Conceptual Instability and the New Epistemic Possibility


We tend to think that our concepts are stable in the sense that, whilst their extensions may vary across distinct epistemic scenarios, the reference-fixing conditions by which we discover these extensions remain fixed. This paper challenges this orthodoxy. In particular, it aims to motivate the position that some concepts are unstable in that their reference-fixing conditions themselves vary across distinct epistemic scenarios. Furthermore, it aims to draw out the implications such instability has for epistemic possibility and apriority. I shall argue that when unstable concepts are concerned epistemic space will be widened, which in turn will restrict our a priori knowledge; and in ways that might be salient to solving certain familiar philosophical problems.

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  1. 1.

    Or if you deny transworld identities like Lewis (1986), you can say that the extension is the counterpart of Elvin Jones.

  2. 2.

    Depending on how you carve up the space of possible worlds, the metaphysical laws might come apart from the logical ones.

  3. 3.

    For more on epistemic scenarios, see Chalmers (2006a, 2009, 2011). Note, these scenarios can also be viewed as centered worlds: worlds that come marked with a center consisting of an individual and a time.

  4. 4.

    Some semantic externalists, e.g. Simchen (2004), deny the coherence of such epistemic scenarios. They argue that if water actually is H2O, then there are no scenarios, even epistemic ones, where water, i.e. the substance in the actual world, is anything other than H2O. Such externalists presumably won’t be moved by the worries of conceptual instability raised in this paper. Nonetheless, their position is extreme and scarcely held.

  5. 5.

    See Jackson (1998). Note that the A-intension and C-intension are roughly synonymous with what Chalmers (1996) calls the primary and secondary intension; and elsewhere (2004), the epistemic and subjunctive intension.

  6. 6.

    As far as I can tell, there are no proponents of two-dimensional semantics who take there to be conceptual change on the basis of terms having different extensions across epistemic scenarios. Likewise for one-dimensional semanticists who grant the a priori coherence of situations where terms have different extensions to those they have in the actual world.

  7. 7.

    Those who follow Frege (1977) may wish to identify these conditions with ‘senses’: modes of presenting the referents of our experiences.

  8. 8.

    Proponents of two-dimensional semantics typically identify concepts with the A-intensions themselves, as opposed to any reference-fixing conditions, and appear to presuppose conceptual stability on grounds that the A-intensions themselves remain fixed across all worlds considered as actual despite having different extensions. Since the reference-fixing conditions are fairly closely associated with the A-intensions, this sense of stability might be tantamount to the account of stability already mentioned. Even if it isn’t, what I say about conceptual instability qua differing reference-fixing conditions plausibly also motivates instability qua differing A-intensions. Exploring exactly how this works is best saved for another day. The present paper, even though it makes use of the two-dimensional framework, is pitched to those who buy into the received wisdom concerning reference-fixing conditions.

  9. 9.

    These notions are due to Chalmers (1996), Nagel (1974) and Tolman (1932), respectively.

  10. 10.

    Which perhaps partly accounts for why we think ‘qualia’ is a topic-neutral designator.

  11. 11.

    This, in effect, is to buy into what Johnston (1992) calls ‘the doctrine of revelation’. Also see Lewis (1995), Stoljar (2009) and Damnjanovic (2012).

  12. 12.

    If you accept that the occupation of distinct roles help determine the extension of ‘qualia’ in different epistemic contexts, but are antirealist about reference-fixing conditions, you may treat this as indicative of ‘qualia’ having two distinct A-intentions. Similarly, Fregean antirealists may wish to take this to imply that the concept has two distinct senses.

  13. 13.

    The discussion of the contents of colour concepts by Chalmers (2006b), and that of phenomenal concepts by Pereboom (2011) also appear to suggest conceptual instability according to the present account. However, for the sake of simplicity, I shall restrict my focus in this paper to the conditional analysis.

  14. 14.

    The differences between the conditional analysis of ‘qualia’ and standard forms of analysis, as well as familiar alternatives like best-deserver theories, are explored in Majeed (unpublished manuscript).

  15. 15.

    Chalmers (personal communication) raises this worry.

  16. 16.

    See Haukioja (2008) and Majeed (2014) for more detailed responses to the objection vis-à-vis phenomenal concepts. For reasons already stated, these responses can be supplemented by Pereboom’s account of phenomenal concepts, while Chalmers’s (2006b) own account of colour concepts gives plausibility to shifting reference-fixing conditions more generally.

  17. 17.

    Jackson (1982, 1998) appears to be a prime example.

  18. 18.

    See Chalmers (2005), Alter (2007) and Yetter-Chappell (2013) for a critique, and Haukioja (2008) and Majeed (2014) for a defence.

  19. 19.

    Its rival is what Stoljar (2005) calls the ‘phenomenal concept strategy’. See Chalmers (2007) for why this strategy is (arguably) unfeasible.

  20. 20.

    These changes are well documented, e.g. see First (2012).

  21. 21.

    The concept ‘autism’ is once more a source of controversy with the latest manual, DSM-5, having arguably changed its reference-fixing conditions yet again. See Baker (2013) for a discussion.

  22. 22.

    Note, such disjunctive statements don’t mention the context-sensitive nature of the identity claims themselves, but are nonetheless entailed by conditional statements that do. So insofar as the latter are a priori, so are the former.

  23. 23.

    These conclusions for a priori knowledge are implicit in Chalmers (2006b), and should not come as a surprise to proponents of the core thesis—on the proviso that also they grant the conditional analysis of ‘qualia’, and the present account of instability.

  24. 24.

    This is highly speculative, but a conditional analysis of ‘goodness’ might, likewise, help undermine Moore’s open question argument in a way that accommodates our intuition that ‘good’ doesn’t mean the same thing as any natural predicate.


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Many thanks to Sam Baron for comments on the draft.

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Correspondence to Raamy Majeed.

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Majeed, R. Conceptual Instability and the New Epistemic Possibility. Erkenn 81, 613–627 (2016).

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  • Actual World
  • Conditional Analysis
  • Phenomenal Concept
  • Epistemic Possibility
  • Conceptual Stability