Critical Thinking, Ethics of Inquiry

Ameliorative Analysis as Humpty Dumptying

Some philosophers engage in a type of analytic work which is known as ameliorative analysis. Ameliorative analysis is the practice of articulating a concept or idea that should be attached to a word or phrase in order to better pursue some moral or political goal. This is different from descriptive analysis, which is concerned with illuminating the concept or idea that is actually attached to certain words or phrases. (It is also distinct from the practice of offering reforming definitions, which aim to restore coherence to an incoherent concept by modifying it slightly. The goal of ameliorative analysis is not to replace incoherence with coherence, but to advance a moral goal.)

Ameliorative analysis has become a very popular project, particularly in the areas of race and gender. Race- and gender-related terms are given ameliorative analyses in order to attach meanings to them that will better serve the cause of advancing equity. Different theorists engaged in ameliorative analysis will propose different analyses of various terms based on their differing understandings of what equity requires and what kinds of analyses will best promote equity as they understand it.

Let us consider an ameliorative concept, i.e. a concept that a practitioner of ameliorative analysis would have us attach to some word or phrase as the result of undertaking an ameliorative analysis of that word or phrase. Typically, there is not already a word or phrase that picks out that ameliorative concept. And let us grant that it would be useful for us to have a word of phrase that does pick out this concept.

But I wonder: Why do we not devise a new word to pick out the ameliorative concept? Why must we press an old word into new service? If the “ameliorative” benefit comes entirely from being able to refer to an important concept that we were not able to refer to before, then the benefit that is derived from the ability to refer should be realized by introducing a new word. But this is not what is done in ameliorative analysis.

In a previous post, I discussed the Motte and Bailey doctrine and the way that mottes and baileys are constructed. Read that piece first for the full explanation. But in short: Motte and Baileys are constructed through a three step process. The first step is “Humpty Dumptying,” which is the act of redefining a common word to give it a new meaning. Once we’ve given a word a new meaning, the second step is to construct “Troll’s Truisms,” which are sentences that contain the newly redefined word. These sentences are tautologies if they are read with their new definition, but are radical claims if they are understood with their old definition. The third step is to riff on your Troll’s Truisms, stringing a bunch of them together to create a piece of writing which, depending on how you read it, is either a radical critique or a basket of empty truisms. This is the Motte and Bailey.

To the unwary, a piece of writing which contains Troll’s Truisms seems to be making bold claims. Readers are typically not vigilant about keeping new definitions in mind and setting aside old definitions and their related associations. Having to constantly re-think the meanings of sentences that contain familiar words is rather cognitively taxing, and even careful readers will struggle to do it. In this way, a writer can use linguistic manipulation to make massive leaps of logic seem natural and inevitable by drawing on the old associations of newly redefined terms. This is the insidious genius of a Motte and Bailey Doctrine.

My concern with ameliorative analysis is that it’s nothing more than Humpty Dumptying for social justice. Why use old words to pick out ameliorative concepts when new words will do? Because in doing so, one thereby constructs troll’s truisms and gains the rhetorical benefit of the associations with the old meaning of the word. The Motte and Bailey follows thereafter.

Consider Haslanger’s original ameliorative analysis of the term ‘woman:’ S is a woman iffdef S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.) and S is “marked” as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction.

Now consider the following claim: “All women are systematically subordinated.” That’s a Troll’s Truism. It’s a tautology on the new definition, but on the traditional definition of the term “woman,” it’s a radical and highly controversial claim.

What benefit could there be to making a tautology look radical? The obvious answer is that it allows you to assert radical claims, but brush off critics as denying tautologies. It enables sophistry. That’s a rhetorical benefit, to be sure. But it’s not the kind of benefit that philosophers ought to pursue.

Defenders of ameliorative analysis may respond that this criticism overlooks a major benefit of ameliorative analysis: By giving a word a new definition, we can prevent a word from being used with its traditional, more harmful definition. But this objection is confused for two reasons. First, while one can get a linguistic subcommunity to adopt a new meaning for a term without too much trouble, it’s much harder to change the linguistic practices of the population as a whole. Second, it’s not words themselves that can be harmful, it is the concepts associated with them. So even if somehow it came to pass that an ameliorative concept comes to be attached to a particular term rather than the old concept, it’s trivially easy to introduce a new word to refer to the old concept. Ameliorative analysis can’t prevent that from happening. So long as people have an interest in a concept, our language will contain words that pick it out.

In sum, ameliorative analysis cannot provide the benefits that it purports to provide. But it renders well-understood terms equivocal in a way that enables the construction of deceptive motte and bailey doctrines. This, I fear, is how ameliorative analyses are supposed to ameliorate. It’s why I remain suspicious of the project.


