Essentially Contested Concepts: The Ethics and Tactics of Argument

Document Type


Publication Date



Arts and Humanities | Philosophy | Rhetoric | Rhetoric and Composition


“Since the term was coined by W. B. Gallie, the idea of essentially contested concepts has been used to analyze political controversies, has been subject to theoretical examination, and has been referred to, because of its immediate phonological appeal, in acts of incantation and as a substitute for argument. It has been theorized about more than used, and appealed to more often than thought about. In fact, the proportion among these three functions is similar to that of many other magical-sounding terms, such as Dialectic and the Free Market, so much so that at least one thinker has recently suggested that the idea of essentially contested concepts has outlived its usefulness. It will be my purpose to do something towards reversing those proportions. I hope to show that the apparently theoretical paradoxes and sophisms that emerge almost as soon as the term is mentioned have serious practical consequences for how we conduct, and how we should conduct, practical argument.”