Conceptual Engineering: An Analysis

“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.” (McLuhan, 2008)

Following the layout of Haslanger’s newly revised gender concepts, I will be analysing her revision and revision of concepts in general. This will focus on the limits of revision such as continuity and hierarchy, before moving onto the arguments for the significance of conceptual engineering and my conclusion.

Concept Continuity

How do we measure the success of a revision such as Haslanger’s ‘woman’ in conceptual engineering? Conceptual engineers should view success in terms of conceptual efficacy; the removal of the flaws that the engineer previously identified, leaving us with an effective and functioning concept. Thus, many believe success to be reducing vagueness, or aiding inequality, as previously discussed. However, some revisionists and analysists both agree, a revision can be too revisionary. P.F. Strawson best articulates this idea, purposing that one can run the risk of over revising, where being too revisionary can mean you lose sight of the original concept (Nado,2019). This is the ‘continuity problem’; conceptual engineers must preserve continuity in meaning and intention from the pre-engineered concept. This, or they gamble failing to address the original questions and issues.

However, the more radical amongst us believe this paradigm shift is what the engineers set out to do. If the initial concepts were problematic, this proves evidential that we should change the concept itself. The continuity problem should not be simply cast aside, this problem exists not only in revision, but in most philosophical queries. It threatens to trivialise problem solving in the philosophical discourse. We cannot resolve debates over ‘woman’ by engineering any mere concept: ‘A is a ‘woman’ if A can ride a bike.’ Not even amateur revisionists would take this proposal seriously. Despite the revision seeming clear-cut and coherent, it does not succeed as a revision because it lacks continuity with the original concept. If we are content with altering the subject, our account also needs to rule out trivialising proposals. If the revision cannot be random due to the risks of commonality and continuity issues, we ought to search for a criteria to measure the success of revision.

Empirical work, namely experimental philosophy (X-Phi), is important for the success of engineering. In order to identify those concepts that need to be explicated and plays a crucial role in assessment of flaws. Individuals like Carnap hold that the similarity of concepts is a virtue; to change a concept radically may have undesirable side effects, suggested through his idea of successful explication.

Carnaps purports a criteria for successful explication. This involves: (Nado,2019).

Similarity to the explicandum, enabling continuity.

  1. Exactness, enabling easy application and use.

2. Fruitfulness, enabling universal statements.

3. Simplicity, enabling understanding.

The meaning of similarity, exactness and simplicity seem to speak for themselves, but what of ‘fruitfulness’? Carnap holds that a concept is fruitful if it is useful in the formulation of universal utterances. This account of fruitfulness can be fleshed out, as Mark Pinder points out. On Pinder’s proposal, a concept counts as fruitful if it is used by the scientific community (Koch,2019). This suggestion is underpinned by his thought on experimental philosophy (X-Phi); a criteria can be only be tested though empirical investigation and less armchair philosophy. By asking agents how well the explication criteria works, we end up with a more hands-on approach, the key turning point for engineering projects.

According to Carnap, it is acceptable to compress or expand a concept in order to aid one of the desiderata. For example, “The concept ‘fish’… improves on the fruitfulness of the prescientific concept by the removal of aquatic animals such as whales” (Nado, 2019). For an account to be efficacious, it appears to involve multiple requirements in order to understand how many of the original flaws have been eradicated, and to what degree. Strawson argued that this is not plausible; stating that to revise pre-theoretic terms using Carnap’s explication suggests and intends to do something utterly irrelevant. He accuses ‘explication’ of missing the point because explication changes the subject, failing to answer the original philosophical enquiry. There is an obvious change in subject matter, so a revision can only go so far.

How do we know when the engineering goes too far? There is a fine line between defining and addressing deficiencies, whilst preserving function and continuity. These issues Strawson alludes to can be applied to engineering linguistics as a whole. Being too revisionary, engineering runs the risk of losing sight of the concept meaning we started with originally, this is the continuity problem. Even if we were comfortable with changing and rethinking the philosophical problemata, this continuity problem still holds court. When one engineers a concept, one is engineering the concept content as a side effect. Grounded in concept content are notions such as psychological structures that guide mental and lexical behaviours and thoughts. So, to change how someone classifies a concept, in turn changes how someone uses the content and what it represents. Think about it this way: If A = representational devices, and B = conceptions (set of beliefs associated with the concept), then a change in A will bring about a causal change in B.

Holism is a theory that states individual parts of a whole are all connected, as such the parts cannot exist independently. This interconnection can be applied to language and concepts; if one engages in revising a particular concept, there are knock on effects regarding neighbouring concepts and content. Whether the change in meaning of one concept will change the meaning or use of another concept is unknown and risky. So far, I have not provided a concept that was created from scratch, but rather I have touched upon efforts to improve concepts we already have. This is largely because there is little information on creating concepts from scratch, but it must logically follow that if one decides to eradicate a concept completely, a new or old concept will take its place. It is difficult to articulate the abandonment of concepts, and their creation from scratch; words just don’t disappear through intelligent efforts. Concepts appear to be ordinarily organically phased out.

