On explaining political disagreement: The notion of an essentially contested concept

Inquiry 33 (1):81 – 98 (1990)
Although the notion of an essentially contested concept may shed light on the logic of disputes over the proper application of some key political terms, it nevertheless plays no genuine role in explaining the intractability of these disputes. The notion of an essentially contested concept is defended against some influential criticisms, showing how it is possible for one conception of an essentially contested concept to be justifiably regarded as superior to other competing conceptions. Two possible answers are distinguished to the question of why disputes over essentially contested concepts should be regarded as inevitable, but neither provides us with a plausible explanation for why they are so intractable. Disagreements over the proper use of key political concepts are better explained by features of moral and political discourse, such as the short reach of ?intellectual authority? and the fact that consensus is not one of its primary aims, in conjunction with empirical hypotheses from the social sciences, rather than by essential contestedness theses
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