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I understand that the phrase "positive statement" means, when opposed to normative statement (like in economics), statements that describe facts without indicating (dis)approval, thus that are objective. For example This chair is blue is positive, while It'd be better if this chair were blue is normative. (Edit: please note that this has nothing to do with its being true or not. In this context, "This chair is blue" is treated as a positive statement regardless of the colour of the chair.)

I don't quite understand why the word "positive" is chosen in this phrase. When I refer to an English thesaurus, I get affirmative, favourable, constructive, optimistic, certain, sure, etc. as synonyms, but none of them seem to fit in this context.

Which meaning of positive makes this word suitable to be used in contrast to normative statement?


Edit: as @Mitch pointed out, these seem to be technical meanings. Let me provide more context below.

I (non-native speaker) encountered the usages of "positive statement: in my introductory economics class, and according to the professor, they are terms mostly used in the context of philosophy of science and in economics. page titled "Introduction to Environmental Economics and Policy" in soas.ac.uk provides similar usage. Quating:

Normative statements derive from an opinion or a point of view. Thus the words 'should', 'ought to' or 'it is better to' frequently occur. The validity of normative statements can never be tested. Positive statements, on the other hand, can be tested, at least in theory, if not always in practice.

In the lecture I'm receiving, other usages of this "positive" includes positive exclusion of markets vs normative exclusion of markets, where the former means "markets are not capable of this" and the latter means "We don't want markets to do this".

  • These don't sound right to me either (a native speaker). It could be that these are technical meanings. Trying to read between the lines, it seems like 'This chair is blue' should be declarative (and being positive is only secondary). The first is declaring what is and the second, the 'normative' sentence is saying what should be. But this is speculation. Can you give more context where 'positive' and 'normative' are used in contrast? A sentence or paragraph from original sosurce? – Mitch Jun 7 '15 at 14:56
  • @Mitch Thanks for your interest. I provided more context, and it seems your speculation is absolutely right. – Yosh Jun 7 '15 at 15:11
  • @Mitch What is not right is just the assumption that the terms are antonyms, which they are not. We need to think a little further into the meanings of both the words, their contextual usage, and how they fit snugly into their alternative (not contradictory) roles. – Kris Jun 7 '15 at 15:14
  • Wikipedia: "In philosophy, normative statements make claims about how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong. Normative claims are usually contrasted with positive (i.e. descriptive, explanatory, or constative) claims when describing types of theories, beliefs, or propositions. Positive statements are (purportedly-) factual statements that attempt to describe reality." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative – Kris Jun 7 '15 at 15:19
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    For a better understanding, see also: op. cit. under 'Standards Documents' (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative#Standards_documents) "Typically, normative is contrasted with informative (referring to the standard's descriptive, explanatory or positive content)." – Kris Jun 7 '15 at 15:49
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This is the oldest sense of the word positive, deriving from classical logic and rhetoric. A positive statement is one which posits a fact, from pono, literally "to place"; compare proposition, an assertion which is "placed" before you for your consideration. A positive statement asserts a fact to be true, while a negative statement, from nego, "deny", denies its truth.

Positive and negative have acquired further senses since these words originally entered the language, but in speaking of the logical meaning of statements these meanings still apply.

  • Right, but why begin with a reference to "oldest," suggesting that it is not much the case today? It is. – Kris Jun 7 '15 at 15:15
  • Is this related to positivism? (I've forgotten this word, silly.) – Yosh Jun 7 '15 at 15:19
  • @Kris Good point; I have added a sentence to address this. – StoneyB Jun 7 '15 at 15:21
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    @Yosh Yes, but only as a sort of cousin: positivism is the doctrine that what is imposed upon us by physical observation is a legitimate source of knowledge. The pose = 'place' metaphor has a lot of different applications: consider bare pose and position, and then appose, compose, depose, impose, transpose, oppose, prepose . . . and so forth and so on. – StoneyB Jun 7 '15 at 15:29
  • +1 , I agree "positive" here is based on "posit" (not on being good or true ; these statements can be proved either true or false). I also think that "normative" here is not really the opposite, but a Different classification of statements ("normative" in the sense of "giving directives or rules", which can not be proved as true or false). – Prem Jun 7 '15 at 15:32
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"Positive" says that something is the case, as opposed to not the case. This is not always a Good Thing from our point of view. For example positive feedback is often an unpleasant (audio) or dangerous (piloting) phenomenon, and there is nothing "agreeable" about testing positive for HiV, is there now?

  • Source? Is that an opinion (or "gut feeling")? – Kris Jun 7 '15 at 15:08
  • Sorry, I should have provided more context. In this phrase, "positive" does not imply the fact being the case. "This chair is blue", is a positive statement (again, when opposed to normative) even if the chair is actually green. – Yosh Jun 7 '15 at 15:10
  • @Yosh. Well, then it's an untrue positive statement. The form is that something is the case, which is unaffected by its being a lie. – David Pugh Jun 7 '15 at 15:23
  • @Kris. Do I understood aright that this site requires me to provide documentary sources for audio feedback being unpleasant or a positive HiV test being disagreeable? How about water being wet? – David Pugh Jun 7 '15 at 15:26
  • re: "this site requires me to provide:" I for myself am guided by precedence and convention, and of course, FAQ. In any case, what you have stated is quite a different thing from what we have on hand here in the question. – Kris Jun 7 '15 at 15:30

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