In a paper delivered to the Aristotelian Society on 12 March 1956, Walter Bryce Gallie (1912–1998) introduced the term essentially contested concept to facilitate an understanding of the different applications or interpretations of the sorts of abstract, qualitative, and evaluative notions—such as "art", "philanthropy" and "social justice"—used in the domains of aesthetics, sustainable development, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion.
Garver (1978) describes their use as follows:
The term essentially contested concepts gives a name to a problematic situation that many people recognize: that in certain kinds of talk there is a variety of meanings employed for key terms in an argument, and there is a feeling that dogmatism ("My answer is right and all others are wrong"), skepticism ("All answers are equally true (or false); everyone has a right to his own truth"), and eclecticism ("Each meaning gives a partial view so the more meanings the better") are none of them the appropriate attitude towards that variety of meanings.
Essentially contested concepts involve widespread agreement on a concept (e.g., "fairness"), but not on the best realization thereof. They are "concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users", and these disputes "cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone".
Although Gallie's term is widely used to denote imprecise use of technical terminology, it has a far more specific application. And, although the notion could be misleadingly and evasively used to justify "agreeing to disagree", the term offers something more valuable:
Since its introduction by W.B. Gallie in 1956, the expression "essentially contested concept" has been treated both as a challenge and as an excuse by social theorists. It has been treated as a challenge in that theorists consider their uses of terms and concepts to be in competition with the uses advocated by other theorists, each theorist trying to be deemed the champion. It has been treated as an excuse in that, rather than acknowledge that the failure to reach agreement is due to such factors as imprecision, ignorance, or belligerence, instead theorists point to the terms and concepts under dispute and insist that they are always open to contest — that they are terms and concepts about which we can never expect to reach agreement.
The disputes that attend an essentially contested concept are driven by substantive disagreements over a range of different, entirely reasonable (although perhaps mistaken) interpretations of a mutually-agreed-upon archetypical notion, such as the legal precept "treat like cases alike; and treat different cases differently", with "each party [continuing] to defend its case with what it claims to be convincing arguments, evidence and other forms of justification".
Gallie speaks of how "This picture is painted in oils" can be successfully contested if the work is actually painted in tempera; while "This picture is a work of art" may meet strong opposition due to disputes over what "work of art" denotes. He suggests three avenues whereby one might resolve such disputes:
Otherwise, the dispute probably centres on polysemy. Here, a number of critical questions must be asked:
Barry Clarke has made a valuable contribution to the overall debate by suggesting that, in order to determine whether a particular dispute was a consequence of true polysemy or inadvertent homonymy, one should seek to "locate the source of the dispute"; and in doing so, one might find that the source was "within the concept itself", or "[within] some underlying non-conceptual disagreement between the contestants".
Clarke then drew attention to the substantial differences between the expressions "essentially contested" and "essentially contestable", that were being extensively used within the literature as if they were interchangeable.
Clarke argued that to state that a concept is merely "contested" is to "attribute significance to the contest rather than to the concept". Yet, to state that a concept is "contestable" (rather than "merely contested") is to "attribute some part of any contest to the concept"; namely, "to claim that some feature or property of the concept makes it polysemantic, and that [from this] the concept contains some internal conflict of ideas"; and it's this state of affairs that provides the "essentially contestable concept" with its "inherent potential [for] generating disputes".
In 1956 Gallie proposed a set of seven conditions for the existence of an essentially contested concept. Gallie was very specific about the limits of his enterprise: it dealt exclusively with abstract, qualitative notions, such as art, religion, science, democracy, and social justice (and, if Gallie’s choices are contrasted with negatively regarded concepts such as evil, disease, superstition, etc., it is clear that the concepts he chose were exclusively positively regarded).
Freeden remarks that "not all essentially contested concepts signify valued achievements; they may equally signify disapproved and denigrated phenomena", and Gerring asks us to imagine just how difficult it would be to "[try] to craft definitions of slavery, fascism, terrorism, or genocide without recourse to 'pejorative' attributes".
