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work in progress

Valence, affective and evaluative meaning

In a recent collaboration with Elsi Kaiser (USC), we have been investigating the evaluative character of predicates of personal taste (PPTs). We argue that PPTs do not divide neatly into positively and negatively valenced terms. Instead, we suggest that many PPTs, such as ‘surprising’ and 'intense', are neutral: they are underspecified for their valence and, depending on the context, can give rise to a positive, a negative, or an ambivalent evaluation. Combining theoretical and empricial methodology, we have investigated how such neutral PPTs differ from evaluative PPTs, and how they differ from certain other terms that are neither positive nor negative, such as ‘average’. The research has resulted in the paper Exploring Valence in Judgments of Taste (n Wyatt, Zakkou & Zeman, eds., Perspectives on Taste, Routledge 2022). We plan to continue the project by investigating further effects of valence in PPTs, and in particular, possible asymmetries between positively and negatively valenced judgments.

Another direction of research investigates the interplay between affective meaning and truth-conditional meaning, in collaboration with Anouch Bourmayan (Paris-Sorbonne), Brent Strickland (IJN), and Morgan Moyer who will be joining the project in January. We start from the observation that philosophy of language as well as formal semantics have always focused almost exclusively on truth-conditional meaning. The affective information carried by words, that is, the positive or negative attitudes or feelings that a word invokes, has not been deemed a suitable object of study. We aim to emphasize the importance of the affective dimension of word meaning. We present several experimental studies that demonstrate that affective meaning is cognitively prior to referential meaning. The first study shows that speakers are much faster in detecting the valence (positive or negative) of a given verb than its referential domain. The second study shows that speakers are generally much more sensitive to valence than to referential domain when asked to assess the semantic similarity of two verbs; domain itself is only taken into account when the two lexical items already have the same valence. We plan to conduct analogous studies in the domain of adjectives. 

When Is It OK to Call Someone a Jerk?

This project is joint work with Bianca Cepollaro (San Raffaele University) and Filippo Domaneschi (University of Genoa). We have run two experimental studies of the Italian expressive ‘stronzo’ (English ‘jerk’). The first study tests whether, and to which extent, the acceptability of using an expressive is sensitive to the information available in the context. The study looks both at referential uses of expressives (as in the complex demonstrative ‘that jerk Marco’) and predicative uses of expressives (as in ‘Marco is a jerk’). The results show that expressives are sensitive to contextual information to a much higher degree than the non-expressive control items (such as ‘Piemontese’) in their referential use, but also, albeit to a lesser degree, in their predicative use. The second study tests whether the lower acceptability of expressives in their predicative use may be simply due to saying something negative about someone. A comparison between expressives, such as ‘jerk’, and non-expressive negative terms, such as ‘nasty’ or ‘unbearable’, suggests that it is the expressive nature of these terms, rather than the mere negative valence, that affects acceptability. Our studies present a major challenge to the existing accounts of expressives, and raise several theoretical issues that still call for an answer. Our paper is forthcoming in Synthese (download prepublication version here)

Evaluative and Subjective Predicates

Over the last decade, I have been studying evaluative discourse, including aesthetic and moral predicates, thick terms, and all-purpose evaluatives. Some of this work is a sequel to my research on predicates of personal taste (Talking About Taste, 2007; On Value-Attributions: Semantics and Beyond, 2012). Recent relevant publications include Aesthetic Predicates (with Louise McNally, 2016), Hybrid Evaluatives (with Bianca Cepollaro, 2016), Expressing Aesthetic Judgments in Context (2016),  An Empirical Approach to Aesthetic Adjectives (2018), On Linguistic Evidence for Expressivism (with Andrés Soria Ruiz, 2019), Disagreements over Taste vs. Disagreements over Moral Issues (2019).

Two handbook articles on this topic: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Value Judgments, with Bianca Cepollaro and Andrés Soria Ruiz, forthcoming in the Cambridge Handbook of Philosophy of Language, ed. Piotr Stalmaczszyk, CUP 2022 (download draft here), and Subjective and Evaluative Predicates, forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, 2nd Edition, eds. Ernie Lepoe and Una Stojnic (download draft here). 

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