Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Possible Limits of Conceptual Engineering: Magnetism, Fixed Points and Inescapability [Special Issue]

Topics: Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ontology, Theoretical philosophy
Keywords: Concepts, Conceptual engineering, Inescapability, Manifest image


In contemporary philosophy there is much focus on conceptual engineering: the enterprise of revising and replacing concepts. In this talk, I focus on a theoretical issue that has not yet received much attention. What principled limits are there to this sort of enterprise? Are there concepts that for principled reasons cannot or should not be revised or replaced? Examples discussed include logical concepts and normative concepts.

Wilfrid Sellars famously contrasts the manifest image and the scientific image (Sellars 1962). Roughly speaking, the manifest image is the image of the world of common sense and everyday life, and the scientific image is the image presented to us by science. There is a prima facie conflict between these two images, and Sellars, as well as many other philosophers, has seen the question of how to reconcile these images as a central task for philosophy. In discussions of these issues, there is much focus on the specific image of the world as presented by science and how it relates to the manifest image. But one can, and I will, ask more general questions about how the common sense image of the world relates to the image of the world after systematic reflection and investigation, whether as part of science properly so-called or not. And while the two “images” are naturally thought of as (in part although not exclusively) being two different theories and the issue is naturally framed as (in part) one of how to reconcile two theories, I will here focus on a different but related issue. Theories employ concepts. One can then ask probing questions about the relationship between the concepts that are used in the theory associated with the common sense, manifest image, and the concepts used in theory associated with the scientific image. In principle, two conflicting theories can use…


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