Seminar in Computational Linguistics

Thick concepts and values

During the last decades of the twentieth century, analytic philosophers paid increasing attention to the intuition that we can distinguish between 

(1) non-evaluative descriptive terms and concepts (‘red’, ‘square’, ‘tall’); 

(2) purely (or at least predominantly) evaluative or ‘thin’ terms and concepts (‘good’, ‘right’, ‘warranted’, ‘beautiful’);

and (3) mixed, evaluative and descriptive or ‘thick’ concepts (‘efficient’, ‘cruel’, ‘openminded’, ‘delicate’). 

Although the significance of this basic distinction had been recognized at least since the 1950s in ethics and aesthetics, it was not until Bernard Williams (1985) coined the ‘thick’-‘thin’ terminology that a more systematic and cumulative debate could emerge on a number of aspects of this issue in philosophy: are the evaluative and descriptive components of ‘thick’ concepts separable? How do thick concepts convey their evaluative information? Do ‘thick’ concepts differ from ‘thin’ concepts in kind or merely in degree? What kind of thick concepts are there – practical (‘efficient’), ethical (‘cruel’), epistemic (‘close-minded’), aesthetic (‘dainty’)?  


I suspect that this terminology could also serve as a useful rally point for the various historical and empirical research projects in the humanities and social sciences that have in effect turned to repertoires of thick concepts used in particular cultures as a starting point for cultural histories or diagnostic tool to uncover predominant values in certain contexts. For instance, Ernst Gombrich (1963) emphasized that “aesthetic terms in their aggregate tell us more about the aesthetic experience than is usually allowed”, noting that the source domains of aesthetic adjectives such as “noble”, “clean” or “cheap” shed abundant light on their entanglement with moral, religious and social values. Similarly, Wilfried van Damme (1996) observes that anthropologists setting out to offer accounts of aesthetics in non-western societies often make it their first priority to map the terms and expressions used in descriptions of artworks and performances. In political conceptual history, the particular status of “evaluative and descriptive terms” has been emphasized at least since Quentin Skinner’s (1973) work on ‘democracy’. Even within so-called Kansei engineering, thick terms are used to assess consumer experience (Nagamachi 2011). But none of these research traditions are aware of one another, let alone of the debate in philosophy, and keep reinventing the wheel in terms of definitions and methodology.


So far my own research on the topic consists in focused studies on particular underrated thick aesthetic concepts in archaic and classical Greek texts, but I am also interested in the possibility to approach thick evaluative vocabularies en masse, asking how they change over time and differ between cultures. The aim of this seminar is to reach out to researchers in computer linguistics at the department and brainstorm about the potential to apply language technology methods in this research area, especially in the realm of aesthetics. Is it possible and worthwhile to develop tools to better analyze and visualize varying uses of words such as beautiful, ugly, dainty, dumpy, chunky, cute, cool, awesome, elegant, powerful, garish, delicate, balanced, warm, passionate, brooding, awkward or sad in reference to poems, songs, images, clothes etc.? 


Gombrich, E.H. 1963. Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art. Oxford / New York.

Van Damme, W. 1996. Beauty in Context: Towards an Anthropological Approach to Aesthetics. Leiden.

Skinner, Q. 1973. “The Empirical Theorists of Democracy and Their Critics: A Plague on Both Their Houses”, Political Theory 1, 287–306.

Nagamachi, M. 2011. Kansei/Affective Engineering. Boca Raton, FL, / London / New York

Williams, B. 1985. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA.