Some quick thoughts on concepts

A fascinating conversation has been unfolding between Adam of Knowledge Ecology and Mike of Archive Fire about the ontology of concepts. You can follow up on them here, here and here (and follow more links on their sites to see what else they have been saying!). I’m a bit of a late-comer to the conversation, but I felt stimulated to write down my own thinking – even if it is a little half-baked – for what it’s worth.

Concepts are representations of real abstractions (hopefully you will see what I mean by this as the piece continues). If we can concur that reality is composed of material entities and the relations between them and that this basic formula has a temporal, becoming-X, unfolding quality to it, and that there are vast, countless combinations and permutations of interactions, modifications ceaselessly unfolding, we arrive at an account of a vast writhing reality, which exceeds us (humans, for example) and within which we find ourselves inextricably tangled, and inextricably enmeshed in going about our day to day grapplings with the material and relational aspects of existence. As we do so, we notice that we are not bumbling along in a state of pure disorder or formlessness where indistinction reigns but in a complex, even chaotic, whirlpool of forms with varying degrees of stability, playing out on a variety of temporal scales. Sure, we cannot grasp the whole (or even any particular form) in its entirety – either physically or mentally – even though we (humans) often strive to do so.

Dealing with all of this complexity (understood here as having both epistemological and ontological dimensions) means that we are continuously having to simplify, represent and somehow make accessible (even if sub-consciously) the realities that we encouter, so that we can navigate them with some degree of skill and competence; essentially to muddle along more or less effectively. In this sense, then, concepts are tools for thinking and doing, for orienting ourselves in a world. They are simplified representations of abstractions of complex realities (i.e. of what we might describe as ’emergent forms’). Right now I am sitting in a garden. I am surrounded by chairs (ok, I admit, there are other things here too). I am sitting on a chair. I remember other chairs. I can tell you that a chair (if it’s not completely broken) is something that you can sit on, usually with legs and a backrest. I can whizz throug my mind and imagine countless chairs I have seen in my life and think of people across the world buying, making, sitting on and carving their initials into chairs. I can imagine all manner of situations involving chairs that I have never myself experienced before. Somewhere amidst all of this is a generic notion of ‘chair’ that transcends its specific instances, and even language. Let us call it a codified abstraction.

Now, codification can just as well be the outcome of a rationally pursued objective as it can be of of gradually sedimented experience. And, of course, the way that various human societies caught up in distinct ecologies through their various and particular histories have undertaken this codification matters tremendously, creating local nuances between concepts to the point of them not actually being the same thing at all. But whichever way we look at it, these codified abstractions, albeit modified substantially through language, all seem to come back to our attempts to grasp hold of a slippery and complex world that generally exceeds us. All this applies as much to the academician, busily studying ‘the social function of religion’ or ‘the role of incentives in behavioural economics’ as it does to peasants negotiating ‘government policies’ in rural India, indigenous communities in Ecuador navigating their relationship between, life, death, jaguars and manioc beer or a manager trying to come up with ‘key performance indicators’ for their enterprise.

None of this means that concepts function as cohesive, autonomous units floating independently around the world. Their circulation is always human mediated, always existing in their articulation and reassembly. Concepts can be decomposed into their partial parts and are as liable to fly apart as they are to hold together. Indeed, I would venture that holding them together is a very labour intensive task and is more akin to a work of art in the making (who’s identity is yet to be affirmed) than to something fixed and stable. Having said this, I think concepts do gain a certain kind of autonomy – one that operates somewhat in the mode of Latour’s factishes. Once released into the world, concepts do acquire something of a life of their own. They are taken up again and again, in a form of relay, that keeps them in circulation, keeps them contested, keeps them reinvented, modified, expanded, multiplied and so on – and no-one can quite keep control of them, a bit like a virus that relies on a human host and is spread by people sneezing – except that it has to be reassembled again and again, each time it is made to work.

If reality is both material and relational, and if materials and relations take on certain temporal forms, and if conscious beings (I include animals) are to navigate these diverse forms more or less successfully in order to survive, the capacity to represent these forms in some manner becomes key. In the language laden world of humans, we have reached a point where we cannot navigate our reality without all manner of taken-for-granted understandings. When someone says the word Enron, I don’t need a 101 on what an organisation is to grasp it, because I have already acquired enough codified abstractions  (concepts) for it all to make quite a lot of sense to me. But more than this, more than just ‘understanding’ (however rightly or wrongly getting enough of a sense to be able to move on), these codified abstractions can equip me with new ways to orient myself in the world, novel ‘understandings’ that reveal hitherto unknown features of Enron, possibilities for action, for getting a grip on the beast and even a sense of urgency about destroying it.

