On Being Normal

Thursday, February 16, 2012 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

This week we’re going to discuss what it is to be “normal”. 

It seems simple enough.  What’s normal is what most people do.  Or perhaps what most people do, or what typical people do, or what most typical people do.  It’s definitely what normal people do --- but that’s circular.

There seem to be two related senses or uses of `normal’.  There’s what we might call the statistical sense: here normal is the average, the mean, or perhaps the median, or the typical.  Then there’s the normative sense of normal.  Normative means that what’s normal is what lives up to the norms, the standards.

But which norms?  There’re lots of norms, that it’s not normal to live up to.  The standard, or norm, for an Olympic athlete is hours of practice a day.  But that’s not normal.  Your normal Olympic athlete, not to mention your normal philosophy professor, is not normal at all.

I think we have two issues here.  One is: what’s the relation between normal in the statistical sense, and in the normative sense.  We seem to slide from one to the other quite easily.  If the average Olympic runner practices ten hours a day, then that’s the standard for practice you can expect to be required to meet if you want to be an Olympic athlete.

The second issue is how norms vary from activity to activity, commitment to commitment, and whether there are universal norms, and a universal sense of normality, for just being a person---minimal standards we have a right to expect people to meet --- standards of rationality, and moral standards.

With respect to the first question, it seems to me there are two ways we go from normal in the statistical sense to normal in the normative sense.  Think about conventions.  If I’m in England, and discover that, insane as it seems, everyone drives on the left, then driving on the left is normal in the statistical sense.  I’d better drive on the left too.  The statistics dictate a norm; what people usually do is, as David Lewis said, the solution to a coordination problem.  What’s normal is normative.

The other way to get from the normal to the normative is suggested by the runner and the philosophy professor.  Here we have groups of people with something like similar goals and ambitions:  to win the Olympics; to do philosophy, be respected in the profession perhaps, and make a living at it.  If there are common strategies and habits that successful people with a goal --- normal in the statistical sense --- have used, they will tend to become norms; that is, strategies and habits that people are expected to conform to, if that’s their ambition. 

This is at most a start on the topic What Is Normal?  But there's still the whole issue of what’s normal in mental and physical health.  It’s not clear either of our methods get us from the normal to the normative there.  Instead, there seems to be something like an ideal, one that might tell us what a normal person is, even if people normally don’t live up to it.  If someone says that normal Americans are abnormally heavy, and have abnormally high blood pressure, we’d understand what they meant.

We’ll try to get further Sunday, when our guest will be  Charles Scott author of Living With Indifference.

 

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 16, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

'Fraid I'm not seeing any

'Fraid I'm not seeing any difference between norm and normative. Normative is relative to a class of people, and it's what most people in that class do, or would like to do, depending on context. We're all human and as humans most of us think people should try hard to keep their promises. Keeping one's promises is, statistically, an aspirational norm. It's what most people would like to be able to do, and what most people expect other people to try to do. But being human, we often break our promises. This imperfection in living up to our aspiration is also a statistical norm, being what most people actually manage to do in practice. Am I missing something? Hugh.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, February 16, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I'll await, with anticipation

I'll await, with anticipation, comments on this post and on Sunday's show. Mr. Scott's musings sound interesting, if, possibly, ambiguous. Does his title suggest we are living WITH indifference, i.e., the apathy around us which may not be the way we personally feel about life; or does it color us all as indifferent automatons, whose lives are a matter of going through the motions of being alive (which, by the way, is becoming my own conclusion, as I watch the twenty-first century unfold.) In either (or both) case(s), some of us are pretty pasthetic (my own word, not a typo), and, I suppose that is, uh, normal.
Got a letter from Michelle Obama today. I'm sure others got the same letter---maybe several million people. I might have been flattered, but I knew before opening the letter its purpose. $$$$$$$, please. Get my husband re-elected, so he might finish his work as President. The letter was a nice, quasi-personal touch, for a specific, narrowly-framed purpose. It was, I suppose, normal. The letter gently pressed sociological and cultural buttons---those that might be appreciated by normal people, who, by the way, vote. I don't mind Barack Obama. But, I did not vote for him before and would not vote for him now. I don't know who I might vote for, but it is not looking good. I think that fact places me among a few other normal people. What if I did not vote at all? I do not know what would obtain from that inaction. All nationalism and patriotic brou-ha-ha aside, it don't mean shit to a tree.
If such notions make me abnormal---I happily embrace them. Love to read your blog and the lively multi-logue it generates. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 17, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Synchronicity rears its

