Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Stainton, Robert

2nd Supervisor

Vernon, Richard



In this dissertation, I explore the relationship between conceptual engineering and contextualism in philosophy. Conceptual engineering evaluates philosophical theories about concepts against whether they meet normative and political objectives, while contextualism highlights the influence of context on meaning and truth. I argue that conceptual engineering is subject to contextualism, rendering theories about concepts applicable only in specific contexts.

The first chapter examines essentially contested concepts: concepts inevitably subject to contestation, owing to different, equally legitimate reasons philosophers may have for valuing them. Nevertheless, within specific contexts, these concepts serve particular purposes, and conceptions aligned with those purposes better capture their significance.

Chapter 2 examines the metaphysics of gender, challenging the view that gender categories are both subjective identities and objective social constructions. This view fails to address conflicts between how we subjectively identity and how we are objectively treated by others. I propose a contextualist perspective, according to which gender category meanings vary based on why we use them within particular contexts.

In Chapter 3, I compare the methodology used in the metaphysics of gender with that used in the literature on the moral status of animals. I argue that the justification for employing conceptual engineering in the former applies equally to the latter. Accordingly, endorsing conceptual engineering in one case should lead us to do so in the other. Finally, I propose a contextualist account of moral status.

Summary for Lay Audience

Conceptual engineering is a method philosophers use to evaluate theories of what concepts mean based on their alignment with moral and political goals. On the other hand, contextualism emphasizes that the meaning of terms and concepts can change depending on the specific situations in which they’re used.

Throughout my research, I examine how contextualism influences conceptual engineering. I study various cases where the latter method is used and argue that its effectiveness depends on the specific context and objectives at hand. In other words, a theory of what a concept means that works well in one situation might not be suitable for another, because the reason we’re using the concept might vary depending on the situation.

I first explore ‘essentially contested concepts’: concepts whose meanings are inevitably debated because people value them for different reasons. I suggest that understanding these concepts should focus on why they matter in specific contexts, rather than relying on fixed definitions or the way people used the concepts historically.

I then examine different perspectives on the meaning of “woman”, such as seeing it as a personal identity or a social construction. My research leads me to propose that the meaning of gender can shift depending on the situation and the purpose of using the concept. This approach helps to reconcile conflicting views about gender categories.

In the final chapter, I compare the method used in discussing the metaphysics of gender with the discussion of the moral status of animals. I find that philosophers often implicitly and inconsistently use conceptual engineering when exploring moral issues related to animals, such that they take a view of what makes someone worthy of moral consideration to be implausible if it might not include all humans, while failing to do the same for animals. I argue that we think conceptual engineering is an appropriate methodology for understanding the meaning of terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’, it should be considered in debates about animal ethics too.

I conclude that a contextualist interpretation of revisionary projects provides a framework to navigate conflicting normative aims, allowing for a more nuanced and contextually appropriate application of these methodologies in philosophical debates. I also emphasize the importance of considering how these concepts are actually used when attempting to realize goals pertaining to how we think they ought to be used.