Principles, Illusions, Names

It would seem that at least on the intuitive level, a certain concept of ‘concept’ must exist. After all, academic disciplines use “concepts” as the very means of research. However, it is obvious that different properties and definitions of concepts are operative across the various academic disciplines, prompting the suggestion that there are in fact different concepts of ‘concept’ at play. Is a generalized understanding of ‘concept’, one which would unite different concepts of ‘concept’ across the disciplinary boundaries, possible?

Polina Lukicheva

This was the leading theme of the workshop “Concepts of Concept: Perspectives across Languages, Cultures and Discipline” (September 10–11, 2014) organized by the Comparative Conceptual Research Group at the URPP Asia and Europe. In a way, it tackled one of the most challenging topics in philosophy, for an understanding of concepts is inevitably bound up with a comprehension of how humans confront the external world and make sense of it. The workshop sought to bring together current research on theories of concepts in analytic philosophy, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and intellectual history, approaching the problem of concepts in four ways: (1) through inquiring into the ontology of concepts using the toolkits of analytic philosophy and the evidential data of cognitive psychology; (2) by looking at types of concepts and modes of conceptualizing in non-European cultures; (3) by examining the relations between lexical units and concepts; (4), by looking at the historicity of concepts.

Tools, rules and principles

In his opening remarks to the workshop, Ralph Weber (URPP Asia and Europe, now University of Basel) drew attention to the dilemmas arising within different concepts of ‘concept’, notably between textual and non-textual approaches to concepts. Hans-Johann Glock (University of Zurich) discussed ordinary uses of ‘concept’ from the viewpoint of their logical appropriateness. Some types of concepts, called predicative, correspond to a certain class of objects in the logical structure of the world, which can be expressed by general terms. However the predicative understanding of concepts does not cover non-verbalized cognitive phenomena. Such concepts are addressed by the theory of mental representations developed by Jerry Fodor. He assumes that concepts are psychological entities embedded in the internal structure of mental processes like general terms in language. In his talk Glock challenged this point of view: by referring to Charles Peirce’s theory of the sign, he demonstrated that concepts cannot be explained in terms of a merely representational paradigm. Analytic philosophy gives a different concept of ‘concept:’ it defines them not as entities (whether outside or within the mind) but as certain cognitive abilities. Glock suggested that it is more correct to look at concepts as tools, rules and principles of cognitive operations such as classification and inference.

While postulating logical rationality of cognitive processes with explicit reference to Kant is commonly accepted by analytic philosophy, evidence from psychological experiments featured in the next two presentations of the workshop introduced substantial scepticism in this respect. In her talk, Asifa Majid (Radboud University Nijmegen) presented data from psychological experiments showing that categorizing objects is generally based on comparison of a given object to so-called prototypes (Eleanor Rosch). Using the example of designations for colors in different cultures and a notable example of Malaysean people having abstract categories for smell, Majid demonstrated irregularities in mapping mental categorical structures onto lexical sets. Both language structures as well as mental operations reveal functional principles that are far less definable than that of a priori domains.

Kees Versteegh (Emeritus Radboud University Nijmegen) countered Chomskian views on mind and language by referring to the now routinely criticized behaviorist theory of Burrhus F. Skinner. According to this theory, nothing in the human behavior, including even such complex and seemingly creative mental activities as verbal behavior, goes beyond the mechanics of processing environmental inputs in a variety of ways in the brain, leading to reflex-like reactions. The functional effectiveness of previous reactions defines recurrent patterns of the behavior and defines the learning process. Not only is there no need for presupposing intelligence for these processes, there is also literally no place to ground a priori “reason” in the mind, independently of the “material back and forth” of neural chain reactions, as experiments on the physiology of memory by Eric Kandel have shown.

