Conceptual Engineering

Definition

‘Conceptual engineering’, coined by Simon Blackburn, seeks to engineer concepts through the modification of pre-existing words. The ‘engineering’ of concepts doesn’t look to discover concepts, rather, it aims to recraft and mould them. It is conceptual engineering, not conceptual archaeology. The project of rectifying concepts concerns consistency and structure, regarding itself with language. Similarly, Chalmers and Clark proposed a dual definition of ‘concept’ and ‘engineering’. A ‘concept’ is generally ‘an abstract idea’, considered as an ingredient of thought that is expressed through words in language. For example, ‘woman’ is a concept belonging to the category of gender. By standard definition, ‘engineering’ is concerned with construction, modification, development. The marriage of these two definitions is intrinsic to the explanation of conceptual engineering, as in order to engineer concepts such as ‘woman’, it follows that one would take the existing concept, find the problem, and revise it accordingly.

Conceptual engineering has traditionally been understood as the reconstruction, design and evaluation of concepts, including the likes of re-engineering and ‘de novo’ engineering. De novo engineering involves concepts being designed as new, not a reconstruction of existing concepts. Re-engineering involves old concepts, re-moulded to fit a new purpose. For example, the concept ‘lockdown’ used to have military dictatorship and prison connotations. ‘Lockdown’ was then re-engineered in 2020 to fit debate around COVID-19, which will remain the same until we desire the concept ‘lockdown’ to be changed for another purpose, or it changes organically. Defining conceptual engineering brings with it descriptive and normative phases, analogous to civil engineers. Civil engineers design and construct structures such as buildings and bridges, but are also consulted after disasters such as earthquakes to assess whether the structure remains sound. Conceptual engineers and civil engineers share common ground of assessment and rectification, where concepts and structures both undergo revision and analysis according to their performance.

One may question if conceptual analysis is synonymous with conceptual engineering. Conceptual analysis and engineering are from the same tree of concepts, but they are not the same project. Think of concepts as an apple tree, and the analysis of concepts as the branch, with engineering as the philosophical fruit. Analysing concepts is characterising the beliefs that are constitutive of concepts. For example, people will have different concepts of ‘good’, but in a linguistic community these concepts will be very similar. In 20th Century analytic philosophy, conceptual analysis aimed to analyse the structure and content of concepts such as ‘truth’, in order to gain a better philosophical understanding. With conceptual analysis falling out of favour in the 1970’s, conceptual engineering emerged, assigning philosophy the task of concept reformation. The ends of conceptual engineering at not merely for the sake of science and scientific philosophy, but to aid practicality in the political and moral realms too.

One should look to distinguish the broad sense of conceptual engineering from the narrow sense, uniting the diverse array of cases. Most of my proposed examples throughout this essay concern narrow engineering, as do most ameliorative projects generally. Broadly speaking, the engineering of concepts is involved in the proposal of linguistic change in practice. This can take many forms; the elimination of old terms, introduction of new concepts, or a revision. Recent debate surrounding the paradigm of the nature of conceptual engineering concerns that of narrow engineering, centred around the revision of each term, such as the gender concept ‘woman’.

The conceptual tools we have at our disposal leave us less than equipped to express or address questions of philosophy, and this is the main problem. Conceptual engineering has been subject to a paradigm shift following decades of bad praxis, reification fallacies, religious essences and lexical misunderstandings. It has become clear that unsuitable linguistic foundations for concepts facilitate confusion. Presently, we appear to be in the midst of a conceptual engineering renaissance; we currently use less-than-optimal concepts, with the aim of improving their suitability for use. This means that the concepts many revisionists want to revise, have defects and flaws in their application or function, hindering speech and causing miscommunication.

We express concepts using words; a ‘word’ is a single unit of language, used as a vehicle for our thoughts. Concepts then hold semantic meaning and are crucial for communication. We figure out what concepts the words express, and make sense of situations accordingly. Therefore, lacking the appropriate concepts and terms for situations is the driving force for miscommunication. To illustrate the above, I will use the example of sexual harassment. In 1974, groups of women with parallel experiences of sexual harassment tried to communicate their feelings on the subject matter. However, without the existence of the concept ‘sexual harassment’, these women found it difficult to express their thoughts. Thus, the concept of ‘sexual harassment’ was born (search Fricker for more info). The birth of this concept meant that individuals could communicate about the topic, expressing their thoughts on the matter coherently and clearly.

Without the ‘correct’ concept, it becomes unpragmatic and unrealistic to believe you can communicate about a subject efficiently. We have come to understand that conceptual engineering has vivid social repercussions, and words hold significant power. The power in the sense of this case, was the power to divert the attention to the misconduct in the workplace for marginalised women. This was, and is, the key to open doors of change, not only for women, but other oppressed groups and individuals. This theme of change underpins many revisionary projects regarding concepts such as ‘woman’; whereby defects are spotted in the concepts we use, and revisionists aim to eradicate these appropriately.

Carnap’s Explication

The founders of the philosophy of language focused on normative questions and projects of amelioration (improvement) and engineering. For example, Carnap and Wittgenstein did not see their goals as that of describing the semantic or conceptual structure of specific language, their approach was more critical and constructive. According to Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations’, “the aim of philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”, the bottle being language. Then, the aim of philosophy is to improve the understanding of those who are ‘deceived’ by their own language. The challenge here lies in the recognition of whether commonplace folk language is ‘good enough’, or whether it requires engineering – this a normative project, not a descriptive one.

