Traditional Entanglements of Conceptual Engineering: American and Cambridge Pragmatism

July 8, 2021

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Cambridge University
University of Bologna

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Conceptual engineering projects purport to differ from other philosophical projects in the following way: instead of asking “What does ‘X’ (really) mean?” (conceptual analysis) or “What is (the nature of) X?” (empirical or metaphysical inquiry), conceptual engineers shift the focus of discussion towards questions such as, “What is our concept of X for? How should we define or improve our concept of X so that it can better fulfil its function(s)?”. These distinctively functional and normative questions are congenial to the ideas defended by philosophers belonging to the multifaceted tradition of American and Cambridge Pragmatism.

An important point of convergence lies in the treatment of philosophical concepts. Pragmatist philosophers are usually more interested in the genealogy and reconstruction of philosophical concepts than in their analysis or the search for their reference-relation with the world. The pragmatist approach to concepts is embedded in a more broadly functionalist and often antirepresentationalist view of language, which we find at the heart of pragmatists’ philosophies of language, brought to the fore by neo-pragmatists such as Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom, and Huw Price. Against the traditional view of language as a primarily representational device, pragmatists emphasize the diversity of vocabularies and of their functions in human lives.

The “pragmatist theme” is occasionally acknowledged by conceptual engineers and explicit reference is sometimes made to pragmatist philosophers (e.g. to Huw Price by Amie Thomasson, to Hilary Putnam by Sally Haslanger and Sarah Sawyer, and to Brandom by Alexis Burgess and David Plunkett). However, the connections between the two approaches remain underexplored. This workshop is devoted to the investigations of these connections. What exactly qualifies (neo)pragmatist approaches to language for conceptual engineering projects? Where do the two movements merge, differ, and potentially enforce or illuminate one another? Which tools from both traditions are apt to allow for new answers to questions in each other’s fields of investigation?

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Cambridge University
Cambridge University
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#Conceptual Engineering, #Pragmatism