What are Concepts?

Well, it looks like it’s that time again. Following a prolonged exchange we had over twitter (itself precipitated by this post), Levi put up a few posts which, although they don’t mention me directly, are pretty clearly pointed this way (herehereherehere, and perhaps here). Given this, I feel it beholden upon me to respond to them, both to dissect some of the more problematic claims made therein, and to correct what seems to me are some serious misunderstandings of Brandom’s work. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not famous for concision. This has lead to accusations that I practice ‘proof by verbosity’ or simply that I am ‘boring’. As I’ve said elsewhere recently (in the comments here), I don’t expect others to use their blogs in the way I use mine, or to keep up with reading the amount of material I publish. Nonetheless, I think it’s my right to criticise others in a manner of my own choosing, and to respond to criticisms of myself in kind. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but there is a lot to respond to here, so I’m going to have to be selective.

It has equally been suggested (in the posts I am addressing no less) that the kinds of questions I focus on are too ‘academic’ (or perhaps not ‘feral’ enough), given my penchant for focusing on ‘What is…?’ questions. There is more to be said about this in relation to the matter at hand, but I think it’s worth pointing out that this form of questioning has an eminent philosophical (or perhaps ‘philosophical’) lineage, stretching back to literally pre-academic times. It is the preferred question form of Socrates, that most feral of philosophers, and most engaged with the needs of his time. Following his inspiration, I’ve decided to frame my response by confronting the difficult question underlying the debate: What are Concepts?

Do I adopt this mode of expression because I have a noxious and priestly will to power? Because I wish to stand in judgment over the fates of others? Because I wish to police, dominate, and render others subservient to my philosophical vision (one which is fascistically terrifying)? Or simply because I am a pervert? Perhaps. Does it make a difference? Probably not. Let’s see.

1.  Concepts as Tools

The issue at hand is the nature of the conceptual, and specifically, the sense in which concepts can be understood to be like tools, and to what extent this conflicts with their role in representation. Levi has been pushing the idea that concepts are tools precisely in order to claim that they are not to be understood in representational terms. This then forms the basis for making several claims about the nature of philosophy, the notion of truth, and the relations between the two. Now, I myself have problems with some of the ways in which concepts have been understood in the history of philosophy, along with the ways in which the notions of representation and truth have been used. On the face of it, I can agree with Levi that not enough attention has been paid in the history to the use of concepts, or to the relation between the semantics of conceptual content and the corresponding pragmatics of reasoning. However, the way in which we approach conceptual pragmatism, and the conclusions we draw on the basis of it, are remarkably different. This is most evident in the way we approach the notions of representation and truth. I think we both object to the deployment of these notions in metaphysics, perhaps in part due to the shared influence of Deleuze (and perhaps also Heidegger). However, I take the more fundamental issue to be Brandom’s worry about the use of representation as an explanatory primitive. I’ll try to explain this briefly, in order to establish the contrast between our positions.

Brandom is famous for critiquing an approach in the philosophy of language (and thought) that he calls representationalism. This is the strategy that tries to explain inference in terms of representation. Without going into too much depth, it consists in understanding good inferences as those which preserve truth, understanding the contents of propositions (which stand in inferential relations) in terms of their truth-conditions, understanding these as the way the world is represented as being by the whole proposition, and understanding this in terms of what is represented by its parts (or the parts of the sentence which expresses it). There are a number of different ways in which concepts are understood to fit into this overall story, but it is always something to do with the last part, namely, with the way in which representations of individual objects (e.g., my sister) and the properties (e.g., the property of being in Newcastle) they are supposed to possess come to compose representations of complete states-of-affairs (e.g., that my sister is in Newcastle). A useful maxim is: concepts are to propositions as words are to sentences (different words can express the same concept, just as different sentences can express the same proposition).

Brandom’s alternative approach, which he calls inferentialism, takes the converse explanatory path, explaining representation in terms of inference. This approach understands the content of propositions in terms of the inferential relations they bare to one another (what they can be inferred from, and what can be inferred from them), and the content of concepts in terms of their contribution to the inferential roles of the propositions they compose. Moreover, this is to be understood in terms of the pragmatics of reasoning, insofar as Brandom takes making and tracking inferences to be something that we do (which Brandom calls deontic scorekeeping). This means that we must understand propositions and concepts in terms of the sentences and words that express them, i.e., in terms of the actual linguistic tokens that are used in this activity. Concepts are principally understood as norms for using words in reasoning and communication. The notions of truth and representation can then be explained in terms of this pragmatic framework. Instead of understanding inference as that which preserves truth, we understand truth as that which is preserved by inference. We understand truth qua truth in terms of the process of taking claims to be true, challenging them, and revising what we take to be true. Instead of understanding representation as something that our words just do in virtue of what they mean, we understand it as a feature of what we do in using our words to mean anything. We understand representation in terms of the process of negotiating our differing perspectives on which claims are true, what follows from them, and how these relate to our shared practices for responding to, acting within, and coping with our environment, and the things it contains.

There is an awful lot more to be said here, and I will talk more about some of the details later. For now, I think it’s important to have this broad overview of the project in mind, in order to understand precisely how Levi’s approach differs from it. Levi’s rejection of representation is much more radical than Brandom’s, insofar as he not only rejects giving it a privileged explanatory role, but seems to suggest that it need not have any explanatory role at all. Levi takes it that an understanding of the representational role of concepts is to be replaced within an account of them as tools. This approach is extended to the notion of truth, which he takes to be inapplicable to the conceptual, at least in its ordinary form. To quote a passage at length:-

Concepts are not representations, nor are they ideas in minds. Rather, they are lenses and tools. They are apparatuses, every bit as tangible and real as hammers. It makes as much sense to ask “is this concept true?” as it does to ask “is a hammer true?” Drawing a concept from Ryle, this question constitutes a category mistake. And it is a category mistake that constitutes some of the most tiresome and fascistically terrifying attitudes in all of philosophy. Everywhere with this question of whether a concept is true, whether it represents the world, we encounter the desire to police, dominate, subordinate, and render subservient. Like Kafka’s Court or Castle, these philosophical technologies everywhere seek to trap, ensnare, halt, and limit. They create the illusion of free movement and autonomy, while everywhere weaving a semantic web about engagement seeking to fix it. The question “is it true?” is the insecure and narcissitic fantasy of academic philosophy wishing to redeem itself by functioning as master discipline, legislator, and judge of all other disciplines, practices, and experiences. The artist, physicist, ethnographer, and activist get along just fine without this type of “philosopher” to examine their papers. The proper questions when encountering a hammer is not “is it true?”, but rather “what does it do?”, “what can I do with it?”, “is it put together well for these tasks?”, and so on.

There are various issues that are intertwined in this passage. Levi takes it that concepts are not something internal to the psychological states of individuals, but are concrete and tangible things to be used liked hammers. They are tools that we construct, rather than discover, and therefore need to be evaluated in the same terms that we evaluate other tools, namely, in terms of their effectiveness in doing what they do. He takes it that this assessment of effectiveness is entirely other than the assessment of correctness of representation, which in the case of the assertion of sentences involving the concepts would be the assessment of truth. He then characterises the ‘academic’ philosophical approach as that which makes the mistake of trying to assess concepts in the latter way, associating it with a number of (what he sees as) malignant psychological and sociological tendencies. He then contrasts this to his view of how concepts should be understood and evaluated, giving the example of the effectiveness of the concept of structural patriarchy. This relevant passage is the following:-

The Truth of the concept is not that our present is defined by structural patriarchy, but rather the egalitarian practices that emerge from this naming allowing another future to become available. There, before the concept, was yearning for something else and suffering, yet in inchoate form. With the concept, this yearning and suffering take on determinate form allowing for the emergence of practices and invention. Concepts are precious things and do not fall from the sky ready made. The only relevant question when they do appear is whether something can be done with them and whether the practices they invite are worthwhile.