For some, revision is measured by reaching the true description of the concept, but for others success is merely improving on what there is. This is the main distinguishing feature that sets descriptivist’s apart from revisionists; descriptive metaphysics being concerned with describing the actual structure of the world, whilst revisionary metaphysics proposes to reconstruct and modify. Descriptivist philosophy does not concern itself with semantic improvement, nor is its aim to identify faults and strategise amelioration. The works of Kripke and other externalists worked towards descriptive ends, but this non-normative goal is perhaps a misunderstanding of philosophy. Normative engineering projects, now called analytic philosophy, were the most important aspect of philosophy during this period.

As our inherited languages distort linguistics, Carnap suggested we devise new precise concepts, organising our thoughts into ‘parochial’ categories. He recommended that we leave traditional articulation behind and centre philosophical enquiry around conceptual engineering. This aim concerns itself with metaphysical properties – asking how we want things to be, rather than asking how things are. Just like concepts, Carnap’s terminology evolved over time. He refers to his first projects as ‘rational reconstruction’, and the latter projects as ‘explication’ leaning towards notions of clarification and explanation. Both terms refer to reconstruction and/or the substitution of specific concepts within ordinary languages, but he shifts his emphasis from that of an encyclopaedist and positivist view, to pluralistic and dialectical. He came to recognise the differing language users, priorities and value systems in linguistics, acknowledging the practical nature of conceptual engineering. This progressive change towards the idea of explication gained valuable attention for the engineering of concepts.  

Concept Function

We can analogise the function of concepts with functions in the biological domain. American philosopher Professor Ruth Millikan defends the historical and etiological definition of ‘function’. For X to have function Y, it becomes necessary and sufficient that it has been developed through ancestral veins, as an end in itself. What Millikan is alluding regards evolution, the main function has survived on purpose, which has causal historical importance. This is similar to the function of concepts – there is a specific function for each concept.

Millikan has two separate engagements of function. Her main theory regards biological function, and she then applies that to mental representations, like concepts. For example, through progression, the proper function of the heart is to supply blood to the body’s organs. Despite having other regular functions such as pulsating, and having four chambers, the heart’s proper function remains. Proper function falls heavily on ancestral performance which helps account for proliferation of the genes responsible for it. Proper function also unequivocally covers functions of words, behaviours, artifacts, coinciding with their explicit contents. Despite its occasional defectiveness, the proper function remains the same, if the evolutionary function remains the same. This etiological approach to function holds that the function of an evolved characteristic has to do with the effects that are responsible for its presence in the population. This account applies to the case of cultural evolution, as the function of a cultural item is a matter of evolutionary history. Concepts then have evolved characteristics as a result of cultural evolution, where evolutionary history forms the blueprint for the future of concepts. 

Concept Requirements

Conceptual methodology requires individual and reflective systematic conceptual analysis, which leads to a more pragmatic approach. Conceptual engineers aim to group together commonalities and similarities. This significant body of likeness assists in the prediction and explanation of a concept and its function, and to group things of specific matter together aids this. For example, the concept of ‘cat’ fits both black cats, white cats, and larger cats, like lions, all because they have the common notion of feline. This notion helps us predict the behaviour of cats and explain certain aspects of their being. Conceptual engineering aims to eradicate trivial differences, such as the colour of the cat, but be inclusive of alternative possibilities, like their difference in swimming ability or claws. In the conceptual realm, concepts capture those categories of importance.

I take conceptual engineering, in its most generic form, as the study of the revision of a concept based on its function fulfilment. This function fulfilment then has a purpose. This ‘purpose’ may be any purpose, therefore conceptual engineering is not restricted to any subject matter, but in this study, I will be focusing mostly on the arena of philosophy. The appeal to function is central in grounding conceptual engineering, it is the way to bridge the gap between constructing relative concepts and objective concepts. Regarding my previously mentioned function of bridges, there is specific criteria a design proposal must fulfil such as the load it may bear or the budget. We must allow some proposals to be better in application than others, and the same applies to concepts. The assessment of the function regarding bridges and concepts run in parallel. If it’s possible, when the function of a concepts becomes clear, we can assess whether it serves to fulfil this function.

The abstract characterisation of conceptual engineering invites specific questions in terms of why, when and how to engineer concepts. I have discussed the reasons why we engage, considering function and defects, and I will now cover when and how we revise concepts. Chalmers offers an approach to the matter:

“Instead of asking ‘what is X’, one should focus on the roles we want X to play and see what can play that role” (Chalmers, 2011)

In this sense, concepts have theoretical value in virtue of the role they are playing. For example, ‘qualia’ plays a role in the concept of ‘consciousness’. So, when do revisionists need to intervene? When a concept is deficient or faulty. For example, if the concept of ‘consciousness’ fails to satisfy the role we want it to play, the conceptual engineer takes it upon herself to rectify this situation. Once we have figured out that we need to intervene in a concept, how do we engineer it? Here are a few examples regarding the revision required for a range of deficiencies:

  • If the concept is deficient in function fulfilment, engineering of the current concept is required.
  • If the concept has become redundant, or unused, we may want to consider abandoning it completely, eliminating it from our conceptual scheme.

Of course, this is a broad outline and is subject to engineering itself. This is the ‘how’ behind conceptual engineering; the engineers seek the best possible remedy after identifying how large the defect is. If a concept is not being used, and it does not fulfil a function or role, the most appropriate action would be to abandon it completely. However, if we are using a concept that has survived the test of time, but it currently doesn’t work efficiently, engineers like Haslanger step in for conceptual engineering.

For more information see

  • Haslangers inquiry regarding gender concepts, or get in touch with me for my full essay!
  • If you’re interested in a similar blog, my writing on linguistic evolution explains the history of language, including copying and darwinian evolution.

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet, and i'm currently a postgraduate student at Kings College London and a freelance medical writer. I hold a first-class degree in philosophy at undergraduate level, and my MA is in medical ethics and law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: