The Future of Conceptualisation Lies in the Past

Ever wonder why some concepts just seem to have no fixed meanings? Arthur Gautier, Assistant Professor at ESSEC Business School and Executive Director of the ESSEC Philanthropy Chair, believes the fault lies in our ways of understanding these concepts.

By CoBS Student Editor Kunal Ganorkar, based on the research paper titled ‘Historically contested concepts: A conceptual history of philanthropy in France, 1712-1914by Arthur Gautier.

Putting things into perspective

“The chicken first or the egg?” is the longest debated question as far as mankind remembers. Some say the egg came first while the others choose to side with the chicken. With each one making an argument that is sound, it is hard to pick a clear winner.

Essentially contested concepts are much like these. W.B. Gallie, a political theorist and philosopher, introduced the notion of these essentially contested concepts (ECCs) to describe those concepts that bring about endless disputes on what they actually imply, especially for the people who use them. He created a framework which helped identify them based on a set of seven criteria. This has helped researchers better understand the dynamics of contestation around key concepts such as “democracy” or “social justice”, by coming up with better meanings for them.

Concepts have long been defined under two models. The classical model views concepts as constitutive elements of a phenomenon with clear boundaries, necessary and sufficient features, that can be tested empirically. A rival model, known as linguistic or language-focused, suggests that concepts are contextual and dependent on multiple interpretations. There are, as such, no fixed boundaries or features, as different groups may use them while altering their definitions.

Philanthropy as an Essentially Contested Concept

Take, for example, the concept of philanthropy which is broadly defined as ‘giving of gifts of time or valuables (money, securities, property) for public purposes’. Over the years, it has become a global phenomenon. But, in spite of this, there are recurring debates about what philanthropy really is or ought to be. Critics have depicted philanthropy as a mechanism which allows the dominant classes to avoid taxation while influencing public policy. Among sympathizers, there are disagreements on how philanthropy could be made more strategic or effective in order to fulfil its potential.

Building upon this, Siobhan Daly, a lecturer in political sciences, applied Gallie’s framework to study the ambiguity surrounding philanthropy in the academic literature. Indeed, it seemed to validate all criteria of the ECC framework: strong normative valence, internal complexity, diverse describability, openness to revision, and so on. However, like most studies relying on Gallie’s insights, it failed to take into account three important aspects: the social, cultural, and political context of contestation; the identities, intentions, and roles of the social groups involved; and the historical nature of conceptual contestation.

As such, Daly’s study revolved around the English form of the word and mainly cited authors based in the USA which passed off the study of American Philanthropy as a study of global philanthropy. Secondly, her article focussed only on the academic debates revolving around the concept, overlooking other contesting entities such as officials, journalists, non-profit executives, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists who have been part of intense discussions on the role of philanthropy in democratic societies. Thirdly, although Daly noted that the concept of philanthropy has evolved with the evolution of societies, she did not analyse this evolution in detail.

Arthur Gautier, Professor at ESSEC Business School, acknowledged these imperfections and used it as a backdrop for his philanthropy research, this time in the context of France during the “long nineteenth century”. Through the course of his research, he was able to develop another model which overcame the shortcomings of Gallie’s model.

A brief history of philanthropy in the context of France:

  • Before 1789, Catholics viewed it as another name for charity, whereas secular philosophers and liberal elites believed that it was grounded in the natural goodness of man and not in religion.
  • During the Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte (1789-1814), there were debates as to whether philanthropy was just an abstract ideal and if it should result into state-enforced public assistance or voluntary private initiatives.
  • Under the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), conservative Catholics viewed philanthropy as a godless, impure version of charity, while progressive Catholics and Protestants viewed it as a modern ideal compatible with Christian principles.
  • In the 1830s, while liberals defined philanthropy as a progressive and effective way to deal with enduring social problems, others believed it was naïve and insufficient to tackle them at the root. For socialist intellectuals, philanthropy was nothing but a hypocritical strategy of the capitalist elite to protect its interests, and an impediment to real social progress.
  • By the end of the 19th century, republican leaders considered charity and philanthropy as a first attempt (thesis) to achieve public good, socialism as a reaction (antithesis) against its contradictions and flaws, and solidarité, understood as state-enforced social welfare policies while protecting the institutions of capitalism, as the correct synthesis.

The chinks in Gallie’s armour

By shifting the attention from ideas to the various agents who used them and their varying situations and intentions, and by limiting concept definitions to specific historical periods, Arthur Gautier was able to address the main limitations of the ECC framework.

He depicts that contestation is not a permanent feature of ECCs but arises through a historical process of political conflict between social groups. ECCs are not necessarily contested at birth. Seemingly consensual concepts only become contested when various social groups use them in controversial ways to achieve differing political goals. In the studied case, Catholic and secular thinkers in France used philanthropy and charity as synonyms in the first decades of the eighteenth century, and it was only later that the concepts were seen as conflicting.

Secondly, he argues that analysing ECCs as isolated units is defective. Conceptual historians such as Quentin Skinner have emphasized that a single concept can hardly be understood without reference to other relevant concepts since they define each other reciprocally. In the French context, philanthropy was not only contested in itself, but also in light of concepts like charity and solidarity.

Thirdly, Arthur Gautier uncovers the process by which concepts become contested and the influence of time and groups in this contestation. Philanthropy and its related concepts (charity, solidarity) each had proponents and opponents among the various actors in the context, including progressive and conservative Catholics, liberals, and socialists. To understand why the concepts are contested, it is necessary to identify the contesting parties and the social setting at the time of the contestation.

Further, he shows that translating an ECC into a set of practices has catalytic and often unintended consequences for its meaning. As the application clarifies what the protagonists actually mean by their concepts, they also end up changing the relationship vis-à-vis rival concepts- either distancing or blurring their differences. As detailed in the case study, philanthropic societies launched innovative practices that distinguished them from traditional Catholic charitable organizations. Yet eventually their practices grew increasingly similar while they stood in sharp contrast ideologically.

Finally, Arthur Gautier suggests that opposing concepts can become synonymous if social actors propose an alternative concept that addresses their weaknesses and avoid the stigma attached to them. Republican statesmen, in the context of France’s third Republic, viewed solidarity as the bridge between laissez-faire liberalism (and its reliance on charity or philanthropy) and revolutionary socialism, two perceptibly opposing concepts at that time.

Paving the way forward

Through his research, Professor Arthur Gautier of ESSEC Business School reached the conclusion that ECCs need to be viewed in a different light and as historical concepts. A historical concept is limited to a specific historical period, and its definition can change along with political ideas and social reality.

As discussed above, studying ECCs as “historically contested concepts” could guide scholars and practitioners to a better understanding of how and why conceptual contestation unfolds over time. Taking stock of lessons from the past can potentially lead entrepreneurs, managers, and elected officials to make better decisions for the future. This approach could be fruitfully applied to current and ubiquitous debates about concepts such as climate change, sustainability, artificial intelligence, and transhumanism.

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