◘ Talk by Ethan Nowak: Speech and the significance of style

Date/Time: Wednesday, 19th April, 4pm HK.

Abstract: The analytic philosophy of language is built around the idea that a speaker’s fundamental goal is to encode some information, a listener’s goal is to recover it, and a theory of language is successful if it can explain the exchange. Despite many successes, this conception obscures a point that is a central focus of research on language in other disciplines: how we speak is often at least as important as what we say.

My aim in this paper will be to show how deep this platitude goes. First, I will argue that the best way to understand the style of our speech is to see it as a tool we use not to send messages, but to perform actions. Making sense of these actions, however, requires viewing one other as agents motivated by moral, aesthetic, and social reasons than are not ordinarily countenanced in the philosophy of language. Drawing on some comparisons with Confucian philosophy, I will argue that these reasons end up permeating nearly any conversation we have, which means that we are constantly confronted by deep questions about how to live.

◘ Talk by Viktoria Knoll: Exploring the Semantics of Gender Terms: The Polysemy View on “Woman”

Date/Time: Thursday, 13th April, 4pm HK.

Abstract: In feminist literature, two views on the semantics of gender terms such as “woman” have recently been proposed: the polysemy view and the contextualist account. Both views take the idea of a semantic variability of “woman” seriously. According to the polysemy view, which is defended by Bettcher (2013, 2017) and Laskowski (2020), “woman” is ambiguous between a trans-inclusive, gender-related meaning and a trans-exclusive, sex-related meaning. The contextualist understanding, presented by Saul (2012) and defended by Díaz-León (2016), posits that “woman” is not ambiguous, but has one standing meaning that is context-sensitive.

In my paper, I aim to defend a conditional claim: if the meaning of “woman” is semantically variable, we should prefer the polysemy view over the contextualist account. As I will argue, the polysemy view better fits several criteria that were developed to distinguish between terms that are merely polysemous and those that are merely context-sensitive (see Viebahn & Vetter 2016). Furthermore, the view that “woman” is polysemous (i) more closely aligns with a common linguistic perspective on meaning change, and (ii) is compatible with a classic externalist framework (such as Haslanger’s) according to which meanings are determined by ostension of paradigms.

On Zoom.

◘ Talk by Kevin Reuter: Of Dinosaurs and Planets: Empirical Data on Conceptual Propagation
(Joint work with Ethan Landes)

Date/Time: Tuesday, 28th March, 4pm HK

Abstract: Conceptual engineering is the practice of revising people’s concepts to improve how they think. Conceptual engineering is fundamentally purpose-driven, and so it only succeeds if it manages to revise people’s concepts, if such is even possible. This paper presents first-of-its kind experimental research directly testing the possibility of conceptual revision using the concepts dinosaur and planet by exploiting the disconnect between scientists’ and folk’s concepts. Using a masked time-lagged design, we successfully revised planet in participants, but not dinosaur, demonstrating some of the difficulties conceptual engineers face. Nonetheless, this paper provides conceptual engineers with the tools to finally tackle the implementation challenge head-on.

◘ Talk by Guido Löhr: Engineering concepts for the 21st century: Value Sensitive Design, Technology and Conceptual Disruption

Date/Time: Thursday, 2nd March, 4pm HK.

Abstract: Which concepts should we choose? This problem has so far not received the attention it deserves, and it often simply decided in the philosophical armchair without a full value and stakeholder analysis and with mainly epistemic values in mind. To overcome this shortcoming, in this paper, we bring together two literatures that have so far not interacted much. Philosophers of and technology and philosophers interested in conceptual engineering. The former group has developed a general method of responsibly developing technological solution to real-world problems. This approach is called Value Sensitive Design (VSD). The latter group of conceptual engineering scholars has worked out different understandings of what it can mean to engineer concepts but not how we can decide which concepts to engineer and how to best engineer or design them. We argue that VSD can fill this lacuna. In this paper, we propose the, to our knowledge, first comprehensive and general empirical systematic method of how to assess and design concepts, i.e., to engage in conceptual ethics and engineering. To test this method and show how it works in practice, we illustrate this method by means of the concept of colleague in light of recent progress in AI research.

