Alexis Burgess and David Plunkett: “The Relationship Between Conceptual Ethics and Conceptual Engineering”

This is a conference on the foundations of conceptual engineering.  We have published papers on a field related to conceptual engineering, which we called “conceptual ethics”.  One foundational question for conceptual engineering is: how exactly is it related to conceptual ethics?  Here are some sub-questions.  Is conceptual ethics just a proper part of conceptual engineering?  Or is it better understood as a free-standing area of inquiry that intersects with conceptual engineering in important ways?  Can there be conceptual ethics without conceptual engineering?  Or vice versa?  How successful can work in either field hope to be without the other?  Here is a slogan: ethics without engineering is empty, engineering without ethics is blind.  Is there some truth to this slogan?  And how do these two fields relate to what you might call conceptual activism: the business of actually trying to effect conceptual change?  This talk will offer a series of reflections of these and connected questions.

Alex Byrne: “‘Gender’ Trouble”

A real-life example of conceptual engineering is the attempt to make ‘gender’ more than a synonym of ‘sex’, starting in the 1950s and 60s with the sexologist John Money and the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, and continuing with various feminist writers in the 1970s and 80s.  ‘Gender’ thus provides an interesting case study of how conceptual engineering works in practice. As the paper will recount, things did not go quite according to plan. Some wider morals will be tentatively suggested. 

Herman Cappelen: “Conceptual Engineering vs Conceptual Activism: why conceptual change is incomprehensible and uncontrollable”

Conceptual engineering is the activity of assessing and improving our concepts (and other representational devices). Once you’ve identified a conceptual defect, you move to the constructive phase of ameliorating. Once you’ve got a proposed improvement in place, you might want to develop strategies for actually implementing that improvement. This last stage I call ‘conceptual activism’ and I argue it’s not within the remit of philosophy, the mechanisms are incomprehensible, and not within our control. 

David Chalmers: “What is Conceptual Engineering and What Should It Be?”

Conceptual engineering is often understood as conceptual *re-engineering*: the project of “fixing concepts”, or of assessing our representational devices and of improving them when they are defective.  By analogy, civil engineering would be the project of fixing bridges and other structures, or of assessing them and improving them when they are defective.  This leaves out a crucial part of civil engineering: designing and building new bridges (which need not be replacing old ones).  Similarly, the “fixing” characterization leaves out a crucial part of conceptual engineering: conceptual innovation, or designing and implementing new concepts (which need not be replacing old ones).  I suggest that the concept of conceptual engineering should be re-engineered to include conceptual innovation as well as conceptual re-engineering.  I will develop the distinction along with related distinctions such as homonymous vs. heteronymous conceptual engineering, and I will bring it to bear on foundational questions about the possibility and the role of conceptual engineering.

Matti Eklund: “Radical Conceptual Engineering”

In the first part of the talk I make general points about conceptual engineering. I distinguish between different conceptual engineering-type projects – a prescriptive project, an evaluative project, and a mere mapping project; and I critically discuss the objection to conceptual engineering that it just amounts to changing the subject. In the second part of the talk I bring up, in light of the lessons from the general discussion, some cases of especially radical conceptual engineering. One case I bring up, relating to themes from my Choosing Normative Concepts (OUP, 2017), concerns central normative concepts like right and ought.

Vera Flocke: “The Metasemantics of Indefinite Extensibility”

Indefinite extensibility is the thesis that any domain of quantification can always be expanded. In this talk, I discuss metasemantic questions related to indefinite extensibility. How is the possibility of expanding domains of quantification reflected in the semantics of quantified sentences? The guiding hypothesis is that an expansion of the concept SET is a case of conceptual engineering. By understanding how this concept expands we can make progress at understanding processes of conceptual engineering more generally. On the view I favor, indefinite extensibility is a thesis in modal metaphysics. I argue that domains of quantification can always be expanded because it is necessarily possible for there to be more sets. Unlike received views, this approach is compatible with the meanings of quantifiers remaining constant, and it does not bring in any non-standard parameters. I argue that it has numerous advantages, for instance when it comes to explaining what’s at stake in the debate between generality-absolutists and generality-relativists.

Sally Haslanger: “Concepts, Capacities, and Social Functions.”

On one externalist account of concepts, the content of a concept is a partition of logical space.  To have a concept is to have a set of capacities responsive to that partition, e.g., capacities for attention, categorization, interpretation, memory, language, inference, affect, and the like, at some level of granularity.  Capacities of this sort – shared capacities to access, share, and to respond to information – play a role in our interactions with others and, when they mesh in the right sort of way, they enable us to coordinate.  Although concepts are typically assumed to have their content essentially, I argue that at least in some cases, the identity of the concept should be understood in terms of how it functions, that is, in terms of how it enables those who track its informational content to manage their lives together.  As a result, in some cases we can undertake to improve, or ameliorate, the concept by changing its informational content.  I consider social concepts such as marriage, family, and gender to be paradigms of this sort.

Steffen Koch: “The Externalist Challenge to Conceptual Engineering”

Conceptual engineers seek to change the meanings of certain significant terms or concepts. For their endeavors to be successful, the practical possibility of intentional meaning change is a crucial presupposition. However, certain branches of semantic externalism raise doubts about whether this presupposition can be met. To the extent that semantic contents are determined by external factors such as causal histories or microphysical structures, it seems that they cannot be changed intentionally. In my talk, I will give an extended discussion of this ‘externalist challenge’. I will argue that the challenge is real, i.e., that the viability of conceptual engineering really depends on our ability to bring about meaning change. Furthermore, I’ll argue that, contrary to first appearance, popular versions of semantic externalism do allow for a sufficient degree of meaning control. To make this point, I’ll identify what I call ‘collective long-range control’ and argue that causal theories of reference and other branches of externalism imply that people have this kind of control over semantic contents.

Ari Koslow: “Conceptual Bridge Building”

Conceptual engineering paradigmatically involves proposals to promote the good by replacing concepts that are in use. So such proposals should be assessed in light of their likelihood of success, but they rarely ever are. I offer strategies to do so informed by the study of semantic drift using both case studies and corpus data. I ask two questions. First: why propose changing a word’s meaning rather than introducing a new word and restricting use of the old one? Second: what kinds of semantic and lexical changes are most likely to occur? Answering the first question suggests a framework for answering the second. It rests on the generic Darwinian principle that usage is proportionate to fitness in the linguistic environment. The concepts proposed in the literature are likely too ambitious to enter usage and, if they do, appear unlikely to promote better consequences. The engineer should prefer more modest proposals. I end by giving some examples.

Edouard Machery: TBA

Jared Riggs: “Conceptual Engineers Shouldn’t Worry about Semantic Externalism”

Conceptual engineers sometimes say they want to change what our words mean. But if a certain kind of externalism is true, it might be nearly impossible to do that. For some of the external factors that determine meaning, like metaphysical naturalness or past usage, are not within our power to change. And if we can’t change what determines meaning, then we can’t change meaning. Against this worry, I argue that if this sort of externalism is true, then conceptual engineers didn’t want to change what our words mean anyway. And if they did, they could always engineer externalism out of the language, or engineer a new sense of ‘meaning’ which could be changed. So the truth of externalism does not pose a threat to the possibility of conceptual engineering.

Laura Schroeter: “Conceptual Engineering and Concept Identity”

I have advocated a relational account of concept identity, according to which concepts are much more stable through changes in understanding and use than on a traditional Fregean approach. In particular, concepts defined in this way can remain stable through ‘conceptual engineering’, in which we refine our current patterns of understanding to best meet our representational interests. Some cases of conceptual engineering, then, should be considered cases of epistemic progress towards the truth about the topic picked out, whereas others are purely pragmatic changes – which could be radical enough to constitute a change in concept. I explain why this approach seems particularly well suited to vindicating conceptual stability in the case core normative concepts. But there are other cases where the issue of concept stability is much less clear-cut.

Amie Thomasson: “Conceptual engineering: When do we need it? How can we do it?”

I have argued elsewhere that we should think of metaphysics as involving work in conceptual ‘research and development’—including conceptual engineering. But what are the signs that work in conceptual engineering is needed? And how is it possible—what brings about conceptual change, and what methods can we use to change our concepts?