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Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you've never heard of

The thing is that you have not made the case for control over conviction, as something that is literally true.

I'm not sure how one could ever prove that, in the absence of hindsight and perhaps not even then. Many people didn't expect Hitler to prosecute the Jews, despite what he wrote in Mein Kampf, so as far as I can tell, even that book doesn't meet your standard of proving that Hitler wanted to prosecute the Jews in a way that is "literally true."

Of course, you can choose to always err in favor of petting animals unless that specific animal has already harmed someone, but that policy is only feasible in an environment with very few (very) dangerous animals. Your policy is not suitable to other environments.

Anyway, my claim is based on large part on the total absence of recognition in the paper that there is any potential problem with seeking to control others and instead, his claim that the only problem is that making people use your concepts is very difficult. Then there is his approval of highly problematic and extremist social justice advocates, without giving any competing political examples, which makes it highly likely that he has extremist politics himself, based in the rather simply logic that people tend to quote and approve of things they believe in themselves.

But it doesn't really matter what he believes, because the paper is an apologia for being so one-sided, in particular in the current political climate. It is pushing an open door.

I said "little" , not "none".

Yet I was easily able to find a paragraph with him approving of three different extremely political and polarizing examples, which he chose to use instead of neutral examples. When a very high percentage of the examples is political, that is not "little."

And the Christian, Buddhist , Muslim.....ideologies. "Evaluate things ethically" is not an extraordinary claim.

It is/was actually crucial for human development and peace that religions are/were liberalized. For example, the Peace of Westphalia liberalized Christianity in Europe, requiring believers to stop acting on their belief that only faith in their religion would ensure eternal salvation, which they considered justification for extreme warmongering.

And that something is not an "extraordinary claim," doesn't mean that it is not extremely harmful or that it can't lead to extraordinary outcomes. Hitler's antisemitism wasn't extraordinary, but the final solution outcome was extraordinary. However, even fairly common outcomes can be quite bad.

Even classical liberalism holds that you should evaluate things and foremost by their impact on freedom, which is an ethical argument.

You are again failing to distinguish the object level and the meta-level. Setting global rules that allow individuals to fairly freely make their decisions based on their own ethics is fundamentally different from desiring/demanding that each of those decisions is tightly controlled directly or indirectly by a global set of ethical rules.

Contrarian Writing Advice

If I quote George Orwell then I imply that I couldn't come up with anything better to write than George Orwell. The reader should just read George Orwell instead.

But how do people know that they should read George Orwell rather than E.L. James? Quoting other authors is a little advertisement for that author, which can be a very valuable service for the reader.

Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you've never heard of

One good way to think about concepts might be as a goods with network effects in a marketplace. So there is a cost to learning a concept (the price of the concept) and the concept has to be considered useful enough for people to freely adopt it. Yet not all goods are bought freely, but they can be forced on people, as well, just like concepts can.

The more people use the same concept, the higher the network effect value, similar to how beneficial it is for people to use the same fuel in their car. Yet those network effects also reduce diversity, but not all. It's sufficiently beneficial to have separate options for diesel and gas, despite the costs of having two different fuels. And just like with goods, network effects are not homogeneous, but there tend to be 'bubbles'. Aviation fuel is died to be able to tax it separately, which works because planes don't tend to use regular gas stations nor do cars fuel up at airports. Jargon has value because of these bubbles (and the lack of understanding by people outside of the bubble can be a feature, just like people choose what goods to buy in part to keep themselves in a certain bubble).


One might therefor compare centralized and top-down conceptualizing to central planning and expect to see somewhat similar downsides.

Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you've never heard of

...as I can see little about politics in it.

When introducing the evaluation stage, the paper only mentions ethics as a way to evaluate concepts: "And then there’s the evaluation stage, which plays a central role in the conceptual ethics work by people like Alexis Burgess and David Plunkett."

The idea that things should be evaluated first and foremost by ethics, rather than by other means, is central to the Social Justice ideology, and is extremely political. For example, papers have been removed from journals because some people consider the findings to be unethical, rather than wrong, which is a completely different standard than was used in traditional science. The examples he gives of how to evaluate concepts are mostly drawn from SJ:

"Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice and its varieties like testimonial and hermeneutic injustice, would be a paradigmatic example here of drawing out a fruitful concept. Sally Haslanger’s work on gender and race is another. A key example would be her work towards the analysis of the concept of woman in terms of oppression. What Haslanger calls ameliorative analysis is conceptual engineering in the revisionary mode to serve various ends, including the ends of social justice. This ameliorative strand of conceptual engineering has been picked up by many other people in recent social philosophy. Kate Manne’s revisionary analysis of misogyny is an example."

None of these are apolitical examples.

