Re-Engineering Contested Concepts. A Reflective-Equilibrium Approach

Brun, Georg (2022). Re-Engineering Contested Concepts. A Reflective-Equilibrium Approach. Synthese, 200(2) Springer Netherlands 10.1007/s11229-022-03556-7

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Social scientists, political scientists and philosophers debate key concepts such as democracy, power and autonomy. Contested concepts like these pose questions: Are terms such as “democracy” hopelessly ambiguous? How can two theorists defend alternative accounts of democracy without talking past each other? How can we understand debates in which theorists disagree about what democracy is? This paper first discusses the popular strategy to answer these questions by appealing to Rawls’s distinction between concepts and conceptions. According to this approach, defenders of rival conceptions of, e.g. justice can disagree without talking past each other because they share the concept of justice. It is argued that this idea is attractive but limited in application and that it fails to do justice to the dynamic and normative aspects of concept formation. Reflective equilibrium is then suggested as an alternative approach. It replaces the static contrast between a conceptual ‘core’ and competing conceptions by a dynamic perspective of concept formation as a partly normative undertaking: pre-theoretic language use and commitments can provide a shared starting point for developing alternative accounts which yield different concepts of, e.g. justice. This perspective provides a new understanding of how it is possible that different theorists defend rival accounts of, e.g. justice, without talking past each other.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy > Theoretical Philosophy
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy > Practical Philosophy

UniBE Contributor:

Brun, Georg


100 Philosophy
100 Philosophy > 120 Epistemology
100 Philosophy > 170 Ethics




Springer Netherlands


[4] Swiss National Science Foundation


Projects 150251 not found.
Projects 182854 not found.




Georg Brun

Date Deposited:

05 May 2022 12:04

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:19

Publisher DOI:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

Conception · Conceptual engineering · Contested concepts · Explication · Rawls · Reflective equilibrium




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