Separating the evaluative from the descriptive: An empirical study of thick concepts

Thought: A Journal of Philosophy 10 (2):135-146 (2021)
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Thick terms and concepts, such as honesty and cruelty, are at the heart of a variety of debates in philosophy of language and metaethics. Central to these debates is the question of how the descriptive and evaluative components of thick concepts are related and whether they can be separated from each other. So far, no empirical data on how thick terms are used in ordinary language has been collected to inform these debates. In this paper, we present the first empirical study, designed to investigate whether the evaluative component of thick concepts is communicated as part of the semantic meaning or by means of conversational implicatures. While neither the semantic nor the pragmatic view can fully account for the use of thick terms in ordinary language, our results do favour the semanticist interpretation: the evaluation of a thick concept is only slightly easier to cancel than semantically entailed content. We further discovered a polarity effect, demonstrating that how easily an evaluation can be cancelled depends on whether the thick term is of positive or negative polarity.

Author Profiles

Pascale Willemsen
University of Zürich
Kevin Reuter
University of Zürich


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