The tasty, the bold, and the beautiful

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23 Scopus citations


I call into question a pair of closely related assumptions that are almost universally shared in the literature on predicates of taste. The assumptions are, first, that predicates of taste – words like ‘tasty’ – are semantically evaluative. In other words, that it is part of the meaning of a word like ‘tasty’ to describe an object as in some sense good, or to say that it is pleasing. And second, that the meaning of predicates of taste is in some way relativized to an experiencer or standard – the person that the object is pleasing to or the standard according to which the object is good. Parties to the literature on these terms tend to disagree about the role of context in determining the truth of claims involving predicates of taste, or in determining which proposition is expressed. But they agree that to call some dish ‘tasty’ is to say something positive about that dish, to suggest that someone or other finds, or is disposed to find, the dish pleasing. I suggest instead that ‘tasty’, and indeed the full range of aesthetic adjectives, is purely descriptive in its literal content 1. To say that something is ‘tasty’ is to say something about what it tastes like. To say that a piece of music is ‘lyrical’ is to say something about what it sounds like. And to say that a painting is ‘beautiful’ is to say something about what it looks like. I argue that off-the-shelf semantic theories for ordinary, descriptive, relative gradable adjectives – terms like ‘tall’ or ‘large’ – can account for the full range of our uses of these terms. Such a view involves context sensitivity of the ordinary kind for gradable adjectives: the requirement that the adjective’s degree argument be saturated by a contextually specified threshold on a scale. But it makes no reference to evaluation, and it has no role for an experiencer or standard. The view I explore here is counterintuitive. How could ‘tasty’ – much less ‘beautiful’ – turn out not to be evaluative? But the view can be made to work once the role of metalinguistic negotiation and the full complexity of ‘ordinary’ relative gradable adjectives are appreciated. Properly understood, this type of view has considerable empirical power, enjoys advantages of parsimony, and it also has certain philosophical advantages, a point to which I return at the end of the paper.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)793-818
Number of pages26
JournalInquiry (United Kingdom)
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 17 2016


  • aesthetics
  • Philosophy of language
  • predicates of taste
  • semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Health Policy


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