And what power or force is that? Actually autocratic leaders have weapons, a monopoly on physical force. Chalmers is using words.

I'm not claiming that this paper is a weapon, but rather that it's an apologia for weaponizing concepts.

"....homonymous engineering can also be extremely difficult to implement, unless one is very powerful or very lucky, or in a small community..."

So Chalmers doesn't see himself as a dictator who can impose his will.

That's not what the quote that you give says, so you are misrepresenting his words. He actually says that one kind of conceptual engineering can be extremely difficult in some circumstances. You falsely translate that into a claim that it is impossible, which Chalmers doesn't even claim for the specific situations that he considers more difficult than other situations, let alone in general.

In the conclusions of the paper, he states that: "Concept design and concept evaluation are relatively tractable, but widespread concept implementation is a difficult social project. As a result, conceptual engineering on a community-wide scale is difficult, but it is possible."

Chalmers describes this kind of social engineering as being desirable. The difference between a classical liberal and an authoritarian is that the former doesn't sees a lack of control over the behavior of others as desirable, while the latter sees it as a problem to be solved. Chalmers is the latter.

Everyone thinks their stuff is best, and tries to push it. That's what you've been doing.

My criticism of Chalmers is not that he is trying to convince others, in which case your criticism would be correct, but that he wants to find way to control others.

Perhaps you don't understand the difference between trying to convince people and trying to control people?

Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you've never heard of

Do you think Foucault would disapprove of gay marriage? I can see him disapproving of marriage...

That is completely irrelevant. I just went with the example from the paper to demonstrate why the paper is flawed, on its terms. My claim is that 'conceptual engineering' is not a neutral attempt to understand and improve concepts, but an attempt to use language as a political instrument. Foucault recognized how language functions as such, but Chalmer's papers doesn't make that explicit, which encourages bad behavior, like portraying politically-driven concept-pushing as being politically neutral and unquestionably good.

We often see people claim that their subjective beliefs are objective and then (try to) abuse their power to force others to treat those beliefs as objectively true, good or otherwise superior to other beliefs. Chalmer's paper provides backing for such behavior.

His paper is the philosophical equivalent of a political science paper that argues that the problem with politics is that people disagree and that if you could find a way to make everyone agree with the author, he could make the world much more just, so the goal should be to find a way to make everyone agree with you.

Yet in actuality, this is an extremely dangerous goal. If you set out to use your power and ability to force everyone to agree with you, then it seems far more likely that you'll end up with a dictatorship where people hide their true beliefs out of fear, than a situation where everyone is truly convinced. Furthermore, one can argue that disagreement itself is needed to examine the upsides and downsides of goals, so a society without disagreement will tend to end up chasing worse goals. If so, the very goal of actually wanting everyone to agree, is antithetical to achieving good outcomes.

There is no neutral option.

Yes, but that is exactly my criticism of the paper. It claims that it is "relatively straightforward" to design and evaluate new concepts, which is a claim that it is possible to objectively rank concepts as being better or worse. Chalmers merely sees one issue: the "difficult social project" of concept implementation. This is like arguing that it's easy to design new products and evaluate whether they are actually better, but that the real issue is getting everyone to buy that better product. Or that it's easy to design laws and evaluate whether they are actually better, but that the real issue is getting everyone to vote for the law.

It's just an amazing level of hubris and ignorance, coupled with an authoritarian mindset. Chalmers is able to decide for us what definitions are better than the ones we are already using. The only real problem is that he sees is that he can't make us use his definitions.

Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you've never heard of

Chalmers' paper just seems to be an implicit defense of weaponizing language. He even uses the term "conceptual activism" and bemoans the difficulty in making others adopt his new definitions for existing words. He recognizes that "words have power" and argues that words should be redefined to use that power to "make for a more just world," like pushing through things like gay marriage, without having to change the law. He argues that "If everyone (including judges) uses ‘marriage’ as if it applies to same-sex marriage, then even if historical external links say that ‘marriage’ still refers only to unions between men and women, this will matter very little for practical purposes."

Of course, this sentence hides a clear contradiction within itself. If everyone would truly agree, then why would the judge need to rule on it?

The completely unrealistic notion that one can get everyone to agree on that new definition just serves to shield these words from criticism that this method is undemocratic and a violation of the trias politica. In practice, we see that people weaponize the claim of consensus by excluding large groups from consideration. It's often a mere tautology: everyone who matters agrees with me and disagreeing with me shows that you don't matter, because then you are unscientific, homophobic, etc.

The paper ignores Foucault's objection that language is used for social control by the powerful. Of course Chalmers may believe that those who have the most power to shape language or will have that power with the bottled persuasiveness that he dreams of, are the ones who desires deserve precedence over others and/or the majority. Yet many disagree (although ironically, neoreactionaries probably would agree).