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 3: Describing the Inside and Outside

Common sense distinguishes between objects that stand on the “outside” of a room or enclosure, and those located “within” a room, or a box, or a carton or an awkwardly configured shell/enclosure. Thus objects are invariably assumed to occupy space. Amongst their many diverse properties which is that objects are located somewhere, in some place which can itself be described and conceptualized, as “a vessel 20 leagues under the sea”! To be in space assumes therefore that one is located “within” or “outside” an enclosure.

Thinking outside the box

We speak routinely about “locations” but — as we shall see — this is speaking figuratively and metaphorically. By contrast, when we discuss our feelings about an issue — e.g. about a neighbour who has just won a large prize in a lottery, or the person who called the police to report an ongoing burglary of his home, or about the doctor’s report that someone known to us has contracted HIV — we not only report the bare facts of a case, but also refer to how these event affected or influenced us as individuals — specifically, how we feel, or retrospectively felt, about what happened on a particular occasion.

Of course, we usually or normally do not receive two reports, one of a particular event and the other of our feelings about it, although on many occasions we get these “mixed up”. Thus we may say, “I’m sorry that I appear all excited and wound-up but the following happened as I walked to the Forum — Caesar was killed by Brutus, and by a host of others!”

So humans, as a rule, report both what they have experienced but also how this experience may have affected them. In our culture we are also trained to be clear that reports and narratives can be both about “objective events” and about how these events influenced us “personally”! We learn therefore how to present “what has occurred out there, somewhere” and “how we (I) feel about a matter” in a clear, possibly concise, manner. The common distinction is therefore between (a) “objective” events and (b) events which “impact” our feelings and our personal reactions to such events.

We refer to these latter as “subjective reports” — and in this matter ensure that these are excluded from being “objective” or “scientific”! We assign to such events a special status. But there are exceptions, as when a person is totally focussed on events taking place “outside”, even when these are far in the past.

It would be a gross error of judgement to describe such events in “personal” terms, like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 70 AD which destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii. Not quite! It would also be inappropriate for a historian or archeologist to do so, but not for a writer of fiction, a novelist like Lord Lytton, or even of a stray eye-witness. (Were there any surviving witnesses?) In other words, we ourselves choose whether to treat an event as objective or in a personalized manner. In summary, there are times when we have the opportunity and the “right” to choose between these two options, whether to see and present ourselves to others as impartial witnesses, or as involved participants!