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

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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!

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

  1. Hank Davis says:

    Harry’s argument may sound academic, but it carries considerable social implications whether he wants them or not. There are certain qualities which to the speaker may sound descriptive but to the receiver (and his or her supporters) are perceived as evaluative and, therefore, judgmental. Once that bridge is crossed, we enter into the realm or defense and perhaps combat. For example, I listen to you in a debate or in conflict with others and I report that you are being “immature.” That may be a purely rational, descriptive judgment on my part. I can argue that there is a finite list of qualities, any two or more of which constitute “immaturity” in someone 18 or older. You have just revealed five such qualities and so I reach my descriptive threshold and report it verbally.
    That triggers you and yours because the quality of being “immature” has negative connotations and is therefore perceived as “evaluative” rather than “descriptive.” The net response is usually some far-less-polite form of “Who gave you the right to evaluate me?” All of which raises the interesting question about social living: Why is generally OK to describe, but not to evaluate?

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