PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday October 25, 2012


[5.4.3.] Descriptive vs. Dynamic Use.


According to Stevenson, language has two broad types of purpose or use:


1. descriptive uses

(a)               to communicate facts and cause a listener to believe what you yourself believe: when I say to you “The Giants are playing the Tigers in the World Series,” I am attempting to tell you something that I believe to be true about the world, viz. that the Giants are playing the Tigers in the World Series, and to cause you to believe it.



2. dynamic uses

(a)                issue commands or give orders: when I say “Take me to the Giants / Tigers game!” or “Buy me a ticket to the game!” I am trying to get you to perform a certain action.

(b)               to change attitudes: when I say “You shouldn’t spend so much money on baseball tickets,” I am trying to change your attitude about the purchase of tickets. This is different than trying to get you to change your factual beliefs, e.g., your belief about how much MLB tickets cost.

(c)                express feelings: when I cheer for the Giants (“Yay, Giants! Alright!”) or when I “Booo!” the Tigers, or say “Damn!” when the Tigers score, I am not doing either of the previous three things. Rather, I am expressing how I feel about the Giants and the Tigers. I am not stating that I am enthusiastic about the Giants, nor am I stating that I dislike the Giants. Rather, I am expressing my enthusiasm and my dislike. Other examples: “Oh!” “Yipes!” and lots of different swear words used to express anger or frustration.


These uses are not mutually exclusive. One and the same statement (e.g., “I want you to take me to the Giants / Tigers game”) can serve both to communicate facts (a descriptive use) and to motivate a listener to do something (a dynamic use).


Further, “the same sentence may have a dynamic use on one occasion, and may not have a dynamic use on another; and ... it may have different dynamic uses on different occasions.” (454)

·         Stevenson’s example: someone says to his neighbor, “I am loaded down with work.” This could be meant merely to communicate a fact (in which case it is not a descriptive use and not a dynamic one); or the speaker could be intending to hint that he needs help (in which case it is a dynamic use), or he could be trying to arouse sympathy (which would be a different dynamic use).


According to Stevenson, previous theories of ethics (including Moore’s) have assumed that moral judgments are only descriptive. For example,

·         Thomas Hobbes: “x is good” = “I desire x” (a descriptive claim about the speaker and his or her desires or preferences)

·         David Hume: “x is good” = “Most people approve of x” (a descriptive claim about the majority of people and what they approve of)

·         G. E. Moore: “x is good” = [can’t be defined, but still works descriptively, to predicate the property of goodness of x]


According to Stevenson, moral judgments are not primarily descriptive; their main function is not to state facts.


Instead, they function like a combination of (2-b) an attempt to change the listener’s attitude and (2-c) an expression of feeling.



[5.4.4.] Meaning vs. Dynamic Use.


Now Stevenson asks: what is the relationship between dynamic use and meaning? (454)


He indicates that the meaning of an expression is not one and the same thing as its dynamic use, for the following reason:

·         If they were the same thing, then the meaning of an expression would vary when it is being put to different dynamic uses...

·         But this is not the case. An expression (e.g., “I am loaded down with work”) can mean the same thing across different dynamic uses.


Stevenson suggests that we identify the meaning of an expression with “the psychological causes and effects ... that it has a tendency (causal property, dispositional property) to be connected with.” (454) In other words, the meaning of an expression is a combination of

·         the psychological states (beliefs, desires, feelings, etc.) that tend to cause people to use that expression, plus

·         the psychological states that tend to result as an effect of that expression’s use.


The idea is this: we tend to use certain expressions when we are in certain states of mind, and we tend to enter into certain states of mind when we hear others use certain expressions. Stevenson’s suggestion is that the meaning of an expression is the entire collection of the mental causes and effects that that expression tends to be associated with.


An example: the expression “Are you ready for the World Series?” According to Stevenson’s suggestion, the meaning of this phrase is a combination of the mental states that tend to lead people to use that phrase and the mental states that that phrase tends to create in people who hear and read it.[1]


An expression’s tendency to be caused by some mental states and give rise to others “must exist for all who speak the language; it must be persistent and must be realizable more or less independently of determinate circumstances attending the word’s utterance.” (454-455)


This definition of “meaning” leaves open the possibility that meaning is not the same thing as dynamic use/purpose, since “when words are accompanied by dynamic purposes, it does not follow that they tend to be accompanied by them in the way mentioned above.” (455) The point is this: anyone can use an expression for some dynamic use, even if that expression is not typically used that way… or even if it has never been used that way before.


For example: suppose I am trying to get a group of Little League players excited about watching the World Series. I could do so by yelling, “Are you ready for the World Series?!” (while waiving my arms about excitedly, etc). I could use the expression this way even though that expression does not tend to be used for this purpose and even if it’s never been used for this purpose before.



[5.4.5.] Emotive Meaning.


Recall that Ayer and the other Logical Positivists identified two types of cognitive meaning” and maintained that statements that lacked either sort of cognitive meaning were “cognitively meaningless”:


cognitively meaningful statements

cognitively meaningless statements

logical meaning:



(i.e., the analytic a priori)

empirical* meaning:


historical statements

common-sense empirical


(i.e., the synthetic a posteriori)


*empirical (df.): having to do with sensory experience or observation

religious discourse






Stevenson now adds a new category of meaning… It is not cognitive meaning, however. It is emotive meaning:


The emotive meaning of a word is a tendency of a word, arising through the history of its usage, to produce (result from) affective [i.e., emotional] responses in people. It is the immediate aura of feeling which hovers about a word. (454)


For example, the word “alas” has a negative emotive meaning, the words “yay” and “hurray” positive emotive meaning.


Emotive meaning assists dynamic use: using words that have emotive meaning (that tend to be caused by, and to cause, certain emotional responses) helps us to use language in dynamic ways: to issue effective commands and orders; to change the attitudes of listeners; and to express our own attitudes.


This is especially true with expressions like “good” and “bad.” As we will soon see, Stevenson takes this sort of expression to have emotive meaning that helps us to use it dynamically. On his view, previous philosophers have made a huge mistake in ignoring the emotive meaning of ethical statements.



[5.4.6.] Emotivism.


Stevenson now applies the points he’s made about emotive meaning and dynamic use to the word “good.” He indicates that he will focus on the non-moral meaning of the word, but that his points apply just as much to the moral meaning. In explaining his views I will depend on examples using the moral sense of “good.”


Stevenson begins with the following “inaccurate approximation” (455) of a definition of “good”: “‘X is good” means ‘We like X.’”


Why is this an inaccurate approximation? Because if it were accurate, then the way in which B responds in the following exchange would be entirely appropriate:


A. “This is good.”

B. “But I don’t like it. What led you to believe that I did?” (456)


That B’s response is not appropriate (it would be just plain weird for B to respond this way) indicates that “X is good” does not mean the same thing as “We like X.”


Still, the definition Stevenson suggests here is still supposed to be an approximation. It is an approximation because in it, “we like X” has more than descriptive meaning; it has a very specific kind of dynamic use:

·         insofar as “we” refers to the hearer, “We like X” works as a sort of suggestion... it helps bring about what it describes, namely, the hearer liking X;

·         insofar as “we” refers to the speaker, “We like X” works to express the attitude of the speaker;

·         that second dynamic use helps out the first: it is harder for the hearer to resist being persuaded to approve of X if the speaker is expressing her own approval of X.


For example, a mother says to her children “We all like to be neat.” This does everything that Stevenson’s suggested definition of “X is good” is supposed to do.


But this definition is not completely adequate, in part because it ignores the positive emotive meaning of “X is good.” The sentence “We like X” has no such emotive meaning, so to define “good” just in terms of that sentence is incomplete.


On Stevenson’s view, it is impossible to define “good” in the sense in which it expresses this emotive meaning.


However, it is possible to describe the emotive meaning of that word: “‘this is good’ is about the favorable interest of the speaker and the hearer or hearers, and ... it has a laudatory emotive meaning [i.e., an emotive meaning that expresses praise] which fits the words for use in suggestion.” (457)


So according to Stevenson’s meta-ethical theory, emotivism, when I say “X is good,” I am doing two things at once:


1.      I am trying to affect your attitude toward X.


2.      I am expressing my positive emotions about X; it is as if I were saying, “X... yay!”



[] Moral Language.


Emotivism applies to “good” in the moral sense as well as to other moral words.


For example, when Mitt Romney says that same-sex marriage is wrong, he is doing two things:


1)      attempting to influence listeners’ opinions about same-sex marriage, so that they too will feel negatively towards it;

2)      expressing his own (negative) personal feelings about same-sex marriage. He says that it is wrong, but he is not stating a fact when he does this; in particular, he is not stating a matter of fact about his own attitudes (as Hobbes says he is) or about the attitudes of the majority of people (as Hume would have it). Instead, he is expressing how he feels about it.


These two functions are not independent of each other: in attempting to influence the attitudes of others, it helps to express your own sincere feelings.


Although this account holds for the moral senses of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc., there is a difference in the emotive meanings of the moral and non-moral senses of these words:


Instead of being about what the hearer and speaker like, [moral language] is about a stronger sort of approval. When a person likes something, he is pleased when it prospers and disappointed when it does not. When a person morally approves of something he experiences a rich feeling of security when it prospers and is indignant or “shocked” when it does not. These are rough and inaccurate examples of the many factors which one would have to mention in distinguishing the two kinds of interest. (457)



[5.4.7.] Emotivism Meets the Three Restrictions Again.


Stevenson believes that emotivism meets the three restrictions set forth earlier:


1.      It allows there to be disagreement in ethics.


However, it is disagreement in interests, such as that between two people when one says “Let’s go to the movies” and the other says “No, I don’t want to do that—let’s go to the symphony.” (457)


Disagreement about goodness, including disagreement about morality, is not disagreement in belief. When Romney says “same-sex marriage is wrong” and someone else says “no it’s not,” there is a genuine disagreement between them. But it is not that Romney believes one thing and his interlocutor believes another. It is that their interests, or attitudes, disagree. Romney has an unfavorable attitude while the other speaker has a favorable one.


