In a recent post, Obtuse Angle takes issue with ameliorative analysts who seek to ‘inject new meaning into familiar terms.’ As an example, they cite Haslanger’s ameliorative definition of the term woman. Obtuse Angle suggests that ameliorative analysis of Haslanger’s sort is a form of ‘linguistic manipulation’ that sneaks into service a new concept under the cloak of an old and familiar term.
But on Haslanger’s view at least, ameliorative analysis isn’t intended merely “to propose a new meaning, but to reveal an existing one.” Haslanger offers as an example the term ‘parent.’ Many take the term ‘parent’ to refer to one’s biological progenitors. Yet in practice, the term often includes non-biological caregivers, such as stepparents, adoptive parents, grandparents, and others. So there is a gap between what users associate with the term parent in their heads (i.e. biological progenitor) and what the term is used to refer to in practice (i.e. non-biological caretakers). We thought parent referred to biological progenitor but, its extension turns out to capture non-biological primary caregivers, too. In attempting to capture the actual reach of the term parent, a major goal of ameliorative analysis is to better represent what we are actually talking about, thereby ‘ameliorating’ our terms. This is also compatible with other goals the ameliorative analyst may have.
Actually, the ameliorative analyst could charge that it is not they but their critics who are proposing a radical definition of certain terms. If the term ‘woman’ is increasingly used in linguistic practice to capture non-females, then redefining the term ‘woman’ to better reflect actual usage is not so different from what philosophers of language typically do. Critics who insist on using terms like ‘parent’ or ‘woman’ in the original sense despite shifts in linguistic practice that turn us away from that original usage may then find themselves in the position of having to justify a definition of the term increasingly at odds with everyday practice.