The externalist challenge to conceptual engineering


Unlike conceptual analysis, conceptual engineering does not aim to identify the content that our current concepts do have, but the content which these concepts should have. For this method to show the results that its practitioners typically aim for, being able to change meanings seems to be a crucial presupposition. However, certain branches of semantic externalism raise doubts about whether this presupposition can be met. To the extent that meanings are determined by external factors such as causal histories or microphysical structures, it seems that they cannot be changed intentionally. This paper gives an extended discussion of this ‘externalist challenge’. Pace Herman Cappelen’s recent take on this issue, it argues that the viability of conceptual engineering crucially depends on our ability to bring about meaning change. Furthermore, it argues that, contrary to first appearance, causal theories of reference do allow for a sufficient degree of meaning control. To this purpose, it argues that there is a sense of what is called ‘collective long-range control’, and that popular versions of the causal theory of reference imply that people have this kind of control over meanings.

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  1. 1.

    See Burgess and Plunkett (2013) for a similar outline of this challenge.

  2. 2.

    Some philosophers argue that externalism also applies to the level of content (cf. Burge 1979, 1986a). If this is true, a version of the externalist challenge as well as my way of responding to it might also apply to mental content. Although I am open to the idea that this is indeed so, I will not pursue this line of thought in this paper.

  3. 3.

    For current purposes, nothing hangs on whether this distinction is formulated in terms of grounding or supervenience. Everything I say in this paper could be rephrased in terms of supervenience.

  4. 4.

    This is most obvious with respect to non-mentalist versions of SE, which hold that meanings are partly determined by altogether non-mental factors (cf. Speaks forthcoming). See footnote 20 for a brief comment about mentalist versions of SE such as Burge’s (1979) social externalism. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pushing me towards this clarification.

  5. 5.

    But see Horvath (2016) for an argument to the contrary.

  6. 6.

    See Burge (1986b, 1990) for similar proposals; see Lewis (1999), Reimer and Michaelson (fothcoming) and Speaks (2017) for criticism.

  7. 7.

    I say ‘summarize’ because Cappelen does not really argue for these views. Instead, they are presupposed so as to build a theory of CE around them (Cappelen 2018, p. 63).

  8. 8.

    When untangling the elements of Inscrutable – Lack of Control – Will Keep Trying, Cappelen’s characterization of Will Keep Trying does not involve ‘should’ anymore. He merely says that we will and, perhaps, must keep trying to engage in CE. However, the original formulation of his Inscrutable – Lack of Control – Will Keep Trying thesis above as well as many other statements in the book make clear that he also believes that we should keep trying. See footnote 12 for references.

  9. 9.

    Compare this line of thought to what Mark Richard (ms) writes about the ameliorative project: “It will be successfully carried off only if a large number of those who think about the world using C, expressing those thoughts with word W, come to do something we might call ‘changing their concept C’ in ways that reflect the revisionary analysis while continuing to use W to express their (revised) concept C.” See also Mikkola (2009).

  10. 10.

    Cappelen explicitly stresses the parallels between ideal theory and CE (p. 83).

  11. 11.

    Ironically, in the eyes of many contemporary political philosophers, even Rawls’ use of ideal theory appears to be too detached from our actual non-ideal circumstances (Mills 2005; Sen 2006; see Valentini 2012 for a useful overview). It is therefore unlikely that Cappelen’s claim can be justified by an analogy to contemporary proposals in political philosophy.

  12. 12.

    Cappelen expresses this when he says that “purely descriptive philosophy must be abandoned” (Cappelen 2018, p. 47), or that the “[a]ssessment and improvement of concepts is at the core of philosophical practice, no matter what the topic” (Cappelen 2018, p. 47f.). It is really hard to see how to square these passages with the claim that CE is inscrutable and out of control.

  13. 13.

    How high the required degree of likelihood has to be in order to count as ‘sufficient’ is a question that I will not pursue in this paper. I suspect that this will partly depend on the context. For my purposes, all that matters is that a probability below 1 can be sufficient for control.

