Concepts as Capacities and as Tools

May 23, 2014 § 12 Comments

jimmypensone-commelina-communis-l-front-ow[Image: Macoto Murayama]

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.

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§ 12 Responses to Concepts as Capacities and as Tools

  • dmf says:

    will have to chew on this some, but did want to say that concepts (are we talking words here and if so spoken, written, etc, or what) are taken up in ways which not only change the human/subject making these but also what change what is in-corporated.
    along these lines this part “in the direction of the skill the concept presupposes” doesn’t make sense to me as it is, what does it mean to say that a concept presupposes a direction or anything else?
    it seems (perhaps a bit ironically) that what is missing here is the background/surround/environs of the sort that Heidegger notes in terms of the function of specific tools and Wittgenstein notes when he says:
    “A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not
    command a clear view of the use of our words
    – Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connexions’.Hence the importance of finding and inventing
    intermediate cases.The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a“Weltanschauung”?) (PI 122) “
    now I disagree with Heidegger/Wittgenstein about whether we do (or even care) share anything like a Grammar/Language/World-view but that’s another story. good stuff here AR, thanks for this opportunity to work on these matters some.

    • dmf says:

      sorry should read “not only change the human/subject making these efforts but also that change”
      poor connections between my head&hands as well as my latop&wireless…

    • Adam Robbert says:

      These aren’t really answers to your questions, dmf, more like riffs at the edge of my thinking, but it seems to me that concepts have to be more than just words, at least some of them, and thus they are more basic than grammar. I’m looking into what Wittgenstein would have to say about this since above I give a specifically linguistic precondition for the existence of a concept, and I think this is true for many concepts we use (perhaps especially for the concepts you mention above and for those that philosophers use / create), but Noë takes things a little further when he aligns himself with a partially Kantian / nativist view of concepts that doesn’t rely on language (i.e., concepts function at a very low level of development, they are inherited biologically, and they are participant in the perceptual capacities of many nonhuman organisms who don’t possess “language” in any human sense—perception and conception are very much linked for Noë; I love this idea). Along these lines, in his recent Berkeley talk Noë affirms a form of conceptual pluralism: For Noë concepts come, structurally, in different kinds, so that we might be able to think about the nativist / empiricist split in a “both / and” kind of way. To me this opens the door to the two-way notion of the concept as tool and as capacity, and also as functioning before and after the ability of language or grammar to intervene, which is to say that there isn’t really a “foreground” and a “background” in any fixed sense, since both are effects of the subject’s symbiosis with a conceptual and nonconceptual ecology of forces that can be translated in multiple ways. For me part of this learning circuit requires that concepts as tools must be storable within certain kinds of language and media worlds, and these are what “point us” in certain directions through training and practice.

  • dmfant says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero.

  • arranjames says:

    Looking forward to the follow up, especially as I’m working on something about behaviourism as part of a series on the history- and future- of CBT.

    To pick up on dmf’s comment, I still think the direction to go in is one of practices. Practice forms the background insofar as practices are structures around explicitly codified and implicitly assumed rules. The rule-orientation of any practice is partially what makes it cohere as a practice in the first place, the other side of this being the outcome-orientation of the activity. Even in activities without explicit or material outcomes there is at the very least the orientation towards the reproduction or elaboration of the practice itself (for instance, sexual reproduction and contemporary art, respectively). This is one side of the pragmatic equation.

    On the other side, I agree with this dual definition of concepts. Concepts are practices or rather, there is a practice of the concept. What is the direction of the concept then? It’s allows the practitioner to move further into, out of, across or between other practices. For instance, object permanence is a mesh of other concepts that are learned in an embodied fashion. The infant develops a rudimentary concept of the object- in this sense it cognises a category called objects that is composed of a crystallisation from a series of particular objects. The perspicuous representation is in fact this crystallisation which I prefer to think of in terms of the case-study. This isn’t an academic case study, of course, but nonetheless I think this term captures something of what I mean. The concept of object permanence structures other concepts which themselves are tied to a pragmatic coupling to the environment. Without object permanence, it seems silly to even say this, there could never be artifacts of engineering.

    So concepts do allow for a grasp on things. And I think this operates precisely like Adam suggests. I like to think of maths in this way. When we learn to count, to manipulate number, to add, subtract and so on it is with difficulty. The numbers are an obstacle. We have to get a hold on them, and get a hold on the operations. The best way of doing this is in returning to countings likely pragmatic beginnings: we teach children to count first of all by having them count actual things. The concept of number shows up in the practice of counting as a way of grasping the object. The concept of “one” is best introduced by counting “one apple” and thereby uniting the concept with a specific object. Later, the labour of this operation recedes into cognitive automaticity: when I perceive one apple the concept “one” disappears. The concept of “one” is inseperable in this setting from the practice of counting, and the practice of counting, at first difficult and frustrating, quickly becomes a skill that forms part of a background. The concept of “one” presupposes counting.

    Moreover, this learning process absolutely produces as an “I in the making”- a process of singularisation- when we place it in relation to the neuroplasticity literature. The use of concepts, the becoming proficient to the level of the skilled, as a mode of accessing the world, of coupling to it, thereby provides “feedback” to neuronal activations- even to neural and synpatogenesis (my brain’s “connectivity”)- and thereby refashions it. I’m not suggesting this capacity for neuronal modification is what identifies the “I” but rather that this is the material evidence of such a processual characterisation.