  1. Skeptical

    I am not convinced by your response to the objection that ameliorative analysis helps prevent older terms from being used in harmful ways. Think of the term queer. This is a term whose redefinition started within a linguistic subcommunity, but that is now widely used by many in just the way that subcommunity hoped. I also think you underestimate just how easily others could come up with a new term to capture the older term’s sense, and to get that term to gain traction – not ‘trivially easy,’ as you suggest, at all . Not only does it seem very difficult to popularize a brand new word, but in a sociopolitical context that draws attention to homophobic and anti-queer discrimination, trying to revitalize the more negative connotations associated with the former term will be considerably harder to do. I also think you underestimate just how much the new term’s connotations force people to reconsider the appropriateness of the older term’s intended referent. When I was younger I used to hear people in even liberal circles say ‘fag’ all the time; now I rarely do. I think this is explained not merely by people self-censoring, but by a social context that has drawn attention to the various negative associations that attach to such derogatory terms .

    • Comment by post author

      Obtuse Angle

      These examples are good, but are different from the kinds of examples I had in mind. You’re talking about reclaiming slurs or rendering slurs taboo. But the original example of ameliorative analysis – the one I refer to in the piece – is Haslanger’s ameliorative analysis of “woman,” which is not a slur. And my point certainly applies in that case. If Haslanger’s analysis of “woman” were somehow to catch on, another term would be introduced to refer to women (or a less-commonly-used term would gain in prominence). People have an interest in referring to the category of women, and will continue to do so even if the word that we currently use to refer to that category is turned to other purposes.

      Rendering slurs taboo is, at any rate, certainly not an example of ameliorative analysis, because it doesn’t involve redefining a term. Reclaiming slurs might count as an example of ameliorative analysis, though. I haven’t seen the practice described in that way, but maybe it has been in something I haven’t read.

      • Skeptical

        Obtuse Angle says: “If Haslanger’s analysis of “woman” were somehow to catch on, another term would be introduced to refer to women (or a less-commonly-used term would gain in prominence). People have an interest in referring to the category of women, and will continue to do so even if the word that we currently use to refer to that category is turned to other purposes.” But it is the case that many people are starting to use different terms such as ‘female’ or ‘cis woman’ to capture the older sense of the term ‘woman’ (especially younger people). And why is redefining queer not an example of ‘giving a word a new definition,’ to use your language? In response to Dana, I don’t think ameliorative analysis is productively understood as taking place in a vacuum outside of the ‘natural shifts’ in a linguistic community – often times philosophers especially those working in queer/trans philosophy are trying to capture the ways those terms are used in a sub-linguistic community, so they can be seen as participating in the same effort (I dont think this applies to Haslanger, though, whose proposed redefinition of the term woman is highly unique).

        • Comment by post author

          Obtuse Angle

          The fact that other terms are being used to refeer to women (in light of a partly-successful attempt to redefine the term “woman”) is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that people will always find words to refer to concepts that they have an interest in.

          I think your example of “queer” is more interesting, but I’m a little confused. Could you clarify what you take the old definition and new definitions of that word to be? It’s undergone a number of shifts in recent usage, and I’d describe different shifts differently.

          • Skeptical

            I’m disagreeing specifically with your reply to the ameliorative analyst who says ‘by giving a word a new definition, we can prevent a word from being used with its traditional, more harmful definition.’ So, the ameliorative analyst might argue that if we get comfortable using the term woman in a way that encompasses trans women, doing so could help prevent the term from being used in the more traditional sense that excludes trans women. The ameliorative analyst won’t care if people come up with other terms to denote the class of non-trans women (female, cis, whatever). But they will care if the only widely accepted use of the term ‘woman’ implicitly or explicitly excludes trans women. In other words, I don’t think the ameliorative analyst will take issue with the fact that “people have an interest in referring to the category of women” (here I assume you mean cis women), and that they will come up with terms to do so. But the ameliorative analyst’s goal is to get people to see trans women as women too, and since that is what is repeatedly denied, expanding the scope of the term ‘woman’ is important to their project.

          • Comment by post author

            Obtuse Angle

            I see! I was trying to avoid getting into trans issues specifically, since that’s a whole other can of worms, but I guess I opened myself up to that by using the example of “woman.” I just wanted to talk about Haslanger, and now we’re into the subject of trans women. So it goes. Nonetheless, I’m sticking to my guns on this one.

