Descriptive and Normative Sciences

George H. Sabine
1912 Philosophical Review  
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more » ... out Early Journal Content at http://about.jstor.org/participate--jstor/individuals/early-journal--content. JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not--for--profit organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. DESCRIPTIVE AND NORMATIVE SCIENCES.' THE general division of sciences into descriptive and normative has long been one of the commonest devices used in classification, so much so that it has become almost traditional to refer to it even in the elementary text-books of logic and ethics. There obviously is a great difference between such sciences as physics on the one hand and ethics on the other, and the distinction clearly turns in some way upon the place of norms or values in the two. Ethics is possible only because men judge some conduct to be good and other bad, whereas it seems as if there might be a science of physics even if objects never were classified in this way. It is quite natural, therefore, that ethics and other sciences that imply valuation should have been called normative, and that the sciences which approach their subject matter with a more disinterested attitude should have been called descriptive. These latter sciences, it is said, attempt to state merely what is. The laws of physics, for example, are statements of uniformities that occur and recur in the existing and indestructible world of matter. Its subject matter is sheerly existent, and as such it is neither good nor bad. If its objects do in fact serve a useful purpose, an art may be created depending upon the science, as engineering depends upon physics and other sciences, but this use is extraneous to descriptive science as such. The most destructive catastrophe in nature,-the volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes,-are as orderly, in the scientific sense of the word, as, to borrow Huxley's phrase, the 'sabbatical peace of a summer sea.' Ethics and logic, on the other hand, appear to be of quite a different kind. Their rules are said to state not what is but what ought to be. Thinking is correct or incorrect; conduct is moral or immoral. The laws of logic and of ethics, then, must show the norms to which thinking and acting ought to conform, whether they do or not. The normative sciences are evaluative 1 A paper read before the Philosophical Union of the University of California, December 22, 1911. 434 THE PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW. [VOL. XXI. 1 Cf., for example, Mackenzie's Manual of Ethics, 4th ed., pp. 4ff.; Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics, 6th ed., pp. I ff.; Wundt, Ethics, Eng. trans., Vol. I, Introduction, Section I. Among logicians Sigwart takes the rather extreme position that logic is primarily an art; Logic, Eng. trans., Section 2. A wide range of references to logicians who regard their science as normative is given by Husserl, Logische Untersuchungen, I Bd., Section I3. 2 See, for example, Simmel, Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft, I Bd., pp. 32I ff.; McGilvary, "Ethics, a Science," Philosophical Review, Vol. XII, p. 629.
doi:10.2307/2177252 fatcat:mlcz5tkcu5djtm6oanhxk6qlzm