George Walford: Essentially Contested Concepts

The adherents of each major ideology tend to see people holding different basic assumptions as not merely mistaken but wrong, both intellectually and morally. A perception of this has led W. B. Gallie to speak of “essentially contested concepts.” [1] These occur, he says, in aesthetics, political and social philosophy and the philosophy of religion, and they are marked by disagreements which cannot be resolved by reference to any correct or generally-accepted usage since in these fields no such standards are to be found. The disputing groups refuse to accept plurality, each insisting that its use of ‘work of art’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘Christian doctrine’ is the only valid use and defending this position with evidence and arguments it regards as conclusive.

His treatment of the issue is inclined towards academicism and yet somewhat kicking in rigour. Saying that the concepts arise historically he makes little attempt to treat them accordingly, setting up instead an artificial example to serve as a standard to which concrete instances may be referred and focusing his attention on the question whether, or to what extent, conversion from one view to another may be regarded as logically justifiable Having told us that in these matters no objective standards, independent of the different groups, exist, he then says: “Every movement or party has its own more or less lunatic fringe.” In the absence of objective standards applicable to every movement or party, how can that “lunatic” be justified?

Adding science, law, liberty and government to his original list Gallie nowhere suggests that logic and reason may also be among the essentially contested concepts. Yet once the philosophy of politics and religion has been included it is difficult to see how these can be left out, in view of the Nazi repudiation of reason and the religious “credo quia absurdam” Gallie seems to be assuming, without demonstrated warrant, that his own concepts stand above the essentially contested ones; this is of course common practice and was perhaps even more so in 1964, when his book was published.

[1] Gallie W. B. 1964 Philosophy and the Historical Understanding London: Chatto & Windus. Chapter 8 “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Adrian Williams drew IC‘s attention to this book.

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ARE the police as humourless as they usually appear? Sir Robert Mark quotes the clerk of a council committee writing to its chairman who had just undergone a serious operation: “I am instructed by the Committee to express their sincere good wishes for your rapid and complete recovery by a majority of eleven to seven, there being four abstentions.”

from Ideological Commentary 44, March 1990.