Gallie proposed that many philosophical concepts are contested, ambiguous and murky. However, it has also been argued that since antiquity, philosophers are good at conceptual analysis. Especially since Descartes, the goal has been to clearly define a number of different abstract concepts such as knowledge, morality etc. Logical positivists also emphasized conceptual clarity.

Recently, I wanted to engage in the same 'conceptual analysis' to define the term 'neoliberalism' ... but what I find is that it is a politically charged term and there is no fixed closure of its meaning. It is mostly being used as a polemical tool. I then thought about the terms 'discourse', 'globalization' etc. and it seems that due to their dissemination into different disciplinary contexts, they have become empty signifiers. So if someone wants to clarify a concept, where does one start?

Gallie, W. B. 1955. Essentially contested concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56: 167-198.

  • I think many analytic philosophers are still committed to the idea of conceptual analysis, see SEP Concepts and conceptual analysis. I am just not sure that political labels like "neoliberalism" necessarily have a substantive philosophical underpinning, i.e. that even their intended use is not rhetorical and has some objective phenomenon in mind. "Discourse" derives from Foucault and there is a fairly elaborate analysis of the concept.
    – Conifold
    Dec 19, 2019 at 23:03
  • is 'neoliberalism a philosophical concept? I'd say not. It seems to be more to do with sociology and politics.
    – user20253
    Dec 20, 2019 at 13:35

1 Answer 1


Gallie may have coined the term 'essentially contested concept' but its usage has long since slipped from its moorings in his paper.

Someone might say that 'neoliberalism', 'liberalism', 'socialism', 'conservatism', 'capitalism', 'democracy' and so forth are essentially contested in the sense that they cannot be pinned down by necessary and sufficient conditions. This is indeed true but if can talk in terms of the lack of necessary and sufficient conditions, as we are well used to doing, what work does that leave essential contestability to do?

Terms such as 'neoliberalism' are essentially contested on any common reckoning though 'neo-liberalism' itself does not present the challenges of analysis that 'socialism' or 'conservatism', against centuries of contestation, hold out. More must be involved if essential contestability is to be anthing distinct and coherent. But what? Here is a useful discussion by Eugene Garver:

From the beginning, much of the criticism of essentially contested concepts has been directed at an ambiguity in the word "essentially," an ambiguity that seems to imply that a theory of essentially contested concepts is self-contradictory. On the one hand, certain disputes appear to be endless, not for accidental reasons such as the ignorance or malice of the disputants, but because it is essential to the concept argued about that it does not lend itself to either a single definition or to linguistic disambiguation into several distinct concepts. On the other hand, though - and here is where the ambiguity comes in - that endless dispute must involve a single concept over which the disputants are forever arguing. If not, the debate is pointless, because under those circumstances one could never reach agreement. But once one says what that single concept is, continued debate seems pointless, since a final answer is now available. Once one identifies an essentially contested concept, it is no longer an essentially contested concept. The operations of theory have, for once, practical consequences, specifically the consequence of destroying the phenomenon it is trying to understand.

Attacks on the idea of essentially contested concepts have usually not framed the dilemma as directly as this. Instead they have first complained that no account of essentially contested concepts seems able to decide whether any given case is an instance of an essentially contested concept. They have then observed that if theories about some contest are supposed to be neutral and unbiased concerning the contestants, then the idea of essentially contested concepts is once again disqualified. It quickly becomes clear that to characterize a dispute as involving an essentially contested concept is often to take sides and always somehow to transform debate. For both these reasons, arguments about whether to call something an essentially contested concept seem simply to reproduce on a more abstract plane the initial dispute that the idea of essentially contested concept was supposed to account for. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, "debate within such practices [as politics, education, or science] is inseparable from debate about the practice." If discussion of essentially contested concepts simply translates old difficulties to a new plane, it's hard to thnk of that as progress.

(Eugene Garver, 'Essentially Contested Concepts: The Ethics and Tactics of Argument', Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 23, No. 4 (1990), pp. 251-270: 251-2; Alasdair MacIntyre', "The Essential Contestability of Some Social Concepts," Ethics 84 (1983): 6'.)

