ConceptLab Hong Kong

This is the web page for ConceptLab HongKong, a center based at the University of Hong Kong’s philosophy department the purpose of which is to foster collaborative research in and on:  

◘ Conceptual engineering and its metaphilosophy  
◘ Xphi and the “method of cases”
◘ Social and political philosophy of language
◘ Conceptual amelioration in moral and political philosophy 
◘ The role of conceptual engineering and conceptual construction in translating between different philosophical traditions (e.g., between ‘Western’ and ’non-Western’ philosophy) 

This is non-exhaustive: Our remit is broad and dynamic, and governed in large part by the current interests of the participants. An easily accessible introduction to the field of conceptual engineering is provided by Cappelen and Plunkett in their paper ‘A Guided Tour of Conceptual Engineering’.  An extensive biography of the field can be found here:

On this page, by scrolling down, or clicking the above tabs, you can read details of our ongoing projects and events and news (such as recent publications).

Funding for ConceptLab Hong Kong is provided by The University of Hong Kong (through their startup funding for Cappelen’s Chair Professorship), and the Norwegian Research Council (through their funding for the project Conceptual Engineering)


Herman Cappelen

Herman Cappelen is the author of eleven monographs and over fifty papers in all areas of systematic philosophy, co-editor of three, and editor-in-chief of Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Philosophy. His most recent monograph, Fixing Language: An Essay On Conceptual Engineering, was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press

Max Deutsch

Max Deutsch works on metaphilosophy, the philosophies of language and mind, and epistemology. His book The Myth Of The Intuitive (MIT Press), was published in 2015, and he has published about 15 papers spanning his research interests.

Jennifer Nado

Jennifer Nado works on various issues in metaphilosophy, with a focus on the epistemological status of intuition.  She is also interested in experimental philosophy, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of psychology, in particular moral psychology and folk psychology. She has published about 20 papers in these areas.

Rachel Sterken

Rachel Sterken is author of around ten papers, and co-editor (with Justin Koo) of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Social and Political Philosophy Of Language. She is also interested in the consequences for philosophy of language of online communication, and is co-director of two research-council-funded projects on the topic, along with Eliot Michaelson and Jessica Pepp.


ConceptLab is home to several projects in conceptual engineering and allied areas.

Conceptual Engineering and Epistemology (PI: Jennifer Nado)

Epistemology has traditionally been overwhelmingly focused on knowledge, but there are countless other potential ways of carving epistemic space which might yield novel epistemic categories of equal – or even greater – theoretical interest. Particular areas of focus within this project include investigation into the purposes or functions that our current knowledge concept serves, exploration of the applicability of CE to recent epistemological trends such as the study of ‘understanding’, and consideration of the prospects for subdividing ‘knowledge’ into multiple, specially-designed epistemic successor concepts.

Online Communication and Conceptual Engineering (PI: Rachel Sterken)

This project explores ways in which conceptual engineering can help us understand online communication. Can bots makes assertions and perform the speech acts? If the answer is yes, does that require a revisionary attitude towards the concept of communication? Does it require a revisionary metasemantics? The project also explores more specific question, such as how we should understand the concept of ‘fake news’

Pure Externalism (PIs: Herman Cappelen and Max Deutsch)

The back cover of some editions of Naming and Necessity have the blurb: ‘if there’s such a thing as essential reading in philosophy of language, this is it’, and Kripke’s work undoubtedly revolutionized 20th century semantics and metaphysics. The thought underlying this project is that, despite the massive attention it has received, the externalist theory introduced by Kripke (and Burge, and Putnam, and others), remains incomplete and lacking. Looking at the foundational concepts of externalist metasemantics, such as baptism, communicative chain, and deference, it evaluates them and removes or improves them as necessary.

Conceptual Engineering Of Political Concepts (PI: Herman Cappelen)

Recent work by Brennan, Estlund and others raises questions about whether we can do better than democracy. This project is concerned with the more radical thought that the concepts of democracy, legitimacy, and authority are defective. It explores the possibility that after having been passed down over 2,500 years, these concepts have ceased to be meaningful representational devices. The overall aim of the project is to better understand conceptual defectiveness in general and to propose concepts that are better than e.g., democracy: its goal is to construct a new conceptual foundation for political theory. 

Value and Uncertainty (PI: David McCarthy)

The aim of this project is to articulate an extremely general understanding of how utilitarianism and competing views about value should be understood, with applications to topics in epistemology and political philosophy. One of the main ideas is that uncertainty is integral to a full understanding of utilitarianism and its competitors. Even without uncertainty though, value comparisons may be highly incomplete, and the appropriate representation of uncertainty in many contexts may fall well short of a single, standard probability measure. Thus the project aims to do without completeness assumptions, and to allow representations of uncertainty to be vector-valued, covering both imprecise and lexicographic probabilities as special cases. 

