Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Evaluative Meaning (Again)

I've discussed this issue before, but am trying to clarify my thoughts on it. The following is a brief excerpt (minus footnotes) from an essay draft I'm working on. Any criticisms or advice would be most welcome!

Descriptive and Evaluative Meaning

Non-cognitivist defenders of the fact/value gap might seek to ground it instead on how we use language. When one describes a ‘good wine’, there appears to be an evaluative component to the expression which is independent of its descriptive meaning. Two people might agree on all the (descriptive) qualities of the wine – call these ‘X’ – and yet disagree as to whether these qualities made it good or not. What meaning ‘good’ has over and above ‘X’ is the evaluative meaning, that is, the commendation of the speaker.

I think this picture is rather misleading, in that it conflates evaluation with conation. Evaluations need not be intrinsically action-guiding at all; ‘dispassionate evaluation’ is not a contradiction. One might evaluate an object against criteria which they care little for, as does the reluctant judge of some local competition. Note that we may happily grant a fact/attitude gap, and locate values in the former realm. In doing so, however, we will need to provide some explanation of why it is that evaluations are often – if not always – action-guiding.

The best explanation for this is found not in positing some special sort of ‘evaluative’ meaning, but by noting the variety of uses to which language may be put. We may use language not only to describe, but also to warn, recommend, express conative attitudes, and so forth. As McNaughton writes:
In telling my fellow-picnickers that there is a bull in the field I may not only be making a statement but also, in that context, warning them and advising them to take evasive action. This does nothing to show that the sentence ‘There is a bull in the field’ has a special kind of meaning.

So even if sentences are purely descriptive in meaning, they may still be employed for various other communicative purposes. Philippa Foot points out that we often employ the word ‘dangerous’ for the speech-act of warning, much like ‘good’ is often used for commending. But of course we are not thereby tempted to incorporate the ‘warning function’ of ‘dangerous’ into the very meaning of the word, or suggest that anyone may, without mistake, assess as ‘dangerous’ whatever they have a fearful attitude towards. That such language often happens to be action-guiding is more plausibly due to the nature of good or dangerous things than the mere force of the words.

Contrary to the non-cognitivist’s suggestion, description and evaluation are not always entirely independent of each other. For example, the primary evaluative criteria for functional concepts, such as ‘knife’ or ‘pen’, are internal to the concept. Knowing that a good pen must write legibly is part and parcel of knowing what a pen is. Pre-established internal criteria also arise in the assessment of roles, such as ‘father’, ‘farmer’, or ‘patriot’. One could not appeal to just any old fact as evidence that someone is a good father. Descriptive elements put constraints on what might legitimately feature in evaluations.

The entanglement of fact and value becomes even clearer in the case of thick ethical concepts such as ‘cruel’ and ‘brave’. Dichotomists must argue that such concepts can be ‘factored’ into strictly descriptive and evaluative components. It is not obvious how to go about this, however. Indeed, Hilary Putnam argues that it is quite impossible to give the ‘descriptive meaning’ of ‘cruel’ without using the word itself or some synonym. Mastery of the concept, even in neutral (‘descriptive’) contexts, requires sensitivity to the evaluative point of view. This exemplifies a fundamental intertwining of the descriptive with the evaluative.


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