In this section, I will argue for the following three claims. First, conceptual engineering ought to be construed as an activity with the two tandem goals of changing semantic values and changing people’s usage of words and concepts. Second, given more or less any plausible metasemantic theory, semantic values and usage can come apart. Finally, for this very reason, the two most popular general approaches to conceptual engineering—semanticism and psychologism—both fail to provide adequate frameworks for theorizing about and practicing conceptual engineering. The subsequent sections take up the challenge of constructing a more comprehensive alternative.
Conceptual engineering is often described as the activity (or a method) of changing what certain words or expressions mean in a language. For instance, Cappelen (2018), who takes meanings to consist of intensions and extensions, argues that conceptual engineering “should be seen as having as its goal to change extensions and intensions of expressions” (p. 61). Haslanger (2020) describes her strategy concerning ‘race’ and ‘gender’ as “appropriat[ing] terminology” and improving “our conceptual and linguistic tools” (p. 8). And, using the example of ‘truth’, Eklund (2015) describes conceptual engineering “as a study of what concept best plays the theoretical role of our concept of truth and what features this concept has” (p. 376). On the received view, concepts are word meanings; so what Eklund describes in this passage can be viewed as the study of which meanings we should ascribe to the words we use, given the theoretical purposes at hand. If our current meanings turn out to be objectionable, then we should try to change them. This approach to conceptual engineering also surfaces in many concrete conceptual engineering proposals, such as Manne’s proposal to change the meaning of ‘misogyny’ (Manne 2018). The list could be continued. It therefore seems reasonable to construe conceptual engineering as an activity with the following goal:
Semantic goal: Conceptual engineers (at least sometimes) aim to change the meanings of words and thereby change the truth values of sentences (e.g. change sentences like ‘Jackson is Lisa’s father’ or ‘Grace is a woman’ from being false to being true, or vice versa).
However, conceptual engineers also point out that they take their endeavors to have significant practical effects beyond semantics. In this vein, Cappelen (2018) argues that conceptual engineering will (and should) not merely change the semantic features of our representational devices, but also have first-order effects on the world we live in (pp. 137ff.). Similarly, Burgess and Plunkett (2013) make clear that conceptual ethics has an impact “not only [on] what beliefs we can have but also what hypotheses we can entertain, what desires we can form, what plans we can make on the basis of such mental states”, and will therefore constrain “what we can hope to accomplish in the world” (pp. 1096–1097). Likewise, Haslanger (2020) argues that social emancipation, to which she intends her revisionary analyses of race and gender to contribute, “must be a collective effort and change more than minds” (p. 7).
It is implausible that conceptual engineering could have such a significant practical impact merely by accomplishing its semantic goal. For people to entertain different thoughts, form different desires, and act differently, it is crucial that they actually change the way they think about certain categories and how they mentally and linguistically classify objects, people, events, etc. This practical attitude is reflected in many writings on the topic. Sawyer (2020b), for example, describes conceptual engineering as “a form of theorizing that involves a proposed change in linguistic practice” (p. 2), and in Manne’s (2018) proposal for engineering ‘misogyny’, considerations about the effects of calling an agent ‘misogynist’ play an important role in her argument for her proposed view. All this suggests that we should also ascribe the following goal to conceptual engineers:
Practical goal: Conceptual engineers (sometimes) aim to change how people think about objects, how they classify them, and how they use words (e.g. by getting people to stop calling whales ‘fish’, or start calling certain acts ‘misogynistic’).
If these two goals are indeed the goals of conceptual engineers, then how are they connected? First of all, it would seem that each of these goals is important in its own right. The semantic goal is important because it often matters what meaning a word has, and accordingly which sentences come out as true in certain circumstances. The practical goal is important because conceptual engineering cannot unleash its full potential unless it has real-world effects. Merely changing semantic values will often not be enough; what is needed is a change in how people actually think about and classify things and how they use the terms in question.
But there is another, perhaps even stronger reason for conceptual engineers to pursue both goals at once. The practical goal and the semantic goal are tandem goals: if one aims to achieve one of them, then one cannot neglect the other without risking unfavorable consequences. If we strive for the semantic goal, but neglect the practical goal, then we promote linguistic obliviousness: we change the meanings of words used by people without many of them noticing and changing their linguistic practice accordingly. In contrast, if we strive for the practical goal, but neglect the semantic goal, then we promote linguistic confusion: we lead people to use words incorrectly and thus to assert many falsehoods. Conceptual engineers should avoid promoting both linguistic obliviousness and linguistic confusion. This is a strong reason to aim for both goals simultaneously, and not to neglect one of them in favor of the other.Footnote 4
To see this more clearly, consider an example. Suppose Amy, a marine biologist, strongly desires to change the meaning of ‘fish’. As a matter of fact, in Amy’s linguistic community, ‘fish’ has whales in its extension, and everybody happily applies this term to whales. But Amy thinks that, all things considered, it would be better if whales were not in the extension of ‘fish’. Therefore, she strives for the semantic goal of changing the meaning of ‘fish’. Suppose that she is successful. If she doesn’t also work toward changing how people actually apply the term ‘fish’, i.e. the practical goal, she will have promoted linguistic obliviousness. Many formerly competent users of the term ‘fish’ no longer know what they are talking about: they will think they are talking about whales whereas in fact they aren’t. The same holds, mutatis mutandis, if Amy strives for the practical goal while neglecting the semantic goal.
