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.
Varieties of conceptual deficiencies
We can, as an initial heuristic, divide the study of conceptual (or, more broadly, representational) deficiencies into two categories: practical and theoretical. In each of these categories there are rich critical traditions to draw on. One the practical side, the deficiencies include the following:
- Moral and social effects: Concepts can, according to some views, help sustain social injustice. One central thought is this: the way we organize social structure is sustained, in part, by the conceptual structure used for thinking and talking about them. So construed, our concepts should not be thought of as neutral devices for describing a social reality already there, but as partially constitutive of that reality. Relevant case studies include gender and race concepts, the concept of ‘marriage’, the history of the concept of ‘rape’ (whose legal definition once excluded forced intercourse within marriage), ‘mental illness’ and ‘combatant’. According to recent collaborative work between philosopher and psychologists (Leslie, forthc.), the use of certain categories of expressions – so-called ‘generics’ – lead people to over-generalise in ways that generate social prejudice
- Intrapersonal effects: Our concepts organize how we think of ourselves and how we conceive of what is possible for us. As a result, our conceptual repertoire has the capacity to restrict and degrade our potentials as human beings.
- Objectionable presuppositions: Some expressions, such as pejoratives, have contents which make the very use of them objectionable (given certain value systems.)
The theoretical deficiencies include the following:
- Lack of Semantic Foundation: Complete lack of semantic foundation results in what some philosophers call nonsense or meaninglessness.
- Superimposed concepts: These are cases where what ought to be distinct concepts are bundled together as a single concept in a way that leads to cognitive confusion.This observation was systematically discussed by Kant, who argues that much of the earlier philosophical tradition based their views on such equivocations.
- Inconsistency: On some views, concepts can be inconsistent. This was arguably Tarski’s own view of the concept of truth when he suggested that “colloquial language” is inconsistent (1936).
- Non-naturalness: According to a contemporary tradition deriving in large part from Lewis, a conceptual structure can be deficient when it fails to ‘carve reality at the joints’.
The exhaustiveness of these lists as well as each of these (alleged) deficiencies will in the course of our project be subject to careful systematic and historical investigation.
Strategies for Conceptual Improvement
What should we do when we discover that a concept we use is defective? As a working hypothesis we divide reactions into four broad categories:
- Abandonment: in some cases the right reaction is simply never to use the term again.
- Amelioration: We can try to improve the concept by fixing its deficiencies. This is, for example, the motivation behind Carnapian explication: you start with a concept that is defective (in this case vague and indeterminate). It is also for example Sally Haslanger’s attitude towards race and gender concepts: central to her work are suggestions for how to improve these concepts for social and political reasons.
- Splitting: Another option is to split superimposed or conflated concepts into their components. This plays a central role in Kant’s philosophy, but is also applicable to many of our formal concepts such as ‘object’, ‘infinity’, and ‘negation’.
- Reconciliation: We might opt to live with the deficiency in cases where the cure is worse than the disease. Likely examples include vagueness (if it is ineliminable and a deficiency, as Frege and Carnap thought) and what Chalmers (2011) calls ‘bedrock’ concepts (if some of these are deficient).
Central research questions about the general theoretical framework
Each deficiency and ameliorative strategy is intrinsically interesting, but the goal of the project is to show that they are best approached systematically rather than in a piecemeal fashion. What is needed – and what is currently missing – is an overarching theoretical framework for thinking in a systematic and unified way about deficiencies and strategies for improvement. There might be several, competing such frameworks. In developing these, central challenges include the following:
- What is difference between amelioration and a change of topic?
This concern goes back to Strawson’s objection to Carnap’s notion of explication. In response to the idea that Carnapian explication is central to philosophy, Strawson says, “..to offer formal explanations of key terms of scientific theories to one who seeks philosophical illumination of essential concepts of non-scientific discourse, is to do something utterly irrelevant—is a sheer misunderstanding, …typical philosophical problems about the concepts used in non-scientific discourse cannot be solved by laying down the rules of exact and fruitful concepts in science. To do this last is not to solve the typical philosophical problem, but to change the subject.” Put somewhat differently: if we change both the extension and intension of a concept, isn’t it incoherent to think we still have ‘the same concept’? This we take to be a central challenge to the project of conceptual engineering.
One of our working hypotheses is that answering this challenge requires an understanding of ‘sameness of topic’. We will explore the idea that this notion cuts across concepts with differing extensions – i.e. you can preserve topic even when you have substituted for, say marriage or truth a concept with a new extension. What counts as the pursuing the same topic is massively context sensitive – in the same way that same-saying is context sensitive.
