Project as a Whole

Project as a Whole


Answering questions like the ones just mentioned require an understanding of how we assess concepts and how to go about improving them. Not only is there no consensus about a framework for addressing such questions, but also such questions are not addressed systematically in contemporary philosophy.

In the history of philosophy, there is a tradition for posing such question, but it is remarkable that there is no single philosophy book written in the last 50 years on how to assess and improve concepts.

When we say the project is groundbreaking and innovative, this is what we have in mind: the systematic study of these questions has not been at the centre of attention of the the last 50 years of philosophy (with some important exceptions mentioned below). Our goal is for the focus to change and if we succeed, it will have wide reaching implications for how philosophy is done across sub-disciplines.


A central concern of Kant’s philosophy is how to justify concepts, i.e. what our concepts ought to be rather than what they in fact are. From the Kantian perspective, metaphysical concepts can only be justified by showing that they have a constitutive role in experience and knowledge formation. Practical concepts, however, are justified by showing their role in moral reasoning.

But not all concepts can be justified, according to Kant. Some can be shown to be intrinsically ambiguous and defective and must be replaced or abandoned, not improved. Kant’s project and the meta questions he raised about the method, scope and limit of philosophy had a great impact on later thinkers like Hegel, Husserl and Frege.

Nevertheless, with regards to the topic in question there is very little contact between philosophers who take Kant as their point of departure and other traditions.

More recent examples:

One of these is the tradition for thinking about truth and paradoxes that goes back to Tarski. It argues that what we learn from the paradoxes is that our concept of truth must be revised and improved (see e.g. Eklund 2002, Scharp 2013.)

There is an extensive literature on gender and race concepts, where authors such as Sally Haslanger (2012) proposes that such concepts must be ameliorated and that this can have important positive social effects. Revolutionary fictionalists (e.g Field 1989) have proposed linguistic revisions in light of non-referentiality.

One can see the work of Sarah-Jane Leslie (forthc.) as being part of this tradition: she argues that recent studies show that a certain category of expressions, generics, are implicated in the generation of social prejudice. In response to these findings, Leslie proposes a large-scale linguistic revision: that we should not use generics around children.

A related kind of project can be found in some traditions of contemporary metaphysics where the goal is to develop a terminology that ‘carves reality at the joints’ (e.g. Sider 2011). We see this tradition of identifying and removing deficiencies in ordinary language as tracing back to Frege, Wittgenstein and the logical positivists.

Descriptive vs Normative Philosophy:

In all of these authors, the assessment and improvement of language was central. Indeed, it could be argued that a purely descriptive approach to concepts and linguistic structures was entirely alien to these founders of the analytic tradition.

Despite this, it is fair to say that contemporary philosophy in the analytic tradition has for the most part entirely turned away from the motivations of its founders. For example, more or less all of contemporary philosophy of language is fundamentally descriptive – concerned with minutest details of semantic and pragmatic mechanisms.

The goal is purely descriptive: to understand how language as a matter of fact works. The goal is not to criticize and improve. More generally, philosophers across sub-disciplines tend to think of their goal as that of describing philosophical concepts such knowledge, freedom, and justification.

There is no second stage where the goal is to find out whether the concepts we actually have require improvement. This lack of a normative dimension is reflected in the often stated aim of finding theories that confirm to our pre-theoretic ‘intuitions’.

Other approaches:

There is also a tradition of engaging with these issues deriving from Hegel and continuing through Nietzsche, Heidegger and French postmodernism. But our project is already vast in scope. So we limit our project to approaches in which we already possess relevant expertise.

The overarching aims of our project

  1. One aim is to create a systematic framework for a new and more normative way to do philosophy and for philosophy to engage with other disciplines. We will do so by developing a systematic philosophical framework for thinking about conceptual engineering – this part will draw inspiration from a long tradition in philosophy going back to Kant, continuing through Frege, the logical positivists and to contemporary thinkers in the feminist tradition, such as Sally Haslanger and Jennifer Saul (who are both part of our research network).
  2. We apply our framework to two clusters of issues in which our team possesses international renowned research expertise, including (but not limited to) formal concepts (such as infinity, truth, and negation) and social and political concepts (such as combatant’ and ‘privacy’).
  3. We will use the theoretical insights to directly impact the public and political debate. CSH has extensive experience in policy formation through her work as a leader of the Council for Defence (that sets ethical guidelines for the entire Norwegian defense sector) as well as her work as a member of the Press Complaint Council. This is thus one of the very few cases where there is opportunity for abstract philosophical theorizing to have direct social and political impact.

The remainder of this text address three components of the project: (i) the general theoretical framework, (ii) the theoretical cases, (iii) the practical/social applications.

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