So far so good; but why think that the two goals can come apart in such unfavorable ways? Doesn’t achieving the semantic goal imply achieving the practical goal, and vice versa? Not quite. To see this, consider the following principle:
Divergence: What a term t actually means in a language L can diverge from what many (or even most) speakers of L think t means and from their dispositions to use t.
Divergence follows from semantic externalism. On Kripke’s (Kripke 1970/1980) causal-historical view of reference, a name or a natural kind term refers to the individual or kind to which it was introduced. Once reference is fixed in this way, it is then sustained by chains of communication stretching from the term’s introduction to its current use—even if speakers have divergent beliefs and dispositions concerning that term. Similarly, according to Putnam’s (1975) version of externalism, depending on the environment they happen to live in, two people with the same beliefs and dispositions regarding e.g. ‘water’ may nevertheless refer to different entities. And, according to Burge’s (1979) social externalism, lay people and experts with radically different beliefs and dispositions regarding certain terms may nevertheless refer to the same entities when they utter those terms. All these and other versions of semantic externalism imply Divergence.Footnote 5 And many internalist views will give rise to some version of Divergence as well. Consider e.g. views on which meanings are determined by reflective or idealized usage (Sawyer 2020b). Although not entirely uncontroversial, there are strong reasons for assuming that some version of Divergence holds.Footnote 6
Given Divergence, the meaning of a word is one thing; how people generally use that word, or how they classify things mentally, is another. So achieving the semantic goal does not imply achieving the practical goal, nor vice versa. But given that both of these goals are important in their own right, and furthermore that we risk promoting linguistic obliviousness or linguistic confusion if we strive for one of them while neglecting the other, it is an important and non-trivial challenge to construe conceptual engineering in such a way that it can incorporate, and be a means of achieving, both goals. In the remainder of this section, I will argue that the two most popular general approaches to conceptual engineering fail to meet this challenge.
The literature about conceptual engineering is roughly split in two camps. Philosophers in the first camp advocate instances of what we might call semanticism:
Semanticism: To engage in conceptual engineering is to advocate and implement changes in what our words mean.
Notice that this formulation of semanticism is neutral about what meanings are. The most popular version of semanticism is Cappelen’s (2018) Austerity Framework, according to which conceptual engineering targets the intensions and extensions of selected expressions of a language. But for present purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether meanings are intensions, extensions, references, definition-like, or whatever else.
If to engage in conceptual engineering is to advocate and implement changes in what our words mean, then conceptual engineering is a good means of achieving the semantic goal. But semanticism does poorly with respect to the practical goal. Given that semanticism targets meanings rather than mental or linguistic behavior, and that, as per Divergence, the two can come apart to a large extent, there is no guarantee that by changing the semantic facts, we also change people’s mental and linguistic classifications. So it is questionable whether semanticism construes conceptual engineering in a way that makes it an adequate means of achieving the practical goal. As the practical goal is important in its own right, this tells us that semanticism doesn’t give us the full story. Furthermore, given the danger of promoting linguistic obliviousness by striving for the semantic goal while neglecting the practical goal, semanticism turns conceptual engineering into a practice of dubious value.Footnote 7
Philosophers in the other major camp advocate instances of what we might call psychologism:
Psychologism: To engage in conceptual engineering is to advocate and implement changes in how people use words, classify objects around them, and draw inferences about those objects.
Again, this formulation of the view is fairly neutral, e.g. with respect to what grounds our linguistic behavior, what mental categorizations are, what concepts are, etc. The most popular version of psychologism is Machery’s (2017) view, according to which conceptual engineering targets concepts, where concepts are understood as sets of beliefs (or belief-like states) that are retrievable by default from long-term memory. On Machery’s view, concepts ground our classificatory behavior. If we want to change e.g. how people use words, or how they classify things mentally, then we ought to change their concepts. The details of Machery’s view aren’t essential to the definition of psychologism, however.
The problem with psychologism parallels the one with semanticism: if to engage in conceptual engineering is to advocate and implement changes in how people use words and how they mentally classify the objects around them, e.g. by changing their (psychologically construed) concepts, then conceptual engineering is a good means of achieving the practical goal. But given that psychologism targets psychological structures rather than word meanings, and that, as per Divergence, the two can come apart, there is no guarantee that changing the psychological structures of even large parts of a linguistic community will change the semantic facts. It is therefore questionable whether psychologism construes conceptual engineering in a way that makes it an adequate means of achieving the semantic goal. But as the semantic goal is important in its own right, this tells us that psychologism doesn’t give us the full story either. Furthermore, in light of the danger of promoting linguistic confusion by striving for the practical goal while neglecting the semantic goal, psychologism turns conceptual engineering into a practice of dubious value.Footnote 8,Footnote 9
This concludes the argument of this section. Let me stress that it is not meant to be a knockdown argument against semanticism or psychologism. Nonetheless, the above considerations lend prima facie plausibility to the idea that conceptual engineering should be viewed as striving simultaneously for the semantic and the practical goal. And if this is right, it gives us reason to seek an account of conceptual engineering on which it is a good means of achieving them both. Developing such an account is the task that I turn to now.