Category:Essentially contested concepts

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This category contains articles that may cause disagreement - sometimes heated - among people who know about the matters in them.

Such disagreements arise from the nature of AWE. AWE is NOT an encyclopedia, nor an authoritative final arbiter of knowledge. It is designed to give a quick overview of some of the topics - words, phrases or ideas - which students in Higher Education may come across in their reading. (This is our target audience, of course: other users of AWE include people not affiliated to any institution, and people who hope to enter Higher Education in due course, as well as many from outside our target area of the UK.)

In other words, if you seek to find out what Edwardian means, for example, you will be told "Edwardian is the adjective from the forename Edward, and is normally only used to describe things associated with a King Edward. The adjective Edwardian is, in normal usage, only applied to the reign of Edward VII; though in particular contexts historians and others may mean any relevant Edward. For example, students of medieval fortifications will talk of Edwardian castles, meaning those castles built by Edward I at the end of the thirteenth century to subdue the Welsh, like Caernarvon." That may be enough for you; but you may want to follow the link to King Edward. That page contains paragraphs averaging about 5 lines, each describing the simplest facts about one of eleven kings who have borne that name in the British Isles over the past 1000 or so years. Obviously, that is not enough information for a history student working on any one of them; and the sketchy material included would not satisfy any of that student's teachers. Some of it may be wrong, in detail, in the eyes of an up-to-date expert. But is is, we trust, enough for any other student to realize in general terms what the academic community other than the experts take as a general view.

If relatively non-contentious subjects, such as history (and the first six [numbered] Edwards reigned between 1272 and 1553), can arouse disagreement among academics, so much so more can contemporary issues, particularly those which influence people's lives, perhaps predominantly religion and politics. The word liberal, is one such. A right-wing theory of political economics is often called neo-liberal, or sometimes plain liberal, while in social political matters the word liberal is usually seen as labelling a left-wing position. This can confuse students; and if they seek further clarification from different teachers, they may be given very different answers. Defining 'belief' in 'God' is a further example of an area where disagreement is also possible at the most fundamental level. In the public arena, questions of this sort, and problems, practical as well as theoretical, arising from them (e.g. the rights of women to be veiled - or unveiled) are at least partly matters of clear definition. Philosophers may write whole books about them. AWE aims never to have more than a single screen, though not always succeeding.

These topics are what AWE calls essentially contested concepts. We owe the phrase to a paper by W.B. Gallie, "Essentially Contested Concepts", in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian society, vol. LXI, of 1955. He said that some topics of debate will always be clouded, because the terms are always defined in such a way that their definition shapes the argument. So readers of AWE seeking enlightenment about any of the topics that are included in this category are warned that they will not find 'the answer' here - and quite probably nowhere. We hope to give them an indication of the general lay conception of a term, together with, possibly, some indication of the difficulties, disputes and debates that may be inherent in the topic.


This category has only the following subcategory.