It is fair to object to some of the function ascriptions I made in order to raise the selection problem. I have flouted the principle that “All functions are uses; but not all uses are functions.” (Prinzing, 2018, 868) To be sure, many of the function ascriptions I have made turn on what I have called an unsophisticated notion of function and would not count as functions on more demanding accounts. In this section, I review strategies for solving the selection problem that are based on existing ways of operationalizing what it is for a concept to perform a function.
Some advocates of the functional approach hint at a specific understanding of function, but do not make it fully explicit. E.g. Haslanger (2000, 35) speaks of the “central functions” of a term, but does not spell out what it takes to be a central function. Brigandt (2010, 2011) speaks of “the epistemic goals” of scientific concepts, and can be interpreted as meaning the (epistemic) function intended to be served by those who deploy or have developed the concepts in question. Thomasson proposes explicit accounts of function—Millikan’s (1984) account of proper function and Cummins’ (1975) account of system function—but does not commit to using either to develop the functional approach (Thomasson, 2020a, 444–46). Haslanger adopts Cummins’ notion of system function to understand conceptual engineering, and ascribes functions to concepts based on what they contribute to the workings of the (social) systems in which they are used (Haslanger, 2020a, 2020b). Simion and Kelp (2020), meanwhile, propose that the conceptual engineer is to construct a concept with a designed function—some task the concept is designed to serve—with the goal that the designed function becomes that which explains why the concept sustains and proliferates.Footnote 7 If this happens, the designed function becomes an etiological function of the concept, which is, in essence, the same as what Millikan calls a proper function. Nado, on the other hand, argues that “neutrality on the nature of function is here not only permissible, but appropriate.” (Nado, 2021a). Riggs (2021) advocates a similar position. Arguing that the notion of a concept’s function is being asked to play too many different explanatory roles, Riggs proposes that we do not need a sophisticated notion. He concludes,
Talk of the function, point, or aim of a concept isn’t a way of referring to a useful piece of the theoretical machinery, but instead is a way of directing our attention to what matters in a given inquiry, which will change depending on what is at issue. (Riggs, 2021)
I agree with Nado and Riggs that we do not need the more demanding notions of function. One reason for this is that the more demanding notions do not, as I show in this section, help us deal with the selection problem.Footnote 8
Contextually stable functions
As a first stab at restricting the operative sense of ‘function’, one could narrow it down to contextually stable functions (cf. Cappelen, 2018, 182). That is, we could restrict which functions we count as methodologically significant to those functions that are performed across all its contexts of use. By doing so, we avoid several problematic function candidates. For instance, although we do use our concept of knowledge to discredit interlocutors and to acknowledge mistakes, it is not the case that every time we use our concept of knowledge it performs these functions. By narrowing the operative notion of function down to contextually stable functions, then, the functional approach avoids misattributing significance to what are in fact insignificant functions.
Following Cappelen (2018), however, it is not obvious that there are any good candidates for contextually stable functions. Are there specifiable tasks that we always carry when we use a given concept? If there are not, the wanted functions do not exist, and this strategy fails. If, on the other hand, there are contextually stable functions, the strategy does not thereby succeed. Cappelen considers what he calls a trivial version of the functional approach: “According to this view the only universal, i.e., stable, function of a concept ‘C’ is to denote Cs. The function of the concept ‘tiger’ is to denote tigers. The function of the concept ‘salad’ is to denote salads, the function of the concept ‘woman’ is to denote women, and so on.” (Cappelen, 2018, 182).
Although these denotational functions might count as contextually stable functions,Footnote 9 they will not help us understand Goodness and Limits. Requiring the preservation of a denotational function would only beg the question of what it takes for a revised concept ‘C*’ to denote Cs. It is not helpful to be told that revisions of our concept of knowledge should still denote knowledge. On one interpretation of that demand, the revised concept should be qualitatively identical to our current concept of knowledge. But this interpretation of the demand is unacceptable, as it would preclude revision across the board. If the request is rather that the revised concept should still denote some phenomenon or state worthy of the label ‘knowledge’ we are not much wiser, since if we knew the range of phenomena worthy of the label ‘knowledge’, we would already know the limits of revision of our concept of knowledge. Thus, denotational functions do not help us understand Limits.
