Paul-Mikhail Podosky

Paul-Mikhail Podosky, ‘Barriers to Change, Possibilities for Resistance: Concepts within Structures of Oppression, Obstacles to Innovation, and the Implementation Challenge of Conceptual Engineering’ (PhD, Philosophy, 2021)

Conceptual engineering, when it comes to social kind concepts, has strong political roots within the academy and activist circles alike. But if conceptual engineering, understood as the development of non-dominant conceptual practices, is to be a useful tool for the purposes of achieving or contributing to social justice, there must be a means by which the concepts we design in theory, or within small communities of practice, can take root and propagate in dominant contexts. This, broadly speaking, is known as the implementation challenge of conceptual engineering.

This thesis has the general task: to reorient how we approach the implementation challenge. It makes explicit and criticises existing accounts of conceptual implementation, namely those that focus on the role of individualistic implementation strategies in bringing about conceptual change within a community. This emphasis on individual conceptual advocacy warps our perception of the shape, size, and nature of the problem. It fails to recognise our situatedness in social structures that work to maintain and entrench the conceptual status quo, and which stifle conceptual innovation. In this thesis, I identify two mechanisms of conceptual maintenance: psychological convergence mechanisms and mechanisms of conceptual reproduction. The former refers to the social processes by which thinkers and speakers gain similar knowledge structures, in particular overlapping characterisations (i.e. stereotypes), within a community; and the latter, which will be the core focus of this thesis, refers to the mechanisms that promote the copying of prior stable patterns of classification with a term. Both mechanisms are ubiquitous within our social and representational milieu, operating within formal institutions to everyday conversation and engagement with social reality, and working to preserve dominant terms of conceptual engagement. Importantly, both reduce the likelihood of an individual successfully motivating others, within dominant contexts, to adopt an engineered conceptual practice.

After general discussion of mechanisms of conceptual maintenance, I spend time explicating certain problems for a particular individualistic implementation strategy that focuses on the reproduction of alternative conceptual practices within in interpersonal speech situations. In particular, the strategy involves engaging with dominant speakers in conversation as to which concept should be expressed by a shared word in a context (i.e., metalinguistic disagreement). The hope is that the dominant speaker will recognise that an extant conceptual practice is deficient, or stands in need of improvement. I argue that such forms of disagreement are often infected with unjust power relations that tend to advantage dominant speakers and existing patterns of classification. This contributes to preserving the conceptual status quo, and subsequently suppresses conceptual change. Moreover, when metalinguistic disagreement favours dominant speakers, I argue that this often constitutes hitherto undiscussed forms of epistemic and linguistic injustice. Overall, my aim is to show that when we develop implementation strategies, we should be careful to take into account the social infrastructure and forces that work to keep things conceptually as they are.

Supervisors: Dr Laura Schroeter, Associate Professor Karen Jones.