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The Good, the Sad, and the Ugly: A Challenge for Aesthetic Expressivism?

Expressivism, in its most general form, is the view that sentences have their meanings in virtue of the mental states they express. Since A.J. Ayer, expressivists have assumed that their theories of moral language could easily extend to aesthetic terms. In this paper, I question this assumption. In particular, I question the assumption that aesthetic discourse “tracks” the putative ontological fact/value distinction in the way that moral language is taken to, where that distinction is between descriptions (i.e., properties “out there in the world”) and evaluations. Following Frank Sibley and Alan Goldman, I first observe that many aesthetic terms do not plausibly express evaluative attitudes in the first place. I then argue that some intuitively “aesthetic” terms do not plausibly express attitudes of approval or disapproval, even if they are are in some relevant sense “non-descriptive”. This compromises the comparative adequacy of aesthetic expressivism, as a semantic theory of all aesthetic terms. Moreover, I suggest, it challenges the assumption that “a simple modification" to moral expressivism is all that is required for an expresssivist theory of aesthetic terms.

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