If you take ethical statements to have only descriptive meaning, such as simple subjectivism does, then the only thing that each of the speakers is doing is saying that he has a certain attitude, and in that case there is no disagreement. You have to recognize the emotive meaning in ethical statements to understand what moral disagreement really is.


2.      It includes a “magnetic” aspect.


Stevenson takes this point to be simple and straightforward: his definition includes the speaker’s interest in the object or action which he says is good... so the “magnetism” of that object/action for the speaker is taken account of.


3.      It avoids the mistake of implying that the goodness of something can be discovered by the scientific method alone.


Moral disagreements, which are disagreements in interests, can sometimes be settled by “empirical considerations.” This is true when the disagreement in interest stems from disagreement in belief.

·         Suppose that I think that smoking is bad and you disagree. This is a disagreement in interest. Suppose further that it stems from the two of us having different factual beliefs about smoking, e.g., I believe that it causes lung cancer and you do not. Our disagreement might be resolved by my showing you evidence that smoking causes lung cancer. If this changes your belief, your attitude toward smoking might change, too.

·         An analogous case might involve women’s rights. You and I might disagree about whether women should have the legal right to vote. That disagreement might stem from a disagreement in our beliefs about women (say, I believe that women are in general as intelligent as men, and you do not). Showing you evidence that your false factual belief is mistaken might resolve our disagreement.


But not all moral disagreement is like this. Some moral disagreement cannot be resolved by appeal to empirical considerations. Factual considerations will not help resolve disagreements that do not stem from differences of belief.

·         Suppose that Smith says that a government funded welfare program is a good thing, and Jones says that it is a bad thing. This is a disagreement in interest or attitude. But it seems possible that Smith and Jones can have all the same factual beliefs (about how much it would cost, how many people would benefit, what the consequences would be, etc.) and yet still disagree... perhaps because Smith is compassionate and Jones is not, or because Smith is poor and out of work and Jones is very wealthy.


So empirical considerations are not all there is to the justification of a moral judgment, as they would be were goodness identical to some natural property.


And once again, Stevenson refers to Moore’s open question argument:


... my analysis answers Moore’s objection about the open question. Whatever scientifically knowable properties a thing may have, it is always open to question whether a thing having these (enumerated) qualities is good. For to ask whether it is good is to ask for influence. And whatever I may know about an object, I can still ask, quite pertinently, to be influenced with regard to my interest in it. (459)



[5.4.8.] Moral Non-Cognitivism and Nihilism.


Notice that emotivism seems to imply that moral judgments, like “Same-sex marriage is immoral,” don’t actually attribute a moral property to their subjects.


On this view, this statement has no descriptive meaning by which it attributes a property (immorality) of its subject (same-sex marriage). So when I say this, I am not saying anything about same-sex marriage itself. In particular, I am not saying that there is a property, namely immorality, that the practice of same-sex marriage has.


So, construed as a statement about same-sex marriage itself, “Same-sex marriage is immoral” doesn’t actually say anything, and is therefore neither true nor false.


Emotivism implies this same thing about all moral statements: they are neither true nor false.


Thus, emotivism is a form of


moral non-cognitivism (df.): moral statements (e.g., “action x is morally good,” “policy y is immoral,” etc.) are neither true nor false; there is nothing in the world that makes a given moral statement true or false.[2]



An important question: can the moral non-cognitivist avoid also being a moral nihilist?


moral nihilism (df.): the view that nothing is morally wrong, i.e., that nothing is immoral.

·         Versions of this view have been defended by contemporary philosophers such as J. L. Mackie and Richard Joyce.[3]

·         “Nihilism” derives from the Latin “nihil,” meaning nothing.

·          “Nihilism” is sometimes used to refer to a broader view, according to which there are no objective truths or values, whether moral or otherwise.


A challenge for emotivism and for any form of moral non-cognitivism: can we be satisfied with a meta-ethical theory that implies statements like the following are neither true nor false?

·         “Torturing children for fun is immoral.”

·         “Raping political prisoners is wrong.”

·         “Killing as many innocent people as possible is bad.”




Stopping point for Thursday October 25.

·         For next time, read ch.49 of your textbook (excerpts from The Blue and Brown Books of Wittgenstein) The Blue Book consists of lecture notes take by Wittgenstein’s students at Cambridge from 1933-34; the Brown Book is a draft of part of what eventually became his second book, Philosophical Investigations.

·         Remember that the mandatory draft of your term paper is due on November 1.





[1] “Tends to” is an important hedge! If we were to limit an expression’s meaning to only those psychological causes and effects that it is always associated with, then many ordinary expressions would have no meaning at all. In that case, all it would take to render “Are you ready for the World Series?” meaningless is one English-speaker who hears or reads it but has no idea what the World Series is and thus no specific mental states as a result of hearing or reading the question.

[2] For more on the issue of moral non-cognitivism, see Mark van Roojen, “Moral Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[3] See J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, New York: Penguin, 1977; and Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Analytic Philosophy Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 10/25/2012.

Copyright © 2012 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer