In March 2021, I attended the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology organized by the European Parliament. At some point during the discussion, one of the speakers – a representative of a multinational corporation – made the following remark in passing: Our current concept of consent does not seem to be applicable in the case of certain new technologies and applications involving machine learning algorithms. His reasoning (in a nutshell) was the following: since it is often difficult or impossible to understand how machine learning algorithms generate their output, there is little we can give our consent to. However, instead of concluding that consent is sometimes impossible to attain for certain new applications of AI, the lobbyist took it to be self-evident that not the use of AI, but our concept of consent should change. Intentionally changing our concept of consent, he assumed, is economically less disruptive and, therefore, to be preferred over having to admit that certain new technological applications may simply not allow for consent.

The practice of intentionally generating conceptual change by means of linguistic interventions for epistemic, political or moral gains has recently been widely discussed in philosophy under the labels “conceptual engineering” and “conceptual ethics” (cf., Burgess et al. 2020 for a review). Haslanger (2000), for example, argues that we should associate ameliorated concepts with words related to gender and race in order to facilitate the fight for gender and racial equality. Manne (2017) has engineered a meaning for the word ‘misogyny’ that helps us better identify certain kinds of wrongdoing. Kevin Scharp (2013, 2012) has engineered a set of concepts for the word form ‘truth’ that avoid the Liar Paradox. These attempts to improve our language are not driven by economic incentives but by epistemic, political, or moral considerations. Still, even if these latter goals are more praiseworthy than the example of conceptual lobbying above, we may still ask the same question: when is it permitted or even required to implement them?

While most of the work on conceptual engineering has addressed the question of whether conceptual engineering is possible or how it can be implemented (see Jorem 2021 for a critical review), the question of when we have reason to linguistically intervene has only recently become a topic of research in the conceptual engineering literature (cf., Crisp 2022).Footnote 1 Much of this work focuses on the question of the proper function of concepts (Thomasson, ; Riggs 2021; Simion, 2018a). If the proper function of a concept is to enable epistemic access to the world, as Mona Simion (2018b) argues, then conceptual engineering is only permissible if there is no epistemic loss. For example, Simion (2018a) argues that Haslanger’s attempt to change the concept of woman comes at a significant epistemic loss: It would exclude most women who have ever lived from being represented as women and is therefore impermissible. Others have defended Haslanger by arguing that such attempts are still valuable even if they come at an epistemic loss, e.g., if they generate important positive social change or social disruption (e.g., Podosky 2018; McKenna 2018; Marques 2020).

In this paper, I discuss the normativity of linguistic interventions by focusing on a neglected question. Even if a certain concept has significant advantages over another concept, when is it permissible to actually push or lobby for changing our language accordingly? Applications of concepts or word-meaning pairs have often been shaped by a long history of use and occupy an important function or role in society (Thomasson, 2021; Haslanger 2020; Marques 2020).Footnote 2 It can be assumed that this functionality is the reason they have survived cultural evolutionary processes (Simion, 2018; Henrich 2020). Thus, we should not only ask what concepts or word-meaning pairs are better than others (as done by Simion, 2018a or Marques 2020). We should also ask under what circumstances it is permissible to disrupt such established structures – whether or not the implementation of such a conceptual change is possible. The permissibility of a conceptual engineering project should therefore take its expected disruptive potential into account.Footnote 3

Put differently, the conclusion that a certain new concept would be better than another (a possible result of what Burgess and Plunkett 2013 call “conceptual ethics”) does not yet entail the permissibility of actually pushing or lobbying for such a change. Some changes may be morally, politically, or epistemically advantageous in some sense but might still be impermissible if the costs of the disruption generated by the intervention are too high. Just as we might agree that replacing the old heavy couch in the attic is only in theory a good idea, so might a certain linguistic intervention be practically so disruptive that the intervention is not justified by the expected outcome. This is especially the case for semantic or conceptual changes given that attempts to make such changes can be socially highly disruptive and divisive and the push for a conceptual change may cause more problems than it purports to solve. Thus, I take it that developing an ethics of conceptual disruption caused by linguistic interventions is an important part of an ethics of conceptual engineering.

The question of when it is permissible or required to conceptually disrupt has hardly been paid attention to in the conceptual ethics literature.Footnote 4 Thus, the aim of this paper is to develop the beginnings of an ethics of conceptual disruption (dealing with the question of which conditions have to be met for conceptual disruptions to be permissible) with a focus on linguistic interventions. I will first introduce the notion of conceptual disruption in more detail by relating it to the notion of uncertainty of application (Sect.2). I will then develop the idea that conceptual disruptions can come in degrees (we can be more or less uncertain about the application of a term), such that different kinds of linguistic intervention correspond to different degrees of conceptual disruption (Sect.3). In the fourth section, I develop the idea that linguistic interventions are only permissible if the reasons for intervening outweigh the reasons against it, taking the disruption it may cause into consideration. Finally, I will propose a set of norms that may help us determine when and how to disrupt our conceptual networks via linguistic interventions.Footnote 5

Conceptual and Communicative Disruption

It is not always acknowledged that linguistic interventions (Sterken, 2020) – whether they turn out to be ameliorations (Haslanger 2000) or perversions (Marques 2020) – always generate some degree of disruption, especially disruptions with respect to how we personally or collectively classify the world around us or how one is disposed or entitled to use a certain word. Moreover, it is seldom acknowledged that not just conceptual changes – whether intentional or unintentional – but even proposals to make such conceptual changes can be highly disruptive, whether or not they are justified and whether or not they are adopted in the end. A proposal to change the use of a word or to change a word-meaning pair, especially if put forth by an influential person, can prompt us to question what a certain term applies to and whether our previous or current applications of the term are justified. Moreover, it can prompt us to question whether people we communicate with are using a certain word in the same way as we do, which may lead to a disruption of common ground and communication (Sterken, ).

Disruptions in general are disturbances or interruptions that prevent a certain course of events from continuing as planned or that destabilize a current equilibrium (cf., Hopster 2021; Christensen, 2003). What I call “conceptual disruptions” are certain disruptive events pertaining to language and mental concepts. Most of the time, we apply our words and concepts without much reflection on whether we are entitled to such applications. Seldom do we question what a word properly applies to, at least in ordinary life. In academia, especially in the humanities, conceptual reflection is of course much more prevalent (and perhaps even essential). However, most people, most of the time, hardly reflect on their use of concepts and words. When we do reflect on what a word really applies to in non-academic circumstances, this often tends to happen when communication breaks down or when we are confronted with a new artifact or situation that startles us and that we find difficult to make sense of.

I propose that we have a case of a conceptual disruption as soon as the ordinary non-reflective equilibrium of concept application is interrupted or disturbed or as soon as we are forced to make a conscious conceptual decision about the proper application conditions of a concept that demands reflection and reasoning. For example, imagine you are talking with a friend about whether your new robot friend is a person or a mere machine (or whether it can be classified as a friend). I take this to be a conceptual disruption as you no longer unreflectively apply your concepts to the new artifact. The event forces you to reflect on the proper application conditions of the term. Similarly, if your friend uses the term ‘bullying’ for unintentional kinds of hurtful actions between equals (cf., Haslam 2016) and you wonder whether this is a fair description, you can no longer take the same use and understanding of the term for granted. Next time the same friend tells you about a student bullying another, you may wonder what kind of action your friend is describing to you. It is this kind of disruption that is often the starting point for implicit or explicit metalinguistic negotiations (Plunket, 2015).

The term conceptual disruption in this paper then means:

Any intentional or unintentional challenge or interruption of the ways in which the individual or group has intuitively classified individuals, properties, actions, situations, or events, leading to classificatory uncertainty, i.e., uncertainty about the application conditions of a word or concept.

Importantly, the concept of conceptual disruption is intentionally broad enough to allow for a number of further distinctions. First, we can distinguish between conceptual disruptions that affect the individual or small groups of individuals (often accompanied by a psychological event or feeling of distress or dissonance) and a more collective or social kind of conceptual disruption that affects society at large. I call the former “private conceptual disruption” and the latter “public conceptual disruption”. A visit to a museum of contemporary art may challenge the conceptualizations of individuals or small groups of friends but may be of little consequence when talking to society at large. When I see a tree, I might realize that I do not know the difference between elm trees and oaks. This may generate a kind of private conceptual disruption as I realize that I am not sure about what these concepts properly apply to. This does not mean that society at large is unclear about this matter. I can ask a botanist or look up the proper application conditions in a lexicon. A public kind of conceptual disruption pertains to application conditions that society at large is unclear about and that need to be negotiated or decided on a more collective or public level.Footnote 6

Of course, private and public conceptual disruptions are linked. It is not uncommon for the latter to affect individuals and small groups. Still, both concepts are clearly distinct. An important possible consequence of private as well as social conceptual disruption has recently been discussed by Rachel Sterken (2020) under the label communicative disruption. According to Sterken, linguistic interventions that are conceptually disruptive (to use my terminology) often lead to communicative disruption, which destabilizes the interpretative common ground that we are usually entitled to take for granted when communicating with others. If someone with a certain degree of authority proposes to change the application conditions of a word, for example, this new set of conditions still has to be internalized, which will likely lead to uncertainty with respect to whether our interlocutors have the old or the new use in mind (conceptual uncertainty). This is especially the case when talking to members of other groups who may have never heard of the linguistic change or intervention but who still assume an interpretive common ground. I will discuss this kind of social conceptual disruption further in section four.Footnote 7

Conceptual disruptions, just like disruptions in general, can be experienced very negatively. While many philosophers are used to frequent conceptual disruptions, laypeople can sometimes feel especially distressed when they experience a conceptual disruption. Especially disruptions of fundamental human-centered concepts (what Hopster 2021 calls “deep disruption”) can lead to anxiety and depression. Think of the dramatic example of questioning what the concepts success or meaning of life properly apply to during a midlife crisis. For a less dramatic example think of ordinary people who deliberately avoid thinking about the application conditions of philosophical concepts like KNOWLEDGE or TRUTH in order to avoid possible conceptual disruptions. Just as we are prone to avoiding dangerous or challenging situations because we fear physical harm, many people also fear being challenged regarding the way they apply their most fundamental concepts. Conceptual disruption should therefore not be underestimated as an ethically relevant topic and lack of conceptual disruption can be considered a central human value that we strive to avoid or overcome.Footnote 8

However, conceptual disruption can also be experienced as positive. Imagine a new electronic product that challenges the way we think about how to make music. Think of what the first drum machines did to our concepts of drums, drummer, and band. Such playful conceptual disruptions may generate a lot of excitement and creativity. Similarly, imagine a teen who experiences gender dysphoria – a mismatch between one’s assigned and one’s desired gender identity. This teen might experience a feeling of great excitement (“gender euphoria”) when seeing trans activists challenge or disrupt established gender categories and roles. Sometimes, it is also important to disrupt the way we have been using words within a group if the use of the term is no longer clear for example. Think of many terms in science that remain rather unclear (think of the lack of clarity regarding the concept of concept). Philosophers of science sometimes intentionally disrupt standard unreflective use in the hope that the disruption will lead to more clarity and the facilitation of cooperation toward researching a certain topic (e.g., Machery’s 2009 disruption of the concept of concept that has inspired a lot of work on clarifying the notion).

I take it that conceptual disruption is generated largely in two ways. First, conceptual disruption usually occurs when we are confronted with an unusual situation, action, or artifact. Imagine going to a museum and seeing a strange kind of object that could be a chair. Or is it a table? Or is it an installation and not a piece of furniture that one can sit on at all? Can a piece of furniture be art? If it is displayed in a museum, it must be art – but what is it about an object being intentionally displayed in a museum that makes us classify it as art? Why can my furniture at home not be art? Or can it be? Similarly, being confronted with new artificially intelligent robots raises all kinds of conceptual questions about whether a robot can be a person or whether it may be morally responsible. I take it that such conceptual questions force us to consciously choose between different concepts or word-meaning pairs. Even if an actual decision may be postponed, we cannot usually leave objects, actions, or situations unconceptualized if we wish to engage with and talk about them.

Another way that conceptual disruption can be generated is by means of linguistic interventions, i.e., interventions in the conceptual framework and the corresponding expressive possibilities of a linguistic community. Conceptual frameworks can be extended or reduced essentially by introducing or eliminating concepts. Concepts can be introduced by introducing or eliminating linguistic material or by changing the use of words in a significant way. The key claim defended in this paper is that the question of whether a certain instance of linguistic intervention is justified also depends on the degree of disruption that the intervention generates. The degree of conceptual disruptiveness generally depends on how much classificatory uncertainty the intervention produces.Footnote 9 The more classificatory uncertainty an intervention creates, the more do we need to justify the intervention. In the next section, I focus on disruptions caused by linguistic intervention and argue that different kinds of linguistic intervention are disruptive to different degrees. While the degree of conceptual disruption is difficult to quantify and needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, I take it that some distinctions and at least a rough systematization can be made to guide future empirical investigations on the topic (see Graph 1).Footnote 10

Linguistic Interventions and Degrees of Conceptual Disruption

I take the least conceptually disruptive kind of linguistic intervention to be the introduction of a new complex concept by means of combining familiar words in a fully compositional manner (cf., Pagin 2003; Fodor, 1998). If we know what ‘cow’ applies to and we know what ‘brown’ applies to, applying ‘brown cow’ will not generate much conceptual reflection or uncertainty. We should normally know what ‘brown cow’ applies to (the intersection of the concepts of brown and cow) even if we never heard of this term before. Usually, a fully compositional combination of words is a kind of specification. By talking about brown cows, we are not just talking about cows but about a subset of cows that are brown. For example, above I specified that a conceptual disruption can be a private and public matter. I have thereby engaged in a kind of conceptual combination whose meaning should be clear if the parts are understood. Sometimes concepts that are introduced via composition can become quite long, especially in science. Note, however, that even if introducing a concept via long descriptions may be the least disruptive conceptually speaking, it might still be disruptive in other non-conceptual ways. It might, for example, be difficult or tedious to apply long descriptions in ordinary conversations.Footnote 11 This may motivate the introduction of a new word form that functions as a shortcut (see below).

I take a conceptually more disruptive kind of linguistic intervention to be introductions of concepts by combinations that are not fully compositional. I call this kind of introduction of linguistic material quasi-compositional. In the case of a quasi-compositional introduction of a concept, the meaning and the application conditions of the whole cannot be fully derived from the meanings or application conditions of the constituents.Footnote 12 In such cases, world knowledge has to adjust our understanding of the meaning of the constituents. Often, it is uncertain what portion of world knowledge appropriately fills the gaps. Since this makes deliberation necessary (it creates some classificatory uncertainty), it is a more severe case of conceptual disruption than if the meaning were fully compositional. Take, for instance, the neologism micro-aggression. Most readers will know what it (roughly) means because we know the context (certain indirect and subtle actions that discriminate against a marginalized group). However, anyone who lacks this background knowledge will be puzzled by the combination. In fact, it seems to be an oxymoron as aggressions, one might think, are by definition always severe. The meaning of the whole phrase is then not clearly reducible to the meaning of the parts as was the case for brown cow. Unless we have enough information about the context in which the new word is used, we are likely to experience considerable conceptual disruption, i.e., considerable uncertainty about the application conditions of the new concept. Moreover, different people might pragmatically infer slightly different concepts from the linguistic proposal. One might assume that what is meant by “micro-aggression” is an aggressive behavior involving physical attacks that are “micro” in the sense that they are targeted only against a small group or generate only minor injuries. None of these inferences are correct and we need to make the rules of application explicit when conversing with people who might not know them to reduce their conceptual uncertainty as much as possible, i.e., to reduce conceptual disruption that will ultimately lead to communicative disruptions.

To avoid the connotations of established words, sometimes, it might be justified to interfere more radically in the established vocabulary of the community by introducing new word forms. This might avoid certain pragmatic inferences that harm communication. So, to avoid the “conceptual baggage” carried over by an established word form (associations, familiar inferences, etc.), and to avoid overly long descriptions (concept combinations), it might sometimes be less disruptive to invent a completely new word form. I take it that the introduction of new primitive word forms can be more or less conceptually disruptive depending on whether or not these words fulfill or occupy a clear conceptual role. I can envision at least two scenarios. First, if there is a clear conceptual gap and function that the new word form will play, the linguistic intervention might only be weakly conceptually disruptive and might even decrease or eliminate certain relevant communicative disruptions. We will now have the means to talk about a phenomenon that is clearly identifiable. I take this to be the case for words like cisgender and mansplaining. Cisgender simply denotes everyone who does not identify as transgender. A man who is “mansplaining” explains something to a woman in a patronizing tone. Many people already had a clear idea of these phenomena prior to the introduction of the word, but probably were not quite capable of “putting their finger on it” or of talking about it in a conversation.Footnote 13

I take a conceptually more disruptive kind of conceptual introduction to be one where a new word is introduced that does not seem to clearly fill a conceptual gap and the function still needs to be established. Imagine that we were to introduce the word form women* (i.e., woman-star) without really explaining what the word should be used for, except perhaps a vague description that fails as a clear rule for when the term is to be applied. I take it that this scenario would lead to a lot of conceptual uncertainty that takes time to be resolved. A conceptual introduction of this kind requires an influential individual or group of agents who lobbies for the new word either by explaining its advantages or by simply using it. The use and function of the term might be clear to this group but perhaps not to the larger community. Or perhaps the larger community might not yet be convinced that the new word indeed serves an important function. As another example, consider the neologism “neutrois”. According to Google, the term denotes a kind of nonbinary gender identity, but its exact use or function is complicated and, as far as I understand, still being negotiated in the nonbinary community.Footnote 14 Using the term even among like-minded individuals may then still be conceptually disruptive. Its use will be much more disruptive when communicating with members of the larger linguistic community.

We can also eliminate a concept by abandoning the word form. Again, I take word elimination to be more or less disruptive depending on the function the respective word serves in the language. If a word lacks a proper function or if its function is harmful to our shared goals, then it might be hardly disruptive compared to when it serves an important function. I take the former to be the case for words like phlogiston, which simply lost its function given that it was replaced by more adequate scientific concepts. Another example of a conceptually non-disruptive intervention might be the push for eliminating racial slurs that stand in the way of, say, the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups. We might be better off eliminating these words, which might actually improve cooperation. A stronger form of conceptual disruption occurs when the elimination of a word creates a gap in the vocabulary in the sense that the word was useful and served an important function. We still want to talk about x but now lack the expressive possibility to do so. It is not unusual in the philosophy of science, for example, to suggest that we should refrain from using a certain scientific concept if it does more harm than good. For example, Machery (2009) has suggested that we should eliminate the concept of concept as, according to him, it does not pick out a natural kind in the world. Still, even if Machery is right, his reasoning for this elimination does not take the conceptual and the communicative disruption this might cause into account. In fact, throughout his book, Machery keeps using the term simply because it plays an important role in his book that cannot easily be filled by an alternative without losing expressive potential (the number of thoughts one can express).

Finally, when an already established word form with an important function is used in clearly new ways, we can talk of a kind of concept replacement or concept revision. We can understand concept replacement as the elimination and simultaneous introduction of a new concept by keeping the same form and changing its use. For example, according to Haslam (2016), especially conservative individuals take an extended use of words like bullying, harassment, or assault to be radical and extremely socially and individually disruptive. We often even hear people explicitly complain that “nothing is allowed anymore” or that “we cannot say anything anymore”. These individuals are no longer sure how to behave given that they do not know how other people will classify their actions, e.g., under what conditions certain unintentional actions will count as an assault. This again is a kind of conceptual disruption, and these individuals complain about the conceptual disruption caused by the linguistic intervention just as much (or even more) as they complain about the intervention itself.

The conceptually most disruptive aspect of introducing a new concept by means of concept replacement or the change of the use of a word is that the old world (especially if it had an important use and function) brings with it some baggage that is difficult to ignore. It often takes time to establish a new use of a term. Imagine that an authority demands changing the use of the word ‘mother’ to mean something very specific, say, primary female caretaker. Clearly, people use the word in many circumstances for many different reasons. The term has an important representational and social function. Demanding to change or specify the use of the term might create conceptual gaps. It might be difficult for example to talk now about biological mothers unless this old use is still permitted or unless we fill this use with a new word. Mona Simion (2018a, b) can be interpreted as referring to this kind of disruption leading to a lack of expressive possibilities in her criticism of certain conceptual engineering projects such as the one by Haslanger (2000) pertaining to the concept of woman.

However, intentional linguistic interventions may also work toward alleviating conceptual disruption. Think of the introduction of the mechanical ventilator (Nickel 2020; Baker 2019). The mechanical ventilator helps people breathe who cannot do so on their own. However, the object and its function may generate contingencies that may be difficult to classify in our current conceptual system. How, for example, do we describe people who are dead but who are still breathing via the new artifact? Neither the concept of being dead nor the concept of being alive seems to fit. This conceptual disruption was solved by introducing the new word brain death. Of course, the introduction of a new term can only ease conceptual disruption if it quickly occupies a function of use. As in the case of the concept of brain death, the new technology clearly generated an obvious need for a new term that individuals quickly recognized as important. In such cases, the new terms easily stick and survive especially if they can resolve inconsistencies in our reasoning.

In summary, not all linguistic interventions are equally conceptually disruptive. The argument that I put forth in the remainder of this paper is that whatever reasons we have for intervening linguistically or non-linguistically, we must take their potential for a conceptual disruption into account. Having a good reason for changing the use of a term or introducing a new term does not mean that we should implement the change if these changes are conceptually disruptive. Only if the negative effect of the disruption generated by the linguistic or non-linguistic intervention is outweighed by the advantages of the conceptual change is it permissible to propose a concept change. As we will see, time is an important consideration. A disruption is temporary, but it can also take a long time to overcome. As I will argue in the next section, sometimes even long-term gains of a conceptual change may not outweigh even the short-term disruptive harm caused by a linguistic intervention.Footnote 15

figure a

Graph 1

This graph displays different kinds of linguistic intervention leading either to concept introduction, concept elimination or both (replacement) as well as their different degrees of conceptual disruption.

When are Linguistic Interventions Permissible?

There has been some recent work on the question of what conceptual engineering projects are ameliorations (e.g., Simion, 2018a; Podosky 2018; Haslanger 2020; Crisp 2022) and under what conditions they turn out to be perversions (Marques 2020). For instance, it is often argued that an engineering project is not permissible if the proposed conceptual change is so radical that it changes the topic – also called Strawson’s challenge (see Koch 2021 for an overview and a rejection of this challenge). According to Marques (2020, p. 2080), conceptual revisions are permissible only if they “(i) don’t have harmful consequences, and (…) (ii) do not misapply a word to something unfitting the values presupposed by its use.” Mona Simion (2018 a, b) argues that conceptual engineering is permissible only if it does not lead to “epistemic loss”, i.e., a loss of expressive possibilities. Podosky (2018) and McKenna (2018) suggest that replacing our concepts may be permissible even if it generates epistemic loss, e.g., if the epistemic loss is justified by a higher moral goal. If we manage to change language in such a way that it changes the social reality, then this is reason to change those concepts accordingly (see also Crisp 2022).

