Concepts, functions, and conceptual engineering

June 12, 2020 - June 13, 2020
University of Oslo

georg morgenstienes hus

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Keynote speakers:

University of Hong Kong
Hunter College (CUNY)
University of Glasgow
University of Hong Kong
Dartmouth College
Oxford University
University of Glasgow
University of Kentucky
Dartmouth College


University of Hong Kong
Dartmouth College

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Conceptual engineering is the field of philosophy concerned with assessing and improving our representational devices. Related fields such as conceptual genealogy are concerned with tracing the development of such devices through time.

An important question for this area of philosophy, accordingly, is what is it to change a representational device, such as a concept. When we conceptually engineer the concept "woman" or the concept "truth", something changes: the concept comes to represent different things (if the engineering project is successful). But change is different from replacement or abandonment: change implies continuity, and that there is underlying something that remains constant through the process of change. What, if anything, is that underling constant thing?

An influential thesis in the conceptual engineering literature (defended in some form by Sally Haslanger, Jennifer Nado, Peter Railton, Timothy Sundell, David Plunkett, Amie Thomasson, and others) is that concepts have functions or job descriptions. If those remain constant, then perhaps they can be used to explain continuity. Concepts (and other representational devices) play certain functions in our thought and talk, and a successful conceptual engineering project ought to ensure that its function remains the same, insofar as one wants to preserve continuity.

That is to say, much work defends something like this claim:

(*) Concepts perform functions (or have jobs)

The workshop is concerned with this claim. Can it be made true and philosophically significant, like the above mentioned people think? If the claim is false (as Herman Cappelen has argued), why is it false? If the claim is true, what does ‘concept’ mean, what does ‘function’ mean, and what’s the philosophical significance of the claim? How important is preserving continuity for projects in conceptual engineering?

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