like some property of “volition” which is assumed to be general to all stones (!) or perhaps only to those stones with special markings! (The stuff of fairly-tales, where apple-pits or stones can turn into genies!)

Historical methods would only indicate how we moved from one conception of a phenomenon to another conception, whereas “causal” methods supposedly focus on how things work or on how things have come to be what they seem to be. Aristotle — and other thinkers of his period, including his students — raised these and related issue partly because they were firmly convinced that “change” in anything, whether of type, or movement, or of contingent features, reflect an unstable universe, that is, an imperfect world, whereas human reason revealed that it was our immediate perceptions that were variable, not the world as such! This was a major metaphysical assumption to make, one he had taken from Plato. Thus, prototypes (ur-forms) were stable whereas much of what we experience was regarded as ephemeral, even as shadows of the “real”, as representations. It reflects a “metaphysical stance”, a position based on our reasoning about matters which are given to us a priori.

The distinction made in earlier blogs between terms which serve to describe features of things and those which are evaluations of a feature of a “thing”, are critical for two entirely different reasons:

(a) Descriptions are used to identify features of events. It is not claimed that these descriptons are complete, and therefore form an exhaustive list, or that these are ordered in importance, but only state that each belongs to a list of attributes ascribed to a named thing. These may include reference to its relative distinctiveness, as when someone mentions that parakeets are “green-feathered all over” or that “Henry VIII in old age was bloated” — an empirical assertion which could be falsified and thereby eliminated from the list of “essential attributes”.

(b) Evaluations used to compare features of events as these stand to each other on some common yardstick. A “flawed diamond” for example selects a quality of a particular stone but does so both in relation to other stones but also by reference to a “perfect” or “ideal” one.

Aristotle suggested that we require a comprehensive inventory of things before we can inquire into the nature of each. He emphasized that things have properties which identify them in two ways: as individual items but also as a member of a class. Thus a thing may be a sample of a class, or it may refer to the class itself. There is a class of “man” but there are also instances, like “Socrates”. A simple but dfferent example: shoes are protective foot wear used by men, women, and children and are produced in all sizes as well as for each class of humans!

The Fictions We Create 6 : Flawed diamonds — description or evaluation?

Question: Is the universe — as conceptualized by earlier cosmologists — an entity which could be described as either perfect or imperfect? In the former case, it could be referred to as a “flawless” universe, or at least as a universe becoming flawless. Indeed, this is how it was viewed by many Western theologians for the past two millennia. But in as much as the universe was not without flaws, blame was placed on the iniquity of humans, not on its Creator. Not a convincing argument! One could reason that flaws in humans are due to how humans were “designed” (with what potential flaws?), or to the plans prepared for its creation, or to the original designer for having created a flawed species.

The complementary idea that the universe itself had flaws, that it is not perfect, has not been put forward by theologians. How would anyone find out whether this was true, or even reasonable? Assume, for example, that the “world”, or the “universe” was not flawed, but has detectable blemishes! This argument would be based on the premise that the initial forces of creation were faulty, or were deficient in some sense, that its most significant product, humans, were ill-designed — a view which has not found many, if any advocates! However, the notion that humans — or other creatures — were “designed”, is itself contentious and involves an odd use of the term *designed*. It raises the issue whether the term “designed” is appropriate when used in such a general, almost frivolous, and unrestricted manner. Is it not better to remove the use of the term “designed” from its traditional plinth?

Stated differently, the notion that humans were created according to a design has the logical status of an empirical hypothesis. It implies that a design for this particular species preceded its appearance. But this would apply to everything else, too. Evidence for such a hypothesis (or contention) is missing. One would therefore expect the hypothesis to die a natural death. It should be discarded in favour of a better, superior proposal! We have indeed waited already too long for this to happen. There are many now who would argue that it is time to re-state the original question and to do so preferably in a manner which makes it more readily answerable.