The Continuity Problem

Theodore Bach purported numerous issues with Haslanger’s proposal, including the representational and commonality problems, which can be applied to general revision: (Bach, 2012).

Representation problem:

If there is no real group of ‘women’, then it is incoherent to make moral claims and advance political policies on behalf of women.”

Commonality problems:

(1) There is no feature that all women cross-culturally and transhistorically share.

(2) Delimiting women’s social kind with the help of some essential property privileges those who possess it and marginalizes those who do not.”

To what extent does Haslanger’s revision include all women? She includes the likes of prima facie women who are subject to oppression, but is this all women? Haslanger intends to shift gender imbalance by the alterations of ‘man’ to include privilege, and ‘woman’ to include subordination. This shift, she states, will alleviate sexual discrimination, endemic in countless societies. The aim of redefining ‘woman’ means finding a common universal property all women have, not just the oppressed. Many philosophers hold major feminist controversy about what constitutes a woman. Is it a classical feminine personality? A sexualised body? Or as Haslanger suggests, oppressed? I respect Haslanger’s activist appeal for change, but with redefinition comes complex debate.

There is an issue in stating necessary and sufficient social criteria for the concept of ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Women differ both socially and culturally, and if one tries to find a parallel property, one might struggle. Not only do they exist in culturally contrasting areas, but the concept changes according to the time period. This adds layers to the commonality issue: how one would define a woman in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1800’s is far from how one would define a woman in London in 2021. This constant flux of factors perpetuates the difficulties in defining the concept, particularly in accordance with the hierarchy of society. Haslanger’s generality avoids the marginalisation of women on the basis of many variables. What I mean by this, is her proposed concept of ‘woman’ leaves the socially subordinated position open, without alluding to culture, race or class.

One specific issue regarding Haslanger’s appeal for change concerns gender identity and transgender individuals. By ‘transgender’, I am referring to individuals who identify as a different gender than that assigned at birth. For example, a trans-woman is a person who was categorised as male at birth but identifies as a woman. Haslanger neglects to include trans and non-binary individuals into her revised categories. The mental implications of failing to respect alternative gender identities can lead to an unsuccessful concept reformation in the 21st Century. She only includes the likes of cis beings, and a transgender individual without biological surgery would not fit into her criteria. The adoption of her concept would exacerbate any existing issues within feminist discourse. In her aim to alleviate these issues, I believe she has facilitated numerous more.

Hierarchy and Inferiority

Haslanger’s proposed target has lack of empirical evidence, as we can’t know how exactly this would alleviate discrimination. Defining a ‘woman’ in terms of subordinations seems to be undermining the aims of both Haslanger and feminists. It seems almost ironic of a woman to place herself directly into the definition of subordination. Haslanger’s proposal is making it official and permanent that woman will forever be seen as inferior, as by her definition, they stand as thus. The pressures of society facilitate women to be seen as subordinate and inferior, and it appears that Haslanger is trying to make that eternal at an essential level. We tend to be essentialists about concepts (Leslie, 2008). This type of essentialism consists of commonly held beliefs that certain categories reflect fundamental distinctions in nature. For example, one can be an essentialist about the categorisation of gender or race, assuming an underlying property or essence attributes to all members of that specific category. Applied to gender theory, essentialism assumes fixed essences to men and women, assumed universal and shared by women at all times. This can add further complication to the commonality problem, the issue I mentioned previously regarding shared properties.

However, her aim was also to highlight certain structural injustices, which she emphasises well. She quite clearly illustrates the hierarchical structural stretch between a woman and a man, but I believe she leaves out the property of injustice. Gender concepts are meant to be considered with reference to both social and cultural differences – rather than simply biological ones. Not only is social hierarchy inherent in human culture, but also in the animal kingdom. For example, honeybees are social insects; they live together in organised groups, where a colony maintains three kinds of bees. From worker bees, drones and the Queen bee, there is cooperation amongst the nest and food collection, all to serve the Queen bee. This type of hierarchy is parallel to that in the human domain – social class, rank, hierarchy and order have been apparent in humans since at least the 17th Century. Possibly, like concepts, hierarchy is a struggle for who fits their function the best, and the ones that don’t fit or afford anything to the bigger picture, get phased out or pushed further down the hierarchy. Humans, ants, bees, monkeys… we all exist in layers of hierarchy in order to function effectively. It remains the efficient way to maximize group cohesion and productivity. According to this view, Haslanger’s proposal of hierarchy incorporated into gender concepts seems more plausible.

The Right to Revise

Language is embedded in a web of social norms and cultures. This quite evidently suggests that there are no definitive objective societal boundaries to judge concepts against. Concept and word change is natural and organic, so to try and mechanically engineer these is perhaps over-engineering engineering. Just as Schleicher states, ‘language is outside of human will’ (Schleicher, 1869). We are naive of the power that concepts hold; we have the power to change the instance and conversation we use a word in, but the actual word itself should be left to develop through nature and cultural devices. Changing the meaning of a word/concept immediately assumes control – this appears far-fetched; literally possible, yet impractical in application.