What Levi espouses is a model of philosophy as the unbounded creation of concepts, in which the role of philosophers is not to pass judgment on how precisely concepts are used, but merely to invent new and more useful ones. The question is: useful for what? Obviously not for describing things as they are. The concept of structural patriarchy is not good because it lets us describe the world and the truth of our social situation, but rather because it lets us do something, or establish some worthwhile practice. This seems to risk conceptual instrumentalism, in which a concept is good as long as it’s useful for some purpose, be it the creation of an emancipatory feminist movement or disguising the systematic dismantling of public services (‘big society’ anyone?). If you can’t distinguish good concepts in terms of how they facilitate representation, you can’t distinguish bad ones in terms of how they facilitate misrepresentation. Why should we want students to think about the world in terms of structural patriarchy, and not in terms of natural gender hierarchy, or natural meritocracy? Because the latter are less useful? Not if you’re a televangelist entrepreneur. The only way to avoid this is to say that the latter is not a worthwhile practice, and this seems to make our theory of concepts dependent upon some distinctly ethical considerations, which seems to be putting the cart before the horse. It is also about as far as one can get from extricating the theory of concepts from the philosophy of normativity (which Levi seems to want to do).

Levi’s response to this sort of criticism is found in the following post, which I’ll again quote:-

The crux of the criticism seemed to revolve around my reference to concepts as tools. Somehow this got assimilated to many as the thesis that the status of a concept is to be defined in terms of its usefulness. Here it would be claimed that I am suggesting that we are to evaluate concepts in terms of whether or not they are useful. Yet clearly, for me, this won’t work because evaluation of concepts in terms of usefulness requires a pre-existent domain of uses, yet I reject the notion that there are pre-existent fields of ends, aims, or uses. Ends must be constructed and articulated. They don’t come ready made like some sort of Aristotlean telos that governs beings and that draws them to a particular end.

It seems that tools should be thought less in terms of what they are for than in terms of what they do.

I find this response pretty strange, as it’s unclear how the above problem depends upon anything like a domain of pre-established ends. Of course tools can be used as means towards a variety of different ends, often very different ends to the ones for which they were intended, precisely because they may be capable of more than we ever use them for. You can always use a hammer as a paper weight if you like. However, if you are going to evaluate how effective a tool is, i.e., how well it functions as a means, then you have to do this in relation to some specific end. We do indeed classify tools on the basis of their capacities, but we classify them on the basis of their capacities to do specific things. That these classifications are prone to change because of the way that capacities overlap (e.g., being good at hammering nails usually involves being about the right size and weight to be a functional paperweight) does nothing to undermine this. We can assess the hammer’s effectiveness qua hammer and qua paperweight separately, unless being able to function as a paperweight becomes an important part of what it is to be classified as a hammer.

If Levi is to avoid either making the assessment of concepts relative to arbitrary ends, or dependent upon some independently specified notion of what is ‘worthwhile’, then he needs an account of the capacities of concepts qua concepts, much as we understand the capacities of hammers qua hammers. This is to specify the general function of all concepts, but not how it is determined in the specific function of each concept. All hammers are for hammering, but different hammers are useful for hammering different things. In other words, Levi needs to specify precisely what kind of tool concepts are, not simply that they are tools. Concepts do indeed enable us to do a variety of different things, but there needs to be something in common either to what they enable us to do, or how they enable us to do it, that constitutes them as concepts. This is the litmus test for Levi’s account: can he give us a general account of what concepts do which has nothing to do with representation that supplies a general schema for assessing their effectiveness?

2. What Can a Concept Do?

Levi does provide us with a sketch of an account of the conceptual, but I think that it is insufficient to meet the test just outlined. The key point here is that two of the claims made in the first passage I quoted – that concepts are “apparatuses, every bit as tangible and real as hammers” and “lenses” – simply aren’t adequately elaborated. I will come back to this, but I should first go over what Levi does say about concepts and their use.

The first thing to note is that Levi qualifies what he means by a concept:-

In an interesting post over at Enemyindustry, David Roden gives the example of “jelly fish” (the idea, not the entities) as an example of a concept. While I’m readily inclined to agree that the idea of “jelly fish” is a representation, it doesn’t seem that ideas like “jelly fish” are concepts in the philosophical use of the term I’m trying to develop here. I hasten to add that I’m still trying to figure out just why I have this hesitation in categorizing ideas such as “jelly fish”, “cats”, trees”, etc., as concepts. Rather, it seems to me that concepts, in the philosophical sense, refer to things like “Justice”, “Being”, “Substance”, the “Other”, “Concept”, “Object”, “Process”, “Environment”, “Communism”, “Democracy”, “Subject”, etc. In other words, it seems to me that concepts, in the philosophical sense, never refer to a determinate class of entities such as “jelly fish”, but rather refer to something far more diffuse. Like I said, however, I’m still trying to work this out in my own thought.

This use of the term concept is fairly idiosyncratic, and I think it is derived from Deleuze and Guattari’s account of concepts in What Is Philosophy?, in which they seem to identify concepts as such with what we would more ordinarily call philosophical concepts. There is an exegetical debate to be had here about whether Deleuze and Guattari genuinely preclude there from being concepts such as jellyfish, as opposed to what they call scientific functions, especially given Deleuze’s more traditional use of the term in Difference and Repetition (usually to polemically oppose it to what he calls the Idea). I’m not going to have that debate here. What I want to point out instead is that regardless of what we call it, there is a common genus, indicated by quote marks, of which both “jelly fish” and “Environment” are instances, albeit of different species. Levi calls these loosely ‘ideas’, and he wishes to hold that ideas like “jelly fish” are representational, while those like “Environment” are non-representational. I think that it’s better to follow the tradition in using the term ‘concept’ for the genus, but the terminological dispute is not what is important here. (As an aside, that Levi is willing to say that the idea of “jelly fish” represents a concrete set of organisms, but the concept “structural patriarchy” doesn’t represent a concrete set of social phenomena, seems to sell the latter pretty short).

What is important is that this raises the question of precisely what these two species of ‘idea’ have in common. This is incredibly important, insofar as what is common to the species (‘concepts’) will be a modification of what is common to the genus (‘ideas’). Levi has no real account of this, and answering the question is somewhat awkward for him. This is because it seems that if they are to be part of a common genus, then both representational ideas and non-representational ideas must have similar capacities. They must both be tools in some sense, and the difference between ideas that represent and those that don’t must have something to do with their tool-character, i.e., with what we do with them. However, Levi’s argument has always been to oppose representations and tools as such. He claims that concepts are not representational because they are tools. He can’t hang on to this opposition and admit that there is a common genus here. Of course, he may simply wish to deny that there is a common genus, but this would essentially be to deny that there is any important structural relation between our thought and talk about “jelly fish” and our thought and talk about “Environment”, which seems unpalatably absurd. There must be some common activity in which ‘ideas’ are deployed, in which the different species play different roles. The more charitable reading of Levi’s position is that there is something specific about the way in which concepts are used that precludes us from understanding them in representational terms. The question is then what this is.