We will also pursue the thought that in some cases we want a change in topic. We don’t want to answer old questions because intellectual progress is made by a shift in meaning. An example concerns the disentangling of the concepts of weight and mass. A central question in this context is when old questions should be abandoned. We often think of progress as a matter of better answers to old questions, but sometimes progress is best ensured by asking (and answering) new questions.
- Holism and remote interlocking concepts
The legal notion of ‘negligence’ has ‘knowledge’ as parameter: so revising ‘know’ will have implications for our understanding of negligence. All of the concepts used as illustrations above are interlocked with other concepts in ways that are difficult to disentangle. A revision in ‘truth’, ‘freedom’, or in social terms gender or race, will have cascading effects on remote interlocking concepts. How should a revisionist react to the discovery of such connections?
- The implementation Challenge
How does one implement conceptual change? At first glance, it will seem that this depends on whether one’s aim is large scale social revision, or a more restricted small-scale revision. Think of Large-scale revision as those that aim to revise or otherwise change the meaning of a natural-language term. This is massively difficult to achieve and strategies for doing it will vary a great deal. Since ordinary language meaning supervenes on a pattern of use in inscrutable ways, it is difficult to develop effective general strategies. We are not in a position to speculate on whether and how large scale revision might work and instead recognize the need for empirical studies of these matters. Small-scale linguistic revision are less challenging to implement. Here one could start in a particular context (theoretical, legal, medical, political, etc) with a restricted audience in mind, and for that particular purpose try to effect a revision. In such targeted contexts, changes can be implemented more easily and in more scrutable ways.
- The Unification Challenge
This challenge is closely related to the previous one: Is there a fundamental distinction between conceptual revisions/innovations in the theoretical domain (e.g. within a science or a smaller scientific community) and in the practical (e.g. political, legal or social) domain? This question will be explored throughout the project. Our working hypothesis is that the general kinds of deficiencies are the same in both domains and the general strategies for amelioration are the same. However, implementation is significantly more challenging in the practical domain. So our hypothesis is that there is difference in how easy implementation is, but no fundamental structural difference.
A related unification-challenge can be articulated in terms of the norms involved in amelioration: Are these unified across different domains? Is it only instrumental normativity? Our working hypothesis is that the activity of ameliorating concepts can be appropriately assessed by any kind of norm and that hypothesis will be tested throughout the project.
- Why keep the lexical item when doing so is likely to generate verbal disputes?
The two strategies sketched above – large and small-scale revision- face a similar challenge: why keep the same linguistic expression when you are changing the meaning? Wouldn’t it be easier simply to mark the distinction in meaning by a distinction in lexical item? (This is a version of the Change of topic challenge above). One of our working hypotheses is that answering this challenge requires understanding the communicative importance of lexical items themselves. We mentioned above that there can be a change in extension while we preserve topic. Keeping the lexical item is a way to flag that we are talking about the same topic. Second, someone using an expression, E, can do so for the lexical effects. Even if there’s a change of topic, the preservation of the lexical effects can be worth it for pragmatic reasons. One way to think of this: The positive effects of using that expression overrides the danger of verbal disputes. One goal of our work will be to develop notions of ‘lexical effects’ and ‘sameness of topic’ that can serve the theoretical roles just sketched.
- The nature of concepts
The theoretical framework for conceptual engineering will have to incorporate an account of what concepts are. There is a long tradition, both in philosophy and psychology, for thinking about the nature of concepts. Our work will draw on these traditions. However, we also expect that feedback can go in both directions: a theory of concepts will slowly emerge from a theory of conceptual engineering. It is indisputable that our representations of reality change over time and can be influenced by our linguistic decisions. Understanding that process can provide a foothold for a theory of concepts. We want such a theory to be dynamic in a way that leaves room for conceptual engineering of the kind we explore with throughout the project. In short, one of our working hypotheses is that we can theorize about conceptual engineering with a minimum of initial assumptions about the metaphysics of concepts and that more substantive conceptions of concepts, will emerge from understanding conceptual engineering.
That said, there are a number of traditional issues about concepts that will be addressed along the way and two of these are particularly important: (i) Does conceptual engineering require that there be a clear-cut distinction between analytic truths and synthetic truths (or justification)? (ii) How does the difference between externalist and internalist frameworks affect the way we think about conceptual engineering?