What kind of concept is flawed (or faulted)? It is certainly an evaluative term since it judges by referring to a standard. As commonly used, *flawed* is not a property ascribed to an event, but involves a criticism of it. It involves a comparison of two or more similar, related items with respect to a particular feature each of these displays.

A more familiar example than *flawed* is *tall*. It compares objects by appealing to an independent measure of height. *Taller*, therefore, refers to a comparison of the height between different, possibly even unrelated objects, as for example, “this giraffe is taller than this book-case”. It does describe an object, but does so by referring to a relationship between any two or more objects. To give an example: garments cover some of the surface of its wearer but garments need not have colour. Colour therefore is regarded as an “extrinsic feature” of a garment whereas one of its features — that it of covers a body — is part of its “definition” — or specification — as an object!

The comparison makes particular reference to the objects’ functionality, but avoids reference to its purpose, since objects do not necessarily have a purpose in the normal — metaphysically neutral — sense of that term! For example, a bookcase has no purpose, but it serves a need — specifically my need, or that of an organisation, like a public library which was designed and planned to hold and store manusucripts in book form.

On the other hand, a giraffe has neither purpose nor does it fulfill a human need (sic!) in the broad sense of that term. Only items about which we can say that these promote (serve some “self-interest”) and are agents on a mission, are said to have a purpose (in the strict sense of that term). What occurs for other reasons than human self-interest are viewed (by us) as “activated” by instinct, compulsion, destiny, some obscure entelechy, or by physical causes (e.g. a ball rolling down a hill).

Psychoanalysts have encouraged us for the past century and more to think of humans as partly activated by desires of which the actor is not necessarily aware or cogniscnant. Indeed the actor may advance reasons for actions which seem to any impartial outsider irrelevant. Thus, it often seems that actions cannot be explained in terms which the general public will accept!

Some philosophers (e.g. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953; and Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949) have argued that we have become increasingly confused by our own rhetoric, that we may say things without meaning them, or that since there is often more than one meaning attached to a word we may be focussed on a meaning which not intended by others! Wittgenstein even suggested that there is a cure for this malady, that a more careful analysis of how each of us uses language in everyday affairs may help us avoid “mental cramps” and dilemmas.

He may have had in mind earlier philosophers who made such outlandish claims as that time is not real, as is the philosopher who is uncertain of his existence and demands a logical proof that ideed he is alive if not necessarily healthy. The trouble is that the proposed remedy — the analysis of how language is used in specific cases — is not always successful in dealing with such philosophical general problems, and hence does not resolve them. It is also true that the counter-method which was designed to restore self-confidence in what one believes, has not been sufficiently and systematically used to have had a measurable effect!

Thus, we simply don’t know whether philosophical puzzles like “is time real?” — whatever these are or how many of these circulate — can be avoided or perhaps even cured by using the methods proposed by some philosophers — or whether such puzzles can be eliminated altogether. Language, it could be argued, is not a precision instrument at all, like a caliper, and therefore should not be used as such. Presumably one can invent, synthesize, and then prescribe a pill which will cure and medicate some mental cramps, but one cannot always persuade others to take the pills voluntarily. The fear of becoming disoriented as a result of accepting a remedial pill is often overwhelming and may block action by those who may benefit!

To return to our original problem which was to discover the meaning of *flawed*. Used descriptively, this word refers to a dimension which runs the whole gamut from “perfect” to “imperfect”. *Flawed* would then be the name of the dimensions itself. It refers to a a graded set of states, a continuous series, whose opposite (antonym) could be perfected. One would then speak about degrees of perfection, or its opposite, the extent to which something is flawed.

The same logic applies to *faulted*. One could add, that something is “greatly flawed”, but that one is thereby pointing to a new dimension — to a way of emphasizing its position within a recognized already existing dimension! *Greatly* — as in *greatly flawed* — would add an evaluative overtone to such judgement. (See my earlier blog in this series on descriptive and evaluative terms.)

The Fictions We Create 5: Descriptive sentences and evaluative statements

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”.