There are three more important features of Levi’s account of concepts to consider: that concepts are practices, that concepts come in three kinds (world-concepts, self-concepts, and society-concepts), and that concepts are aletheic. Taking these in order, the first is introduced as follows:-

In claiming that concepts should be understood in terms of what they do, I suppose I’m saying that concepts are incipient practices. That is, concepts ask us to do something with them.

There is a certain tension here with Levi’s earlier claim that concepts are apparatuses (“every bit as tangible as hammers”) which are to be understood purely in terms of whatever they can do, and the claim that they are practices that ask us to use them in a particular way. The distinction between apparatuses and practices should be understood in terms of the distinction between things that we may use to perform actions, and ways in which we perform actions (including ways we use things). For example, the difference between a knife and the cutting techniques required to use it effectively. What apparatuses are being used when we use concepts (the knife), and what is the way in which we are invited to use them (the technique)? Levi’s example of a practice we are invited into simply amplifies this problem:-

Take a concept like Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” or epoche, or a concept like “intentionality”. These concepts call for me to describe the world and the entities of the world as they are given and precisely in terms of their givenness. Once I carry out the reduction I am to ask myself what is given in intentionality and how it is given. What is thus acted on through these concepts is experience. What is produced are the myriad descriptions we develop in phenomenology.

There is a marked contrast between the concepts of “phenomenological reduction” and “intentionality”, which makes this example problematic. This is because the former is the concept of a practice. It invites us into a practice only insofar as it names a practice, and because of this we can use the concept without thereby enacting this practice. Concepts like “morris dancing”, “ice hockey”, “parliamentary democracy”, etc., are ideas that refer to practices, so any sense in which their meanings are constituted by these practices is trivial. We don’t use the concept of “ice hockey” to act upon sticks and pucks (as the concept “phenomenological reduction” supposedly acts upon experience), because the acting upon sticks and pucks is ice hockey, not its concept. This isn’t to deny that such concepts can play a role in motivating and directing the activities they describe – we have to be able to understand and think about “ice hockey” to play it – only that this role must be distinguished from the activity itself. In short, we have not yet been told anything about what kind of practices concepts as such (including concepts that don’t name specific practices, such as “Process”, “Environment”, and even “Justice”) might invite us into, and what kind of apparatuses these involve.

This is not all Levi says of course. He expands his rough account by appropriating Kant’s account of the transcendental Ideas of reason, modifying them into World, Self and Society (rather than God), and making them the divisions between types of concepts. The rough idea behind this is that concepts are in some sense problems, and that these categories present the basic types of problems we are faced with: comprehending the world as a whole, relating to ourselves so as to construct ourselves, and living together as a group. Levi takes it that concepts are used precisely insofar as they play a role within the overarching practical projects that correspond to these problems. Now, leaving aside the fact that this suggests that perhaps ‘Idea’ would have been a better term for Levi to use than ‘concept’ (Kant’s use of which is much closer to Brandom’s), I think we can see the problem with the previous example play itself out again within this framework. We’ll discuss the concepts of world when we consider Levi’s appeal to Heidegger’s notion of aletheia, but for the moment I’d like to focus on the concepts of society Levi talks about:-

The concepts of society propose ways of living together and relating. Communism is a concept of society. Democracy is a concept of society. Liberalism is a concept of society. Each of these concepts propose very different types of social world and all of them announce a work, a project, for producing a particular kind of work in producing that kind of social world.

It seems that these concepts: “Communism”, “Democracy”, and “Liberalism”, insofar as they announce a work, name a special kind of practice. But their use is not the practice they name, any more than the use of “ice hockey” is ice hockey. One does not need to be a communist in order to talk about communism. It’s true that the concept “Communism” and the variety of analytical concepts that are associated with it (e.g., “surplus value”, “class consciousness”, etc.) provide us with ways of talking and thinking about the social world and how to act within it, but even though the project of bringing about communism would involve this, it cannot be identified with what we do in using the concept in this way. The concept of communism proposes such a project only in the sense that it represents what is to be done (in a notorious and controversially incomplete fashion). Indeed, it seems sensible to say that one can get involved in the practices of one’s local communist party without thereby coming to understand what communism is properly (though what constitutes ‘proper’ communism is another matter of controversy). Although there is an interesting and subtle relation between thinking and doing, and we may even say that thinking is a kind of doing, thinking about something and doing it are not the same.

This conflation is repeated at the level of the concepts of self, to which Levi reduces the various ethical concepts of the philosophical tradition. He classes all of these concepts as “technologies of the self”, which is to say as practices of acting upon the self. This distorts the Foucauldian idea precisely insofar as it elides the distinction between self-understanding (Knowledge) and self-affection (Power). This is not to deny that there is an intimate relation between the two, but merely to point out that the relation can only be understood when its relata are distinguished (I’ve written about Foucault’s conception of ethics and subjectivity in detail recently). Again, using concepts to understand something (e.g., ourselves) might be a certain kind of practical ability, but it needs to be said what kind of practical ability it is, and is not to be confused with the further practical abilities this understanding facilitates (e.g., ways of acting upon ourselves).

This brings us to the concepts of world, and Levi’s appeal to Heidegger’s notion of truth as aletheia:-

Different systems of concepts bring the world into relief in different ways. This is to say, they bring different things forth that would otherwise remain in obscurity. The world brought into relief by Dennett’s concept of Evolution is different than the world brought into relief by Husserl’s lived intentionality. The debate between the object-oriented ontologists and the process-relationists is not a debate over which ontology truly represents the world, but over what ought to be brought into relief. Different things are attended to in each instance, while other things fall into darkness or obscurity. Along these lines, it would not be mistaken to claim that Heidegger’s concept of truth as aletheia is the concept of concepts. Concepts are not representational but alethetic. And aletheia, once it takes place, calls for a work in relating to the world.

This seems to be Levi’s attempt to expand on the earlier claim that concepts are ‘lenses’. There is a certain ambiguity here, insofar as despite indicating that all concepts are lenses, and saying that aletheia is the concept of concepts, he also seems to limit this aletheic function to concepts of world. I won’t push this ambiguity though. The more important issue is whether the idea of bringing the world into relief actually succeeds in cashing out the lense metaphor in a way that meets the test posed earlier, and I think it resolutely fails to do so.

This is clear if we look at the difference between the two examples Levi uses: the contrast between Dennett’s concept of Evolution and Husserl’s concept of lived intentionality, and the contrast between OOO and PR. To say that in each case what we have are differences in the way the relevant concepts bring the world into relief is to obscure an important difference between the two cases, namely, that Dennett and Husserl purport to talk about distinct subjects (in this case, though not when Dennett discusses consciousness), where as OOO and PR purport to talk about the same subject. Moreover, the suggestion is that in the latter case what we have is not a disagreement about the features of this same subject, but a mere difference in emphasis. The effect of this is that (at least in theoretical discourse) Levi makes both changing the subject and disagreeing indistinguishable from changing emphasis, where what is being emphasised are different features of the same fundamental subject – the world as a whole.

