Saturday, September 4, 2010

Making judgments under the guise of objectivity

Q: How do you use a hammer?
A: You grab it by the handle and swing thusly, bringing the head into contact, at speed, with an object such as a nail...

Is the answer a normative or descriptive statement? It may sound descriptive, and indeed it describes. But notice how the answer doesn't mention taking the hammer by the head and digging in the sand with it. It also doesn't mention eating the hammer, another plausible use. The answer contains a judgment about the proper use of the hammer. The question was interpreted as "how should I use a hammer?," that is, "what's the correct way to use a hammer?" It would be fair to say that the statement is both normative and descriptive but where the question is whether or not the answerer is passing judgment on hammer use, the answer is most definitely "yes." It's an implicit affirmation of a particular way of using a hammer at the expense of all other possible ways. It's a normative claim.

The desired result (or purpose) informs the technique. The technique cannot be understood in isolation from the desired result. Hammers don't make sense without things to hit.

Q: How should I take care of this hammer?
A: Keep it in a dry place, don't throw it in a blast furnace...

Obviously a normative answer. The word "should" is a giveaway. But a different question arises from this exchange that expands the lesson from the first exchange. Why does the answerer only make recommendations that protect the hammer's integrity while making none that harm it? It's assumed that the questioner wants to know how best to preserve the hammer so that he can use it in the way that hammers are generally used. So as long as we're talking about the hammer, as philosophers say, qua hammer, all claims are normative unless they're bracketed, as in "people say..." or "most people think..." In other words, it's not my normative claim, it's theirs.

If you're talking about a hammer as metal or wood, on the other hand, descriptions of technique may refer to some other end, such as chemical decomposition, and the same analysis will show that technique and purpose remain inseparable.

Recently, a non-anarchist anarchist who goes by "IOZ" posted an article criticizing the vocal technique of 10 year-old opera singer Jackie Evancho, lamenting that "she can't breathe, she doesn't support, she doesn't know how to open her mouth, and she doesn't actually know how to sing the notes she's pretending to sing. Now, as an antidote, here is Montserrat Caballé, from 1975, when she was still near her vocal peak."

According to commenters responding to my response to the article, I'm to believe this was a non-normative statement since it was about "technique." According to one commenter, IOZ is merely concerned about poor Evancho's voice.

The technique, of course, must be just so, in order to sing like Montserrat Caballé, who was at "her vocal peak." But "vocal peak" has nothing to do with the beauty of her voice, only its health, as if the term makes any sense outside the context of singing for the purpose of creating beauty. "Doctor, I'm a mechanic and I have a big problem. My voice isn't at its peak!"

If the issue were the girl's voice, as it relates to being able to speak without pain later in life, I'd grant the point. Her voice is the metal as it relates to chemical decomposition. But it's clearly about more than that and anyone who can read the above quote and interpret it as merely descriptive has failed to grasp the meaning of the word "normative."