Concepts and Words

February 27, 2015 § 3 Comments

[Image: Dillon Marsh]

We cannot think of words or statements as simply marks on a page or concepts as simply nouns. What’s needed is syntax, the arrangement of words. Syntax is essential to the emergence of semantics, the meaning of a statement. Syntax and semantics are part of the relational architecture that exists between a text and its reader. There is in one sense a higher-order meaning to letters when arranged to form words and again to sentences when arranged to express statements. In another sense, though, “higher-order” is just a spatial metaphor since linguistic meaning just is the arrangement of letters and spaces grasped by a reader. This is the whole point of linguistic communication, after all: to express meaning. Syntax and semantics are part of the real dynamics of understanding any linguistic artifact and must be construed as part of what’s considered a “text.”

Further, concepts, often the content of a statement, cannot be collapsed into specific words. Concepts and words are not interchangeable. (The SEP notes why the relationship is more complex than that.) Words are often about concepts and concepts are often about other non-conceptual things (but can also be about other words and other concepts or even about the structure of language or conceptualization itself). Multiple words can express the same concept (e.g., “one,” “un,” “один,” and “1” are all about the same concept). Similarly, concepts can be expressed through non-linguistic means—as in a symbol for “one” such as “*” but also as a sound, say, as a single beat. Beyond humans, concepts are available to all manner of critters. (This is not a settled issue, but the evidence is trending in the right direction. Again, some basics are available at the SEP.) We do not need to cleave to a superficial understanding of the concept as a simple, static unity or as a transcendentally secure, foundational entity to accept this premise.

Concepts are complex and historical, open and relational, multispecies and plastic. Language cannot be treated as a privileged road to the concept, as though a word gives some kind of direct access to it, nor can the concept be discarded in favor of the word. We should avoid a straightforward collapse of the concept into the word while still recognizing that language use is among the factors that influence conceptuality. The third thing between readers and texts here is not a ghostly apparition—an ideal concept, dropped in from above—but a sensible apprehension of the content of expression as it is entangled with its nonconceptual object of engagement, which the word brings forth and helps to communicate through its process of comportment with a concept in the activity of thinking. The concept pre-exists its external expression but is nevertheless empirical. None of this is epiphenomenal to the activities of brains and bodies; the exchange is the means by which real entities transform themselves and engage with their surroundings.

The Ecology of Extended Minds

February 13, 2015 § 14 Comments

nunzio-paci-38[Image: Nunzio Paci]

I wasn’t going to post this since the event has unfortunately been canceled, but Matt Segall threw his up so I figured I’d leave this here for future reference. The below abstract was meant for a conference on theoretical archaeology in Copenhagen. Readers will notice that the abstract continues to develop the themes that have occupied my recent posts. The paper is about 2/3 finished, and I’ll probably end up pitching it to a journal or using it for another conference down the line.

Abstract Proposal: XV Nordic TAG 2015 

Title: Cognitive Archaeology and the Ecology of Extended Minds

Author: Adam Robbert

Panel: Disentangling the Neolithic ‘Revolution’ in Southwest Asia

Abstract: The role of the cognitive archaeologist is to re-construct the values, thoughts, and beliefs of past societies. In this paper I argue that the best way to understand human experience, now or in history, is by demonstrating the ecological basis of all human thought, action, and perception. Building on the work of enactive approaches to cognition, I suggest that human experience and behavior is an ongoing and distributed activity achieved at the intersection of conceptual knowledge, physical perception, and environmental affordance. But what is knowledge? What is a concept? How do they participate in larger ecologies? To understand how knowledge participates in human action, I propose that knowledge is a skill waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. One way to visualize this intersection is to underscore that ecology entangles perception with cognitive activity through the enaction of experience. The intersection of concept with sense, then, is the basis for the ecological understanding of knowledge. This understanding in turn provides a theoretical framework that operates outside of traditional Nature­–Culture dichotomies and accords with the historical character of the values, thoughts, and beliefs studied by cognitive archaeologists.

The Ecological in Foucault and Deleuze

January 13, 2015 § 10 Comments

tumblr_nfcqdp6AoL1r67qauo1_500[Image: Liu Kuo-Sung]

How are we to think about Foucault and Deleuze in an ecological world?

On one level, Foucault’s interest is in writing a history of the dynamics that make statements true or false, in the modes of governance that shape bodies, and in the kinds of truths that can be told and the people who are allowed to speak or verify those truths. On another level, Foucault is interested in the shaping of humans into certain kinds of subjects with certain kinds of capacities, in the ways in which subjects complexly conform to and resist processes of subjectivation. Uniting both levels is Foucault’s exploration into the possibilities and constraints of speaking the truth where truth statements are indexed to a certain historical a priori—a bringing of the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge into the riven flow of history.