Skepticism about the Feasibility and Value of Conceptual Engineering (PIs: Max Deutsch and Jamin Asay)

This project explores various objections to the versions of conceptual engineering that have recently emerged in the literature. Questions are raised both about the feasibility of conceptual engineering and its value. More generally, this project aims to promote increased skepticism about the field. 

Translation Between Different Philosophical Traditions: Concept Construction (PIs: Herman Cappelen and Amit Chaturvedi

Should we translate terms from Non-Western traditions (e.g., Indian and Chinese philosophy) using familiar Western concepts (like knowledgejustificationconsciousness,  freedom, person), or should we construct new concepts to serve as Bridge-Concepts between different traditions? This project explores the second option and aims to outline various strategies for the engineering of Bridge-Concepts, drawing on recent work in Conceptual Engineering. 



◘ Talk by Matti Eklund (Uppsala): Conceptual Engineering and Conceptual Advances

Date/Time: November 24, 2021, 5pm HK time

Via Zoom:

Abstract. In the talk I focus on conceptual engineering as conceptual innovation. First, I provide a motivation for taking this aspect of conceptual engineering to be significant. Then I turn to three specific things. I present an example of attempted conceptual innovation at work (this has to do with independent work on alien languages). I show how, even when “conceptual innovation” is discussed in texts on conceptual engineering (examples: Deutsch, Chalmers) what ends up being discussed is arguably something else. Then I discuss what we should take genuine conceptual innovation to amount to.

◘ Talk by Laura Schroeter (Melbourne): Title TBA

Date/Time: TBA

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

◘ Talk by Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky (NYU Shanghai): Title TBA

Date/Time: 24th March, 2021

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.


◘ Talk by Joey Pollock (Oslo): Title Do Testimonial Exchanges Preserve Content?, 5pm HK time

Date/Time: November 18, 2021

Via Zoom,

◘ Talk by Avner Baz (Tufts): Title TBA

Date/Time: October 29, 2021, 9am HK time

Via Zoom,

◘ Talk by Delia Belleri (Lisbon): Title TBA

Date/Time: October 21, 2021, 4pm HK time

Via Zoom.

◘ Talk by Derek Ball (St Andrews): Metasemantics and Free Speech

Date/Time: September 30, 2021, 4pm HK time

Abstract. Hume wrote, “We cannot form to ourselves a just idea of the taste of a pine-apple, without having actually tasted it”. Putnam claimed that brains in vats could not entertain thoughts about the external world, since thinking such thoughts requires genuine contact with the world one is thinking about. These are claims about how one’s circumstances constrain what one can think — what contents one can entertain. This talk aims to develop the notion of a content constraint, and to relate this notion to issues of free speech. A leading idea is that free speech requires adequate conceptual and linguistic resources, and that this requirement can motivate actions designed to avoid content constraints (including constraints that might be caused by the actions of other speakers).

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

◘ Talk by Sally Haslanger (MIT): How to Change a Social Structure

(with comments by Rachel Sterken (HKU) and moderated by Linus Huang (HKU))

Date/Time: Wednesday May 5th, 9am Hong Kong Time

Via Zoom: Info here.

Cosponsored by HKU’s The Society of Fellows in the Humanities and the HKU Philosophy Department

◘ Workshop on Political Philosophy and Political Methodology, co-organized by Herman Cappelen and David Plunkett,

Workshop 1: Monday April 19 and Tuesday April 20 (April 20 and 21 in HK)

Timing: evening USA (starting at 7:30pm EST those nights), which is morning in Hong Kong (starting at 7:30am of the following day), going for about 2.5 hours total each day. Note: we hope this timing could work for people in Australia to participate.

Workshop 2: Monday April 26 and Tuesday April 27

Timing: morning in UK (starting at 9am), which is late afternoon in Hong Kong (4pm), going for about 2.5 hours total each day. We are hoping for either 2 or 3 sessions per day (roughly 45-50 min per session, with short breaks between each one). (Note: we are hoping this timing could work for people in Israel to participate).

Full Details are here.

