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Re: [xmca] concepts

You see Jay, I think we have to answer the question of what concepts are in terms like "saying How Events Happen, including events in which we might be tempted to provisionally agree that that some 'higher intellectual processes' were happening" rather than saying because we think this then we will refuse to talk about concepts at all. Human beings are born realists, even though, on reflection, we know that the real is always relative. So we need to be able to describe what a concept is in these terms, as a kind of model for how we say what anything is.

I criticised the Encyclopedia not just for omitting one of my favourite writers, but because I believe that Hegel is the one who offers the key to understanding concepts, and his 800-page book on the topic can hardly be ignored when contemporary American psychology is trapped in cartesian dualisms and reifications. I wouldn't expect Hegel to get a mention in the entries on discourse analysis, linguistics or feminism. But concepts was his pet topic.

But also George Lakoff deserves a mention, as does Nancy Nersessian, for example, not to mention Vygotsky.


Jay Lemke wrote:
Martin, Andy, and all --

We are planning to have some discussions around the Concept of a Concept and its/our Discontents over the next few weeks here in the Lab.

We'll see what that turns up. Meanwhile, I'll just say that I am uneasy with a lot of our Western philosophical tradition around "concepts" and precisely the way it overlaps with folk-theory discourse in particular modern historical epochs (and particulars cultures, not to mention social classes, etc.) deeply rooted in mentalism and individualism.

Obviously LSV and many others, including most of us, have been working to find more materialist and trans-individual ways of dealing with the phenomena for which the notion of a concept normally serves, and brings with it its considerable historical baggage of ideologies we mostly don't share or like.

I don't believe that abstract-level reasoning, or the use of categories, at all demands a notion of "concept" such as we usually have it. Concepts are, I think, inherently reifications. Not in the sense that they put us in mind of some real material thing, which they don't, but in the sense that they claim a "thing-like" semantic status (they are named, by nouns, qualified by adjectives, even counted in some quarters! and used as the agents and objects of verbs) ... all of which is very un-process-like, very un-dynamical, very Platonist not just in the sense of edging towards giving Ideas causal force but in the sense of supporting an unchanging universal Order.

Higher intellectual reasoning and action-problem-solving processes, fully embodied, always essentially feeling-guided as well as logically describable, seem to me to be ones in which the mediational processes are protean, flexible, fuzzy, productively ambiguous, leaping beyond logic and then cleaning up after themselves for the sake of formal propriety. Categories are made, modified, and discarded as the moment demands. To say the same thing twice (i.e. in two events or contexts), the root of what we usually call generalization or abstraction, is always an approximation, always a judgment about the relative relevance of making things appear similar vs. highlighting their differences. Fixed abstractions are cultural conventions, supported by institutions, disciplines, and paradigms. They are limiting, and meant to be limiting, they are tools of social and cultural control. Higher-order intellectual processes become creative precisely insofar as we liberate ourselves from the notion that the Given Concepts worshipped around us are anything more than signposts and reference points in a much larger space of possible ways of doing and representing and reasoning.

Are there really "fixed knots"? I would only go so far as to say there is Something, indeed, even that while colloquial is too thing-like. Processes are happening, dynamics is happening, chaos fills the pleroma, and there are only two certainties: difference and change. The Great Happening is not homogeneous and uniform in any dimension, including space and time. The Kantian a priori's are nothing of the sort. They are just one set of roots to which one culture's view of reality can be reduced if you wish to do so. Modern physics has made a hash of both space and time, not mention cause. Dynamics, on and across some scales, creates and defines space and time as we experience them and measure them. But there is no necessity about this. It's just one method of bookkeeping. I go not with Plato but with Herakleitos: Panta rhei, ouden de menei. Everything is in flux, nothing persists. Only the timescales differ. There are no stable knots in the chaos, only transient ways of making do, one of which likes to hold on to its imagined knots.

So, I'm not basically interested in saying What Things Are, including what concepts "are", but rather in saying How Events Happen, including events in which we might be tempted to provisionally agree that that some "higher intellectual processes" were happening. I don't think we could ever define those as such, but we could become a dynamical system in which we could get something worthwhile done while provisionally agreeing to count some event-specific processes as if they were instances.  :-)

I'll try to relay some of what gets said in our Lab discussions on the usability of "concepts" to the list, or encourage others to do so.


Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

On Apr 10, 2011, at 11:32 AM, Martin Packer wrote:

On Apr 10, 2011, at 12:33 PM, Martin Packer wrote:

Maybe the notion of a "concept" might be a bit like that of a "gene" in the sense that a gene is a sort of functional unit, but it has no simple material reality in itself.
Jay's opening sentence neatly illustrates the difficulty of eliminating 'concept.' He writes of 'the notion' of a concept - which is to say, to write about concepts he has to employ a concept, namely that of 'concept'!  (If that seems odd, try reading some Frege!)

As the Stanford Encyclopedia article points out, no one has satisfactorily defined a concept. But the seeming unavoidability of invoking something like 'concept' follows from the fact that we humans (and perhaps animals too; another seemingly intractable debate) deal not so much with particularities as with generalities. We talk and write not about this think and that thing, but this 'kind' of thing and that 'type' of thing. We write not about the specific concept of 'rabbit,' but about 'the notion' of concept.

As Henry James once wrote, "The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes." One may disagree with the separation of the two order that James' words seems to suggest, but it seems implausible to deny that there are *two* orders.

Do this order of generalities involve complex interrelations or systems, as Jay suggests? Are they specified in practice, in ways that depend on context? Yes, of course. I am deep in the middle of chapter 6 of T&S, and LSV wrote of all this, 70 years ago. We have already discussed here his notion [!] of a system of generality, represented metaphorically by lines of longitude and latitude on a globe. He conceived of this system as operating in acts of thought that actively grasp their objects. He saw both the dependence of generalities on language, and their distinction. Should we avoid, as Jay recommends, claiming that "there are concepts as such"? I'm not sure what this claim would amount to. There are, and can only be, "concepts for us." Should we avoid reifying concepts? Certainly! Should we remove the term from all scientific discourse, leaving it only as an "everyday locution"? That's a matter of taste, I suppose. But to sever completely the links between everyday discourse and scientific discourse would be to prevent the informing of the former by the latter that LSV found so important.
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*Andy Blunden*
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