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M O D E L
MODEL OF NEUTRAL-INCLUSIVITY
BOOK OF INSTRUMENTS

RELEVANCY


5.1 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF RELEVANCY


5.1.1 

ITS WIDTH AND DEPTH

Suppose you know about the existence of a certain office for clerical or administrative work and you also know (or would expect it) that that office employs, and always has employed, people of different heights: short, medium and tall. Now, imagine that someone comes up to you and begins to tell you that all short people working at that office lost their jobs. Probably you would, then, wonder why the firm in question only sent, or had to send, the short workers away, and what their height has to do with it. But how come? Your informant never told you that those workers who are not short did not lose their jobs. That is what you made up yourself. As a matter of fact (in our imaginary case) the office had to close down (because the firm went bankrupt, say, or because the government thought the firm had become superfluous), and that is why all the workers were sacked as redundant regardless of their height. (They may or they may not have got another job right away.) Hence, all short bodies were laid off, but also the medium ones and the tall ones. Your informant did tell you the truth, altho it was in telling you the truth that `e made a distinction which was not relevant. In `er statement `e distinguished workers who are short from those who are not, and this distinction was not relevant, firstly, because a person`s height is (supposedly) not relevant with respect to clerical and administrative work, and secondly, it was not even judged relevant in the case of the workers` dismissal. What you rightly assumed is that your informant would not only tell you the truth, but that `e would also make only relevant (or perhaps potentially relevant) distinctions when telling you the truth. With this assumption it was a so-called 'conversational implicature' that only the short workers would have lost their jobs.

Suppose that the office in the above example does not have to close down, that they are even expanding, but that they exclusively hire medium short and short people. In spite of this a person`s height remains irrelevant with respect to the kind of office work to be done (and also the premises themselves can handle bodies of widely divergent heights). The office may now be blamed for discriminating on the grounds of people`s height, an irrelevant, bodily property in this context. But imagine that the management of that office reply that there is nothing wrong with discrimination, that our whole life is only made possible by virtue of the distinctions we make. This is certainly true, but the management hope that we do not notice that they commit a fallacy of equivocation: they are not blamed for making a distinction but for making an irrelevant distinction. (Compare the distinction made between people who are, or were, employed at the office and people who are, or were, not. This distinction we accept in the informant`s statement, yet not that between workers who are short and those who are not.)

In the language which is our present means of communication both making distinctions and discrimination have two basic meanings which must not be confused. Firstly, they have a nonpejorative, often meliorative, formal meaning, namely: distinguishing by discerning or exposing differences, especially when distinguishing one object from another; or: making an appropriate distinction. In this sense of the word, everyone has to discriminate. It is an ontological and epistemological prerequisite of all thought. To discriminate also means to use good judgment, and some people do know how to thus 'discriminate' between real and pretended cases of concern for their well-being. Other people may 'show fine discrimination' in only picking out those works of art which are genuine. But secondly, making distinctions and discrimination have a pejorative, or rather condemnatory meaning not restricted to the formal register, namely: making an irrelevant or unjustified distinction; making a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit. This is the meaning discrimination has when someone is accused of, for example, 'sex discrimination'.

In practise people tend to speak of "discrimination" particularly when the irrelevant distinction is made in nonpropositional reality itself. Some might say that the employer who makes a distinction between workers who are tall and workers who are not, while height is irrelevant, 'discriminates', whereas the informant who made an equally irrelevant distinction between workers who are short and workers who are not, did not 'discriminate'. The former distinction is made in nonpropositional reality itself and, moreover, harms a category of people distinguished on the basis of their height (namely tall people); the latter one is only made in a proposition about reality and the person who probably will be harmed most is the person receiving the (irrelevant) information. However, rather than limiting the use of the term discrimination to specific cases (which is etymologically not justifiable) we ourselves shall put the emphasis on the kinds of relevancy involved. When it is the relevancy of a distinction, we shall speak of "discriminational relevancy". The relevancy which plays such an important role in all our conversation (in addition to truth) we shall call "conversational relevancy". This subdivision of relevancy is part of a provisional scheme which does not preclude that one type of relevancy consists of two or more independent subtypes, or that one type is a subtype of the other.

The study of relevancy in general has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension, as indicated in figure I.5.1.1.1. The horizontal dimension concerns the 'width' of the notion of relevancy, that is, the different kinds of relevancy and related notions prevailing in several fields of thought. In this and the next division we will look at the similarities and differences in meaning and use of all these types of relevancy. Our prime interest will then be what bearing this has on the notion of discriminational relevancy. We will even discuss --albeit only briefly-- a number of notions of relevancy or relatedness which are apparently of an entirely different nature than discriminational relevancy. The reason for this is, firstly, that they are part of one and the same overall structure of relevancy notions, and secondly, that an analysis of these diverse conceptions in the horizontal dimension of relevancy will enable us to clear up the workings of the numerous adjectives which go with relevancy. These adjectives or adverbs must somehow modify or typify what is denoted by the noun (ir)relevance or the adjective (ir)relevant. Unlike our discriminational, moral is one of those adjectives used, and frequently used, by ethical theorists. But the fate of morally relevant when trying to clarify the nature of morality with it, appears hardly better than that of causally relevant when that is used in an (abortive) attempt to clarify the nature of causality.

The vertical conceptual analysis of relevancy concerns the difference between something (a distinction, proposition, topic, and so on) being relevant, and it being irrelevant. Relevant is then used in an affirmative sense as the negation of irrelevant. Since relevant is an unmarked term (irrelevant being the marked one ), it has also a general, dimensional meaning designating the extension of both irrelevance and its negation. This is the meaning relevancy has when we speak of the different types of relevancy. We shall use the noun relevancy only in this general, dimensional sense, and relevance only as the antonym of irrelevance, altho relevancy and relevance are synonyms in the traditional lexicon. As the core meaning of the marked term (discriminationally) irrelevant we will take the meaning it has when discrimination in its condemnatory sense is defined as the act of making an irrelevant distinction. For example, racial discrimination is the act (in a broader sense also practise or attitude) of making an irrelevant distinction on the grounds of race or skin color. In the event that a distinction on the grounds of race or skin color is relevant, there is no talk of discrimination in this respect and in this sense.

What are the criterions to objectively determine whether something is relevant or not? This is the problem of relevancy in depth. We will consider one theory which furnishes criterions for telling the relevant apart from the irrelevant. Dealing with statistical relevancy it is of limited use for discriminational relevancy tho. That is why we will eventually have to develop our own account of the relevance-irrelevance divide which plays such a crucial role in questions of discrimination. Yet, before doing so it will be worthwhile to have a look at the motley tissue of occurrences of the term relevant, not only in ethics and linguistic pragmatics but also in other disciplines.



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