Garver twists and turns in a discusion that doesn't lend itself to easy summary - my shortcoming and nothng against him. However, we have his conclusion:

The conclusion, then, of my ... speculations is that two conceptions are both instances of a single essentially contested concept if they compete against other. I reject the thesis that they compete against each other because they are opposed versions of a single concept. Partisans, not theorists, determine whether a conflict involves an essentially contested concept. Therefore, it is clearly impossible that the idea of essentially contested concept corne equipped with anything resembling a demarcation criterion to determine which concepts are essentially contested and which are not. Concepts are essentially contested only derivatively, because they are employed in essentially contested arguments. What then of the second theoretical difficulty that philosophers have found with thè idea, the difficulty that to characterize a dispute as involving an essentially contested concept must be to take a stand about the dispute, and often to take a stand on one side of the dispute?

That question about the rôle of theory, or a theorist, in a dispute has a counterpart in the question of how disputants are to respond to the recognition that they occupy one part in a dispute involving essentially contested concepts. Whether or not a concept is essen- tially contested dépends on the argument, not the concept itself . Therefore, there can be no generai practical conclusions about essentially contested concepts. In that sensé, one could convict Gallie of overenthusiasm when he seems to daim that whenever one can recognize a concept as essentially contested, then one should treat it as such:

Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly likely, but as of permanent criticai value to one's own use or interpretation of the concept in question; whereas to regard any rival as anathema, perverse, bestial or lunatic means, in many cases, to submit oneself to the chronic human perii of underestimating or of completely ignoring, the value of one's opponent's positions. One desirable consequence of the required récognition in any proper instance of essential contestedness might therefore be a marked raising in the quality of arguments in the disputes of the contestant parties. And this would mean prima facie, a justification of the continued compétition for support and acknowledgment between various competing parties (p.168).

(Garver: 258; W.B. Gallie, W. B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (New York: Schoken, 1984): 188. This last is Gallie's revised, amplified and more reflective account. It does not clash with the Aristotlian Society account as you have presented it, so I am not altering the terms of the debate.)


Garver's 'two conceptions are both instances of a single essentially contested concept if they compete against other. I reject the thesis that they compete against each other because they are opposed versions of a single concept' is perhaps not the most accessible statement in his article. Time, I think, to bring in examples.

Take democracy. During the Cold War there were (at least) two conceptions of democracy. On the Anglo-American conception democracy was a matter of freedom of speech and asssociation and of a plurality of political parties contending for power, and often succeeding one another in power, in the fair and free elections.. Roughly that was the conception whatever the reality. In a democracy, government fulfils the will of the people.

On the 'People's Democracy' conception, prevailing in Eastern Europe, these accoutrements of democracy were not ignored - indeed part of the narrative was that they were fully embodied - but democracy was vitally a matter of ensuring that political structures constituted a proletarian state which abolished capitalism and replaced it with socialist relations of production according to need and educated the citizenry in a marxist/ leninist understanding of state, society, and the economy free from 'false consciousness'. In a democracy, government fulfils the needs of the people.

Interestingly both aspects - of will and of needs - were present in the original, direct participatory model of democracy in ancient Greece. (Were supposedly present, I should have said; the needs of women and of slaves were hardly to the fore.)

Back, then, to Garver. Anglo-American democracy and People's democracy competed against each other - democracy is this, no it's that - and thus rendered the concept of democracy essentially contested, given the lack of any decision procedure. Back of the competition were rival theories of the nature of politics, society, and the economy.

Garver contrasts this with the case where conflict over the nature of democracy arises from disputes within the concept of democracy about its true, authentic nature. Does democracy involve that the citizenry rule or merely that it should choose who should rule? Is there an objective public (or class) interest that should inform decision-making or are there only the wants, preferences, the utility schedules, of individuals? These are opposed versions of a single concept.

This at least (or something close) is what I think Garver should or could say but his phrases, 'two conceptions are both instances of a single essentially contested concept if they compete against other' and 'they compete against each other because they are opposed versions of a single concept' are two much alike to be desirable to mark a crucial distinction for the purpose here.

  • Excellent answer Geoffrey... Thank you so much. When Garver says that the dispute must involve a single concept which is being debated, does he mean that there is an essence or core of that concept that we can all agree to? In other words, concepts are semantically stable. If there is no essence or stability, then what are we debating about? What needs conceptual clarification? If there are essences, there must be a means to gain knowledge of those essences? As a person who is trying to understand philosophy, how can I gain knowledge of these means?
    – Shoaib
    Dec 22, 2019 at 5:40
  • 1
    @Shoaib. Thank you for your kind comment. Garver's language is unclear at a key point and I have tried to clarify what he meant, or should have meant ! in my revised answer - see 'Example'.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 22, 2019 at 14:28

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