            First, that it’s harder to change usage patterns then one might hope. There has been a shift in usage patterns for the word “woman” recently to be more trans-inclusive, but that’s been achieved only among a certain group of progressives. Most speakers of the language would still use the word “woman” to mean “adult human female.” And there is a backlash against the more trans-inclusive definitions. While that backlash may be ill-motivated, it’s an indication that trans-inclusive definitions of the term might not ever fully supplant older definitions.

            Second, even if it should come to pass that “woman” undergoes a complete reformation in its definition so that everyone agrees that trans women are women, insofar as people have an interest in referring to adult human females, we’ll have some term that refers to adult human females, and that term will be increasingly used, and the term “woman” will become correspondingly less-frequently used. Perhaps that will be the end of it, as you’re suggesting. But I’ve already seen some activists arguing that it’s exclusionary to use the term “female” in a way that doesn’t refer to trans women, so I imagine this fight will continue. Whatever term is used to refer to cis women but not trans women will be attacked; to the extent that attack is successful, a new term will come into more common usage that has the same meaning as the old term. You could think of this as a kind of dysphemism treadmill. That said, I don’t forsee a future where no term refers to cis women but not trans women, since there are important reasons why we need terms like that (e.g. medical contexts).

            In sum, I’m still pessimistic that there is any real possibility of rendering a concept taboo by performing an ameliorative analysis on the word that refers to that concept. (Some concepts have been rendered taboo, to be sure, e.g. various racial slurs. But that looks more like the result of arguments for liberal tolerance than successful ameliorative analyses of those slurs.)

        • A Woman

          Skeptical, “cis woman” is not synonymous with “woman”. “Woman” as in “adult human female” has tran men and non binary females in its extension too.

          And yes, whenever feminists say “ok well we will use a new word to pick out the class of people we are advocating for” then they are told that word must include trans women as well. The problem here is political more than, say, medical. And it’s also semantic: how can we even make sense of what it is to be a trans woman without some prior concept of “woman” on which it rests?

  2. Dana

    The change in the meaning of “queer” isn’t an example of ameliorative analysis, though. It wasn’t the result of philosophers offering a new analysis of what the word “queer” meant. The original shift in the usage of “queer” in which it got reclaimed didn’t even involve a change in what it referred to. What changed was the *connotation*–a word that had denoted “gay”, but had an insulting connotation, came to denote “gay”, but *not* to have an insulting connotation, because (some of) the people being insulted with it decided to just accept the word with pride.

    Nowadays, the word is used more broadly, and refers to gender non-conforming people and so on as well as just gay people, but that’s *also* not the result of ameliorative analysis, but is just of the natural shift in the meanings of words that happens within a linguistic community.

  3. aeg

    It seems like some of the comments are describing the effort to use terms in more inclusive ways as a form of ameliorative analysis (like using ‘women’ to include ‘trans women’). I don’t know what should be counted under the banner of ‘ameliorative analysis’ or not, but, terms aside, this seems to me to miss the point of the post. What the poster is attacking is the largely (entirely?) academic enterprise of giving brand new definitions to words in ways that make truisms look like radical claims. The use of inclusive language is a political enterprise that attempts to realize respect and solidarity by describing people with the words they choose for themselves. It seems to me beside the point whether you support this kind of language change (or also changes to connotations of slurs, etc.) to the concern raised about what precisely the point is of wanton academic redefinition of terms, if it isn’t sophistry. (On the other hand, there is no issue of academic sophistry even relevant to the issue of whether ‘woman’ should include trans women or what connotation ‘queer’ should or does have.) I would add that I think the poster made it easy on themself by choosing the Haslanger example. I find Mann’s analysis of misogyny a much more difficult case. At one and the same time, she is sharpening and refocusing a pre-existing term to draw attention to an important phenomenon (roughly, the oppression of women as sustained by structures and institutions instead of the prejudice of individuals), and she is setting up rhetoric that draws its power from ambiguity (e.g. you can call someone a ‘misogynist’ on her definition without meaning that they hate women, only that they participate in certain social dynamics, yet the force of the accusation will remain its association with hating women). What this shows in the end, I think, is that rhetoric is a live and active part of social philosophy, even a necessary one, and it is just as misguided to attack some social philosophy merely for playing into rhetoric as it is to defend some other bit of social philosophy as above or beyond rhetoric. At its best, social philosophy is rhetoric, in the most laudatory sense of that term, meaning language that can reconfigure political and social consciousness. At its worst, social philosophy is again rhetoric, in the unbearable sense we’re all too familiar with.

