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At first, under "meta" I, of course, mean such things as metaphilosophy, metaethics, and some other "metas" trying to answer the questions "What is X?", "What properties does X have?", etc. And this has nothing to do with stackexchange meta.

At first, I am starting from language analysis, it will be only brief explanation, because in fact that theory is very complex. I explain everything through the notion of "pattern" Anything capable of affecting humans (and other sapient beings and maybe even all sentient beings) is a pattern. Patterns are objects, processes, images, letters, words, etc. But among them the very important one is "concept". To me a concept is a pattern occuring in a mind in a result of stimulation, as a response to other patterns.

Now, a few examples.

Suppose, a child point a finger to some object and asks what is it? What a child asks is in fact more precisely should be tracted as "What this pattern is called in our language?" Language is a social construct and then such a question is purely descriptive as it asks what do people in given society call a particular pattern.

Or suppose a person have heard the word but has no clue what does it refer to. This can be the case with neologisms. Then the reverse process is the case, but it still is purely descriptive: "What pattern does society call by given name?"

But now a thought experiment: if you teach a child that teapot-pattern (something that almost all english speakers call "teapot") is called "chair" then a child will call teapot-pattern a chair even among average people, who are not a part of the experiment. It would take a while for others to understand that a child calls teapot-pattern "chair" and even more to teach a child call teapot-pattern "teapot". This experiment shows that if the same pattern is called differently by different people it can lead to misunderstanding.

But now let's move to some very abstract notions such as "love", "god", "good", "bad", "evil", "philosophy", etc. The question "What pattern does society call "love"?" is not unambiguously answerable because there is no consensus on the meaning of this word. Just because they are so broad that people only concentrate on particular properties ignoring others when learning language (first language acquisition) which causes differences in understanding.

Therefore, all given explanations, by fact, will be definitions or personal beliefs. In the first case a person wants others to agree with given definition, often arguing with them, and thus it will be normative claim. In the second case it again is just a description of personal beliefs.

Then I would answer the question "What is love?" by "What you have learnt to call "love" in a descriptive manner escaping any "meta" debates on the meaning of words. Most people, of course, would just tell their understanding of what "love" is, but the answer might not satisfy the questioner and result in an argument.

Normative claims are not as much philosophy as ideology. So do "metas" reduce to descriptive philosophy (science?)?

P. S. Metaphilosophy tag because there is a consensus that questions about philosophy are metaphilosophy, but I still think correct answers can be only descriptive.

  • It may be just me, but I cannot quite understand what is being asked. – PeterJ Sep 7 '18 at 11:16
  • @PeterJ, as a narrow example, can we in fact call metaethics a branch of descriptive or normative ethics (or a variation of both)? – rus9384 Sep 7 '18 at 11:34
  • I'd say it depends how we do it. But 'meta-ethics' cannot be a branch of some other ethics since it is overarching. A difficulty here is that you assume (I think) that knowledge of these things (love, God, good, bad, etc) is impossible, This assumption is arbitrary and in my opinion wrong. If it is wrong then this would rather change the discussion.and the goalposts might need moving. – PeterJ Sep 7 '18 at 11:42
  • @PeterJ, it's not about knowledge. If you teach a child that teapot is called a chair a child would call teapot a chair. And otherwise, different patterns can be called the same name and that's what I mean here - all debates arise because different people refer to different patterns by the same names (and therefore are vacuous if they are not about facts). – rus9384 Sep 7 '18 at 11:45
  • I am having the same trouble as Peter. What would be an example of a "question" (in any field) that is neither descriptive nor normative? After all, all sentences are interrogative, imperative or indicative. Is emotive/evocative a different thing? Methodological? And why is "descriptive" identified with science (or vice versa)? Logical positivists' attempt to do so famously went down in flames because their own pronouncements on the matter did not qualify as scientific. – Conifold Sep 7 '18 at 22:18

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