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Descriptivism And Prescriptivism

  Consider a word such as ‘healthy’. According to prescriptivists, we can analyse the meaning of this word into two components: descriptive and evaluative. The first is some description of a physical condition which will be different in the case of different creatures. For humans, it will be having a functioning heart and liver, not having cancer or AIDS, etc. For plants, it will be something else. The second component is a prescriptive meaning, in this case usually a mark of approval. When we say someone is healthy this is ordinarily a commendation, an expression of approval of their physical condition. According to the prescriptivist, these two components can be separated: we can say that someone is ‘healthy’ in a sneering tone of voice, thus ascribing a certain physical condition to them while withholding our approval. But when we use the word in a standard way we are commending the physical condition in question to ourselves and everyone else.

Descriptivists think it impossible to discern an evaluative element in the meaning of ‘healthy’. ‘Healthy’ means something like ‘in a physical condition suitable for the life of the creature in question’. This suitability is an objective matter, a function of the creature\'s characteristic life, rather than a matter for approval by us. One may or may not approve of people who have functioning hearts, but that has nothing to do with whether it is healthy to have a functioning heart. Furthermore, one does not express any such attitude merely by calling a physical condition ‘healthy’. The sentence ‘I don\'t like health’ makes perfect sense.

Descriptivists and prescriptivists also apply their analyses to ethical terms like ‘courageous’. On the prescriptivist view, courageous behaviour is behaviour which has certain characteristics of which we approve and we can specify these characteristics (the descriptive meaning of the term) without evaluating them. We can abstract a non-evaluative meaning from the word ‘courageous’. On the descriptivist view, it is impossible to specify the characteristics which make certain behaviour courageous, other than by using words like ‘brave’ which the prescriptivist would regard as evaluative. But on the descriptivist\'s view, words like ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ are not evaluative, for it makes perfect sense to say ‘I do not approve of bravery’. Rather the meaning of ‘courageous’ is purely descriptive and so also for other ethical terms such as ‘generous’, ‘kind’ and ‘sympathetic’. AJ

See also emotivism; ethical relativism; ethics; fact and value.Further reading R. Hare, The Language of Morals (part two); , P. Foot, ‘Goodness and Choice’, in Virtues and Vices.



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Descriptivist Linguistics


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