In a similar vein, Deleuze’s interest lies in the creation of concepts in response to problems that are themselves encountered as ruptures or as unexpected events experienced in the evolution of living forms. The application of thought to being exercised by human persons is for Deleuze but one example of the pragmatics exercised by all living beings as each one traverses in and out of the unwelten of surrounding bodies, captured by the call and response of ecologically configured life forms. The Deleuzean insight encourages us to see that the synthesis of experience achieved by any one organism is first and foremost a prior synthesis of many symbiotic bodies, multispecies collectives forged into complex wholes with increased abilities for discernment and decision-making.

For Foucault, then, the nonhuman impresses itself onto anthropic space through the production of laws and regulations, the production of material infrastructures that manipulate human behavior and perception, and the enforcement of practices that condition human beings. In Foucault’s understanding, the human is always born into a larger historical condition that is not of the same kind as any one person’s individual experience, an experience that is, to an indeterminate degree, an effect of historical trends rather a starting point for historical evaluation.

Similarly, for Deleuze, nonhuman forces already act on the inside of human experience. Here all knowing is an inter-species effort; multiple species are always on the inside of anthropomorphic space, undermining it from within. The Kantian transcendental subject is for Deleuze a complex and multiple collective of diverging syntheses of cognition and perception. If Foucault initiates a move from the transcendental a priori to the historical a priori then Deleuze initiates a similar movement—from an historical a priori to an ecological a priori. Crucially, the enfolding of divergent species into human cognition marks not just an ecological basis for all human thought—a mark that suggests that all human thought is dependent on a multiplicity of nonhumans living and dying on the inside of human subjectivity—but more cosmically that human cognition is a higher dimensional enfolding of spacetime itself, a synthesis that makes the vastness of the cosmos thinkable to the human mind.

Fieldwork Studios: Art, History, Geology

January 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in contact over the last few days with Joshua Mason of Fieldwork Studios. Fieldwork Studios is an interdisciplinary organization inspired by ecology, geophilosophy, aesthetics, the anthropocene, and much more. Among other things, Joshua is responsible for the fantastic paintings you see below. Most of the reader mail I receive is from philosophers or academics, and I love hearing about what other scholars from around the world are up to, but I’m just as interested in hearing from and sharing the work of artists. My readers have probably noticed that I try to feature a bit of art with each of my posts to break up the monotony of my rambling, so, if you’re an artist with something to share, feel free to drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.unnamed-2unnamed unnamed-3

Concept and Sense IV: Media Environments

December 23, 2014 § 8 Comments


The internalization of knowledge is to a large extent environmental in that we are absorbed by different knowledge ecologies that propagate within us different perceptual matrices that dispose use towards certain phenomena against others. Here the question transforms one more time, How does knowledge travel? Who has access to it? Which bodies can develop what capacities? The construction of a specific media sensorium provides the environment for the introduction and distribution of certain knowledge and practices. In the enactive approach, recorded knowledge is not a representation of a general class of events but is rather the inscription of an iterable capacity in a medium. A text, for example, is a certain kind of inscription device, to use Bruno Latour’s term, a media ecology filled with affordances for new empirical capacities of observation.

A text deals in conceptual or virtual affordances—theoretical as opposed to practical possibilities. Virtual affordances offer conceptual possibilities for imaging alternatives to the present scenario. A text is a record of past cognitive achievements that in the future can act as a set of affordances for the acquisition of new skills of perception in another person. These affordances enable the acquisition of new capacities for participation, action, and discernment. The text is an ecology that provokes transformation. However, the potency of a concept is not in the text itself but in the contrasts rendered available by the conceptual problems the reader must traverse in order to achieve the new skill, to constellate what is available to perception in a new way through engagement with the text. The constellation of availability again reveals the ecological nature of the concept-subject relation. Texts provide a virtual topos enacted by human practice—a topos that folds back on the human, shaping his or her identity along the shifting contours of new ecologies of thought.

Concept and Sense III: From Concept to Capacity

December 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

The question now becomes, How does conceptual understanding inflect itself onto empirical observation? That new modes of perception can be learned is evident in the fact that the empirical observations of the physicist, the botanist, or the architect are not the empirical observations of the lay person. Each one, in his or her own way, brings to empirical observation a particular sense of refinement, a constellation of knowledge, training, and experience that exceeds the capacity for discernment possessed by the untrained eye. How is the discernment achieved? How does one become a physicist, a botanist, or an architect? What are the actions that must take place in order to entrain empirical observation with the capacities required for each skill? In each case, the training process includes a large number of directed practices and behaviors, as well as a large number of machines, instruments, and institutions, but it also includes a substantial theoretical comportment with ideas.