    • Comment by post author

      Obtuse Angle

      I disagree quite strongly with this. “Rhetoric that draws its power from ambiguity” is entirely contrary to the nature of philosophical inquiry and dialectic. Sophistry aims at persuasion. Philosophy aims at truth and understanding. Dialectic is an important part of philosophy because it’s how we share reasons with one another, testing them and thereby figuring out which arguments are good and what it is rational to believe. Ambiguous rhetoric is a tool of persuasion but an impediment to understanding and honest communication of competing considerations.

      Social philosophy is not aimed at reconfiguring political and social consciousness. That’s the goal of activism, rhetoric, and sophistry. Philosophy is truth-directed. If any reconfiguration of social consciousness needs doing by means of social philosophy, it must be because people have beliefs that are untrue or unjustified, and philosophy can bring them closer to truth and understanding.

      I go back to that famous Marx quote: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” The point of what?, I’d ask. The point OF PHILOSOPHY is to interpret the world in various ways. The point OF ACTIVISM is to change it. If your work is directed at changing the world by impeding understanding through strategic use of ambiguous language, you’re not engaged in public philosophy. You’re undermining it.

      • aeg

        You say, “Social philosophy is not aimed at reconfiguring political and social consciousness. That’s the goal of activism, rhetoric, and sophistry. Philosophy is truth-directed.” But that implies that reconfiguring political and social consciousness cannot be a part, and a crucial part, of arriving at truth. But why make this assumption? Isn’t it clear of past thinkers that the limits of the social and historical consciousness of their time limited their own ability to reach truth? And isn’t what distinguishes many of the most important thinkers that they moved forward the social and historical consciousness of their time? Unless philosophy is reduced to something like Spinoza-style proofs, it always has an element of rhetoric, of language trying to open people’s minds to different ways of thinking, especially in the case of social and political philosophy concerning topics about which people are most closed-off, ideological, and prejudiced. ‘Dialectic’ is not a method for hammering down truths. (Name for me one philosophical truth that dialectic has proven, in your view. If it has proven none, but that is its only purpose, then it is a miserable failure of a method and should be abandoned.) Dialectic at its best is a means to understanding, to openings of and changes in consciousness. In the end it is a sophist’s trick to rest an argument on overly sharp, false distinctions, and the distinction between rhetoric and philosophy is such a distinction when someone argues “you must choose one or the other!” (This of course is not to deny that there are clear cases which fall better in each camp. To suggest I was denying this would be yet another sophist’s trick!)

        • Comment by post author

          Obtuse Angle

          I certainly agree with some of the points that you’re making here. People have indeed been held back from reaching the truth because of the limits of their time and place. And I’m also inclined to agree that a certain austere, strictly logical conception of what constitutes good reasoning is too restrictive, and that there are many examples of good philosophy that do not proceed via pure deductive reasoning. (Indeed, there are more that do not than that do.)

          But these observations don’t do enough to save the advocate of ameliorative analysis from my criticisms. That there are forms of good reasoning that are not purely deductive does not imply that any kinds of non-deductive reasoning are good. That understanding has been sometimes limited by social structures does not imply that changes to social structures are always or even typically good from the perspective of advancing understanding. And even if some changes to social structure would promote understanding, that does not imply that any kind of rhetoric that moves us to those social structures is an instance of good reasoning. As the literature on epistemic consequentialism evidences, it’s possible to come to believe true things by way of believing false things, and possible to come to accept norms of good reasoning by first reasoning poorly.

          Without pretending to have a fully adequate account of what good reasoning consists in or how to distinguish sophistical rhetoric from rational philosophical dialectic, I think it should be uncontroversial that arguments which equivocate on key terms are irrational, and that arguments that achieve their rhetorical force through this equivocation (such that they would lose their rhetorical force were the argument rephrased in a way that eliminates this equivocation) are merely sophistical. That’s all I need for my argument here to succeed.

  4. Bypasser

    The post talks about ameliorative analysis (AA) in general but only gives one specific example: Haslanger on ‘woman’. In light of the constructive feedback from Skeptical the post would benefit if it gave more examples of AA and showed that those cases too shared the flaws it was claimed Haslanger’s AA has.

  5. Skeptical

    Obtuse Angle: Maybe you’re right that ameliorative analysts pursue unrealistic social goals. But the success of the argument you provided relies entirely on empirical facts we can’t yet answer. Insofar as we don’t currently have reasons to think those empirical predictions will obtain, the ameliorative analyst could argue that their practical goal is valuable enough to warrant erring on the side of caution, and trying to realize it anyway. But the ameliorative analyst’s aims also aren’t entirely pragmatic. They are also at times trying to describe the term’s proper referent (as with Haslanger, who describes her ameliorative project as both aspirational and descriptive). Regardless of whether she is right or wrong, there’s also an underlying philosophical position on language underlying the view.

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