◘ Talk by Rose Novick: Speaking Is Not Puffing

Date/Time: Wednesday, 1st March, 10am HK

Abstract: The Qíwùlùn (齊物論, Leveling Things Discourse) chapter of the Zhuangzi (ca. 3rd century BCE) offers arguments that appear similar to the criterion argument for skepticism and the argument from disagreement for relativism. This is troublesome: skepticism and relativism are incompatible positions. In this talk, I provide a global interpretation of what Zhuangzi is doing in the Qíwùlùn that explains the presence of these arguments without attributing to him either a skeptical or a (standard) relativist position. 

I argue that a central aim of the Qíwùlùn is to offer a method of dispute resolution, which Zhuangzi calls shining a light (以明, yǐmíng). Seen in this context, and taking the literary forms in which these arguments appear seriously, I show that the apparently skeptical and relativist arguments are important steps in defending this method. While Zhuangzi’s method of dispute resolution can be understood as relativist in a sense, it is relativism of a strange sort.

The talk concludes with some speculative reflections on the implications of the Zhuangist view for conceptual engineering, which I hope we will think through together.

◘ Talk by Nilanjan Das: Conceptual Amelioration in Sanskrit Epistemology: Dignāga, Candrakīrti, and Kumārila on Defining Perception

Date/Time: Thursday 23nd February, 9am HK.

Abstract: The aim of this talk is to study an episode from the history of Sanskrit epistemology in first millennium CE: a debate between the Buddhist philosopher Dignāga (5th-6th centuries CE) and two of his critics, Candrakīrti (6th century CE) and Kumārila (7th century CE). In his influential Compendium of the Sources of Knowledge (Pramāṇasamuccaya), Dignāga defines perception (understood here as a source of knowledge) as “free from conceptual construction” (kalpanāpoḍha). Both Candrakīrti (who belongs to another tradition of Buddhism) and Kumārila (who is a non-Buddhist, Brāhmaṇical thinker) resist this move for different reasons. But a charge that they both raise against Dignāga is that his definition doesn’t fit the ordinary use of the term “perception” (or, the closely related term, “perceptible”), since the contents of what we ordinary regard as perceptual experiences can have the kind of predicative structure that states of non-conceptual awareness don’t. 

Interestingly, both argue that this is a bad result, because it predicts that we are pervasively misusing our ordinary epistemological vocabulary. In this talk, I will consider (1) whether Dignāga and his later commentators have the resources to respond to this argument, and (2) whether those responses (if there are any) are successful against the very different metasemantic theories that Candrakīrti and Kumārila accept. I will then go on to ask what this episode from the history of Sanskrit epistemology can teach us about projects of conceptual amelioration in philosophy more broadly. 

◘ Talk by Ethan Landes (Zurich): Testing the Role of Lexical Effects in Conceptual Engineering

Date/Time: Thursday 16th February, 4pm HK time

Abstract: Engineered concepts and meanings do not float around freely – they need a lexical item to serve as a vehicle for their propagation. This talk examines the way in which the vehicle for conceptual or semantic change in conceptual engineering projects can affect the success of said conceptual engineering projects. Using experimental methods, I capture these so-called “lexical effects” (Cappelen 2018) in action, showing that what term is used as a vehicle for concept or meaning influences both the perceived valence of the concept or meaning as well as the ease in which word-meaning pairs are learned. This has important consequences for the practice of conceptual engineering. The success of conceptual engineering will be affected by the language used as a vehicle for the representational device. Due diligence is needed to empirically test how a word-meaning pair or word-concept pair will be interpreted by, represented by, and further propagated by the target audience of conceptual engineering.

◘ Talk by Liz Camp (Rutgers): Title From Point of View to Perspective.

Date/Time: Tuesday 22th November, 8pm HK

Abstract. In both ordinary speech and theoretical discourse, we often talk about ‘points of view’ and ‘perspectives’ to gesture toward ways in which agents differ in their interpretations of a common informational content. While such perceptual language is ubiquitous and intuitive, its application to abstract domains like religion, politics, art, and science must be metaphorical. I exploit three analogies with perception to sketch my own view of a perspective as an open-ended disposition to notice, structure, and respond to information in an intuitive, holistic way, and identify some implications of this analysis for projects in conceptual engineering.