Now, this is consistent with Levi’s anti-representationalism, insofar as it abjures the two sides of discursive representation – reference and predication – or that we talk about different subjects (and so can change what we talk about) and ascribe different things to them (and so disagree about them). However, the distinction it elides are genuine distinctions in the pragmatics of discourse. This wouldn’t be so bad, if Levi provided us with an account of how we use concepts to ‘bring the world into relief’, within which he could reconstruct something like these pragmatic distinctions, but it seems like he has nothing resembling a pragmatics of concepts at all. The reference to Heidegger here does not serve to make anything clearer. Heidegger does have something resembling such a pragmatics, and although it contains some important insights, it’s ultimately a failure. I know this because I’ve spent a good deal of the last few years working out the details of Heidegger’s account of truth, and where precisely it goes wrong (if you’re interested check chapters 3 & 4 of my thesis). Yet, Levi doesn’t reference any of the details of Heidegger’s account. He has told us that concepts are tools that act like lenses by bringing the world into relief, but he hasn’t told us anything about what precisely this consists in. It may be a doing, but just what kind of doing is it?

If one is going to make a pragmatist appeal to concepts as tools, and draw sizeable philosophical conclusions about the status of representation and the nature of philosophy from this, then one has to be willing to tell us just what kind of tool they are. Conceptual pragmatism must be followed up by a conceptual pragmatics, lest it be an empty gesture. Levi’s sketch of an account of concepts does not really explain what concepts are, and because of this it gives us no way to evaluate their effectiveness. It’s therefore unable to underwrite Levi’s more extravagant claims about what constitutes good philosophy.

3. Brandomian Burdens

At this point, some people might object that it is all well and good to criticise the insufficiency of Levi’s account of concepts, but that this is mere negative sniping from afar (perhaps exemplifying the various malignant psychological traits of such ‘academic’ philosophers as myself). However, it’s precisely the fact that my own work is concerned with the nature of concepts, and the relation between their semantics and pragmatics, which motivates these criticisms. Although it is principally a development of Brandom’s work (and thus also that of Kant, Hegel, Sellars and Quine), I do have a positive story to tell about what concepts are, and how we evaluate them. I presented a rather brief version of this in my draft Essay on Transcendental Realism, which although it doesn’t explain certain crucial details, does discuss the issues in more depth than Levi’s recent foray into the topic. In particular, it provides the outlines of an account of the function of concepts in general, and uses this to explain the unique function of specifically metaphysical concepts. This goes some way to accounting for the above distinction between concepts like “jellyfish” and “Process” (though not “Justice”, which is a different kind of concept in my view), in terms of the distinct kinds of role they play within a common practice.

It’s also important to note that I’ve discussed more of the details of this story elsewhere, precisely insofar as I’ve written a number of posts explaining the features of Brandom’s account that I’m in broad agreement with (see here, here (though I’ve since changed my us of the word ‘practices’ somewhat) here, and especially here, for examples). I’ve never presented the whole of Brandom’s account (though I had a good go at presenting the second half of MIE in the last post just linked to), nor can I claim to have exposited those bits I have discussed in either the best order or the most consistent and comprehensive fashion. There’s a lot going on in his work, and there are many tricky details, so it’s difficult to summarise the whole thing. What I write is often best understood in conjunction with a reading some of Brandom’s own work, and I’m delighted that an increasing number of people are doing just that (see, for instance, Duncan Law and Reid Kotlas’ blogs). This delight is somewhat soured by the claims Levi has made about Brandom’s work in these posts, which not only oversimplify and misrepresent crucial aspects of Brandom’s position, but use these misrepresentations to make some fairly dodgy accusations.

Before trying to give an overview of the positive account of concepts I take from Brandom, I thus think it important to go over the comments Levi makes about him, so as to separate out the legitimate concerns that need addressing from the dodgier claims he makes. I’ll start with what he says in the body of his posts, and then move onto some of the claims he makes in response to others in the comments:-

Apart from the fact that Brandom gives us no account of the origin or genesis of norms (he says the “community” defines them; yikes!, think of the concrete social implications of that!), for Brandom reasoning is synonymous with discursive practices and discursive practices are synonymous with the linguistic. What takes place in material practices– the surprise a scientist experiences when getting an unexpected result in an experiment, for example, or Galileo seeing moons around other planets) when he looks through his telescope –are, for Brandom irrelevant to reasoning because they fall outside of language. The only doing for Brandom is conceptual doing where we infer other propositions from a particular proposition. The residue of the existent, the stubborn being of the world, the remainder, is eradicated. Everywhere we hear high school students cheering as they’ll no longer have to do biology, physics, and chemistry labs as it’s only language, not doing, that matters. One wonders where Brandom stands on the position of holocaust denialists because, as Lyotard observed, the victims of the holocaust are not here to articulate what they saw and experienced, while the denialists can certainly provide, in language, all sorts of inferentially “valid” relations among propositions to support their denial.

On the face of it, the core objection here seems to be something like the objection levelled at Brandom by many analytic philosophers, namely, that his attempt to reconstruct representation on the basis of inference detaches the subject from the world, in such a way that its linguistic practice is unconstrained by it, becoming a ‘frictionless spinning in the void’. However, Levi’s version of this objection isn’t motivated by the same concerns as Brandom’s peers. Their objection is generally some form of the claim that it is impossible to get purchase upon the world without some kind of primitive representation relations not derived from inference, which usually works only by setting the bar Brandom has to reach too high (i.e., if we don’t start out with it, we can never get it). By contrast, Levi’s objection is alarmingly simple: the sheer fact that he takes reasoning to be an essentially linguistic matter implies that he ignores all elements of practice that are not linguistic, precluding them from playing any role within eminently rational practices such as scientific and historical inquiry. Indeed, he seems to suggest that Brandom’s linguistic rationalism undermines the role of first-person experience entirely. This is crude to the point of preposterousness.

It simply ignores the fact that Brandom has an account of observation claims which account for their unique justificatory role (see chapter 2 of AR, chapter 4 of MIE, and chapter 6 of BSD). This account is derived from Sellars’ work on languageentry and languageexit moves (perception and action, respectively), which is supposed to explain how the language-language moves (inference) that constitute our navigation of the space of reasons are connected to the space of causes (or the world). Brandom has even discussed how the experimental apparatuses involved in scientific experiment are bound up in these judgements (most clearly in his response to the paper ‘Of Mu-Mesons and Oranges’ in the collection Robert Brandom: Analytic Pragmatist). Of course, whether this account works is open to challenge. For example, Mark Lance and Rebecca Kukla have given some interesting reasons for thinking that the account of first-person experiential authority needs supplementing with some additional pragmatics. The important point is that it must actually be challenged. Levi’s objection amounts to the claim that Brandom doesn’t have such an account, and doesn’t even think he needs one, which is just plain false.

Regardless, Levi extends this line of reasoning further:-

Just as the rightwing “patriot” believes that the country is somehow literally being destroyed when a flag is burnt because he believes that the symbol is the country itself, Brandom seems to believe that reasoning can be reduced to the lingua-form without having reference to the “pre-discursive”. In this context, at least, given that he sees only language users as having an honorable place within the world of those that deserve normative dignity, we wonder why he doesn’t come out and suggest that people in comas or Helen Keller prior to entering the world of language shouldn’t be used for scientific experiments or food. Such is the place this linguicentric representationalism that refuses to mark the difference between concept or representation and thing leads us…

Given that Brandom argues that norms regulate reason, that these norms arise from community (though he refuses to give us an account of how, they just do), and that the reigning community standard in our particular historical moment is capitalism, Brandom is necessarily committed to the thesis that it’s entirely just to reduce persons to the abstract quantificational logic of capital or the money-form, refusing to grant them any dignity or being beyond their representation within that system. Yes, that’s “rigor”, phallocracy, ontotheology, or the logic of presence for you folks. If it can’t be articulated in a set of linguistic norms it’s inadmissable. Enjoy your roast Keller for dinner! After all, Keller, being outside the order of language, is no different than a cow!

