Conceptual Engineering, Conceptual Domination, and the Case of Conspiracy Theories

Social Epistemology (forthcoming)
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Using the example of recent attempts to engineer the concept of conspiracy theory, I argue that philosophers should be far more circumspect in their approach to conceptual engineering than we have been – in particular, that we should pay much closer attention to the history behind and context that surrounds our target concept in order to determine whether it is a site of what I have elsewhere called ‘conceptual domination’. If it is, we may well have good reason to avoid engineering. In their recent ‘What is a Conspiracy Theory?’, M. Giulia Napolitano and Kevin Reuter argue that the disagreement between generalists and particularists in the literature on conspiracy theories is best characterized as a set of dueling conceptual engineering projects. While I agree with their turn to this metaphilosophical literature, I give a very different account of its applicability. Particularists, on my account, are better read as aiming to diagnose the ways in which many discussions of the concept of conspiracy theories are a form of conceptual domination, where this broader context should then prompt us to abandon or block any concept of conspiracy theory that treats its referents as inherently defective. Broader metaphilosophical lessons are drawn.

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Matthew Shields
Wake Forest University


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