The comportment with ideas is neither prior to nor constitutive of practice. Instead, this comportment is an event that occurs within the limits of empirical practices and environmental affordances, within the thrush and flow of reality, but it is not thereby limited to the contents of immediate events. The task of learning is in large part predicated on the production of spaces that facilitate repetition and practice in a context where repetition and practice do not suggest merely the retainment of the concept in memory but more thoroughly the transformation of the subject through the internalization of the concept. Learning is the achievement of stable changes in the capacity for perception where perception is an enacted performance of certain capacities for delineation and connection. The concept ingresses and becomes a part of the empirical skillset of the trained individual. In this way, we can say that there are practices of representation and representations of practice, which are both entangled stages of human learning.

In other words, conceptualization is a speculative skill, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Concepts are ways bodies mobilize perception to achieve certain aims or to render access to specific types of contrast. (This is Alva Noë’s definition of concepts, which I largely agree with.) In their multiplicity, concepts are layers of learned capacities for refinement that intersect with the tissues of the human organism. They develop new spectrums of concern and enable vectors for decision-making that were previously unavailable. Learning marks an ecological space where knowledge cuts transversally across sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. This means knowledge is not a separate layer of representations that sits on top of the sensory systems of the human body but is rather a part of the tissue of perception itself. Knowledge is a material phenomena, learning an ecological event, and both arise contemporaneously with perception. The intersection of concept with sense, then, is the basis for the ecological understanding of knowledge and its relation to the human organism.

Thinking of concepts as capacities or skills of perception also has consequences for intentionality. If intentionality is the thesis that consciousness is always about something, then from the ecological view the structure of intentional process is itself emergent and plastic, open to new modes of contrast and valuation. Articulating the sensitivities of the body through conceptual acquisition renders the body able to detect a finer number of details within the environment. The result is an ecology of heightened contrasts and increased levels of discriminatory detail. An internalized concept, a metabolization of the concept into the body’s capacities, results in new abilities to discriminate and adjudicate between particulars. Knowledge is a resource for new movement and learned judgment.

Concept and Sense II: Knowledge and Experience

December 23, 2014 § 1 Comment


The distinction between representational accounts of knowledge and enactive accounts of knowledge are not new. In many ways they mirror earlier debates over theoretical versus practical modes of cognition. In the Kantian framework, for example, the conditions under which things are given in experience precede the conditions under which they are thought—but—the way things are thought influences how they are given in experience. The question is, then, How do phenomena move from objects of thought (concepts) to objects of experience (intuitions)? That is, how are new conceptual renderings brought into sensible experience? In the Kantian view, the forms of intuition (space and time), expressed in the transcendental aesthetic, and the categories of the understanding, expressed in the transcendental analytic, are a priori, that is, they are not derived from nor found within experience. They are what is presupposed before thinking and experience can take place.

However, from the evolutionary and ecological view, the a priori, limited here to its epistemological rather than its ontological sense, is not a formal a priori but an historical a priori. In an ecological universe, categories and intuitions are the enacted capacities of historically emergent and contingent bodies moving and grasping through their respective Umwelten. In this respect the Kantian framework is fundamentally mistaken, as many have already shown. Nevertheless, many aspects of the Kantian framework are still helpful to us today. We need only understand that intuitions provide sensory data to thoughts and that concepts provide organization to intuitions. Intuitions without concepts would leave us with raw, un-delineated sense impressions—patches of color, smell, and sound rather than forests, flowers, and rain. Concepts are the means by which sense data are synthesized pre-reflectively, or, better, concepts are means by which new synthetic contrasts can be brought into the experiential sphere.

A consequence of the ecological approach to concept and sense, then, is that the human body is always an intersection of acquired knowledge and physical perception, and this means that the body never sees a thing naked, as though merely receiving information passively. Instead, what is seen is the phenomenon alongside the available knowledge about it, which gives the body the capacity to render it in a specific way, with attention to particular details and traits. One way to visualize this intersection is to underscore that ecological cognition entangles perception with cognitive activity in a way that renders cognitive perception a somatic action performed by the body. Every phenomenon is given within the body’s knowledge ecology, which helps present it to awareness. In this context, where knowing and sensing are linked, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual capacity, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in a meaningful way. The ecology of knowledge marks a space where concept and sense intersect, a conceptual sensorium that participates in the organization of the subject as a subject as he or she interacts with the world. Knowledge is a skill waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new contrasts.


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