If someone asks me the question: ‘are conecpts real?’ I would reply: ‘what is real?’. Of course concepts are real. Can they exist without humans (I’m pretending there is no animal equivalent for now)? Of course not! But nor can human babies! Dependence on humans is absolutely no basis for deciding what is real and what is not. Surely that’s not what de-centering the human is about. If you have been able to understand (even if only to disagree) anything that has been written here, you have just relied on a whole host of concepts. Concepts that you and I share. Concepts that have been transfigured materially into the electronic device through which you are reading this article. Concepts (more than just the words) that this article is based on, and that cause you to summon up or deploy multiple related concepts and let them have a fight in your mind (if you can be bothered). Perhaps there is a fuzzyness to concepts that is very much at the heart of their existence. Just because most of our conceptual struggles play out through words (actually, many very serious ones play out in a deadly and very material way), it does not mean that they reside ‘in’ the words or are ‘just the words’ – words (and art of course) are just one of the best ways we have of getting our conceptual muscles to flex and grok the massive complexity that we are living through as best we can (which is very imperfectly indeed!).

* * *

As an aside, I’ve been meaning to write something on Eduardo Kohn’s ‘How Forests Think‘ (HFT) for a while now but I’ve been so swamped with work that I couldn’t. So I’m going to very briefly mention some highlights which in no way do justice to the book. HFT is basically about more-than-human semiotics (signs). Building on the work of proto-pragmatist Charles Pierce, it lays out three types of sign: the indexical, the iconic and the symbolic. The indexical and the iconic have no need for language. A simple example is a jaguar. When a peccary sees a jaguar it has no need for the word jaguar for the visual encounter to trigger a flight reaction. It will not have this reaction when it sees a squirrel (unless it’s really very timid like Piglet from Winnie the Pooh). This is undeniably part of the non-human semiosis of tropical forests. Indexical concerns that which can be inferred through the senses. A twig snaps in the undergrowth and the peccary’s ears are pricked, its silly little tail freezing for a moment. Clearly also semiosis. All of this entails representation, understood here in a somewhat counter-intuitive sense, as the taking up in a subsequent step of a received sign. Sitting ‘atop’ all of this non linguistic semiosis is the symbolic, which hinges vitally on language. Kohn argues that the symbolic has received far too much attention at the expense of the indexical and the iconic and that this amounts to an erasure of the continuing human dependence on these forms of semiosis for day-to-day existence.

Moreover, he asks the question: what would it mean to think thinking in continuity with non-humans? And this exploration leads him to the notion that the loci of all this semiosis, are selves. We can, therefore, think the forest as an ‘ecology of selves’, all living and dying in an interdependent manner, and, therefore, all mutually implicated with each other in a very heterogeneous sort of way (from the archetypal predator-prey relation, very central to day-to-day life for forest dwelling selves, to all manner of others). I’m now whizzing through much of the book, through which Kohn builds up his ideas, because I want to dwell a little on the notion of form. For Kohn, form is something that we are in and for this reason it is mostly taken-for-granted and invisible. When things happen within ‘from’, they are ‘effortless’, like rubber tapped in the tributaries floating down-river to market towns. Of course, they are ‘effortless’ for those who have mastery over the forms – not for all those who are having form imposed upon them. There we find sweat and blood in ample amounts. In this sense we can consider early colonial forms as having laid the groundwork for the (relatively) smooth functioning of global capital in the modern era. Such forms are multiple, intersecting and often add odds with each other. Grasping these complex formal multiplicities that replicate patterns (e.g. of resource extraction, expropriation, concentration of wealth as one example, the giving and taking of life in the forest) is a necessary activity for those who find themselves caught up in these forms.

I would just add here that in reading, writing and actively living within (and against) these forms, we are producing knowledge about them, we are gradually waking up to the decimation that our species has unleashed and we are also generating conceptual tools that can help us gain new footholds in reality. These concepts (codified abstractions) have a semiotic mode of existence. They are representations of forms and are full of potential to overflow into action. These can be actions that perpetuate the power hierarchies inherent in existing forms but they can just as well be actions that sabotage, undermine, invent and create against these forms.


About intrabeing

collaborative explorer-activist working for inter-subjective improvement in the quality of life on planet earth
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7 Responses to Some quick thoughts on concepts

  1. dmf says:

    you were doing fine until you got to saying “Somewhere amidst all of this is a generic notion of ‘chair’ that transcends its specific instances, and even language”, there actually isn’t such a thing, where/how could there be?

  2. dmfant says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    Andre helps us flush out some Platonic ghosts that still haunt our thinking about thinking.

  3. andreling says:

    @dmf: painting of a chair? chair as apprehended and sat on by an animal? am I pushing it here? I might have been getting a little carried away at that point and not been careful enough with my words. I should perhaps have said ‘a generic form, ‘chair’, …’ rather than ‘a generic notion of ‘chair’ … ‘… but I’m still trying to figure out what exactly I want to say here.

  4. dmf says:

    what could actually hold/tie those different “chairs” together as One? so no to form or function or such in any strict sense. This is not a pipe…

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