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Essentially Contested Concepts and Semantic Externalism

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AbstractIn 1956, W.B. Gallie introduced his idea of essentially contested concepts. In my paper, I offer a novel interpretation of his theory and argue that his theory, thus interpreted, is correct. The key to my interpretation lies in a condition Gallie places on essentially contested concepts that other interpreters downplay or dismiss: that the use of an essentially contested concept must be derived “from an original exemplar whose authority is acknowledged by all the contestant users of the concept.” This reveals a similarity between Gallie’s views and the semantic externalist views of Hilary Putnam, and others, about natural kind terms like “water” and “tiger.” I argue that natural kind terms and terms for essentially contested concepts are two species of a single semantic genus. In the case of natural kind terms, a term refers to a natural kind, the exemplars are instances of that kind, and the relation between the exemplars and anything to which the term applies is co-membership of the kind. In the case of terms for essentially contested concepts, a term refers to an historical tradition, the exemplar is a stage or temporal part of that tradition, and the relation between the exemplar and anything to which the term refers is being the heir of. This allows me to understand the contests that alerted Gallie to the phenomenon of essentially contested concepts as contests over the ownership of historical traditions.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy University of


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