    • Adam Robbert says:

      This is very helpful, Arran. When you write: “Concepts are practices or rather, there is a practice of the concept. What is the direction of the concept then? It’s allows the practitioner to move further into, out of, across or between other practices” I find myself thinking of the ways in which concepts are involved in the presencing or absencing — to use Noë’s phenomenologically inflected language — of perceptual phenomena. A concept does not direct us in any straight forward or linear fashion, but it does produce a set of constraints and affordances that are participant in our behavior and decision making. Though of course *what* a concept constrains or affords for a specific individual is a highly psychological / empirical / biographical / historical matter, and I think this is why dmf is right to be skeptical of my phrase “in the direction of the skill the concept presupposes” since there can be no universal direction that a concept supposes for all people everywhere (or even for the same person at different times and places). Do you know of any work that explicitly investigates the relations between concepts and neuroplasticity?

    • dmf says:

      AJ, practices tho aren’t literally ruled and aren’t some-thing we have in common, everything we do is somewhat customized/contextualized by our individual development and the ever shifting contexts/assemblies that we are manipulating/mangling our ways in. So your doings of mathematics isn’t the same as mine and even within your own fairly routinized/habitualized practices there will be some degree of variation/improvisation (tim ingold is illustrative here for me).

      • arranjames says:

        That’s true, sure, but my practice of mathematics and yours have to have enough of a resemblance they are still mathematics. I think we see this a lot in philosophy actually, we get disputes about whether x or y is doing philosophy or theory or ethnography and and …

        Practices certainly have rules, even if they aren’t ruled, and even when they are fairly idiosyncratic and/or private. Todd May has an insightful discussion of diary writing about this in Reconsidering Difference:

        “Diary writing, for instance, is a solitary activity. It is both socially and normatively governed, however. There are ways one writes diaries, types of topics that are considered, potential readers (if even only oneself) that are kept in mind, and so forth. These ways are socially recognized as constitutive of the practice of diary writing. If one does not conform to these norms, one cannot be said to be engaged in an instance of the practice of diary writing”.

        These rules aren’t necessarily universal and they’re definitely not eternal, and they are certainly socially contextualised and individually customised..often it is this customisation or the transplanting of a practice from one domain to another- whether that domain is geographical, historical, political, or a transposition of practices on each other.

        Although I’m maybe getting a bit far away from Adam’s original point.

      • dmf says:

        AJ, Adam can certainly correct me but I don’t think he is trying to get at the old triangulation model of two people and an object, and even with your example one quickly gets into say discussions of what is fiction or non-fiction or such or if I blog my diary online does this count and on and on, but the real issue is that rule-following is close to an endless regress as where would the rule for following the previous rule come from and so on…

  • dmf says:

    this gives you a taste of the general thrust of the thing:
    3.3 Meaning as Use

    “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this way can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43). This basic statement is what underlies the change of perspective most typical of the later phase of Wittgenstein’s thought: a change from a conception of meaning as representation to a view which looks to use as the crux of the investigation. Traditional theories of meaning in the history of philosophy were intent on pointing to something exterior to the proposition which endows it with sense. This ‘something’ could generally be located either in an objective space, or inside the mind as mental representation. As early as 1933 (The Blue Book) Wittgenstein took pains to challenge these conceptions, arriving at the insight that “if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use” (BB 4). Ascertainment of the use (of a word, of a proposition), however, is not given to any sort of constructive theory building, as in the Tractatus. Rather, when investigating meaning, the philosopher must “look and see” the variety of uses to which the word is put. An analogy with tools sheds light on the nature of words. When we think of tools in a toolbox, we do not fail to see their variety; but the “functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects” (PI 11). We are misled by the uniform appearance of our words into theorizing upon meaning: “Especially when we are doing philosophy!” (PI 12)

    So different is this new perspective that Wittgenstein repeats: “Don’t think, but look!” (PI 66); and such looking is done vis a vis particular cases, not generalizations. In giving the meaning of a word, any explanatory generalization should be replaced by a description of use. The traditional idea that a proposition houses a content and has a restricted number of Fregean forces (such as assertion, question and command), gives way to an emphasis on the diversity of uses. In order to address the countless multiplicity of uses, their un-fixedness, and their being part of an activity, Wittgenstein introduces the key concept of ‘language-game’. He never explicitly defines it since, as opposed to the earlier ‘picture’, for instance, this new concept is made to do work for a more fluid, more diversified, and more activity-oriented perspective on language.
    3.4 Language-games and Family Resemblance

    Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language. Primitive language-games are scrutinized for the insights they afford on this or that characteristic of language. Thus, the builders’ language-game (PI 2), in which a builder and his assistant use exactly four terms (block, pillar, slab, beam), is utilized to illustrate that part of the Augustinian picture of language which might be correct but which is, nevertheless, strictly limited. ‘Regular’ language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.

    Language-games are, first, a part of a broader context termed by Wittgenstein a form of life (see below). Secondly, the concept of language-games points at the rule-governed character of language. This does not entail strict and definite systems of rules for each and every language-game, but points to the conventional nature of this sort of human activity. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of ‘game’, so we cannot find “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (PI 65).

    It is here that Wittgenstein’s rejection of general explanations, and definitions based on sufficient and necessary conditions, is best pronounced. Instead of these symptoms of the philosopher’s “craving for generality”, he points to ‘family resemblance’ as the more suitable analogy for the means of connecting particular uses of the same word. There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66). Family resemblance also serves to exhibit the lack of boundaries and the distance from exactness that characterize different uses of the same concept. Such boundaries and exactness are the definitive traits of form—be it Platonic form, Aristotelian form, or the general form of a proposition adumbrated in the Tractatus. It is from such forms that applications of concepts can be deduced, but this is precisely what Wittgenstein now eschews in favor of appeal to similarity of a kind with family resemblance.

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