Concepts as Capacities and as Tools
May 23, 2014 § 11 Comments
In Alva Noë’s recent work Varieties of Presence we are given an enactive (or “actionist”) account of perception and cognition. In this post I want to explore a few elements within Noë’s text that I find myself in substantial agreement with—his account of meaning and perception, his understanding of “access” as a form skillful engagement, and his nonrepresentational account of concepts, for example—but I also want to seize upon what I see as an important ambiguity in Noë’s work. In his description of concepts, Noë vacillates between two definitions: In the first definition, Noë draws on the etymological root of the word “concept” to suggest that concepts are tools used for “grasping” phenomena, while in the second Noë follows Wittgenstein’s assertion that understanding is a kind of ability or capacity, and that concepts are nothing but ways a body can achieve access to its environment. Rather than declare that one of Noë’s definitions should take precedence over the other, I want to suggest that both definitions—concepts as tools and concepts as capacities—represent two different moments within the transformative act we call “learning.”
My working thesis is that the difference between the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity lies in the degree to which a concept has been understood or internalized. In the first moment, the concept exists as a series of statements—in texts and other media—that must be practiced or rehearsed again and again (through the reading and re-reading of books, the writing and re-writing of papers, or via the dialectical engagement with teachers and peers). The goal of such exercises is not so much to memorize the content of a concept, but instead to make the concept a skill of the understanding, an element metabolized within the perceptual matrix of the subject that yields to new modes of skillful access to the world. The concept in this mode is a tool that folds back upon its user, and in this way we might also think of the concept, at this stage, as an environment or apparatus that allows the transformation of the subject to proceed in a particular direction—namely, in the direction of the skill the concept presupposes. The relation of concept to subject is in this way an ecological one: The subject does not remain the same whilst adding a new concept to a stock of available general notions through which he or she can subsume various phenomenal particulars. Concepts are not additive, they are cumulative, and they enact a transformation of the subject through learning.
The learning process—construed as a series of repetitive rituals and practices—initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept. The tool disappears and the capacity emerges, which is to say the concept is no longer thought about consciously; it disappears into the background and becomes a part of the subject’s perceptual ability. Now, without a description of where concepts come from, this account may sound like fiat Idealism, so it bears mentioning that for Noë the question, Do concepts exist? Is of the same status as the question, Do home runs exist? In both cases Noë says, “Yes,” but it’s a yes circumscribed by the pre-existence of specific language worlds, in the first case, and baseball game worlds, in the second case. In Noë’s enactive view, both the conditions of possibility (language worlds and baseball worlds, in this example) as well as the phenomena that emerge within those worlds (concepts and home runs) must be created by the actions of subjects operating within the constraints of the material-historical universe. In this view, concepts are created for pragmatic ends, as means of “grasping” or “bringing to presence” new features of a backgrounded environment. Noë writes: “a concept is a technique for grasping something. It is a tool or a technique of access” (35).
In Noë’s view subjects achieve access to the world through skillful perception and engagement, but the “I” that does the accessing is always an I-in-the-making; it is created by behaviors, practices, and habits. I maintain that I-making is in part made possible by the training afforded by concepts-as-tools, which after time are metabolized into concepts-as-capacities, and this approach allows us to avoid picking between Noë’s metaphors or sacrificing the insights gained from deploying either. It also allows for an account of the ways in which concepts can be stored and circulated through various knowledge and media ecologies, and it rids us of relying upon a reductive behaviorism in our account of the agency of concepts—a topic I’ll pick up again at a later time.