If I am correct, then conceptual engineers ought not to worry about topics as markers of concept identity. In what follows, I will consider how the two most influential accounts of topics fare with respect to the two remaining candidates, i.e. the normative and the terminological reading. The two accounts I will look at are the samesaying account (Cappelen, 2018, 2020) and the functionalist account (Haslanger, 2000, 2021; Nado, 2021; Prinzing, 2018; Thomasson, 2020).Footnote 6
The Samesaying Account of Topics
Cappelen (2018, 2020) argues, against the neo-Strawsonian challenge, that conceptual engineering without topic-change is possible. This argument ties topics to the phenomenon of samesaying and disquotational reports. The idea is, roughly, that a re-engineered term preserves the topic of the original term as long as the two can be used to say the same thing, i.e., as long as someone can use the re-engineered term to report what someone else using the non-engineered term has said. Suppose, for instance, that somebody re-engineered the meaning of the word ‘marriage’. How can we decide whether this revision is topic-preserving? According to Cappelen, to answer this question we have to check whether someone could use the re-engineered term ‘marriage’ to report, disquotationally, what someone else who used the term ‘marriage’ with the old meaning has said. Based on this construal of topics, Cappelen runs the following argument for the possibility of topic-preserving conceptual engineering:
Conceptual engineering happens when people intentionally change a term’s intension/extension.
Topic preservation goes hand in hand with ‘samesaying’ (disquotational reports).
Samesaying is possible despite differences in intensions/extensions.
Therefore: There can be topic preservation despite differences in intensions/extensions.
Therefore: Conceptual engineering is compatible with topic preservation.
(1) is part of Cappellen’s austerity framework, according to which conceptual engineering does not involve concepts, but merely the intensions and extensions of words. (2) expresses his construal of topics. Cappelen offers two sorts of considerations in support of (3). First, the apparent legitimacy and success of disquotational reports involving context-sensitive expressions (‘tall’, ‘smart’, etc.) across different contexts. Here the idea is that terms like ‘tall’ and ‘smart’ have different intensions/extensions in different contexts, but can still be used in one context to report what someone said in another context. If this is true, then it shows that not every difference in intensions/extensions stands in the way of samesaying. Second, Cappelen appeals to Dorr and Hawthorne’s (2014) thesis of semantic plasticity to argue that the same holds across different times as well. People today can use the word ‘salad’, for example, to report what people said when they used ‘salad’ in the eighteenth century, even though the term underwent changes in intension/extension between then and now.Footnote 7 If this argument is sound, then it establishes that topic-preserving conceptual engineering is at least possible.Footnote 8
For Cappelen, topics are semantic entities that are more coarse-grained than intensions and extensions. This is the reason why two slightly different intensions/extensions can still share a topic. Furthermore, topics go hand in hand with samesaying. The question I am interested in now is this. Which explanatory role can this notion of a topic play in theories of conceptual engineering, and in particular, how can this notion contribute to answering (one of) the three questions about conceptual engineering I have identified in Sects. 2 and 3?
As argued above, Cappelen’s talk of ‘the limits of revision’ or ‘revision going too far’ can be interpreted via the normative, the metaphysical, or the terminological reading. These interpretations correspond to three possible explanatory roles for topics. We can therefore assess the samesaying account by considering whether samesaying can play either of these roles:
Samesaying-Normative: We shouldn’t re-engineer beyond samesaying.
Samesaying-Metaphysical: Concepts cannot be revised beyond samesaying.
Samesaying-Terminological: Usage of the original term shouldn’t go beyond samesaying.
As argued in the last section, the demand for a marker of concept identity posed by the metaphysical reading is disputable as a theory of concepts and normatively inconsequential for conceptual engineers. In what follows, I will therefore focus the discussion on Samesaying-Normative and Samesaying-Terminological. If Samesaying-Normative or Samesaying-Terminological is true, then the notion of topic delineated by the samesaying account does indeed play a significant explanatory role, because it helps us to determine at least one sense in which revision can go too far. If, on the other hand, they are not true, then the notion of topic delineated by the samesaying account does not play an explanatory role and, in the absence of some plausible alternative reading, may thus be discarded.