I do not want to contribute here to the question of which linguistic meanings or concepts are better than others. My argument is again that when thinking about the conditions under which conceptual engineering and linguistic interventions are permissible, we should also take the conceptual and non-conceptual disruption that such linguistic interventions generate into account. Note that this is merely the beginning of a theory. The intention is to raise awareness of the problem. Case studies are required to determine in which cases a linguistic intervention is impermissible and in which cases the reasons for intervening outweigh the reasons against it, taking conceptual and non-conceptual disruption into account. Empirical studies are needed to determine the probable degree of disruptiveness of a potential intervention, i.e., its disruptive risk.Footnote 16

While we should take all disruptions caused by linguistic interventions into account, I have here focused on what I called conceptual disruptions. Applied to this specific kind of disruption, the important insight has been that just because a certain linguistic intervention may have certain advantages given a certain shared goal of the group, this does not justify pushing for this intervention if the conceptual disruption is significant and is likely going to cause more harm than the good that the intervention likely generates. Imagine, for example, that our goal is to extinguish a wildfire. Clearly, this is not the time to introduce new unfamiliar tools or new words or categorizations even if they may be slightly more efficient or accurate. The new classification may benefit the goals of the firefighters in the long run, but at this point in time, it would only stand in their way as the firefighters would still have to get used to them. Similarly, a determination of the value and permissibility of the introduction of a new word and concept, say, the concept of brain death (Baker 2019; Nickel 2020), has to take into account the possible conceptual disruption it may cause to our conceptualizations of being dead and being alive – both in the long and the short run. If we have a goal that must be fulfilled by the end of the month, it makes no sense to introduce a new and better concept at this point if most of the members of the group will take several weeks to get used to its application conditions and thereby delay fulfilling the goal.

A second important point is that we can reduce the conceptual disruption caused by a linguistic or non-linguistic intervention in different ways, thereby increasing the chance that advantageous linguistic interventions become permissible. Again, we can reduce the disruption if we introduce new material by combining familiar words. This is hardly conceptually disruptive even if fully compositional combinations are arguably rare (cf., Recanati 2010; Carston 2019). This means that, prima facie, if the same idea can be expressed by combining words compositionally, then we have no reason to introduce a new word form or replace the meaning of an already established word form. The main problem with an introduction by composition, as mentioned above, is that they may be disruptive in other ways, e.g., because they turn into lengthy descriptions. For example, imagine you believe that replacing the current concept of woman with the following concept of woman will do a lot of good in your community of feminist philosophers, as suggested by Haslanger (2000, p.39):

S is a woman iffdf S is systematically subordinated along some dimension - economic, political, legal, social, etc. and S is marked as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.

Haslanger argues that the new meaning of woman will significantly contribute to a goal she shares with other feminist philosophers, which is fighting gender inequality and “theorizing systems of inequality” (p. 41). However, this reason might not be sufficient to justify the intervention. We also have to consider the degree of conceptual (and non-conceptual) disruption that the intervention might cause. Such disruption may speak against the intervention. Again, only if the negative effects of the disruption are outweighed by the expected positive effects of the intervention is it permissible to intervene. In particular, linguistic interventions, despite their possible advantages, can significantly harm cooperation toward a shared goal. Introducing a new concept of woman might actually significantly delay certain feminist goals and might therefore not be permissible – even in the long run. Besides a possible loss of common ground, i.e., communicative disruption (Sterken, 2000), some members of the group might be so alienated by the proposal (and by the generated uncertainty of application that they might experience as very negative) that they leave the group, especially if the reasons for the intervention were not communicated well. The costs of the proposal as well as the attempt at implementing the changes may not always justify the gain.