The kinds of functions practitioners in conceptual engineering appeal to are not perfectly stable. Consider the functions Craig and Woodward have appealed to. Craig engineers a concept of knowledge to serve the purpose of flagging approved sources of information (Craig, 1990, 11). This is not a contextually stable function. When we speak about knowledge in general terms—e.g. “Knowledge has great value.”—we are not using our concept of knowledge to flag an approved source of information. Woodward, meanwhile, engineers a concept of causation to serve the purpose of identifying relationships that are potentially exploitable for purposes of manipulation and control (Woodward, 2003, 25). Again, this is not a perfectly stable function. When we use our concept of causation to query the hypothesis that impact from an asteroid caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs, we are arguably not trying to identify a relationship that we could potentially exploit (cf. Woodward, 2003, 11). Any given concept can be used in an indefinite range of contexts. Chances are, there are some contexts in which a given function candidate is not performed. If there is some function that is performed across all contexts of use—as witness highly general functions such as the function of parsing objects into categories—chances are it will not set appropriate limits of revision or standards of goodness.
I believe both Craig and Woodward have identified important functions served by our concepts of knowledge and causation. That is to say, if a revision of either concept resulted in a concept that could not perform the respective function, this would give us reason against endorsing that revision. However, the importance of the respective functions does not entail that every kind of use of our concepts of knowledge and causation, silly and serious, are in their service.Footnote 10 Recall that we are asking not only for the existence contextually stable functions, but for them to be such that we get a better grasp of Goodness and Limits, and for the set of contextually stable functions to be such that we ought to preserve them when we engage in revision. Therefore, we had better look to other notions of function to solve the selection problem.
Most concepts are occasionally employed for questionable purposes. As noted, our concept of knowledge could be employed for discrediting an interlocutor. Meanwhile, a fork could be used as a murder weapon, but we would not say that the function of a fork is to kill people. Forks are created as tools for eating. That is, a fork could function as a murder weapon on a particular occasion of use, but that does not mean that the function of the fork is to kill people. As Wright observes, “The function of a telephone is effecting rapid, convenient communication, but there are many other things telephones do: take up space on my desk, disturb me at night, absorb and reflect light, and so forth.” (Wright, 1973, 141). In these examples, the function of X may be understood as something like the purpose for which X was created. Following this line, we could amend the operative notion of function to the purpose(s) for which a given concept were created. Let us call these functions ‘designed functions’. Brigandt appears to apply this notion to account for the rationality of semantic change in science (Brigandt, 2010; 2011).Footnote 11 Prinzing flirts with a notion of designed function when he writes that “the function of a concept is what it was designed for” and illustrates with the functions that can openers and hammers were designed for (Prinzing, 2018, 869).Footnote 12 Although they do not use it to spell out Goodness and Limits, Simion and Kelp (2020) also use the notion of a designed function to define a way in which conceptual engineers may succeed in implementing the concept they prescribe (see f.n. 7).
Intuitively, narrowing down the operative notion of function to designed functions would preclude the function of protecting wrong-doers from liability to punishment from counting towards Goodness and Limits: Our concept of rape was not constructed for this purpose. It would intuitively preclude the function to denote a property exhibited by nine objects in our solar system, since we would have had our concept of planethood even if Pluto never existed. These are desirable consequences. However, there are major problems facing this strategy. There are reasons to dispute, first, the existence or prevalence of designed functions of concepts, second, our epistemic access to them, and third, their adequacy for generating norms on conceptual engineering.
The notion of a designed function is an intentional notion. It denotes the intentions that some individual(s) had when they designed a device. However, it is dubious that many concepts, let alone all, have been designed intentionally. Consider our concepts of knowledge and causation: Who designed them and what were their intentions? It is plausible to think that these concepts arose out of interactions between environmentally situated individuals, guided by practical needs for survival, coordination, welfare, etc., but without the metaconceptual awareness of a concept designer. Some concepts might have designed functions, but we want our account of success in conceptual engineering to cover more than a narrow range.