The main reason for not accepting Samesaying-Normative is that there can be good reasons to revise the meaning of an expression beyond the limits of samesaying. It is just not true that the limits of samesaying mark the boundaries of acceptable revision. To see this more clearly, let us consider Kate Manne’s (2018) recent revisionary account of misogyny. In her own words, her aim is “to offer an ameliorative proposal about how we ought to understand misogyny, at least for many purposes” (p. 63). The account she ends up offering goes as follows:
Constitutively speaking, misogyny in a social environment comprises the hostile social forces that
(a) will tend to be faced by a (wider or narrower) class of girls and women because they are girls and women in that (more or less fully specified) social position; and
(b) serve to police and enforce a patriarchal order, instantiated in relation to other intersecting systems of domination and disadvantage that apply to the relevant class of girls and women (e.g., various forms of racism, xenophobia, classism, ageism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and so on). (p. 63)
As she herself claims, Misogynynew deviates from our unameliorated concept of misogyny (the “naïve conception”, p. 32), which might roughly be characterized as follows:
[M]isogyny is primarily a property of individual agents (typically, although not necessarily, men) who are prone to feel hatred, hostility, or other similar emotions toward any and every woman, or at least women generally, simply because they are women. (p. 32)
Misogynyold and Misogynynew are rather different concepts. Roughly speaking, the former refers to a particular character vice, typically of men, whereas the latter refers to a social force that serves to police and enforce a patriarchal order. These two concepts clearly have different extensions. Furthermore, it is rather unlikely that two people who use the expression ‘misogyny’ with these two different meanings are saying the same thing. After all, one is talking about a character trait, whereas the other is talking about social forces that are not necessarily grounded in any character traits at all. Because of this, we cannot simply report Kate Manne’s view by saying e.g. ‘Kate Manne claims that misogyny is a social force rather than a character trait’. Assuming, with Manne, that ‘misogyny’ currently expresses Misogynyold, this statement is false if Misogynyold applies to character traits. But Manne’s actual view is compatible with Misogynyold applying to character traits. So to report Manne’s view in the proposed way would be to misreport it. This shows us that Misogynyold and Misogynynew do not allow for samesaying. But does this mean that Manne’s proposal to re-engineer misogyny in this way is off the table? Not quite. Whether her re-engineering proposal is worthwhile depends on whether she is right that Misogynynew picks out “the phenomenon we need to be thinking about” (p. 62). If this is indeed the case, then it does not matter whether Misogynyold and Misogynynew can be used to say the same thing.Footnote 9
At this point, you might object that my statement of Samesaying-Normative, and thus the target of my attack, is unduly lax in that it does not properly distinguish the two widely recognized variants of conceptual re-engineering: revision and replacement.Footnote 10 I have treated Cappelen as being committed to the view that we should neither revise nor replace beyond the boundaries of samesaying. But perhaps he merely thinks that we should not revise concepts beyond samesaying, where this is compatible with the legitimacy of replacing them beyond those limits. However, this response fails for the reasons outlined when discussing the metaphysical reading in the last section. To repeat, the distinction between replacement and revision is normatively inconsequential for conceptual engineers. The above discussion has shown that Samesaying-Normative draws the wrong normative classifications: it unduly dismisses Manne’s proposal as unjustified. For the distinction between replacement and revision to secure a way out for Samesaying-Normative, this distinction itself would have to be normatively significant, which, according to my arguments in the last section, it is not.
What I’ve argued in the case of ‘misogyny’ generalizes to other re-engineering projects as well. The underlying issue, I take it, is the following one. The area of acceptable re-engineering delineated by Samesaying-Normative is extremely narrow. Even granting that samesaying is sometimes possible despite differences in intensions, any significant re-engineering project will cross this boundary. But it is simply not plausible to regard so many significant re-engineering projects as non-starters. There seems to be no good reason to restrict the conceptual engineer’s choice of replacement concepts (or ways of revising an existing concept) so radically.
Does samesaying settle the terminological question about when one is licensed to retain the old word through the process of re-engineering? Considerations about samesaying should certainly play a role in our terminological choices. After all, if samesaying breaks down, then confusion, miscommunication, and verbal disputes may ensue. But such considerations are not strong enough to warrant Samesaying-Terminological. Even though it is prima facie bad if conceptual re-engineering leads to confusion, miscommunication and verbal disputes, there are other things that factor into the equation and that can sometimes override these considerations. I argued earlier that retaining the lexical effects of a particular term is sometimes important, and it is not difficult to imagine that this can be more important than avoiding minor kinds of confusion, miscommunication and verbal disputes. A further consideration that might override samesaying has to do with what we might call ‘focus shifting’. When we communicate transparently that we use an old term with a new meaning, we invite people to shift their attention from the term’s earlier meaning to its new one. We tell people that this, rather than that, is the phenomenon we should concern ourselves with. This aspect of re-engineering proposals is lost if we limit our terminological choices in the way suggested by the samesaying account.