There are a number of things mixed up together here. To begin with, Levi extends the claim that Brandom’s linguistic rationalism ignores non-linguistic practices into the claim that Brandom elides the distinction between representation and represented. This is how he sees the overall theme of the post – the elision of the non-conceptual remainder – played out in Brandom’s work. Once again, this just outright ignores the part of Brandom’s work that is supposed to deal with this issue, namely, his account of the social negotiation of different discursive perspective on the same objects, which is the essential element of his attempt to explain representation on the basis of inference (see chapter 6 of AR and chapter 8 of MIE). This explains how the practical abilities deployed in keeping track of the significance of the words we use to refer to objects (through tracking what he calls anaphoric chains), when combined with our practical abilities to keep track of one another’s commitments and their consequences (which use these words), enable us to make sense of representing the same object in different (and incompatible) ways, and thereby to make sense of the difference between the way each (and potentially all) of us represent it, and the way it is. Again, this account is open to challenge in a number of ways, but it actually needs to be challenged on the basis of what it says.

Next, Levi connects this to two distinct claims. First, he links it to the idea that Brandom only accords ethical status to those capable of language, and stresses that this licenses various kinds of cruelty to the languageless. There is an aspect of Brandom’s work which can raise this worry, namely, that he sees sapience rather than sentience as the source of ethical normativity. This is an important issue, which I’ve discussed before in response to similar worries from Jon Cogburn (here). However, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Brandom’s account of representation, even if it is flawed in the way Levi claims. Second, he links it to the idea that how we should understand persons, and also how we should treat them, is entirely reducible to the dominant form of understanding and treatment in the community at the time, which he takes to be the commodity form of contemporary capitalism. Though this may have similar consequences to those that he draws from Brandom’s prioritisation of sapience (e.g., a deaf-mute burger bar on every street corner), the reason for it is distinctly different. Levi is essentially claiming that Brandom precludes the possibility of norms that exceed both the opinions and actions of the majority of the community of rational agents (and thus language users).

Once more, I cannot stress how false this is. Throughout MIE, Brandom repeatedly states that his goal is to show how a community can institute norms whose content nonetheless transcends the attitudes of the entire community, such that we can all be wrong in applying them. He is particularly concerned to show that what genuinely follows from a commitment (be it theoretical or practical) can never be reduced to what we, or anyone takes to follow from it. He does this through the same account of social-perspectival negotiation mentioned above, replacing the I-We model of social constraint with an I-Thou model. Again, there may be problems with this account. Brandom certainly doesn’t address the case of ethical norms directly, and there is a lot of work to be done in developing a fully fledged meta-ethics within the framework he provides. However, when a philosopher dedicates the majority of their major treatise to solving a problem, it is terribly unfair to pretend that they are unconcerned with it. One must actually address the specifics of their attempt to deal with it. This is even more important if one intends to derive dire ethico-political consequences from their position. (Also, as an aside, are phallocracy, onto-theology, and the logic of presence really the same thing? Seriously? What precisely is onto-theological here? These terms become less useful if you run them together.)

Finally, we can also summarily dismiss a couple claims that Levi makes in the comments:-

Brandom’s model or reasoning is basically that of the AI project based on logic trees and complete encyclopedias that Clark soundly rejects in Being-There.

What you argue here is, in my view, one of the central shortcomings of Brandomians. In your defense of knowledge (what we can provide reasons for here and now) you degrade inquiry and learning. You want to reduce everything to a position that one can provide positions for here and now, rather than attending to the processes by which positions are produced.

Next you’ll be asking for educational rubrics and standardized testing like the “educational reformers” in the united States. This is the bureaucratic mentality of Bramdomians and what they’re essentially asking for in their discussions of normativity.

I haven’t read Clark’s book (though it’s on my list), but I’m pretty sure the first claim is false. Brandom is very well informed about AI, and has proposed the beginnings of an alternative AI paradigm in his Locke lectures (published as Between Saying and Doing). This is a paradigm quite explicitly focused upon the role of  practical abilities in constituting intelligence. Of particular interest is the distinction he draws between those abilities that can be algorithmically composed out of other abilities, and those that can only be produced by training. This leads him to an extended meditation on the nature of pedagogy and learning (the end of chapter 3), which I won’t endeavour to recreate here, as I doubt I could do it justice. However, it’s worth pointing out that it displays quite the opposite of the bureaucratic mentality Levi ascribes to us Brandomians.

So, what legitimate concerns can be distilled from these criticisms? I think that we can reformulate three reasonable queries regarding Brandom’s account of the conceptual: a) How does it relate to the non-linguistic ways we have of dealing with the world? and b) How does it account for the way concepts are created by the community while maintaining a distinction between the way the world is and the way we take it to be?

4. The Pragmatics of Concepts

I’m under no illusions that I can provide a comprehensive answer to either of these questions, especially given how long this post already is. I will however try to present another brief sketch of the Brandomian account of concepts that situates it in terms of the various issues just discussed, in order to show how it aims to answer them. The important thing will be to try and say something about the actual pragmatics of concept use.

I’m going to do this by examining a telling feature of the way Levi situates his sketch of an account of concepts to Kant’s account of reason:-

Following Kant’s understanding of reason in The Critique of Pure Reason, reason differs from the understanding in that understanding functions in a “piecemeal” fashion, taking things “entity by entity”, whereas reason is “problematic” in the precise sense that it seeks to unify the disparate in a system. Reason is “problematic” (problem posing) in the sense that it strives to comprehend how the disparate fits together. This is precisely what concepts pertaining to world do. In and through concepts we encounter the phenomena of the world as a “problem”. How does the disparate fit together?

Given that he has already connected his account to Kant’s Idea of World, it makes sense to say something about how this relates to Kant’s account of reason. The Idea of World does indeed present the subject with a problem that takes the form of a task, and this task does involve an attempt to unify the disparate products of understanding into a system. However, Levi avoids saying anything about what this task consists in for Kant: what precisely is being unified, and how it is being unified. He avoids identifying the essential nature of the procedure that Kant takes to be a condition of the possibility of experience, despite the fact that the clue is in the topic: reason.

What Kant thinks we are doing in enacting the procedure encoded in the Idea of World is integrating the judgements produced by the process of recognition into a complete and consistent set of theoretical commitments, with the world thought as the ideal limit that the procedure strives towards. For any judgement that we aim to endorse, and thus include in our set of commitments, we must also aim endorse its consequences (which vary depending upon what other judgements we already endorse) and to relinquish any other judgments that are incompatible with it (or relinquish it). This makes for a complex process of updating and revision, insofar as new judgements of recognition can force changes that cascade across our set of commitments. However, this is not all the procedure consists in. There are also principles governing the inferential relations of consequence and incompatibility between judgements, which thereby direct this process of integration. These constitute the content of the concepts deployed in making judgments, which are nothing but sets of such rules of inference tied to schemata, which are rules for synthesizing intuitions into discrete objects that can be reidentified and subjected to further perceptual and rational investigation.

