CFP: Traditional Entanglements of Conceptual Engineering: American and Cambridge Pragmatism

Submission deadline: March 31, 2021

Conference date(s):
July 8, 2021

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Conference Venue:

University of Bologna (Italy)
Bologna, Italy

Topic areas


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?

Possible avenues for exploration include but are not limited to the following:

  • Drawing on pragmatist frameworks to explore and develop the semantic foundations of conceptual engineering.  Neopragmatist semantics and pragmatics allow for the semantic plasticity that many conceptual engineers want and need. Most pragmatist approaches emphasize the different functions of language (Price) and conceive of language as a normative conceptual space (from the late Wittgenstein to Sellars and Brandom). To what extent is the very idea of (certain strands of) conceptual engineering based on (neo)pragmatist views on language?
  • Drawing on existing pragmatist debates and suggestions to answer pressing questions arising in conceptual engineering, such as: how do we assess revisions or alterations of concepts? What concept of function or purpose do we need? When do we risk “changing the subject”? Such problems could receive new resolutions from engagement with pragmatist ideas, such as the functionalist view of language found in Rorty, Brandom and Price’s works, in particular Rorty’s and Davidson’s views on malapropisms, Brandom’s account of the rationality of our discursive practices, or Ramsey’s account of conceptual revision.
  • New challenges to conceptual engineering projects understood as “reference-fixing”. According to pragmatists, there is always more than “one way to go on”, rather than one correct reference-relation. Accordingly, pragmatists can ask the conceptual engineer: Do we need the metasemantic category of “reference” for conceptual engineering? What exactly do e.g. Haslanger and others need the category for? What speaks for a pluralist, or an eliminativist approach with respect to reference?
  • A reading of historical and contemporary pragmatist works through the lens of conceptual engineering. For example, what do we gain from framing the classical pragmatists’ treatment of certain concepts (e.g. truth, value, experience) as conceptual engineering projects?
  • Critical perspective on the scope and limits of pragmatism in conceptual engineering. What kind and what dose of pragmatism do conceptual engineers need, and where does it possibly go too far? For example, one might defend a Carnapian pragmatism or the importance of pragmatic considerations in the choice of concepts without espousing pragmatism “all the way down”.

Please send an abstract of no more than 400 words, a short bio-note, and some information about which field you are coming from (from the context of CE or the context of Pragmatism), or what your particular interest in the workshop is, to both organizers by March 31.

Céline Henne (Cambridge):

Yvonne Huetter-Almerigi (Bologna, Oslo):

This workshop is part of a project that receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the grant agreement No 832636.

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Custom tags:

#Conceptual Engineering, #Pragmatism