  14. 14.

    These definitions are slightly altered from Alston’s original proposal. Note also that both immediate and long-range control come in degrees, depending on the likelihood that, given the action(s) performed by S, c will come about. Note further that I take the notion of ‘being able to take a certain action/set of actions’ to come with an epistemic constraint: S must have some grounds for deciding which (course of) action is the one that will bring her the desired result. This epistemic constraint can be fleshed out in numerous ways, e.g. in terms of belief, justified belief or knowledge. For the purposes at hand, it won’t be necessary to give it a precise rendering.

  15. 15.

    Reference change in connection with the causal theory of reference has received some discussion in the literature as well. Gareth Evans uses the examples of ‘Madagascar’ as well as a fictional case about two switched babies to show that proper names can switch reference (cf. Evans 1973, p. 196). Devitt (1981, p. 140 ff.) makes essentially the same point. LaPorte (2004) argues that causal theories are compatible with reference change for natural kind terms and offers extensive discussions of real life cases like ‘species’ or ‘jade’. In his view, many of the historical cases which externalists typically describe by saying that scientists have discovered the essence of a kind and thereby corrected the past usage of the term referring to the kind, really do involve refinements, and thus changes, of meaning.

  16. 16.

    LaPorte’s (2004, pp. 151–154) discussion of the change from Euclidian to elliptic geometry is structurally analogous: “Surely the meaning of ‘straight’ changes from Euclid’s use to that of elliptic geometry […] elliptic geometry changes the paradigms used to “ground” straightness. Extension is determined in part by paradigms: “This is straight, that is not” (pointing). And speakers counted circles around spheres “nonstraight”, at least in the contexts of interest here. Only with the advent of non-Euclidian geometry did the great circles on a sphere come to serve as examples of “straight lines”.

  17. 17.

    I have stated this explanation in Evans’ terms, but it can easily be restated in Devitt’s terms as well.

  18. 18.

    Mikkola (2009) suggests that there are some differences in extension nevertheless—the Queen, for example, seems to be a female human being who is not oppressed in virtue of her observed female bodily features (p. 565).

  19. 19.

    A similar suggestion is made by Thomasson (2007), chapter 2.3. See also LaPorte (2004), especially pp. 6–7.

  20. 20.

    Although I have been focusing on causal theories of reference throughout this paper, it is likely that similar points can be made also about other versions of SE such as reference magnetism (e.g. Lewis 1999) or social externalism (e.g. Burge 1979). According to what Dorr and Hawthorne (2014) call ‘Lewis’ toy theory’, the best overall interpretation of a piece of language, and thus the meaning assigned to it, is the one that strikes the best overall balance between interpreting people as speaking truly and maximizing the naturalness of the assigned referents. Meaning change can thus be affected by working on the use part. Social externalism holds that meanings are partly determined by deference to experts. The idea that the use of experts plays a special role in determining reference does not change the fact that reference change supervenes on changes in the way people use language.


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My work on this paper was supported by a grant of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for the Emmy Noether Independent Junior Research Group Experimental Philosophy and the Method of Cases: Theoretical Foundations, Responses, and Alternatives (EXTRA), Project Number 391304769. Earlier versions of this material were presented at the Externalism and Conceptual Change workshop at University of St. Andrews (2018) and at the Foundations of Conceptual Engineering conference at New York University (2018). I would like to thank the audiences of these conferences for their helpful feedback. Special thanks goes to Joachim Horvath and Thomas Grundmann, who provided invaluable comments and suggestions at various stages from the first draft to the final version. Lastly, I am indebted to two anonymous referees of this journal, whose quick and constructive feedback helped to further improve this paper.

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Koch, S. The externalist challenge to conceptual engineering. Synthese 198, 327–348 (2021).

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  • Conceptual engineering
  • Semantic externalism
  • Causal theory of reference
  • Philosophical methods
  • Metaphilosophy