Consider again the example of ‘misogyny’, and suppose that samesaying does not work for Misogynyold and Misogynynew. If Samesaying-Terminological were true, this alone would tell us that Manne (and others) should not use ‘misogyny’ to express Misogynynew, but introduce a new term instead. But this seems false. Whether or not it would be better to introduce a new term rather than using the old one depends on the overall consequences. It could well be the case that retaining the word ‘misogyny’ has better consequences overall than introducing a new one. Perhaps calling the phenomenon Manne is interested in ‘misogyny’ would get many more people interested in engaging with her view, which would eventually have positive consequences for society. Perhaps retaining this word is the easiest way to latch on to the negative emotional responses that Manne aims to elicit. Perhaps this is the most successful way of communicating that what we currently take to be explained by Misogynyold is actually explained by Misogynynew. And so on. To be clear, I am not arguing that any of these possible consequences do in fact occur. My point is merely that these and potentially other kinds of consideration ought to guide our terminological choices. Although samesaying might play a role therein, it is surely not the only relevant consideration.
The Functional Account of Topics
Functionalists about topics tie topic-preservation to the function, purpose, or point of a concept.Footnote 11 Roughly, the idea is that revisions are topic-preserving as long as they retain the concept’s original function, point, or purpose. This view is currently very popular and has been defended in different versions. The central distinction between these views is whether functions are taken to individuate concepts or not. Following Prinzing (2018), I will call the former the ‘principled view’ and the latter the ‘unprincipled view’.
According to the principled view, a topic is preserved through conceptual revision iff the revision preserves the identity of the concept. So, the principled view is basically a view of concepts. On this view, concepts have essential and accidental features. If a revisionary project saves the essential ones, then it counts as identity-preserving, and thus as preserving the original topic. The essential features of concepts are taken to be their functions, i.e., what they are for. According to the unprincipled view, functions do not account for concept identity. Instead, conceptual re-engineering is taken to be topic-preserving just in case it retains the original function of the concept, regardless of whether this amounts to preserving the identity of the concept or not.Footnote 12
Again, as with the samesaying account, let us see which explanatory role conceptual functions can play for us in the context of determining the ‘limits of revision’. I have argued above that there are three possible ways to understand what is meant by this phrase. Applied to the functionalist account of topics, this gives us the following three claims:
Functionalism-Normative: We shouldn’t re-engineer beyond the original function(s).
Functionalism-Metaphysical: Concepts cannot be revised beyond their original functions.
Functionalism-Terminological: Usage of the original term shouldn’t be extended to concepts with different functions.
Functionalism-Metaphysical is an instantiation of the metaphysical reading. But as argued in the last section, the metaphysical reading is disputable as a theory of concepts and normatively inconsequential for conceptual engineers, which is why conceptual engineers have little reason to accept Functionalism-Metaphysical. I will therefore focus the discussion on Functionalism-Normative and Functionalism-Terminological.