These features distinguish Gallie's "essentially contested concepts" from others, "which can be shown, as a result of analysis or experiment, to be radically confused"; or, as Gray would have it, they are the features that relate to the task of distinguishing the "general words, which really denote an essentially contested concept" from those other "general words, whose uses conceal a diversity of distinguishable concepts":
Scholars such as H. L. A. Hart, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Steven Lukes have variously embellished Gallie's proposal by arguing that certain of the difficulties encountered with Gallie’s proposition may be due to the unintended conflation of two separate domains associated with the term concept:
In essence, Hart (1961), Rawls (1971), Dworkin (1972), and Lukes (1974) distinguished between the "unity" of a notion and the "multiplicity" of its possible instantiations.
From their work it is easy to understand the issue as one of determining whether there is a single notion that has a number of different instantiations, or whether there is more than one notion, each of which is reflected in a different usage.
In a section of his 1972 article in The New York Review of Books, Dworkin used the example of "fairness" to isolate and elaborate the difference between a concept (suum cuique) and its conception (various instantiations, for example utilitarian ethics).
He supposes that he has instructed his children not to treat others "unfairly" and asks us to recognize that, whilst he would have undoubtedly had particular "examples" (of the sorts of conduct he was intending to discourage) in mind at the time he spoke to his children, whatever it was that he meant when he issued such instructions was not confined to those "examples" alone, for two reasons:
Dworkin argues that this admission of error would not entail any "change" to his original instructions, because the true meaning of his instructions was that "[he] meant the family to be guided by the concept of fairness, not by any specific conception of fairness [that he] might have had in mind". Therefore, he argues, his instructions do, in fact, "cover" this new case.
Exploring what he considers to be the "crucial distinction" between the overall concept of "fairness" and some particular, and specific conception of "fairness", he asks us to imagine a group whose members share the view that certain acts are unfair.
The members of this group "agree on a great number of standard cases of unfairness and use these as benchmarks against which to test other, more controversial cases".
In these circumstances, says Dworkin, "the group has a concept of unfairness, and its members may appeal to that concept in moral instruction or argument."
However, the members may still disagree over many of these "controversial cases"; and differences of this sort indicate that members have, or act upon, entirely different theories of why and how each of the "standard cases" are, in fact, genuine acts of "unfairness".
And, because each considers that certain principles "[which] must be relied upon to show that a particular division or attribution is unfair" are more "fundamental" than certain other principles, it can be said that members of the group have different conceptions of "fairness".
Consequently, those responsible for giving "instructions", and those responsible for setting "standards" of "fairness", in this community may be doing one of two things:
It is important to recognize that rather than it just being a case of delivering two different instructions; it is a case of delivering two different kinds of instruction:
As a consequence, according to Dworkin, whenever an appeal is made to "fairness", a moral issue is raised; and, whenever a conception of "fairness" is laid down, an attempt is being made to answer that moral issue.
Whilst Gallie's expression "essentially contested concepts" precisely denotes those "essentially questionable and corrigible concepts" which "are permanently and essentially subject to revision and question", close examination of the wide and varied and imprecise applications of Gallie's term subsequent to 1956, by those who have ascribed their own literal meaning to Gallie's term without ever consulting Gallie's work, have led many philosophers to conclude that "essentially disputed concepts" would have been far better choice for Gallie's meaning, for at least three reasons:
Jeremy Waldron's research has revealed that Gallie's notion has "run wild" in the law review literature over the ensuing 60 years and is now being used to denote something like "very hotly contested, with no resolution in sight", due to an entirely mistaken view that the essential in Gallie's term is an "intensifier", when, in fact, "[Gallie's] term 'essential' refers to the location of the disagreement or indeterminacy; it is contestation at the core, not just at the borderlines or penumbra of a concept".
Yet is also clear that "if the notion of logical justification can be applied only to such theses and arguments as can be presumed capable of gaining in the long run universal agreement, the disputes to which the uses of any essentially contested concept give rise are not genuine or rational disputes at all"[clarification needed] (Gallie, 1956a, p. 188).
Thus, Gallie argued:
So long as contestant users of any essentially contested concept believe, however deludedly, that their own use of it is the only one that can command honest and informed approval, they are likely to persist in the hope that they will ultimately persuade and convert all their opponents by logical means. But once [we] let the truth out of the bag — i.e., the essential contestedness of the concept in question — then this harmless if deluded hope may well be replaced by a ruthless decision to cut the cackle, to damn the heretics and to exterminate the unwanted.