Philosophy at St Andrews

Alex Silk - Evaluational Adjectives

Wed 8th November 2017 16:15

Room 104, Edgecliffe

Alex Silk - University of Birmingham


Recent literatures in philosophy of language and formal semantics on predicates of personal taste (PPTs) have focused on a surprisingly limited range of expressions. This narrow focus has led to problematic conclusions about the syntax and semantics. This paper demarcates a theoretically interesting class of (what I call) evaluational adjectives. This class includes PPTs as well as adjectives expressing other kinds of normative and epistemic evaluation, such as aesthetic adjectives, moral adjectives, and epistemic adjectives, among others. Evaluational adjectives are distinguished, empirically, in giving rise to certain phenomena often associated with context-sensitivity, not only in the positive form, but also in comparatives. Such phenomena include discourse-oriented use, felicitous embedding under 'find', and, surprisingly, vagueness phenomena. A unified degree-based semantics is developed to capture these phenomena: what distinguishes evaluational adjectives, semantically, is that they denote context-dependent measure functions (evaluational perspectives) — context-dependent mappings to degrees of tastiness, beauty, probability, etc., depending on the adjective. The perspective-sensitivity characterizing the class of evaluational adjectives cannot be assimilated to multidimensionality or sensitivity to an experiencer argument. Contrary to common assumptions, a unified context-sensitive semantics for evaluational adjectives can be neutral on philosophical issues about subjectivity (antirealism, etc.). However, I show how speakers' assumptions about these issues can lead to certain differences among evaluational adjectives in patterns of use. I propose that diagnostics for PPTs and putatively "subjective" expressions be analyzed, not in terms of some basic notion of subjectivity, but in terms of a general, precisely specified kind of "context-oriented" use of context-sensitive language. I focus on one such diagnostic: the felicity of embedding under 'find'.

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