Aesthetic Adjectives: Experimental Semantics and Context-Sensitivity

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94 (2):371–398 (2017)
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Abstract

One aim of this essay is to contribute to understanding aesthetic communication—the process by which agents aim to convey thoughts and transmit knowledge about aesthetic matters to others. Our focus will be on the use of aesthetic adjectives in aesthetic communication. Although theorists working on the semantics of adjectives have developed sophisticated theories about gradable adjectives, they have tended to avoid studying aesthetic adjectives—the class of adjectives that play a central role in expressing aesthetic evaluations. And despite the wealth of attention paid to aesthetic adjectives by philosophical aestheticians, they have paid little attention to contemporary linguistic theories of adjectives. We take our work to be a first step in remedying these lacunae. In this paper, we present four experiments that examine one aspect of how aesthetic adjectives ordinarily function: the context-sensitivity of their application standards. Our results present a prima facie empirical challenge to a common distinction between relative and absolute gradable adjectives because aesthetic adjectives are found to behave differently from both. Our results thus also constitute a prima facie vindication of some philosophical aestheticians’ contention that aesthetic adjectives constitute a particularly interesting segment of natural language, even if the boundaries of this segment might turn out to be different from what they had in mind.

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Author Profiles

Aaron Meskin
University of Georgia
Shen-yi Liao
University of Puget Sound

References found in this work

Ethics and the limits of philosophy.Bernard Williams - 1985 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.Bernard Williams - 1985 - Cambridge, Mass.: Routledge.
Critique of judgment.Immanuel Kant - 1790 - New York: Barnes & Noble. Edited by J. H. Bernard.
Categories of Art.Kendall L. Walton - 1970 - Philosophical Review 79 (3):334-367.

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