Ceteris Paribus Hedges in Critical Principles

Jonathan Kwan


I argue that principles need to be appealed to in criticism especially when critics deliberate and determine the consistency between their verdicts on individual artworks. Following Frank Sibley, we can take principles as identifying properties with inherently positive or negative polarities that can be reversed in interactions with other properties. I contend that we should understand the character of such principles as having ceteris paribus hedges that restrict the scopes of the principles to artworks in which the inherent polarities of cited qualities are not undermined or reversed. This is to adopt Michael Strevens’ ‘narrowing’ approach to interpreting ceteris paribus clauses. A consequence of such hedges is that the conditions of application of critical principles—when certain polarities are not undermined or reversed—may be partly opaque and unknown. Unpacking the opaque truth conditions of such principles, then, helps to make sense of how critics go about working out the consistency between their verdicts. This view of critical principles is consistent with and even predicts Arnold Isenberg’s particularist intuition that verdicts can be directly perceived without the need to infer them from principles. After all, opaque truth conditions mean that sometimes critics may not know whether an inference from a principle to verdict is valid. Ultimately, this view of hedged principles helps to make sense of critical aesthetic practice and accords with both the generalist intuition that critical reasons, to be reasons, require principles and the particularist intuition that inferences to verdicts can be short-circuited by direct acts of perception.


Generalism, Particularism, Ceteris Paribus Hedges

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