Our Research Themes

Our Research Themes

ConceptLab has been awarded a “Toppforsk” grant from the Research Council of Norway in the period 2016 – 2021 on the topic of conceptual engineering.

Introduction to the project

In any inquiry, whether scientific or practical, we use concepts to frame questions about reality. An obvious way in which the inquiry can be successful is by yielding answers to the resulting questions. A far less obvious form of success has to do with asking the “right” questions, formulated using the “right” concepts.

It is clear that many great leaps in human insight and understanding have been associated with the forging of “better” concepts, which has enabled us to ask “better” questions: in physics, the differentiation of weight and mass; in mathematics, the Cantorian notion of “size” or number; in economics, the articulation of the present concept of money; in social science the concept of gender, as opposed to sex.

These are illustrations of how conceptual progress has been made in the past. Here are some questions of great contemporary relevance and promise:

  • What should our concepts of e.g. a ‘combatant’, ‘mental illness’ or ‘privacy’ be?
  • Does the liar paradox show that our ordinary concept of truth is deficient?
  • What should our concept of marriage be? Should it cover same-sex couples or not?
  • Is the customary division of the political landscape into a simple left-right spectrum an obstacle to clear thinking about the political life?

For more information about the project as a whole, see here.

Our three main research themes are (i) the general theoretical framework, (ii) the theoretical cases, (iii) the practical/social applications.

Theoretical Framework

A theoretical framework will start by addressing two fundamental questions: In what ways can concepts be defective? And what ameliorative strategies are there? The  answers to these questions trigger a number of challenges, some of which are outlined below.

For more information about this research theme, see here.

Formal concepts

“Formal concepts” are very abstract concepts of a loosely logico-mathematical character, which play a crucial role in structuring our all of our thinking and theorizing, including about the natural world. The chief examples of formal concepts that we will consider are: truth, object, infinity, collection (or set), and negation.

For more information about this research theme, see here.

Social and legal concepts

There is an enormously wide range of potential case-studies involving social and legal concepts. To mention only a few good illustrations that are currently hotly debated: medical classifications (e.g. of mental illness), legal and political classifications e.g. of ‘immigrant’/alien, ‘accountability’ or `legally sane’ (which is particularly salient in recent Norwegian public debate around the trial of Breivik) ‘marriage’. However, our initial set of case studies has been chosen so as to draw on expertise we already possess. Here are two of them:

For more information about this research theme, see here.