A third point worth making explicit is then that when thinking about conceptual disruption we must take the audience into account. A new use of a word might be accepted and useful in one group but might alienate the members of another group. For example, Haslanger might be right that for the purpose of her sub-group (other feminist philosophers for example), this complex description might be incredibly helpful. It might decrease the conceptual disruption by making clear that this intervention is meant for a specific audience and is not meant to be exported or used when communicating with other groups who might not even share the basic feminist goals of Haslanger. Authors like Mona Simion, for example, often assume that Haslanger aims to export her new concept of woman to other communities, e.g., epistemologists or the community at large. Again, Simion argues that this would eliminate the ordinary concept of woman, which would no longer allow us to think and talk about many women – and hence we would experience considerable epistemic loss. However, we can avoid this problem of epistemic loss and conceptual disruption if we reserve the linguistic intervention only for a specific group while using the term ‘woman’ in a familiar way when communicating with outsiders.

Knowing one’s audience and its communicative common ground avoids communicative disruption by reducing the conceptual disruption. When exporting the new use to communities who are not familiar with the description of the use of the term, this generates tremendous conceptual confusion and disruption. Changing the use of the term is, therefore, not justified in this case if the original use of the term – as imperfect as it may be – might facilitate cooperation toward the overall shared goal of fighting gender inequality. In such a case, it might be better to introduce a completely new term to get the new idea or concept across or to simply use the more complex description, however impractical it may be. Again, the wider audience might even share the feminist ideals of Haslanger but might simply not know what Haslanger means by ‘woman’ and therefore dismiss her otherwise very good proposals.

Finally, one might ask when is it required to conceptually disrupt. I take it that it is required if the cost of the conceptual disruption is significantly outweighed by the moral benefits of the intervention, i.e., if the intervention is morally required all things considered (including the possible disruption). Conceptual disruption might also be morally required if it is needed to disrupt an immoral event or situation, e.g., it may also be required if the current linguistic practices are harmful, given a certain goal, as in the case of racial slurs for example. The disruption itself might then be the aim of the linguistic intervention.

From these reflections, we can create a set of norms or principles that may help us determine when to linguistically intervene and when to rely on the current linguistic status quo to express one’s ideas. I here do not go beyond the notion of conceptual disruption and do not include reflections regarding other kinds of disruptions generated by a linguistic intervention. A different set of norms may be developed that concern other disruptions more generally that may merely include the following list:

  1. 1.

    Intervene only if you have reason to think that the benefits of the intervention outweigh the costs of the conceptual disruptions that are likely caused by the intervention. Consider the possible long-term benefits once a conceptual disruption has been overcome. Conceptual disruptions are often temporary and are forgotten once the new linguistic use has become established practice.

  2. 2.

    To increase the chances that the intervention is permissible, keep the conceptual disruption to a minimum. This usually means:

  1. i.

    Avoid changing the use of a term.

  2. ii.

    Only introduce a new term if strict or quasi composition is either too clunky, or too “loaded” (see the discussion above involving the notion of conceptual baggage).

  3. iii.

    Refrain from eliminating a concept or word unless the word really causes harm or significantly delays fulfilling a certain central goal. Mostly, concepts that are of no use will be abandoned automatically without the need for any linguistic intervention.

  4. iv.

    Be aware of your linguistic community and the common ground that makes communication possible in the first place. Do not assume that outsiders or even members of the same group (a) have heard of the proposed change, (b) have adapted it and (c) endorse it. Communicating the reasons for a change is key to reducing the conceptual disruption caused by the proposal as it helps to understand the rules of application.


I discussed the question of when conceptual disruption is permissible or required. Conceptual disruptions are disruptions pertaining to the conceptual, i.e., any significant uncertainty regarding the proper application conditions of a term. I argued that we need to justify not only the conceptual change but also the potential conceptual disruption caused by such a change or intervention. Only if it is permissible to disrupt, is the change itself permissible. The change is permissible if the reasons for the change outweigh the reasons against it taking the possible disruption caused by the change into account. Since conceptual disruptions can come in degrees, we may increase the chances of a linguistic intervention being permissible by choosing less disruptive means of intervention.