Speaker’s reference, stipulation, and a dilemma for conceptual engineers

  • Max DeutschEmail author


Advocates of conceptual engineering as a method of philosophy face a dilemma: either they are ignorant of how conceptual engineering can be implemented, or else it is trivial to implement but of very little value, representing no new or especially fruitful method of philosophizing. Two key distinctions frame this dilemma and explain its two horns. First, the distinction between speaker’s meaning and reference and semantic meaning and reference reveals a severe implementation problem for one construal of conceptual engineering. Second, the distinction between stipulatingmeanings and conceptually analyzing allows us to see why, on another construal of what conceptual engineering involves, the practice is neither a new nor neglected philosophical methodology. The article also argues that semantic externalism is not the root of the implementation problem for conceptual engineering, and that the usual rationale for adopting the practice, one that ties its value to the amelioration of “conceptual defects”, is unsound.


Conceptual engineering Speaker’s reference Stipulation Semantic change Conceptual analysis 



Students in two undergraduate classes at HKU—Philosophy of Language (Fall 2018) and Metaphilosophy (Spring 2019)—were the first audiences for the ideas in this paper. I thank these students for their input, especially Lu Xiaoyi (Stephanie), Yang Qilin (Jaden), Au Siu Hong (Walker), To Ka Chun (Adrian), and Chan Sze Hoi (Steve). Thanks also to two visitors to these classes, Jenny Nado and Herman Cappelen, both of whom have had an obvious influence on my thinking about conceptual engineering. Jenny and Herman also provided me with written comments on an earlier draft, as did Steffen Koch, who gave me an especially detailed and useful set of written comments. Discussions with Amit Chaturvedi, Jamin Asay, Lam Ka Ho, Manuel Gustavo Isaac, Sigurd Jorem, and Anton Alexandrov had a significant influence on the final draft—for the better, I hope they will think. Lastly, thanks to an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for several suggestions for improvements.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Hong KongPok Fu LamHong Kong

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