The crucial thing to note here is that neither the hierarchy of concepts we deploy in making judgments, nor the principles that compose them are fixed. They are themselves updated and revised in accordance with the deliverances of experience. Moreover, this process is not distinct from the process of integrating judgments, but they are both aspects of the same procedure of rational rectification. This procedure aims not only at completeness and consistency of judgments, but also economy and systematicity of principles. This consists in having as few concepts as necessary to account for the various different phenomena we encounter, whilst striving to establish as many connections between these concepts as possible, which is to say principles governing the inferences that capture the lawlike relations between these phenomena (e.g., from ‘x is a dog‘ to ‘x is a mammal‘, from ‘x is water‘ to ‘x will freeze at zero degrees C’, etc.). In essence, we use relations between concepts to revise which judgements we endorse, and relations between the judgements we endorse to revise our concepts. This results in a constantly evolving picture of the world in which not only its particular law-governed elements hang together, but the general laws themselves hang together. This is the theoretical role of reason in constituting a unified account of nature. This is not all there is to Kant’s account of reason. There is at least also it’s practical role, but I won’t elaborate that here (though I have talked about the topic of practical reason in depth elsewhere: here and here).

Brandom’s theory of concepts is a direct descendent of Kant’s, and similarly tries to understand them in terms of their role in the process of rational rectification. There are a number of important ways in which Brandom develops Kant’s account, but the most important for our purposes is his rejection of the idea that our grasp of the inferential relations between propositions must consist in the espousal of explicit rules. Instead, he takes it that our grasp of the norms of inference can be implicit in our practices. Just as we can have the practical abilities to do what one must do to ride a bike, make a traditional English trifle, or estimate the trajectory of a thrown object without consciously following a set of instructions, or even being able to say precisely what it is we’re doing, so can we have the practical abilities to do what one must do in order to rationally rectify one’s commitments. It is the fact that these abilities consist not just in dispositions to behave in certain ways, but also to discriminate between correct and incorrect behaviour (on the part of others and ourselves), that makes their possession the practical grasp of a norm. However, the content of the norm that is thereby grasped is something that can exceed the individual’s grasp of it, such that it is not reducible to either their dispositions to act in accordance with it, or to assess the correctness of such actions. This is just to say that what it is to perform any of these activities correctly (or perhaps, to perform them well) need not be exhausted by the behaviour of any given performer, no matter how expert they may be, even though it is communities of such experts who have created these practices, and thereby instituted the norms implicit in them. It is in this sense that norms can transcend our attitudes.

This returns us to the brief sketch of Brandom’s project I gave at the beginning, insofar as Brandom takes these practices of rational rectification to be essentially linguistic. This is because, although the reasoning processes through which we keep track of our theoretical and practical commitments can play an important role in determining and guiding the other actions we perform, they must nonetheless be distinguished from these actions. If we are to agree with Heidegger that many (if not most) of our actions involve a kind of practical coping that is not assimilable to practical reasoning, we must recognise that practical reasoning is a distinct form of doing (which itself may be done skilfully). This means that although we can indirectly correct the way in which someone thinks about the features of the world they act upon by correcting the way in which they act upon them, we must also be able to correct the way in which they think directly. The practice in which reasoning and rational rectification consists must thus deploy publicly available tokens in keeping track of commitments and their relations. This is all it is to say that reasoning is essentially linguistic: it is a shared practice of asserting and inferring in which the commitments undertaken are open to challenge, justification, assessment, and revision, which is made possible by the fact that we have public tokens that are used to carry out these actions in common ways. Our grasp of concepts and propositions consists in our ability to use the words and sentences to express them within this game of giving and asking for reasons.

This goes some way towards explaining the sense in which we can understand concepts as tools. They are tools for reasoning. However, as tempting as it may be to say that the concept is the technique corresponding to the word as apparatus, this picture doesn’t quite work. In using a concept we draw upon a complex social apparatus of reason and action, much in the way that in using money we draw on complex social apparatus of contract and exchange. The process of rational rectification that I engage in as an individual is part of a larger socio-epistemic system, much as the process of working to maintain my lifestyle I engage in is part of a larger socio-economic system. So, just as in using money we are not just using pieces of paper, but also the general social mechanisms for using these pieces of paper, so in using concepts we are not just using words, but also the general social mechanisms for using these words. Our epistemic grasp of the specific reasons for endorsing given claims, and our semantic grasp of the general inferential roles that constitute their content, almost always depend upon our abilities to defer to others whose understanding exceeds our own. Such is the social division of linguistic labour.

We can thus see that the other important way in which Brandom develops Kant’s account of concepts is the inherent sociality it imbues them with. This is an advance he takes Hegel to have made upon Kant: the process of rational rectification through which we develop our concepts is an essentially collective endeavour. This does not mean that there is a single set of commitments that we all share, or a single grasp of the inferential norms governing their revision. Rather, each rational agent has their own perspective on the world, which is to say, their own set of commitments, their own dispositions to keep track of their consequences and incompatibilities, and their own networks of deference. However, the similarities in commitments, dispositions, and deferential relations provided by their common social background enable them to navigate one another’s perspectives in such a way that they can assess and correct one another’s practice, challenging any particular element of it, be it a particular commitment about how the world is, their own way of drawing its inferential relations, or those they choose to defer to. These dialogical interactions cause changes that cascade across the community, bringing about further changes as additional consequences and incompatibilities are uncovered by others. These interactions are what bind together individual processes of rational rectification into a collective process, albeit one that is far from homogeneous.

There is still the worry that this process of mutual correction might be entirely disconnected from the world, so that we are not so much spinning in the void as dancing in it together. This would be the case if concepts were nothing more than norms governing the use of sentences in inference (language-language transitions). However, as noted above, they also govern the use of sentences in perception (language-entry transitions) and action (language-exit transitions), our grasp of which is constituted by our dispositions to respond to perceptual circumstances by endorsing theoretical commitments, and our dispositions to respond to practical commitments we endorse by performing the consequent actions. Part of understanding the concept “jellyfish” is being able to observe that jellyfish are present when they are, and being able to act upon them in various ways one undertakes to. At this point some might maintain that a grasp of the inferential role of the word “jellyfish” is superfluous to understanding the concept, and that our various practices for perceptually classifying and practically coping with jellyfish are sufficient to constitute the concept. The idea here is essentially the representationalist one that our practices for perceptually classifying and practically coping with what the word refers to determine what the concept represents, and that this determines its inferential role, rather than the other way around. However, this doesn’t work if we consider the issue in more detail.

A blind person can have some grasp of the concept “red” in virtue of understanding its inferential role (e.g., that ‘x is red’ implies ‘x is coloured’, and is incompatible with ‘x is green’). It would be correctly argued that these inferential connections would not mean anything if there wasn’t someone whom the blind person could defer to who can perceptually classify things on the basis of colour, but it doesn’t really matter whether this classificatory ability is innate or not. No one has an innate ability to detect the spin value of sub-atomic particles, but we have experimental apparatuses that can detect it, and there is no in principle reason why colour concepts couldn’t function in the same way. Indeed, there’s a certain sense in which they already do, insofar as we’ve created colour standards that depend upon apparatuses for discriminating colours that are much more sensitive and reliable than any human. This is precisely the kind of socio-technological construction that Latour and Levi are so interested in (see here). What is important about it is that we are only able to use it because of the inferential role of the concepts it lets us apply. We can defer to these mechanisms because we have extrapolated a theory of colour from an understanding of the way our own perceptual capacities function, which lets us infer that the mechanism is more sensitive and reliable, and thus should be trusted over the sensory mechanisms on which it was originally based. Of course, we can incorporate such mechanisms into our practices in such a way that we cease to draw explicit inferences, such as the physicist who simply sees a mu-meson pass through the bubble chamber, rather than inferring its presence from the vapor trail, or the blind soldier who senses a nearby obstacle via a sensor attached to his tongue, rather than deducing it from the relevant signals, but this in no way undermines the point. We can’t limit empirical concepts to a single means of perceptual application in principle, and this means that their inferential role is essential, even if it is implicit within the specific perceptual dispositions to which they are initially indexed.

