Conceptual Change and Future Paths for Pragmatism

Southern Journal of Philosophy 59 (3):405-434 (2021)
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The pragmatist faces the challenge of accounting for the possibility of rational conceptual change. Some pragmatists have tried to meet this challenge by appealing to Neurathian imagery—imagery that risks being too figurative to be helpful. I argue that we can develop a clearer view of what rationally constrained conceptual revision looks like for the pragmatist. I do so by examining the work of the pragmatist who in recent years has addressed this issue most directly, Richard Rorty. His attempts to solve the puzzle ultimately fall short, but prove instructive. Rorty characterizes inter-language transitions in exclusively causal terms because, along with the very philosophical traditions he criticizes, he uncritically privileges the role of truth claims or assertions in our pragmatics. I show that if we instead broaden our pragmatic imaginations, we encounter various non-assertoric speech acts involved in speakers aiming to change how we make sense of our language and concepts. With these acts in view, we are able to arrive at a demystified view of rational conceptual change from a pragmatist perspective and identify future lines of inquiry for pragmatist projects.

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Matthew Shields
Wake Forest University


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