In part on Zoom: email closer to the time for the link.

◘ Talk by Adam Gibbons (Lingnan): Title Bad Language Makes Good Politics.

Date/Time: Thursday 10th November, 2pm HK

Abstract: Politics abounds with bad language: lying and bullshitting, grandstanding and virtue signaling, code words and dogwhistles, and more. But why is there so much bad language in politics? And what, if anything, can we do about it? In this paper I show how these two questions are connected. Politics is full of bad language because existing social and political institutions are structured in such a way that the production of bad language becomes rational. In principle, by modifying these institutions we can reduce the prevalence of bad language. However, as I show, such practical efforts are fraught with difficulties. After first outlining an account of bad language (Section 1), I examine the rationality of three different types of bad language: inaccurate language, insincere language, and unclear language (Section 2). Next, I discuss the possibility of implementing institutional reforms to improve the quality of political discourse (Section 3). However, I then outline and discuss two serious complications for institutional reforms—namely, they create risk of abuse, and they could preclude instances of seemingly bad language that, in fact, are socially beneficial (Section 4). I conclude with remarks about how to pursue institutional reform in an appropriately circumspect manner (Section 5).

◘ Talk by Timothy Williamson (Oxford University): Title. Remarks on ‘Conceptual Engineering’

Date/Time: Thursday 13th October, 5pm HK, 10am UK

Abstract: to come.

In part on Zoom: here

◘ Talk by Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky (NYU Shanghai): Talking Real and True? The Politics of Race and Gender Classification

Date/Time: May 19th 9am HK

Abstract. I argue that neither metaphysics nor semantics ought to constrain our social kind classificatory practices with race and gender terms, at least in many ordinary contexts. Unlike Robin Dembroff (2021), who argues that we needn’t track extant social kinds with our classifications under conditions of ontological oppression, I maintain that there is a more fundamental issue: meeting the requirements of tracking social kinds, or even tracking the meanings of social kind terms, is simply too epistemically demanding. Granting that ought implies can, even in the epistemic domain, this means that epistemic reasons (alone) cannot normatively govern our classificatory practices with race and gender terms. This allows us to focus more carefully on the reasons that ought to motivate classification; reasons that are sensitive to the lived experience of marginalized folk. 

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

◘ Talk by Laura Schroeter (Melbourne): Three Strands in Sex/Gender Concepts (joint work with François Schroeter)

Date/Time: 16 February 2022, 4pm HK

Abstract: Cognitive, social and developmental psychologists have amassed a wealth of data about the complex patterns of understanding associated with sex/gender terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’. We focus on three core strands in the conceptual understanding of the term ‘woman’: (1) biological sex, (2) social role, and (3) affiliation (identifying as a member of the class ‘woman’ or ‘man’). In the recent philosophical literature, many theorists have privileged one of these three core strands to argue that ‘woman’ has a univocal reference – a biological kind, a social class, or an affiliative identity kind. We argue against these univocalist approaches and suggest that ordinary sex/gender concepts – and the words used to express them – should be understood as having complex meanings that may be sharpened by context. We contrast our approach with family resemblance interpretations (Stoljar) and standard contextualist proposals (Saul, Diaz-Leon). We draw on the literature on polysemy to show that the complexity of our sex/gender concepts need not lead to confusion or breakdowns in communication.

◘ Talk by Xindi Ye (Hong Kong): Topic continuity and context-sensitivity

Abstract. Plunkett & McPherson (2021) propose a contextualist semantics of ‘topic continuity’: dimensions of continuity are built into the character of ‘topic continuity’, while content is fixed by features of the conversational context. The result is a gradable, multidimensional expression. This talk aims to clarify features of the proposed semantics and investigate their consequences on evaluative discussions about the topic continuity of conceptual engineering proposals. On the basis of foregoing considerations, I argue that Plunkett & McPherson’s proposed semantics cannot do the work they want it to do.

Date/Time: 11th February

◘ 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 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.