Christine Swanton, “On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts,” Ethics 95, no. 4 (1985): 811–27.
Are the central concepts of political theory like justice, democracy, rights, freedom, and power “essentially contested”?
The “essential contestedness” of political concepts rests on the distinction between a concept x of which there may be many rival and incompatible conceptions or “interpretations” or “uses”.
There appears to be three current views on how that distinction can be made.
The first is to provide a “canonical form” for a concept x. Consider Gerald MacCallum’s schematic characterisation of the concept of liberty as a “triadic” relation: ‘x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z.’ The rival conceptions of liberty that arise concern the proper range of the variables x, y and z.
The second is to specify the “common content” of a concept x. John Rawls contends that all conceptions of justice concern with “determining rules for assigning basic rights and duties, and the proper nonarbitrary balancing of competing claims to the advantages of social life”. Rival conceptions of justice will arise, according to this view, based on disagreements about the principles to be accepted in determining those rules.
The third is to say that ‘[t]he concept of x is “derived” from an “exemplar” of x to which the concept of x paradigmatically applies.’ Consider W. B. Gallie’s champion bowling team which serves as an exemplar to all other teams playing the game.
Whichever view one accepts, it is clear that essentially contested concepts do share a common core whose interpretations and specifications are essentially contested. The core is the concept proper and its interpretations are the conceptions.
In what way then is a concept x essentially contested?
“There are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.”
There are two theses here. The first, that of “contestedness”, says that there are concepts which are recognised by their users as contestable and actually contested. The second, that of “essential contestedness”, says that the contests are “inevitable” and “endless” — that is why they are “essentially” contested.
The first thesis, C, can be expressed in the following manner: “There is at least one concept, central to political theory, which is such that (a) that concept admits of a variety of “interpretations” or “uses,” and (b) is such that its proper use is disputable, and conceptions are deployable both “aggressively and defensively” against rival conceptions.”
The second thesis has two variants: the relativist and the sceptical. The relativist version, PR, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of “interpretations” (namely, conceptions of x), and which is such that no interpretation of C is the best conception of x.”
The sceptical version, PE, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of interpretations (namely, conceptions of x) and which is such that for any interpretation, C’i, of C, there is no warrant for the belief that C’i is the best conception of x.”
The relativist version denies the existence of one best conception of x whereas the sceptical version dismisses the possibility of knowing the best conception of x even if there is one.
Essential contestedness views thus described — i.e., the conjunction of C and PR, and the conjunction of C and PE — have been accused of incoherence and lack of justification.
A version of the first charge points out that if there is no best interpretation or no way of knowing the best interpretation, there is no point in contestation. Brian Barry for example accuses Steven Lukes of arguing that debates about the proper use of power involve irresolvable value conflict and then suggesting the existence of criteria for settling them.
A defence against this charge would be to argue that the impossibility of knowing or non-existence of the best interpretation does not preclude knowledge about better interpretations. There is then a point and the point lies not in determining the best wheat, but in separating the wheat from the chaff.
A more serious charge attacks the distinction between concept and conception, or more precisely the belief in an uncontested “common core”. The question is: is the concept itself essentially contested? To reply no to this question is to admit that both PR and PE do not hold for the concept. In other words, the absolute truth value of the concept exists and can be determined. If this is the case, why is it not the same with the conceptions? To reply yes, on the other hand, would be to deny the very validity of the existence of a concept and this would force theorists to either abandon the idea of an uncontested concept or the idea of essential contestedness itself.
If the first of the replies is correct, it might be argued that the problem is no so serious. However, in the cases of freedom, justice, and rights, there is “no uncontested conceptual core”. Let us use the example of distributive justice.
Consider the following sample concepts of distributive justice.
C1: Whatever distribution of a social advantage arises from a just situation by just means is itself just.
C2: A proper nonarbitrary balance between competing claims for a social advantage is determined.
C3: There is a rendering unto each his/her due share or amount of social advantage.
There are multiple interpretations of “just situation” of historical entitlement theory expressed in C1, or the “proper nonarbitrary balance” of Rawlsian justice expressed in C2, or the “due share” of patterned theory expressed in C3. This then makes C1, C2, and C3 concepts of justice rather than full-blown conceptions. However, there is no agreement on which of the three should be adopted as the concept of distributive justice.
The first stresses procedure over outcome, the second presupposes competing interests as necessary for justice, while the last tries to match benefits and burdens with due consideration to relevant natural properties of individuals. The concept of distributive justice turns out then to be highly theory laden.
The implication is that the assumption of a concept which is common to all conceptions must be dropped if the charges of incoherence are to be adequately addressed. But how can theorists contest without knowing what they are contesting? In other words, if there is no concept of justice, how can theorists argue justice? The short answer is that the lack of a common meaning does not mean the lack of a common referent. In the case of freedom, one could refer to sufficiently many sample instances containing the word “free” and its cognates as constituting a common conception.
This resolution of the second charge of incoherence presupposes that it is sensible to talk about contested conceptions without there being a core concept as such and further that no such conception is the best. These presuppositions however have the effect of dissolving the difference between concepts and conceptions.
So modified, essential contestedness can now be understood as the conjunction of C’ and P’R, and the conjunction of C’ and P’E.
C’: There is at least one political ideal x, of which there are several conceptions, and these conceptions of x are deployable both aggressively and defensively against rival conceptions of x.
P’R: There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and no conception of x is the best conception of x.
P’E: There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and there is no warrant for a belief that any of those conceptions of x is the best conception of x.
Justifications of this modified view of essential contestedness come in three distinct flavours:
Q: The criteria of many political concepts are multiple and evaluative, and stand in no settled relation of priority with one another.
