Tag Archives: Preface problem

Stop making things for normal people

I wrote this on a long bus journey.

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Coach seats are clearly designed for normal people and not real people. That’s why they feel so uncomfortable for anyone that has ever spent a long time in one. I figure that the problem is that not nearly enough seat designers have read Nietzsche or Foucault, because, had they done so, they might have realized that the idea of a normal person is nonsensical, as is the notion of a normal sitting position. As it is, however, bus companies prove, time and time again that they care more about reinforcing their fictional norms than their real passengers, forcing us to endure discomfort while they are happy to believe that they have given us the best that modern seat design allows.

The book of proverbs continually asserts as a theme that “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” and yet we all also think that others can be wrong. If others are fallible, but we are not, then we make ourselves epistemically different from the rest of the world – unique in our rightness. My thinking is the only thinking that makes sense to me and therefore the right thinking. So every single person on the face of the earth can quite justifiably think that they are abnormal. This applies equally in ethics, religion, aesthetics, etc.

There’s something of the preface problem here. If you don’t know the paradox, it is that a book of facts contains this modest statement in the preface
“Undoubtedly I have included facts in this book which will turn out, in time, to be false.”
With regard to every fact in the book , however, the author can say
“Fact a,b,c,etc is not false”
The two statements are clearly inconsistent, since clearly not both “some of the facts a,b,c,etc are false” and “none of the facts a,b,c,etc are false”.┬áThis harks back to the situation of normality, because every person believes themselves to be specifically exempt from the norm, while accepting that the norm applies generally. If peoples’ intuitions are on the right tracks, we need to accept the paradox between “persons a,b,c,etc are abnormal” and “persons a,b,c,etc are normal”. The paradox also applies to specific traits of an individual if we accept the notion of a normal person. We would tend to think that a person is generally normal while having specific abnormalities, but it seems obvious that if any particular trait of a person is examined in enough detail, it will turn out to be unusual in some way.

Here we have a clue to the metaphysical origin of the problem. The idea of an essence derived, not from specific existence, but from something general and universal, indicates that we might be struggling because the language we are using has Platonist underpinnings. I’m inclined to think that we have accidentally stumbled across a pretty strong case against Platonic universals, since their employment in language causes paradoxes of normality. If we once again think about the preface problem, but try to recognize the Platonism present, it starts to make a bit more sense. the two inconsistent propositions become “this list of facts has the universal essence of containing at least one false member.” and “Fact a,b,c,etc is not false.” There is no longer a paradox in play once we separate the actual list made up of specific members and the general nature of the list derived from a universal rule. The first statement is a general metaphysical claim and the second is a situated scientific fact.

The same thing applies to notions of normality. The first of the inconsistent propositions can be turned into “There is a universal norm for people” – a general metaphysical claim without any basis in the world of actual existence – and “Persons a,b,c,etc do not fit any universal norm” – a situated fact. So the paradox of normality comes from a kind of discourse that doesn’t want to tackle individuality in an honest way, so it uses universal truths to hide from the loneliness of collective abnormality. The whole concept of a human norm is a projection onto the future, as something that we hope to one day attain. Bus seat designers take note, abandon your ideas of normality – they are ruining your creations and come only from meaningless sophistry. There is no general norm, only specific norms for specific people, all of which are unique. Judge not with a common measure those things which have none, seek instead to make something ambiguous that can be interpreted by the actual user. You don’t need to worry about the non-existent.