What about practical coping then? Isn’t a practical understanding of how to use a hammer within the context of a variety of activities sufficient to grasp the concept “hammer”? As with the blind person, it is entirely possible for someone who is unable to use a hammer (for whatever reason) to grasp the concept, and thus it clearly isn’t necessary. We can imagine a variety of different systems that could possess abilities to deploy hammers in practical problem solving without being able to engage in any kind of explicit practical reasoning, ranging from robots programmed with basic learning algorithms, to non-linguistic humans. These more or less complex problem solving abilities are potential candidates for concept possession. However, these abilities are always parochial to some extent. My body dynamically regulates its temperature in response to a variety of climates, but this practical responsiveness does not have the kind of generality required to constitute a conceptual grasp of temperature. Such abilities can only constitute the grasp of a concept if they are appropriately connected to our dispositions to manage our theoretical and practical commitments, so as to contribute to our general understanding of the world and the ways we can act within it. For instance, my ability to cope with hammers involves the ability to imagine the ways in which they will function in different contexts, and it is my ability to translate this imaginative output into counterfactual reasoning that disposes me to use the word “hammer” correctly in reasoning about it. The upshot of this is that I am able to reason about hammers and their uses beyond the limits of my practical understanding and its associated imaginative capacities (e.g., about their role in large or unusual practical projects), in a way that can be assessed and corrected by those with different capacities from my own. The dispositions which constitute my conceptual grasp of hammers thus have a different basis than those of the person who can talk about hammers but not use them, but this doesn’t prevent us from grasping the same concept.

This is just a brief sketch of what Brandom means when he says that the norms which constitute our concepts are implicit in thick practices, or practices that actually involve the objects that we use these concepts to represent. The causal features of the objects themselves act as constraints upon the development of our dispositions to respond to them in perception and action, and via them upon our dispositions to reason about them. That we share a stable set of reasonably similar dispositions, and thus constitute a common practice, is in large part due to this kind of causal constraint. Not all commonality is a result of systems of social correction, but some of it comes from what Wittgenstein would call a shared form-of-life. It is equally responsible for subtle changes in the way we reason, insofar as our practices gradually adapt and evolve in response to the challenges presented by our environment. If our grasp of concepts is in part constituted by informal practices of observing and coping with things, then more or less spontaneous improvements in the latter can lead to improvements in the former.

However, although this kind of brute conceptual revision is possible, it is far from the only, or even the most important form of revision. This can easily be seen the further away we get from tame concepts (e.g., “red”, “hammer”, “jellyfish”, etc.), and consider concepts that wear their theory-ladenness on their sleeves (e.g., “spin value”, “particle accelerator”, “ecosystem”, etc.). The challenges we face in the application of these concepts (e.g., conflicting measurements, experimental anomalies, engineering difficulties, etc.) cannot be overcome by tacit adaptation of our practices in all (or even most) cases, but must often proceed via revisions in the theories they are bound up with. This involves representing these problems so as to formulate the reasons they give us to change our practices for observing, reasoning about, and acting in the world. The most important revisions to our picture of the world are not external to the process of rational rectification through which we build that picture, but internal to it. Of course, it is our practices which are revised, and it is us who decide how to revise them, but this does not undermine the distinction between the way we take the world to be and the way it is, insofar as the process of revision constrains the decisions we make in the appropriate way. It is the fact that we can use some concepts in order to evaluate and ultimately revise others that maintains the distinction between concepts and what they represent.

To return to an example of Levi’s, the concept “evolution” lets us ‘bring the world into relief’ in that it improves our ability to reason about a variety of topics, including almost the whole of biology, and parts of the social sciences. This improvement is not a matter of directly enabling some new kind of practical activity, but rather of enabling new kinds of explanation and prediction that open up possibilities which can then be explored in practical reasoning and action. This is not to deny that the success (and failure) of actions motivated by reasoning deploying certain concepts contributes to the assessment of these concepts. It most certainly does. However, it contributes by providing us with reasons to reconsider and revise the content of these concepts as part of the overall process of rational rectification. The effectiveness of concepts is not something that can be assessed independently of their role in the process through which we represent the world as a whole.

5. Conclusion: Representation and Oppression

So, what are concepts? They are shared practices for using words that we can tap into to describeexplainpredict, and organise, which are all aspects of the practice of giving and asking for reasons through which intelligibility is articulated. There is a lot more to be said about each of these aspects, and about the pragmatics of reasoning more generally. I’ve provided nothing more than a loose sketch of an account here (though I have said more elsewhere). Particularly, there is a lot of work to be done providing a detailed account of the pragmatics of concepts revision, as it is a complex process that differs between forms of discourse (see the work of Imre Lakatos and Mark Wilson for a discussion of some of these details). However, I won’t go into this any further.

Instead, I’d like to return to the core theme of Levi’s post on Adorno:-

If object-oriented ontology is anything it is an attempt, I believe, to bear witness to, to tarry with, those remainders that elude the manic drive to identity embodied in conceptualization. If I itch, experiencing an almost allergic reaction whenever questions of representation, truth, and norms arise, then this is precisely because I encounter a sort of drive to identity, a reduction of alterity and heterogeneity, an eradication of queerness, nascent in all discourses that focus on these questions. The point is not that we don’t represent, make true and false claims about the world, etc., but rather that discourses focused on these things tend to erase the remainder, the different, the heterogeneous.

Levi takes the fact that Brandomian approaches focus upon truth and representation as indicative both of a drive not only to eliminate that which is different from the conceptual as such, but to eliminate difference per se. This seems to be the centre piece of the picture of dominating desires and sad passions that he takes to be implicit within them. Now, as I’ve tried to show, the portrayal of such approaches as being focused upon truth and representation is misleading insofar as neither of these notions is taken to be an explanatory primitive, and Levi’s admission that we do represent and make truth claims is hollow insofar as he fails to tell any story about how these fit into his picture at all. I’ve also tried to show how the fact that the conceptual is linguistic does not prevent it from representing the non-linguistic, and equally, how it is possible to retain a distinction between the way we represent the world, and the way it is. However, there is an additional side to this argument, which I think it is worth addressing in brief.

It seems to go something like this. Insisting that it is important to assess the truth of our philosophical/scientific/ethical claims and the concepts we use to make them means accepting the possibility of a final philosophical/scientific/ethical picture, and this is dangerous insofar as it encourages us to take our own opinions and prejudices as presenting this final truth. In short, it tends to undermine the idea that it is possible for us to be wrong, and this leads us to either ignore or suppress features of the world that do not fit into our picture of it (i.e., that are differ from it in some way), be they phenomena that contravene it (e.g., the church’s response to Galileo) or ethnic groups that cannot be integrated into it (e.g., the nazi’s response to the jewish people). The only response to this is to admit that no matter how we talk about truth and falsity in ordinary contexts, there is an important sense in which we are always wrong, and thus that the assessment of claims and concepts must made on other terms, perhaps in terms of how ‘interesting’ they are. Arguments for and against positions are okay in certain local contexts, but assessment of the overall picture requires something like an aesthetic eye.