We can distinguish between a strong and a weak version of Functionalism-Normative.Footnote 13 According to the strong version, the original functions of a concept must be the only functions of the successor concept. According to the weak version, the original functions of a concept must merely be preserved by the successor concept. The weak version is thus compatible with the addition of new functions, whereas the strong version is not. In my view, the strong version of Functionalism-Normative is clearly false, because, no matter how exactly you construe the function of a concept, there will almost certainly be (actual or possible) cases of legitimate re-engineering proposals in which new functions are added to a concept (or a replacement thereof). Think of Haslanger’s project of re-engineering gender concepts. As she herself claims, the goal of an ameliorative analysis such as her own is to identify how “we might usefully revise what we mean [by certain terms] for certain theoretical and political purposes” (Haslanger, 2000, p. 34). In Haslanger’s case, the relevant theoretical and political purposes are feminist purposes; in particular, the purposes to identify and remediate gender-based oppression. Now, is it among the central functions of our ordinary gender concepts to identify and remediate gender-based oppression? Haslanger (2000) voices some optimism, but does not argue this point in detail. Personally, I do not think that our ordinary gender concepts even come close to having these functions, but I admit that this is ultimately an empirical question that cannot be settled on a priori grounds (as Haslanger would surely agree). Suppose it turned out that, as a matter of empirical fact, our gender concepts do not have these functions. If Functionalism-Normative in its strong version were true, then this would immediately show that her re-engineering proposal comes out unjustified. But this seems wrong. For even if our current gender concepts do not serve these functions, it is still an open question whether they should serve these functions, and ought to be revised in ways that allow them to do so efficiently. In fact, we can easily imagine a Haslanger-style ameliorative project being justified precisely on these grounds.Footnote 14
What about Functionalism-Normative in its weaker version? Is it sometimes legitimate not to preserve certain functions of a concept through the process of re-engineering it? Almost certainly. The simple reason is that there is no guarantee that all the functions that our concepts are endowed with are good functions. Where they are not, it is perfectly legitimate—arguably even required—to make sure that a re-engineered concept does not have them. Suppose, for example, that what functions a concept has is a matter of what made people use this concept in the past, as an etiological view of functions might suggest. We can easily imagine that people have used concepts for bad reasons—because they helped them to sustain or even reinforce sexist and racist oppression, or simply because people failed to see that these concepts stood in the way of scientific progress. In such cases, we ought not to preserve the relevant functions. Basically the same holds for proponents of a design view about functions. Concepts can be designed for all sorts of purposes, not all of them good or legitimate. It would be bizarre to think, as per Functionalism-Normative, that we ought not to correct our mistakes of the past.
Notice, once again, that alluding to the distinction between revision and replacement will not be of help to proponents of Functionalism-Normative (in neither of its versions). The issue is that Functionalism-Normative draws the wrong normative classifications. For the distinction between revision and replacement to be of help here, this distinction would have to make a normative difference. But as argued in the last section and repeated in the discussion of Samesaying-Normative, this is not the case. Even if the distinction between replacement and revision were a real one (for which I have provided some doubts in the last section), whether a given re-engineering proposal counted as a revision or a replacement would not affect the reasons that justify it.
The general lesson is the following. It is often a legitimate goal of conceptual engineers to design concepts with an eye on rather specific theoretical or practical purposes—be they feminist, scientific, or whatever else. But doing this sometimes requires adding new functions or abandoning old ones. There is no good reason to think that this practice is a non-starter. It therefore seems that, pace Functionalism-Normative, there are justified instances of conceptual re-engineering in which new functions are added to a concept or old ones are abandoned.Footnote 15
Now let us consider Functionalism-Terminological. Here the case is similar to that of Samesaying-Terminological. Terminological choices depend on many different factors: success in communication, lexical effects, communicating shifts of interest, the intention to disrupt, etc. Even if functions should play a role in how we ought to make these choices, this role will certainly not be strong enough to warrant Functionalism-Terminological.
To see this, consider again Haslanger’s proposal for re-engineering our gender concepts, and suppose that her proposal does not preserve all and only their original function(s).Footnote 16 If Functionalism-Terminological were true, this alone would tell us that she should not use the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to express her newly designed concepts. But this seems false. Gender concepts are so contested and ubiquitous in our everyday communication that their lexical effects can hardly be overestimated. If these effects are conducive to Haslanger’s engineering project, then retaining the words ‘man’ and ‘may well be justified. To be clear, my point is not that this is in fact the case. My point is merely that considerations about a concept’s function will not (completely) settle the important terminological question at stake in revisionary projects such as Haslanger’s.
Let us take stock. The main explanatory role of topics within theories of conceptual engineering is to determine the limits of revision. I have argued that there are three ways of conceiving of such limits—a normative, a metaphysical and a terminological one. The normative and the terminological readings, but not the metaphysical one, give us a notion of topics that is salient in the context of conceptual engineering. In this section, I have argued that neither of the two most popular approaches to topics—samesaying and functionalism—determine the limits of revision in either of these senses.
The following common patterns have emerged. Conceptual re-engineers can pursue many different goals: to find a concept that serves a given function better, to dispose of the function of a given concept, to design concepts for very specific purposes, etc. This makes it highly implausible that samesaying, functionalism, or indeed any other fixed criterion will be decisive with respect to the normative question. The same is true of the terminological question. This question demands highly case-sensitive answers that draw on a large variety of factors that must be carefully balanced. This makes it difficult to see how samesaying, functionalism, or any other fixed criterion of topic-continuity will adequately address this question.