Conceptual control: On the feasibility of conceptual engineering

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy:1-29 (2020)
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This paper empirically raises and examines the question of ‘conceptual control’: To what extent are competent thinkers able to reason properly with new senses of words? This question is crucial for conceptual engineering. This prominently discussed philosophical project seeks to improve our representational devices to help us reason better. It frequently involves giving new senses to familiar words, through normative explanations. Such efforts enhance, rather than reduce, our ability to reason properly, only if competent language users are able to abide by the relevant explanations, in language comprehension and verbal reasoning. This paper examines to what extent we have such ‘conceptual control’ in reasoning with new senses. The paper draws on psycholinguistic findings about polysemy processing to render this question empirically tractable and builds on recent findings from experimental philosophy to address it. The paper identifies a philosophically important gap in thinkers’ control over the key process of stereotypical enrichment and discusses how conceptual engineers can use empirical methods to work around this gap in conceptual control. The paper thus empirically demonstrates the urgency of the question of conceptual control and explains how experimental philosophy can empirically address the question, to render conceptual engineering feasible as an ameliorative enterprise.

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Eugen Fischer
University of East Anglia


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