Critical Thinking, Diabloggers responding to Diabloggers, Philosophy and Current Issues

On Ameliorative Analysis: Reply to Obtuse Angle

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. 


  1. Spencer Case

    Hello Quid,

    Well my reaction is that if “ameliorative analysis” is supposed to reveal existing meanings, then we may fairly ask whether what Haslanger, or anyone else, is up to really is an instance of ameliorative analysis. That would have to mean that, say, the apparently new meanings of “man” and “woman” and “racist” — to take some examples where AA has been supposedly applied — were really there all along. Now 1) that doesn’t seem true; and 2) this seems in principle like an empirical question. Shouldn’t we ask the Ameliorative Analysist for some proof that this is was the case?

    I’m confused by the parent example. Who is doing the ameliorative analysis here? Hasn’t the word always been used to mean both biological parents and those in the social role of biological parents? Suppose there were a time at which someone said: “Hey wouldn’t it be convenient to use the word for biological parent to also mean “social parent” since usually there’s not an important difference in most conversational contexts?” Is that really what’s going on with, say, redefining “woman” from “adult biological human female” to the contemporary sense in which it refers to gender identity? It seems like there’s a much bigger gulf between the meanings there, but I’m not sure how I’d argue that to someone who’d deny it.

    • Comment by post author

      Quid the Cynic

      The ameliorative analyst could say two things in reply. First, any externalist account of language will be concerned with empirical facts, i.e. how do people actually employ this term out in the environment? Because externalists like Haslanger don’t think the definition of a term is merely in our heads, she will welcome the fact that determining what ‘parent’ refers to will depend on empirical facts. But second, the ameliorative analyst is not concerned only to track how people use terms (and they will point out that terms are used differently in different contexts). But here is where the normative upshot enters in for a positive argument to use the term in more inclusive ways – and ways it is already often used in some spaces.

  2. Perhaps this only makes sense if you are seen as tacitly having an intermediate abstraction in between word and use.

    So you are saying not ‘this word should be used in a different way’ (which is vacuous ‒ there is nothing in that word’s letter sequence itself), but ‘this word means (eg) this kind of room, and such rooms should be used in a different way.

    We all must already know, and stay knowing, that intermediate concept, that room. So the word is not really being changed, and so the suggestion of re-definition remains sort-of deceptive. And now think a little further: aren’t rooms often defined by their uses …

    What about cases like redefining the word ‘woman’. Unlike a room, women are not a container for interchangeable objects and uses. The reply will be that the equivalent is the ‘social space’ into which women conventionally fit. But here the problem is more clearly revealed. How do you define ‘women’s social space’? You must already know what ‘woman’ is! But was that not the (apparent) subject of re-definition? There is evidently some kind of circular question-begging trickery going on.

    So it seems an intermediate abstraction does not help the fundamental problem in ‘ameliorative analysis/enquiry’.

  3. > “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 …”

    If a transwoman asks directions to the ‘women’s’ place, and we point them to the adult-human-female’s place, do they return saying that was not quite what they meant? No. Because there is no new category: they mean exactly the same one as we did before ‒ they just do not qualify. False claims of membership of a category are not a new definition of that category. On the contrary, they *require the old category*, and a clear mutual understanding of it, in order to be making a meaningful claim about what bottoms out in concrete physical resources.

    The motivation of this matter is a conflict of interests, and a conflict presupposes something shared. Disagreement over ownership of land is an *agreement* over *which* land is in contention – we would not be in conflict if we were concerned with different pieces of land. So the fact that there is conflict over identity/access means, where there is that conflict, that we agree on those boundaries, and that there is no problem of definition.

    Now, maybe there could be some justification for non-qualifying people to access this category, but that is best built on being up-front and clear, not on some confusing maneuver of telling people that they do not really mean what they think they mean.

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