Conceptual Ecologies

This is my conceptual sandbox.

Philosophy is the study of concepts. Gilles Deleuze called the philosopher the “friend of the concept”. Unfortunately, concepts are not so much studied these days as they are used as slogans, or weapons, or shibboleths, or talismans. I want to do my small part in changing that.

I’m interested in how concepts are rooted in place, how they change and shift and adapt to new circumstances. I’m interested in the dirty little secrets that concepts have, the less-than-stellar parentage, the dubious associations, the bad neighbourhoods, and the ambiguous provenance. And, of course, I’m also interested in the fine upbringing and noble peerage within the world of concepts, when it occurs – it’s just rarer than most people think it is.

And, I’m interested in the ways in which concepts form ecologies. I think that no one owns concepts. There are, rather, “conceptual ecologies”, groups of related concepts and their supporting infrastructure, that make viable concepts viable. The life of the concept is one in which those shadings of difference can interact, and versions of concepts can uncover differences of human experience that make the world richer.

I am probably in the minority among my philosophical colleagues in this view of concepts. The classic philosophical approach to concepts is to find their truth, their intention. This goes all the way back to the standard reading of Socrates, who is seen in the Platonic dialogues as one who strips away faulty and mistaken understandings of concepts to reveal the truth about things. This is Plato’s dialectic.

What this assumes is that there is a truth about things. Personally, I’m not convinced. That is, I think that there are better and worse versions of concepts, but we don’t move toward The Truth. That’s what they thought happened in the 19th century (Hegel, Marx, others). What I think is closer to the reality of things is that we find concepts that are more or less adequate to the times.

So, I want to have it both ways. I want to say that some versions of a concept are better than others. We have progressed, in some ways. But I don’t think we’re progressing toward a cosmic truth about things. I think we are showing forth new ways of being in the world. If I have an article of faith on this, it is just this –  a conceptually rich world is better than a conceptually poor one.

What I want to show in these diaries, is that despite the older-style right wing slogan that they are the “party of ideas”, in fact, the rich conceptual ecology does not exist on the right, but on the left. That does not mean that the right has never had an interesting idea. It means that those ideas can’t, and don’t exist in a rich ecology of ideas. The prevailing wind on the popular right (and, they have all but overwhelmed any other kind these days) is toward conceptual simplification and, in many cases, superficiality.

This is also not to say that the left is the sole purveyor of good ideas. That, historically, can’t be maintained, I think. But the conceptual ecology is inevitably going to be richer. And, like an ecology, or a state, or for that matter, an economy, rich diversity is better than monocultures, monarchies, and monopolies. The prevailing wind on the left is toward that intellectual diversity.

Does this mean that there is historical inevitability about the triumph of the left? I’m not so optimistic as some on this. There’s too much of Thrasymachus around. He’s the guy who said to Socrates in the Republic that justice is nothing more than the interests of the stronger. So, I’m not suggesting that ideas win in the end – framing, organizing, and agitating take that historical pattern in other directions (as do co-opting, subverting, and outright bribing, as we have seen done on the right, and on Wall Street, in recent years).

So, yes, this is a partisan blog. But I also want to maintain that it is a blog about reason. While I believe that the conceptual prevailing winds favour conceptual diversity, there is no infallibility anywhere, and there is no conceptual version of original sin. I recognize that a partisan of the right will argue that markets bring diversity whereas bureaucracies destroy it, and so the prevailing winds toward diversity are on the right, not the left. I think that’s fundamentally incorrect, but it is not nonsensical. In other words, there’s an argument to be made. And this is where I want to explore those arguments. I think it’s possible to both take a stand on some concepts, and also find a space of reason to discuss those with others. I’ve long wanted to teach a course on “The Right and the Left”, looking at the conceptually rich texts from both of these, and from other political positions that don’t easily sort into one or the other. There once was a debate about ideas, and elsewhere in the world, there still is.

But this is not just a partisan blog, in the sense that not everything I want to talk about neatly sorts itself into the political right or left. I don’t mean this to be “post-political”, as if such a thing were possible. I meant that the ecologies of some concepts are not quite so close to the hot-button political issues as others.

My aim in these occasional diaries is modest. I just want to survey the conceptual ecologies around us. I want to think about what happens when the right lays claim to concepts such as freedom. I want to consider the American exceptionalist position, which is a particular kind of conceptual ecology (deeply mistaken, IMHO, but akin to a kind of utopian project that serves to diminish and impoverish the conceptual ecology in the US).

And, I want to recover the idea that concepts matter. In public life in the US, they’re in decline – they tend to be worn as badges or wielded as swords, rather than considered. The result is that they’ve become slogans, and that just makes the ecology poorer, and our political discourse harder. We end up arguing about things that don’t exist, or that assume other concepts that might be problematic or objectionable. This doesn’t have to happen – it doesn’t happen, in other advanced democracies. No one has perfect discursive and conceptual space, but other countries look at this one in disbelief much of the time, and I think for good reason. Whereas England or Germany or Canada has debates about actual ideas, and how they matter, we debate about procedures, and leave the concepts to be assumed by the faithful on all sides of any issue. The health care debate never raised the question of the nature of justice, or the nature of humans in society, or the nature of rights, obligations, and so forth.

Only in a country where a term like “socialism” has lost all meaning, could Obama be called a socialist. I want to try to recover some meanings, not to impose my meaning, but to make the conceptual ecology rich again.

So, that’s my idea for a series. I hope it will provoke some useful discussion. As you can probably tell from my description of conceptual ecologies, difference is welcome here. My reflections on any given concept are meant to do a couple of things – sketch out the lay of the land, as I see it, and serve as a provocation for further discussion.

We generally are more concerned on this list about the strength of the arguments and ideas in a diary, than the identity of the diarist. Appeals to authority take a back seat to clear writing and argumentation. That is how it should be, in my opinion. I am a professor of philosophy at a large American public university, but that’s not why I think anyone should consider these ideas. My intention here is not to lecture or impart knowledge, but to explore. I do not have the last word. I’m happy to hear from other philosophers on this, and feel free to bring in philosophical references. Everyone else is also welcome to join the discussion too, no matter what your background. Just make sure that this series remains accessible to everyone – keep jargon to a minimum, and if it’s needed, please explain it.

This will be an occasional series – I’ll do what I can, as often as I can. I’ve made an initial list of some concepts that I think it would be good to consider. I’m not planning on doing these in the order given. Feel free to add more.

  • Conceptual Ecology
  • Concept
  • Freedom
  • Individualism
  • Socialism
  • Equality
  • Character
  • Human Nature
  • Nature
  • Ethics
  • Reality
  • Society
  • Science
  • Humanities
  • Objectivity
  • Representation
  • Power
  • Emotion
  • Reason
  • Irrationality
  • Capitalism
  • Terror
  • Place
  • Culture
  • Victimhood

This post, and some in this series, will also go to DailyKos.

UPDATE: The discussion is quite interesting over on DailyKos to this post. Check it out.

1 Comment

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One response to “Conceptual Ecologies

  1. There’s a bit of discussion on dKos about this. One person suggested that what I outline here is hardly novel. Could be. But I think it’s more novel than it might seem. I’m not just talking about relativism toward concepts. I’m interested in where they come from, and how that matters to where they go. So, for analytic philosophers, Hilary Putnam’s idea of internal realism is relevant, and for continental philosophers, Deleuze is relevant.

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