Even if a concept of interest were designed intentionally, we would not thereby be in a position to divine which purpose the concept was designed to serve. For instance, our concepts of knowledge and causation have a long history, and even assuming that they were intentionally designed, we do not know who developed them, much less what their intentions were. This would leave us unable to assess revisions of our concepts of knowledge and causation, since we would not have access to the proclaimed determinants of their Goodness and Limits. Finally, concepts may be designed with malicious intent, to perform what are in fact harmful functions. If a concept is designed to serve a harmful function, revisions of that concept should not be functionally continuous. The notion of a designed function thus fails several of our desiderata.
In answering an objection from Cappelen (2018) about relying on an intentional notion, Thomasson (2020a, 444) appeals to Millikan’s (1984) notion of a proper function. The notion of a proper function does not require that there be a conscious purpose behind the candidate function. Thus, we can use it to make sense of our ascriptions of function to biological items, e.g. hearts, kidneys and instinctive behaviors. Millikan herself uses the notion of a proper function to develop a general theory about language and content. It is only natural to consider whether the functional approach to conceptual engineering can be articulated with her notion of a proper function. Although the ensuing argument focuses on Millikan’s account, it also applies to other etiological accounts of function, such as Wright’s (1973).Footnote 13
On Millikan’s account, proper functions crop up in virtue of copying effects in social and natural environments. A copying effect (“reproduction”) occurs when there is a causal relation between two items, such that one item attains one or more features of the other. This could be the effect that occurs when the genes of a parent are copied in the offspring, the mass production of a commercial item, or some individual’s copying another individual’s linguistic behavior. Such copying effects give rise to what Millikan calls “reproductively established families”: Sets of items that share features in virtue of a copying effect. Proper functions are defined on this basis. Roughly, if a copied feature contributes to the survival or proliferation of members of the reproductively established family, then what the copied feature does for members of the family will count as a proper function for those members.Footnote 14 On Millikan’s view, then, we may view our (token) concepts as members of reproductively established families. Over the course of history, certain (type) concepts have enjoyed proliferation and sustained use, e.g. our concepts of knowledge and causation. Other concepts have been discarded, e.g. the concept of phlogiston. Whether a concept “survives” or not depends on what it does for us, or what it lets us do. The proper function of a concept C, then, is whatever we (and our ancestors) were able to do with C that explains how it enjoys sustained use.
Using the notion of a proper function as our operative notion lets us discount several abhorrent function candidates from misguiding our efforts in conceptual engineering. Consider the pre-2006 concept of planethood. The fact that it applied to Pluto meant that we could use this concept to think and speak about a property exhibited by nine objects in our solar system. However, our being able to do this cannot explain why we had that particular concept of planethood: The pre-2006 concept of planethood was developed before Pluto had been discovered and, presumably, the discovery of Pluto did not add any evolutionary advantage to the concept.Footnote 15 Therefore, the function to denote a property exhibited by nine objects in our solar system cannot be a proper function of our pre-2006 concept of planethood. The present way of operationalizing Functional Limits thus avoids the undesirable consequence that the new concept of planethood was unacceptable as a replacement to the old concept. I assume that we can write off many problematic function ascriptions in a similar fashion. There is a general reason for thinking this: Selection effects tend to favor concepts that perform valuable functions. If a particular function is practically worthless, it is less likely that appealing to that function can help explain why we have a concept that can perform it. In this way, a function’s counting as a proper function will tend to coincide with it being a function worth serving. By consequence, proper functions tend to be the functions we ought to do conceptual engineering in the service of.
There is one minor problem and one major problem with the current strategy. The minor problem has to do with our epistemic access to the proper functions of our concepts. If we take seriously the idea that we need to identify a proper function to ascertain whether an instance of conceptual revision is acceptable, conceptual engineers will have to engage in some hard empirical work. Sure enough, if we identify some valuable task F that a concept C enables us to do, we have the beginnings of an explanation for why we have C, and this is prima facie evidence in favor of believing that F is a proper function of C. But the belief is highly defeasible. There are any number of reasons why a concept could proliferate or survive. The reason why we have a concept of insanity could be, echoing Foucault (1973), that it aids us in confining socially undesirable people, rather than identifying a psychological condition that is detrimental to the deviant individual as such. It is not clear how we should go about to assess the quality of these competing explanations. Moreover, if our route to identifying a proper function is to identify some valuable task F that a concept enables us to do, then we should start to wonder why we have to take the detour of determining whether F is a proper function. If we already know that F is a valuable task enabled by the target concept, that is arguably all we need to know to be justified in evaluating revisions of the concept according to whether or how well they let us carry out F.
This brings us to the major problem with articulating Functional Goodness and Functional Limits in terms of proper function: The fact that a concept has proliferated and survived thanks to a function F does not entail that F is worth (pre-)serving. Recall the extra-marital concept of rape. It is in the interest of actual and potential offenders not to be liable to punishment for sexual violence against their spouses. This can explain why we had a concept of rape that did not apply to acts within the bonds of marriage. Arguably, the extra-marital rape had the proper function of protecting wrong-doers from liability to punishment. But might does not make right, and an explanation is no justification. It would be wrong to require that this function be preserved by revisions to the extra-marital concept of rape.
Millikan avows that “[t]he task of the theory of proper functions is to define this sense of ‘designed to’ or ‘supposed to’ in naturalist, nonnormative, and nonmysterious terms.” (Millikan, 1984, 17, emphasis added). Millikan’s goal is to develop a theory of language and content that, among other things, can aid explanations for why we have the concepts that we in fact find ourselves with. Meanwhile, our goal is to define normative limits on conceptual revision and what it is for a concept to be good. For this purpose, the fact that a function can at once be harmful and explain why we have the target concept is deeply problematic.
As noted earlier, Thomasson (2020a) suggests that we might us Cummins’ notion of system function to flesh out the functional approach to conceptual engineering. Haslanger (2020a, 2020b) endorses this idea. Cummins’ main motivation for developing an account of function was to wrest the notion free from etiological and teleological presupposition (Cummins, 1975). On Cummins’ view, an ascription of function to an item does not (and should not) entail that the functional item exists or is present in a system because it performs the target function. Instead, Cummins thinks of function more austerely, in terms of the effects an item has on the capacity of a system. His example to illustrate the account is an assembly-line production (Cummins, 1975, 760). The production line constitutes a system with the capacity to produce a commodity. To explain this capacity of the system, we may appeal to the capacities of machines or workers along the line. On Cummins’ view, the various tasks performed by components of the system count as functions. Specifically, the capacity of the components count as functions relative to an explanation of the higher-level capacity of the system itself (Cummins, 1975, 758–65).
Although system functions are different in kind from proper functions, the proposal to use them as the operative notion in Functional Goodness and Functional Limits runs into the same kind of problems. First, there is an epistemic problem. What exactly is the system, the components of which are concepts, and what performance of the system are we trying to explain by appeal to the workings of those components? Haslanger writes that “social, legal, and religious systems lay claim to the concept of marriage. But the concept has different functions relative to those systems.” (Haslanger, 2020b, 253). However, Haslanger does not tell us what the functions might be in this case, and it is not obvious how we may specify them relative to the systems Haslanger mentions. Recall that what the concept of marriage does for us (socially, legally, religiously) only counts as a system function relative to an explanation of the system’s capacity, and it is not clear which capacities those are in this case or how the concept contributes to them. What is the capacity of the system which the concept is supposed to contribute to, and what kind of capacity of the concept makes a contribution to the system’s capacity? A production line has an easily definable capacity, but this is not true of the system candidates that concepts are components of. This leaves us in a poor position to say what the function of a concept is, because the function of a concept is only a system function relative to an explanation of its contribution to the capacity of the system of which it is part.
The bigger problem will come as no surprise: Operationalizing Functional Goodness and Functional Limits with the notion of a system function does not go one step toward discounting harmful and insignificant functions. Whatever we consider to be the system of which a concept of interest is a component, it cannot be something perfectly benign or optimally useful. To illustrate, legal and religious systems both have a capacity for oppression. Insofar as a concept consistently contributes to the system’s capacity for oppression, the concept is performing a harmful system function. Indeed, the details of Cummins’ account are not important on this score, because the notion of a system function does not even begin to select for the functions we ought to engineer in the service of. As the notion of a proper function, the notion of a system function was designed for explanatory purposes—for use in scientific explanation, specifically—not for normative purposes such as determining what revisions of a concept must be like. For our purposes, the notion does little more than add unhelpful technical detail to our account.