Still the same dilemma for conceptual engineers: reply to Koch


Steffen Koch (Koch 2020) raises several objections to my critique of conceptual engineering (Deutsch in ‘Speaker’s Reference, Stipulation, and a Dilemma for Conceptual Engineers’. Philosoph Stud 177:3935–3957, 2020). Here, I reply to these objections, arguing that (1) Koch fails to adequately defend the “standard rationale” for conceptual engineering, and (2) that the dilemma I have posed for “conceptual re-engineering”, a dilemma that presents this practice as either infeasible or else trivial, survives Koch’s objections unscathed. I conclude that conceptual engineering, both in terms of its conception and rationale, remains problematic.

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  1. 1.

    I also argue that a distinct variety of conceptual engineering, what Koch calls “conceptual construction” and I describe in Deutsch 2020 as “stipulative introduction”, while both feasible and nontrivial, is neither a new nor neglected methodology. This variety, which involves the introduction of new terminology for theoretically useful or important properties or kinds (e.g. ‘supervenience’, ‘gross domestic product’), has been a part of philosophical and other theoretical methodologies for literally millennia. Koch mostly concedes this point, though he claims that conceptual construction “need not be limited to technical terms” (Koch 2020, 5n3), mentioning in this connection Miranda Fricker’s (2007) discussion of the introduction of the term ‘sexual harassment’. Though one could quibble about the implication that ‘sexual harassment’, when first introduced, was not new technical terminology, I wholeheartedly agree with Koch that there are a great many valuable instances of conceptual construction, including the case of ‘sexual harassment’. In fact, as I admit in my original paper, I think that some instances of conceptual construction plausibly provide more than the “syntactic convenience” I describe them as providing in Deutsch (2020)—‘sexual harassment’ being a case in point. Fricker compellingly argues that the introduction of the label also served to reduce “hermeneutical injustice”.

  2. 2.

    Koch’s critique of this argument appears in the penultimate Sect. 3 of his rejoinder (Koch 2020, pp. 9–12); my presentation of the argument appears in Sect. 8 of my original paper (Deutsch 2020, pp. 3954–3956).

  3. 3.

    This passage includes the claim that “[many of our philosophical terms and concepts are not semantically defective] if their purpose is to allow us to communicate about things like knowledge, free action, and women” (Deutsch 2020, 3955) This is maybe slightly misleading, perhaps suggesting that these terms and concepts are non-defective full-stop, as opposed to non-defective relative the communicative purpose I specify.

  4. 4.

    An earlier draft of this paper relied only on the purely hypothetical ‘elbow’/milkshake example. Although this example usefully dramatizes the infeasibility of conceptual re-engineering, an anonymous reviewer (this journal) pointed out that relying on it alone might encourage some readers to think that other possible or actual cases of attempted conceptual re-engineering might be much less infeasible. This is why I have included the example of ‘belief’ and Clark and Chalmers (1998) on the extended mind. Cappelen (2018) interprets Clark and Chalmers as attempting to re-engineer the semantic meaning of ‘belief’. My claim is that if they are attempting this, and if ‘belief’, pre-1998, did not refer to any extended representational states, Clark and Chalmers’s attempt to change its meaning is just as infeasible as trying to make ‘elbow’ mean milkshake. Those are big ‘ifs’, however. See note 5, below.

  5. 5.

    A worry about the ‘belief’ example is that it is not at all clear that ‘belief’ did not already, long before the publication of Clark and Chalmers (1998), include extended representational states in its extension and, indeed, that it already did include them is precisely what Clark and Chalmers (1998) were arguing for—no need for any conceptual re-engineering. This is the downside of using alleged actual cases of attempted semantic re-engineering to illustrate the implementation challenge: there are no uncontroversial such cases. See note 4, above.

  6. 6.

    As I argue in my original paper, this shows that methodologists should reconsider interpreting philosophers like Haslanger (2000) as engaged in semantic re-engineering. If Haslanger is attempting to change the semantic meanings of gender terms, a severe implementation problem stands in her way. In my paper, I argue that this is fairly strong evidence that this is not what Haslanger is attempting.

  7. 7.

    Koch is impressed that his Evans/Devitt metasemantics can accommodate cases of unintended reference shifts (think: ‘Madagascar’). But that ought to be impressive only if the theory specifies the right conditions on reference-fixing in the first place. For reasons that would digress too far from the main theme of this reply-piece, I have serious doubts that Koch’s metasemantics manages this. For some clues about what I have in mind here, see Dickie’s (2015) criticisms of Evans on proper names in Dickie 2015, chap. 5.

  8. 8.

    Koch challenges me to “specify some relevant difference between conceptual engineering and other projects such as obtaining a university degree, reducing CO2 emissions, or improving education systems” (Koch 2020, p 8). Although there are cases of implemented (so implementable) instances of the projects Koch lists here, there are also non-implementable versions (Trump obtaining an advanced degree from Harvard, perfecting the US public school system). There are also clear cases of other kinds of projects over which we have collective long-range control but are practically impossible to carry out, such as the universal morning prayer case I describe in the main text. So, really, the challenge is for Koch: show that semantic conceptual re-engineering falls on the implementable side of those projects over which we have collective long-range control. This demonstration is made more difficult by the fact that there are no uncontroversial actual cases in which someone or some group of speakers has intentionally changed the semantic meaning of an existing term.

  9. 9.

    Though intended only as a sketch, one clear problem with Koch’s Evans/Devitt metasemantics as stated (by Koch) is that it implies that semantic meanings are fixed for and by individual speakers and their dispositions. This is deeply implausible; English terms do not have one set of semantic meanings for me and potentially an entirely different set for Koch, for example. I ignore this problem in the main text but note here that it is one of several severe-seeming problems attaching to Koch’s metasemantics. (See note 7, above.).

  10. 10.

    To repeat the point from note 6: this is a bad interpretation of Haslanger on ‘woman’, as I argue at some length in Deutsch (2020).

  11. 11.

    This is also shown by Mark Pinder’s (2019) elaborate defense of the “Speaker-Meaning Picture of Conceptual Engineering”, a defense to which Koch refers in his own defense of pragmatic re-engineering.

  12. 12.

    Koch hints that the standard rationale for conceptual engineering answers this question about why anyone should ever bother with pragmatic re-engineering. As I argued earlier in Sect. 1, however, Koch fails to show that the standard rationale is a sound one.


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For useful feedback on an earlier draft, I thank Herman Cappelen and an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies. Thanks also to Steffen Koch for holding up his side of the ongoing debate.

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Deutsch, M. Still the same dilemma for conceptual engineers: reply to Koch. Philos Stud (2021).

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  • Conceptual engineering
  • Dilemma
  • Semantic engineering
  • Pragmatic engineering
  • Conceptual engineering's rationale