Synchronicity rears its lovely head, again and again. Read your post yesterday and, today, the following headline and story appeared in my city's local newspaper: CULTURE SHIFT: SINGLE MOMS A NEW NORMAL.
Why it has taken so long for someone to notice this development is beyond my understanding. Possibly, it is because of the conservative midwestern community in which I reside; the on-going battle for and against abortion; and the fact that independent women, whether or not they are financially secure, choose to churn out babies in ever-growing record numbers. PARADIGM shifts have a primary role in determining normality---whether said normality turns out to be positive or not so much. Well, just thought I'd add a thought to the experiment. Your show should be fun. (Anyone interested can go the online website for The Columbus Dispatch and review the above-referenced article--- www.dispatch.com )

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 18, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I have noticed that people

I have noticed that people generally do not want to be "abnormal"' but also do not want to be "average". Is this an interesting distinction? Normal is often used to help define "them vs us". People want to be part of the group, but a little better than everybody else. The Lake Woebegone line is meant to be humorous.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 18, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I don't know for sure, but it

I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that the term 'normal' is, by its historionic nature, squishy and therefore, circular. I'll offer a few examples, if I may:
1) Not so long ago, expressive forms such as rap and hip-hop would have been considered coffee-house, beat culture curiosities. Now, artists (and I used the term loosely) earn MUSIC awards for their work. Normal in the 1950s, no. Normal now? yes.
2) OUAT, people who were issued driver's licenses were expected to drive, when behind the wheel of a deadly weapon. Today, with the advent of IT; constant connectedness and near-instant communications such as texting,cellphones and such like, there are serious questions about safe driving habits that never before existed.
Normal before, say, 1980, is definitely NOT normal now: Pedestrians are allowing themselves to become casualties of their own negligence. Drivers are all over the road and forcing other drivers to hit the ditch or be hit.
Squishy---oops, that was morbid.
3) ...This list could go on until the cows not only came home but managed to calve two or three times as well. My point is that normal is (now, more than ever) indefinite. People are so inundated by rapid-fire change, that they are confused and confounded. Our neural circuitry evolves slowly while our technology expands exponentially. So, as Murphy said: anything that can go wrong will, at the worst possible time. Who invented Murphy, anyhow?
Give that man (or woman) a cigar!
I am author of a currently rough treatise on what I have called historionic effect. If guys like Rupert Sheldrake can skim us with hypotheses concerning morphic fields and morphogenesis, I figure my own notions about historionic effect (HE) can't be too far outside accepted conventions. HE does not, however, apply to the behaviors of dogs, cats, or pigeons---to the best of my knowledge. Dogs, cats and pigeons are likely the better for that. Neuman's take on the Michelle Obama letter made me laugh.
Warmest Regards to all.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, February 18, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

UNEXPLAINABLE

UNEXPLAINABLE
Very interesting indeed, in the field of epistemology, is the subject of ?explanation.? And most interesting of all, to me, are the questions for which explanations either do no help, or worse, hinder. I love the question, asked on a previous show, ?Why do you think that everything needs an explanation??
An extremely useful concept in philosophy is ?normal? and its partner ?normative.? These concepts allow philosophical discourse to go forward without crippling digressions into ?what does one mean by ?? which derail progress because the digressions are either unresolvable, or take forever to deal with. The show today showed this graphically, and could only conclude that ?sometimes normal is good, and sometimes it is bad.?
In this way, ?normal? is a concept which can only suffer from trying to explain it, or to define it. Best is to leave it alone. Let ?normal? be what we know it is; i.e., back to its original Latin meaning of ?what is known by everyone.?
The philosophically interesting question in all this is not ?what is normal?; it is who or what is ?we.? Who or what is the ?we? who are ?normal.? This is another question which can only be acknowledged; to answer it would take another endless digression path; but the issue must always be acknowledged in any philosophical discussion: what or who is ?we?? (The other unanswerable question which also must be acknowledged is ?Is there anything other than our (?we? again) own consciousness??
The big practical issue (unlike all that has gone before in this comment) is, in societies controlled by political systems, what kind of non-normal behavior should be, and can be, controlled and/or prohibited. Isn?t it sad that politics has taken over so much of life? It is so anti-philosophy.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 20, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I imagine someday soon

I imagine someday soon
Equality will become the norm,
Mankind will re-unite with the Universe,
And the world again will be One.
Truth is this Way,
=
JL & me

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

God forbid the day should

God forbid the day should come
When equality is the norm;
Let death and taxes remain the only rule
To which one and all conform.

 

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