The places of concepts

The second part of the workshop focused on the perspectives on concepts and conceptualizing in non-European cultures. In his talk, Christoph Harbsmeier (University of Oslo) showed that no terminologized notion for ‘concept’ seems to have existed in Chinese before the loanword gainian 概念, which approximates the western notion of “concept,” was introduced via Japanese as late as the early 20th century. Harbsmeier defines a concept by looking at the variety of its features revealed in lexical fields. In the presentation, he outlined a concept of individuality in Chinese culture as his main example, by looking at various kinds of first person pronouns in early Chinese sources. Harbsmeier observed that in the variety of ego-designations, individuality is often represented in a certain role (social, literary, etc.) and its properties are situation-dependent. Generally, it seems that the variety of names for phenomenal appearances displayed by Chinese texts, often make it a hard task for a researcher to identify an integrated essence of a concept. Patrick McAllister (Heidelberg University) showed that from the viewpoint of Buddhist theorists of language “the grasping of the same nature amongst things” is seen as an erroneous way of conceptualizing. According to them, true cognition should be able to differentiate effects. It does not mix identities of things judged by seemingly identical effects. Thus, the only valid mode of conceptual cognition is inference based on the exclusion of sameness.

It could seem to some that the Deleuzean intuition of grasping things in their “internal difference” comes close to this point. Bruce B. Janz (University of Central Florida) applied Deleuze and Guattari’s views on producing concepts to the study of African philosophy. Janz maintained that “concepts have places,” that is concepts are territorially bound and derive their properties from specific cultural contexts.

Inadequate notions of wordhood

The third part of the workshop was devoted to analyze more precisely where concepts reside in language and how words or other grammatical morphemes relate to concepts. In his presentation, Wolfgang Behr (University of Zurich) first pointed out that many statements about concept-word-relationships made in analytical philosophy and cognitive psychology, no matter how critical they are regarding this relation, are based on the assumption that ‘word’ is a stable and clearly definable unit. From a linguist’s perspective, problems of mapping concepts to words evolve precisely from the inadequacy, even meaninglessness, of notions of wordhood. Using examples from early Chinese sources, Behr demonstrated that Chinese philosophers made clear distinctions between “word-like” lexical units (ming, yu, yan, hao, ci) and “ideas” or “meanings” (yi). While maintaining that the former convey meaning in a certain way, they often argued that language is not capable of fully capturing the subject-matter that lies beyond lexical expression, different views on referential relation between lexical expression and reality notwithstanding. The view that concepts are irreducible to language also opens ways for reasoning on other ways of expressing meaning and ideas (e.g. visual).

The presentation by Iwona Kraska-Szlenk (University of Warsaw) approached concepts through functions and semantics of grammatical particles. Her case study drew upon Swahili, the most important Bantu language used in Southeast Africa, where words marked by a suffix -ni form locative classes of nouns by which certain relations between a person and a landscape are indicated. The presentation by Erich Poppe (University of Marburg) demonstrated how medieval Irish scholars, based upon a system of judgments (e.g. “specific,” “proper,” etc.), created an order of correlations between categories of things in the world and masculine, feminine, and neuter genders of nouns. Whereas this medieval example shows a compromising solution with respect to the accommodation of arbitrariness of grammatical structures to the knowledge of objects in the world, the relation between language, concepts and extralinguistic referents certainly remains a complex issue from the point of view of modern linguistics.

Cultural practices of naming

When recent history of research on concepts is observed, another paradox about concepts appears. On the one hand, the usefulness and power of concepts are obvious, as concepts circulate in cultural contexts, motivate and frame scholarly practices. In her talk, Sinai Rusinek (The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute) gave an overview of several national and international projects in conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), where concepts operate as an efficient means to mould notions of historical processes and cultural development. Henning Trüper (EHESS, Paris), on the other hand, demonstrated the gradual “deflation” of concept even in such “concept-sustaining” disciplines as analytic philosophy and historical semantics. With references to Usener, Cassirer, Kripke, and Levi-Strauss, Trüper suggested that concepts can still be meaningfully defined in terms of cultural practices of naming: a name-concept is generated by a perceptional act of attention to a particular phenomenon, as a fixation of a “moment of emphatic phenomenal experience,” at the same time being bounded to cultural and linguistic practices peculiar to this particular historical setting, whereby the concept of concept eventually becomes subject to historical change itself.

The observation that concepts are amenable to changes suggests that general properties of concepts can be productively sought in the variety of actual transformations that concepts undergo across cultures and disciplines. Thus “Concepts in Transition” is going to be the topic of the next workshop of the Comparative Conceptual Research Group.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 4/2015, pp. 13–14)