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Re: [xmca] Institutions and concepts

Andy and all,

Seeing institutions as a sort of easy triune-unity of the practices, artifacts, and actors certainly makes sense -- but it seems rather remote from most notions of "concept", though certainly if we want to reconceive concepts in this ways, I'd be for it. I'd probably just change the name, too. If we take "a concept" as a nominalized and reifying kludge for a particular culture- and institution- specific conceptual-thinking-acting-process, then we're most of the way there already. We're now dealing with concepts-in-use, and that's also not far from how functional linguistics sees the meanings of the words and phrases we use to name concepts, via language-in-use, also not so different from Wittgenstein, and if we replace "use" by activity or by work/labor, then also more or less the view of Marx and LSV, Leontiev.

But somehow all that complexity seems to get lost when people start to talk about scientific concepts. There is some sort of urge towards idealism and reification (i.e. taking an abstraction as naming a phenomenon with causal powers) when people talk about, say, energy. When that term first started being used, it was regarded as a sort of highly artificial but useful bookkeeping device. As were notions like entropy in the past, or more recently, say, quantum fields or probability waves. Or quarks. But anything we tend to talk about using the grammar of things (vs. that of processes or relations, say) eventually starts to feel to us like a thing, a reality, an actor/actant ... a chair or a battery.

So I'd really like to move away from using the notion of "concept" altogether, rather than rehabilitating it.

But for me the more important point you're making (below) is about the internal misfit that is inevitable in concept-mediated-meaning-making-activity, because the people doing it at any given moment are not the people who either produced the concept (conceptual discourse) or even the activity in which it's being used. Their triune-unity is unstable (sometimes productively), uneasy, effortful, internally contradiction-ridden, etc. This is a very important insight that is really not possible with the usual cognitive science notion of concepts as semantic representations of real phenomena in individual minds.

As to the emotions, that too is complicated, and not just by the role of people doing conceptual-discourse-mediated activity. What we feel, individually, inter-personally, and collectively depends a lot on our fits and misfits with the structure of the activity and the meaning-assumptions in the discourse. So some is shared and some is not. In my previous argument, we have to embed these activities in institutions (though also somewhat unstably, with contradictions, etc.) and so part of what constitutes the emotional style or norms of an institution are various idealizations of what we think we ought to feel when doing its activities, and what we know we do feel and learn that others feel. Institutions then have affective "climates" and affective repertoires and norms, and these supervene on and press on the normative and actual feelings associated with activities, and with actions.

Not all these "feelings" are intra-individual ones, because in a systems sense, there are multiple levels of real material organization, with emergent "feelings" for dyads, groups, people-plus-artifacts-in-action (cf. distributed cognition/affect), and in some sense also institutions. Or more precisely, the individual material systems that are instances of the social-cultural institution. I don't think we really have a language or a theory yet to talk about feelings or feeling-analogues, or the affective aspects of meanings and processes at these higher levels of material organization and dynamics. We can just about get our heads around group panics or mob frenzies, but our models are still ones of "contagion", as if all feeling had to be defined intra-individually still. Rock concerts and surgical operating theaters also clearly have collective affects, and they would seem to be aspects of the institutional definition.

So much more to be thought through!


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

On Apr 1, 2010, at 5:59 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> I pretty much agree with all your comments on this issue Jay, but just on the matter of distinctions at the end of your message:
> Jay Lemke wrote:
>> Two final points. First I am using "concept" here as a shorthand for concept-mediated practices, where the reality is always the practice-in-activity. Concepts as some sort of non-material realities in themselves make no sense to me. And second, there is an asymmetry in the relation of concept and institution. You can't, I think, define a concept apart from its grounding institution and the activities and practices normal to that institution. But you could not I think successfully define an institution through its associated concepts (though some people do try to do this, for example, with Mathematics, and even far less plausibly with the natural sciences).
> I always see the institution or project or whatever as having three components: the set of activities, the artefacts (texts, buildings, images, tools, etc) and the real people enacting/thinking them. I see the concept as the identity of these three, obviously not something else on top of them, of course. The three aspects are never completely identical, and thus concepts always have a certain internal dissonance.
>> But to end by crossing two recent threads: if concepts are embedded in institutions, and concept learning is part of a development that always depends on affects, should we expect that institutions not only have their characteristic concepts, but also their characteristic emotional feelings? And that learning an institution-grounded concept therefore also means learning to feel emotionally in the "style" of that institution?
> If this (the above) is the case, then you observation is right, of course, Jay. I think the relation is like that of quantity and quality, or exchange-value and use-value, or if and what. If you include the people in the concept, then it is not problematic that the concept includes emotions, but these are not shared in quite the same way as the shared artefacts and collaborative activity.
> Andy
>> JAY.
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