Essential Contestability and Evaluation

Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92 (3):471-488 (2014)
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Evaluative and normative terms and concepts are often said to be "essentially contestable". This notion has been used in political and legal theory and applied ethics to analyse disputes concerning the proper usage of terms like democracy, freedom, genocide, rape, coercion, and the rule of law. Many philosophers have also thought that essential contestability tells us something important about the evaluative in particular. Gallie (who coined the term), for instance, argues that the central structural features of essentially contestable concepts secure their evaluativeness. I'll argue that these (widely held) central features are exemplified by many evaluative and non-evaluative terms alike, owing to more general factors (such as multidimensionality) which have nothing in particular to do with being evaluative. The role of these factors in semantic interpretation is subject to a certain kind of "metasemantic" disputes which have the features of the disputes characteristically admitted by essentially contestable concepts (whether evaluative or not) and which can be similarly substantive and worthwhile. In closing I'll discuss how my argument shows that our understanding of evaluative disagreement needs refinement. The overall upshot is that essential contestability shows nothing deep or distinctive about the evaluative in particular.

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Pekka Väyrynen
University of Leeds


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