R: Conceptions of political ideals “arise within,” “operate within,” and “express” particular moral or political theories or “perspectives.”
S: There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any moral and political perspective, from the standpoint of which we can judge any conception of a political ideal to be the best.
Consider Q. This thesis is visible in Gallie who explicates the essential contestedness of the concept of a champion team at bowling in terms of the “many valued features in the exemplar’s play, which stand in no settled relation of priority”. These “features” would be weighed differently by different appraisers.
To illustrate this thesis using justice, consider two kids A and B who agree to each clean half of person’s windows for ten dollars each. A does a barely satisfactory job in an hour and B does an excellent job in two. A’s family is poor while B’s is wealthy. On a criterion of entitlement by right, each should receive ten dollars each; on a criterion of desert, B should receive more; on a criterion of need, A should receive more.
If Q applies to this situation, given the conflict, any one criteria could override the others. This means that Q is compatible with an intuitionist conception of justice which allows multiple first principles for determining what is just but disallows methods for prioritising those principles, yet asserts the intuitive knowability of what the just thing to do is. The implication is that Q cannot then be compatible with P’R and P’E.
To turn to R, the argument appears to be, according to Lukes, that the rival uses of a concept express differing and incommensurable — in the Kuhnian sense — moral and political perspectives. This leads to their essential contestedness. Conceptions of justice embedded in different concepts of justice and given the incommensurability of the concepts, there can be no best conception of justice. Hence, R supports P’R via a thesis of incommensurability.
This incommensurability may be due to differing meanings of the terms used in the theories. If the referents too are assumed to be different — afterall, sense determines reference — then the theories cannot even be about the same thing. Incommensurability may also be merely because of the absence of any method of showing that the terms mean the same.
However, Lukes cannot use the thesis of incommensurability to consistently to derive P’R from R. If conceptions are embedded in concepts which are incommensurable, rival conceptions cannot have a common core — a necessity for Lukes’ thesis of essential contestedness. Even if the assumption of a common core is dropped, it remains to be seen if incommensurable concepts can be contested concepts. The consensus is that they cannot be. Perhaps, then, sense doesn’t determine reference and incommensurable theories are in fact talking about the same referent. But this assumes that statements of different theories are intertranslatable. Something that the incommensurability thesis denies.
In short, the thesis of incommensurability undermines C’. If incommensurability can be used to derive P’R from R, then idea that the concepts are essentially contested has to be dropped.
What about S? Lukes, quoting FH Bradley, criticises John Rawls for attempting to “theoretical[ly] … isolate what cannot be isolated” when he speculates about the Original Position as an Archimedean point or judging the basic structure of society. The individuals of the Original Position are, for Lukes, “literally inconceivable”.
S, the thesis that rejects the existence of any Archimedean point, seems to lead to P’E through the following line of argument.
i. Conceptions of political ideals are embedded in moral or political theories or perspectives (thesis R).
ii. Such perspectives always involve commitment to value systems.
iii. There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any particular value system, from the standpoint of which we can judge any moral or political perspective to be true. Therefore:
iv. There is no warrant for believing that any conception of an ideal embedded in such a perspective, is the best conception of that ideal.
But the conclusion iv does not follow from i, ii, and iii alone. It requires the following to be true.
v. There is no theory which both provides a warrant for a claim that a conception C is the best conception of x, and fails to constitute an “Archimedean point” for justification of such a claim.
In other words, to say that lack of an Archimedean point from which to judge differing moral perspectives to which people are committed does not warrant the abandonment of the belief in any one perspective as the best conception. For this to hold, it must further be (shown to be) true that any theory that provides warrant for a claim that a conception is the best also constitutes an Archimedean point for justifying that claim.
It will be argued that this critical final requirement is in certain cases not fulfilled. Consider a coherence epistemology that requires a coherence among “background theory, judgments, and conceptions; and in a way that does justice to the endoxa — the beliefs of the many or the wise.” However, it cannot, without losing its coherence, provide for an Archimedean point upon which to “lever” one theory above the rest as the best.
A coherentist may, in claiming a theory as the best conception, only point to (a) a theory grounded in an “ideally rational perspective” or (b) a theory that comes closest to the former. A coherence epistemology can seek to justify claims that a certain conception is the best based on either of the two senses without appealing to the need of an Archimedean point. The principles for justification could be the “degree of coherence achieved, the number and significance of the endoxa considered as initial “data points,” and the degree to which the theoretical apparatus enables the point of the various endoxa considered to be preserved.”
To sum up, there are certain types of theory, like coherence theories for example, which do not constitute Archimedean points for justification and evaluation. This being true, S cannot lead to P’E.
“I conclude that neither Q, R, nor S establish the (modified) essential contestedness views. These three theses are, to my knowledge, the only grounds which have been advocated in defense of the essential contestedness of concepts. Attractive though the essential contestedness hypothesis is as a solution to the problem of intractable dispute in political and moral theory, the hypothesis has not yet been adequately defended.
 Gallie, W B. 1955. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56: 167–98.
 Ibid., p. 169.
 Barry, Brian. 1975. “The Obscurities of Power.” Government and Opposition 10(2): 250–54.
 Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View (London: Macmillan, 1974)
 “Now it is generally thought that it is a confusion to believe that incommensurable theories are competing theories.”
 “(a) relevant judgments acceptable to the “many or the wise” and which at least presumptively reveal something of the nature of the ideal under investigation; (b) rival conceptions of the ideal under investigation; and (c) “background” theories whose purpose is to uncover the needs and interests served by the classification of items in terms of the ideal under investigation and to thereby discover the point of and strengths of the various judgments and conceptions.”