With respect for Haslanger’s call for justice, is it feasible for anyone like Haslanger, to have the right to control or adjust what changes should be made for minorities? Reiterating Cappelen’s thoughts, we are not in control, as he purports that being in control is overrated and illusory. Haslanger is a woman but is experiencing an easier society regarding her gender than her female ancestors did. She may be writing from her ivory tower; although she is a woman, and still oppressed, she remains a white woman in the 21st Century. There seems to be a hierarchy of oppression, including that of colour and gender. Haslanger assumes control over this situation, trying to direct a process of cultural evolution. The success of her conceptual shift being functional and pragmatic in application depends on society and culture. If people pick up her concepts and use them interchangeable in daily life, then Haslanger has succeeded in her attempt to alter the concept. Yet with such a fluctuating battle of social variants, this is unconvincing.

This dependency on individuals highlights the lack of general consensus amongst those oppressed and the minorities. In order to truly alleviate the issues of injustice, we require clarification on what the problems are. This complication lies in cooperation; there is a lack of general consensus in cultures and social groups, and we are unsure if there are necessary and sufficient conditions to be met. However, more experimental philosophy would enable communities to unify their ideas on what they think concepts ought to be – this could bridge the general consensus issue.

Many philosophers believe we are mistaken if we hold the implicit belief that concepts have necessary or sufficient conditions, or platonic essences. As Yudkowsky argued extensively in ‘Human Guides to Words’, this is the opposite of how words work (Yudkowsky, 2017). If concepts don’t hold necessary or sufficient conditions, we may see a free-for-all approach, as per the woman and bike example in the previous chapter. If you expect there to be a theory regarding conceptual engineering that provides necessary and sufficient criteria regarding the success of revisions, you will struggle to find one without flaw. There is no instruction manual for the revision of concepts, because revisionism is pervasive at a meta-level – the rules for conceptual engineering are being constantly changed.

Another problem with conceptual engineering such as Haslanger’s revision of ‘woman’ is scale. She is trying to revise a concept to meet goals that exist on a global scale, deep rooted in history with multifaceted variables. Similarly, A.K. Appiah looks to eradicate racial concepts as he believes in one race, the human race (Vandevelde, 2018). Despite being black, giving Appiah the relativity to engineer racial concepts, he has a rather privileged background. Concepts that have roots in slavery and cultural properties will not be eradicated lightly; many individuals see these concepts as holding a part of their identity, especially ‘black’ and ‘woman’. Issues of engineering concepts of identity are far too complex, unlike the engineering of a more scientific concept such as ‘gene’. Changing a racial concept such as ‘black’ attempts to change or ignore history, hinging on sensitive subjects that are bound by a sense of kinship and untouchable history. This only makes the revision harder, or practically impossible. In the realm of conceptual engineering, experience facilitates understanding of concepts, and lack of experience can lead to overly ambitious engineering.

It stands as a truism that concepts hold the lexical power to divert attention and control change, and by adding subordination to women, this undermines activism for change, such as the recent Sarah Everard marches. Implying social norms at an essential level is damaging, as these norms are not objective nor unanimous. One can indeed make sense of situations using concepts, such as sexual harassment. Yet if we attribute an oppressive element in the grounding of the concept, we are not only opening women up to abuse and violence but inviting it. To be seen as the inferior gender only spreads generalisations like wildfire, and consequences will follow.

The Assumption of Function

The function of a cultural item regards evolutionary history, so Haslanger (or any other individual) doesn’t get to decide what the function of a word/concept is. This cultural evolutionary perspective enables us to make sense of how concepts can maintain their identity through change – they are part of a specific lineage and are in competition with other concepts or variants of the same concepts. Similarly, spear throwing techniques have evolved with different variants of techniques sharing a common lineage as being in competition with one another. No individual has control over a universal spear throwing technique, nor the evolution of a given concept in the public domain.

When a hunter gatherer modifies the throw of the spear (for example, flicking his wrist at the end of the throw), the general technique will only evolve if other individuals copy this technique, and this becomes the dominant was to throw spears in that specific community. For this process of copying to be plausible, the new technique has to be better (e.g. more accurate or longer distance throw) than old techniques, and it has to be relatively easy to copy. The community I am alluding to is clearly small, and it is very clear what counts as a ‘good’ and effective spear technique. However, conditions like these don’t exist when it comes to concepts, specifically concepts of identity such as gender concepts.

Even if we had the function agreed of a concept such as ‘woman’, do we have the control or right that is required to implement such a change? Haslanger is over ambitious, achieving global goals of eradicating injustice in a global debate, but I see her rationale behind the idea. Even though Wittgenstein believed conceptual problems could not be solved by means of empirical research, I propose that there needs to be more experimental philosophy than armchair philosophy, in the arena of concepts one must experience and understand the reasons behind the need to revise a specific concept.

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.

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