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Externalism and Conceptual Change Workshop

14th June 2018 - 15th June 2018

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Classic work by Kripke, Putnam, Burge, and others have led many philosophers to maintain that the meanings of our words and the contents of our mental states are determined at least in part by factors outside of us: for example, on some views meaning is determined in part by causal or evolutionary history, or by facts about a speaker’s physical or social environment. But at least since Evans’s critique of the causal theory of names, it has been clear that many externalists struggle to accommodate the possibility of meaning change. If meaning is determined by our past, or by our environment, how can changes in what we think or how we talk change what we mean? Topics to be discussed include:
– How can externalists make sense of conceptual or meaning change?
– How can we distinguish change of meaning from mere change of opinion?
– Can new varieties of externalism better cope with issues of conceptual change?
– Does the possibility of change in linguistic meaning raise the same issues as the possibility of change in the content of psychological states? Should externalists treat language and thought differently?
– How do temporal externalist views (on which meaning of present utterances and the content of present mental states is determined by future facts) bear on conceptual change?
– How does externalism relate to revisionary theorising, for example of the sort advocated by Haslanger?



09:30 – 11:00 Esa Diaz-Leon On the Conceptual Mismatch Argument: Descriptions, Disagreement, and Amelioration
11:00 – 11:30 Coffee
11:30 – 13:00 Brice Bantegnie What are the Debates on Same-Sex Marriage and the Recognition of Trans Women as Women About?
On Externalism and Revisionary Theorizing
13:00 – 14:00 Lunch
14:00 – 15:30 Steffen Koch Does semantic externalism preclude meaning control?
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee
16:00-17:30 Jussi Haukioja Semantic Burden-Shifting and Temporal Externalism
18:30 Conference dinner

11:00-12:30 Anton Alexandrov Externalist Perspectives on Meaning Change and Conceptual Stability
12:30-14:00 Lunch
14:00-15:30 Sarah Sawyer Talk and Thought
15:30-15:45 Coffee
15:45-17:15 Henry Jackman Analysis, Amelioration and Conceptual Change


Anton Alexandrov: Externalist Perspectives on Meaning Change and Conceptual Stability

Meaning change can be witnessed regarding both kind terms and proper names – the
extension of a given term may expand or shrink, or the reference may shift altogether – and it is
present in different contexts such as everyday, legal, or scientific ones.
This talk adresses two questions. The first is whether and, if yes, how externalism can account for
meaning change in all its varieties. The second is whether an externalist account of meaning
change has implications for issues surrounding conceptual change.
It is argued for a positive answer with respect to the first question and a negative one regarding
the second. For that matter two externalist varieties are introduced: Burge’s anti-individualism
and Sainsbury & Tye’s originalism. It is shown what conceptual resources each account can draw
upon to handle meaning change in a coherent way and which specific mechanisms it can invoke
in so doing. The first account insists on conceptual stability. The second endorses conceptual
change. It follows that an externalist accomodation of meaning change in general has no
implications for conceptual change.

The paper concludes with some lessons about externalism as such, meaning and conceptual
change, and some methodological reflections in light of the discussion.

Brice Bantegnie: What are the Debates on Same-Sex Marriage and the Recognition of Trans Women as Women About?
On Externalism and Revisionary Theorizing

In recent years, debates on same-sex marriage and the recognition of trans women as women have been raging. These debates often seem to revolve around the meaning of, respectively, the word “marriage” and “woman”. That such debates should take place might be puzzling. It seems that if debates on gay and transgender rights revolve around the meaning of these words, then those in favor of same-sex marriage and of the recognition of trans women as women have no room left to maneuver. However, prima facie, the pro- and anti-, in both cases, have genuine disagreements over the meaning of these words: though the analyses of revisionary theorists are revisionary, they are analyses. Sally Haslanger and other philosophers in her wake have appealed to an externalist view of meaning to provide the conceptual foundations of this practice of revisionary theorizing: revisionary analyses bring to light what, unbeknownst to us, these words mean. In this talk I argue that instead these debates are best interpreted as debates on what the law is.

Esa Diaz-Leon: On the Conceptual Mismatch Argument: Descriptions, Disagreement, and Amelioration

According to “conceptual mismatch” arguments, if there is a conceptual mismatch between the descriptions associated with an ordinary concept and some features of the alleged referent, then that entity cannot be the referent. This idea has been used in the metaphysics of race in order to develop arguments against realist theories of race. In particular, K. Anthony Appiah and Joshua Glasgow, among others, have argued that there are no real properties in the vicinity of our talk about race that can satisfy the descriptions that we associate with the term “race”, and therefore the most plausible candidates, such as certain biological properties or certain socially constructed properties, cannot be the referent of “race’, so we must conclude that the term “race” is empty. In this chapter I would like to examine the structure and prospects of conceptual mismatch arguments of this sort. I will argue that these arguments point to some crucial methodological questions, such as how much divergence between our descriptions and the nature of the referent can be allowed, and I will put forward a new answer to this question, in terms of an appeal to normative considerations, which can be very helpful and even indispensable in order to settle matters of reference.

Jussi Haukioja: Semantic Burden-Shifting and Temporal Externalism

In this talk I’ll look at the question of how semantic externalism in general, and temporal externalism in particular, could come to be true, given a general dispositionalist approach to metasemantics that I’ve argued for in earlier work (jointly with Daniel Cohnitz). On such a view, externalism is grounded in second-order dispositions to “shift part of the semantic burden” onto external facts. I’ll argue that temporal externalism can plausibly be true at least for natural kind terms and proper names, when these expressions are introduced without determinate semantic intentions as to the precise nature of the referent.

Henry Jackman: Analysis, Amelioration and Conceptual Change

Conceptual amelioration and conceptual engineering have recently generated a lot of interest, but, unlike traditional conceptual analysis, such practices are often understood as running the risk of altering the meanings of the terms involved, and thus simply “changing the subject”. Most internalist conceptions of what concepts are can make this consequence seem unavoidable, while more externalist conceptions can seem to underwrite continuity only at the expense of undermining the possibility of amelioration or engineering being practiced any substantive sense. Nevertheless, it will be argued here that certain varieties of externalism, particularly those associated with certain neo-pragmatist conceptions of concepts and meaning can explain how a substantive sense of engineering and amelioration is possible while preserving continuity of meaning.


Steffen Koch: Does semantic externalism preclude meaning control?

Conceptual engineers seek to change the meanings of certain significant terms or concepts. For their endeavors to be successful, the practical possibility of intentional meaning change is a crucial presupposition. However, certain branches of semantic externalism raise doubts about whether this presupposition can be met. If meanings are determined by external factors such as causal histories or microphysical structures, it seems that they cannot be changed intentionally. In this talk, I will give a detailed discussion of this problem. Pace Herman Cappelen (2018), I will argue that the viability of conceptual engineering crucially depends on meaning control. Furthermore, I will argue that, contrary to first appearance, causal theories of reference do allow for a sufficient degree of meaning control. To make this point, I will identify what I call ‘collective long-range control’, and show that popular versions of the causal theory of reference imply that people have this kind of control over meanings.

Sarah Sawyer: Talk and Thought

An externalist view of language and thought allows for a clear distinction between the two. I suggest that they track different phenomena and have different explanatory roles. I will argue that this distinction is required to explain constancy of reference through linguistic change, thereby allowing for substantive disagreement across paradigms.


We are grateful to the Scots Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society and to the University of St Andrews for financial support.

Scots Philosophical AssociationAristotelian Society logo



14th June 2018
15th June 2018


Derek Ball


Edgecliffe G03