◘ Talk by Sarah Sawyer (Sussex): Concept Pluralism in Conceptual Engineering

Date/Time: Friday April 16th, 5pm Hong Kong Time

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

Abstract. In this talk, I will argue that an adequate meta-semantic framework capable of accommodating the range of projects currently identified as projects in conceptual engineering must be sensitive to the fact that concepts (and hence projects relating to them) fall into distinct kinds. Concepts can vary, I will argue, with respect to their direction of determination, their modal range, and their temporal range. Acknowledging such variations yields a preliminary taxonomy of concepts and generates a meta-semantic framework that allows us both to accommodate the full range of cases and to identify a proper subset of concepts for special ameliorative consideration. Ignoring such variations, in contrast, leads to a restricted meta-semantic framework that accommodates only a subset of the particular projects while generating implausible accounts of others.

◘ Talk by Mona Simion (Glasgow): Conceptual Functions in Conceptual Engineering

Date/Time: Monday April 5th, 6pm Hong Kong Time

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

◘ Talk by Una Stojnić (Princeton): Nonnegotiable Meanings: Communication, Ignorance, and Metalinguistic Negotiation

Date/Time: Friday, March 26th, 9am Hong Kong Time

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

Abstract. A piece of received wisdom among philosophers is that successful communication requires shared content. A speaker can convey to an audience a desire for water by uttering “I want water” just in case both can coordinate on a shared content—that the speaker desires water. Another piece of received wisdom emphasizes that competent speakers can fail to know, and often make errors about, the meanings of expressions without disrupting linguistic usage (Burge, 1979; Kripke, 1980; Putnam 1975). What allows them to do so is that they are situated in a network of causal/social/historical connections, to which they defer in linguistic usage. Deferential Network Models were introduced to sidestep any clash between successful usage and “arguments from ignorance and error” (Devitt and Sterelny, 1999). But, given potential ignorance, how can agents coordinate on substantive shared information successful communication presumes? How is communication possible in a world of deference?
One reaction is to argue that little antecedent semantic knowledge is needed since we can coordinate on meanings on the fly. Some argue that meanings are dynamic, i.e., constantly changing, and potentially negotiated by members of a linguistic community even during a single conversation (Armstrong, 2016, Cappelen, 2018, Carston 2002, Davidson, 1986, Haslanger 2012; 2018, Ludlow 2008, 2014, Plunkett and Sundell 2013, i.a.). We, however, argue that given the practice of linguistic deference, meanings are non-negotiable, i.e., are not dynamic. Meta-linguistic negotiation can neither change word meaning nor secure a mutually shared content presupposed by communication. Indeed, accounts of meta-linguistic negotiation are unsuccessful in part because they already assume coordination on shared content. In response, one can either, deny that there is widespread ignorance and error, and so, a need for deference, or deny that communication requires a non-trivial mutual grasp of shared content. But either option carries a cost.

◘ Talk by Amie Thomasson (Dartmouth): How should we think about linguistic function?

Date/Time: Monday, March 22nd, 9pm Hong Kong Time

Abstract. Talk of the functions of words or concepts has played a central role in conceptual engineering and in other philosophical projects. But what can we mean by ‘functions’ here, and how can we determine what those functions are? Some have expressed skepticism that we can make any good sense of the idea of function as applied to concepts or words. And this is a fair worry to which we ought to be responsive. In this paper I argue that the idea that parts of language (or concepts) have functions is not hopeless, nor are we limited to saying that the function of a concept (or term) F is just ‘to pick out the Fs’. I will try to show how we can get help in understanding and identifying linguistic functions from work in systemic functional linguistics. This in turn enables us to make progress in determining how we should not, and how we should, come to think about function in language, in ways that matter for conceptual engineering and other projects in philosophy.

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

CLHK’s Inaugural Talk: Topic Continuity in Conceptual Ethics and Beyond

Talk by David Plunkett (Dartmouth) and Tristram McPherson (OSU).

Date/Time: Friday March 5th, 9am Hong Kong Time.

Via Zoom: contact Matthew McKeever at if you’d like to attend.

Abstract. One important activity in conceptual ethics and conceptual engineering involves proposing to associate a new intension with an existing lexical item. Many philosophers think that one important way to evaluate such a proposal concerns whether it preserves the “topic” picked out the existing lexical item, and several have offered competing proposals concerning what is required for topic continuity. Our paper does two things. First, we distinguish the descriptive question of what is required for “topic continuity” as we currently understand it, from the conceptual ethics question of how it would be best for conceptual ethicists to use ‘topic continuity’ in evaluating their projects. Second, we motivate and provide a context-sensitive answer to the conceptual ethics question. This answer is motivated by the idea that there are several distinct considerations that we can care about in thinking about topic continuity, and how best to weigh them against each other can vary from context to context. We conclude by locating our account in a broader way of thinking about topic across a range of inquiries.


The center is based in the University of Hong Kong Philosophy Department, Centennial Campus, Run Run Shaw Tower. The best way to get in touch with us is by emailing one of the PIs.