I think that this is a terrible argument. This is not because dogmatic faith in one’s position cannot have oppressive consequences. It can and has. Rather, it is because in attempting to respect differences by transforming the possibility of error into the necessity of error, it undermines the process through which we identify and overcome specific errors in our positions. It is only by taking some claims to be true that we can identify that other claims are false, only by using some concepts that we can criticise others. To truly acknowledge the possibility of error is to recognise that one could be wrong about specific things, and to do this is to undertake a responsibility to justify the claims one makes, and to integrate them into a complete, consistent, economical and systematic picture of the world. One can’t abandon one’s commitment to the importance of seeking truth, without also abandoning the procedures by which we avoid falsity. This is because truth is an ideal implicit within those procedures. We need not even think of it as an achievable ideal, but simply as that which we aim at in the unending process of rational rectification (see Brandom’s Hegelian thoughts on this topic here). We may thus reject the implication that to avoid the danger of dogmatism we must abandon truth. Instead, we can insist (quite sensibly) that the best way to avoid dogmatism is to intensify the process through which we criticise and revise our commitments. The converse claim, that to avoid dogmatism we must abandon or at least truncate rational criticism, should strike us as thoroughly absurd.

Does it matter then whether the desires motivating my defence of reason are perverse? Well, I don’t think so. Such matters may prove useful information for reconstructing the details of my position, or the implicit presuppositions which underlie it, but this should only be seen as an means toward properly assessing it. To do otherwise is simply to engage in an elaborate ad hominem, or worse, to dodge justificatory responsibility by appealing to some personal aesthetics of philosophy (or philosophers). If there is one thing that consistently bores me in philosophy, it’s the line ‘I don’t have to address X because I find it uninteresting’. This isn’t because everyone should engage with everything. Far from it. We can’t engage with everything, and sometimes just need to make choices on the basis of what seems interesting to us. But this can’t be generalised into a criterion of good philosophy. To do so is not only lazy, but it threatens to collapse back into the correlationist relativism we’re supposed to be moving beyond. Call me a judge, an inquisitor, a policeman, or whatever you like, but give me some independent reasons why I’m wrong. Anything less is decidedly uninteresting.

Published by


Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

16 thoughts on “What are Concepts?”

  1. Another excellent and thorough post, Pete. You calmly and politely pick apart Bryant’s continued haphazard investigations (improvisations) into the realm of philosophy. I must admit that I am unable to maintain so restrained a tone when dealing with such flagrant and repeated instances of philosophical duncery, as I feel compelled to make numerous caustic and mean-spirited remarks along the way.

    If I may uphold the dignity of a thinker whose thought I feel has been woefully misrepresented (that’s right, Levi, misrepresented) by Bryant, I generally adhere to Adorno’s account of the non-identity of the concept and its object. As a materialist and a Marxist, I assert the primacy of the object over the concept and material processes over their ideational (or ideological) reflection in thought. However, the point of conceptualization is to be as adequate to its object as possible, so as to best facilitate an accurate apprehension of the world. This would represent a striving toward, if not the achievement of, Truth, as the identity of thought and being. Adorno’s writings on non-identity are meant as a corrective to the idea that one’s concepts are automatically equivalent and adequate to their objects, insofar as the naive (and uncritical, undialectical) cognition of objects tends to suppress or eradicate anything which does not fit into its conceptual framework.

    This Procrustean aspect of concepts is well known, and Kant’s critical philosophy as well Adorno’s critical theory each try to undermine the idea that we have direct, unfettered intellectual access to the real or material. This is why I reject speculative realism just as much as I reject speculative idealism. Marxist materialism is not a speculative account of the real or material world, but a critical project. With the fetish-form and reification, nothing is ever directly as it seems. Grimmer, more abstract realities lie behind the initial appearance of things. But while Marx borrows Kantian and Hegelian categories of thought (quantity, quality, magnitude, identity, etc.) and introduces new conceptual devices (commodity fetishism, absolute vs. relative surplus-value) through which he can understand capitalist society, he is not, as Bryant is, merely playing around with concepts for kicks or entertainment. He is trying to reach at an adequate understanding of the social world in which he lives, an attempt which can only really be characterized as a quest for truth.

    I think Hegel provides a good rejoinder to Levi’s notions that concepts are only relatively “useful” tools or instruments, assuming of course, as Hegel does, that concepts are useless unless they themselves aim at truth:

    if cognition is the instrument for getting hold of absolute being, it is obvious that the use of an instrument on a thing certainly does not let it be what it is for itself, but rather sets out to reshape and alter it…It would seem, to be sure, that this evil could be remedied through an acquaintance with the way in which the instrument works; for this would enable us to eliminate from the representation of the Absolute which we have gained through it whatever is due to the instrument, and thus get the truth in its purity. But this ‘improvement’ would in fact only bring us back to where we were before. If we remove from a reshaped thing what the instrument has done to it, then the thing — here the Absolute — becomes for us exactly what it was before this [accordingly] superfluous effort. On the other hand, if the Absolute is supposed merely to be brought nearer to us through this instrument, without anything in it being altered, like a bird caught by a lime-twig, it would surely laugh our little ruse to scorn, if it were not with us, in and for itself, all along, and of its own volition. For a ruse is just what cognition would be in such a case, since it would, with its manifold exertions, be giving itself the air of doing something quite different from creating a merely immediate and therefore effortless relationship.

  2. You have to admit that Mr. Bryant has one enormously effective weapon: he reads a bit of a book here and there and then formulates an opinion (however mistaken) – if a) you point out that he has not read enough, he will claim that you are uncharitably assuming that he is ignorant of the subject matter (you come across as a condescending jerk who assumes others do not read the same books as you), but if b) you point out that his “reading” of this thinker/work is mistaken, he will claim that you are accusing him of being an uneducated country bumpkin (you come across as a condescending elitist who assumes everyone else is an idiot).

  3. Also, though I know it probably seems like I’m hogging your comment thread (for some reason no one else seems to be responding), I wrote up a detailed critique of Bryant’s entry “On Commodities, Objects, and Persons.” Predictably, because he has shunned me, he refused to engage with my critique at all. And so he treads bravely forth, speculatively, uncritically, obliviously.

      1. “Don’t we all?” (Levi Bryant)

        Clearly, if one is abused by one’s father, then the whole world is suddenly filled with abusive father-figures demanding that we define our terms etc etc.

      2. My pseudonymous response, which will likely never see the light of day on his blog, runs as follows:

        Obviously everyone has issues with his/her father. The father-figure is the earthly model for the paternal God, the divine protector and punisher. The Oedipal drama plays itself out in nearly every family dynamic. This is all well established within the Freudian framework.

        But “daddy issues” is more of a Jungian innovation, related to the so-called Elektra complex. It tends to manifest only in the development of women or strongly bisexual/homosexual males.

        He would of course publicly say that he considers this response to be homophobic, but his real reason for not posting it is that it shows his ignorance to one of the most basic and well-known psychoanalytic concepts. I’m certainly no Jungian (rather a Ferenczian), but everyone knows about “daddy issues” and Jung’s theory of the Elektra complex.

  4. The thing that makes me cringe the most about Bryant is when he pretends to any sort of knowledge about Marx whatsoever. He takes Althusser’s thesis of the separation between the young Marx and the mature Marx to ridiculous lengths. When he claimed that the later Marx dropped the concept of “alienation” in his later theory, I had to emphatically take off my belt (like his father, I presume) and whip him into submission with quote after quote of textual counterevidence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s