Andy Blunden July 2011
Possibly the most striking feature of Vygotsky’s study of concepts is that he took concepts to be processes of development. As products, they are inaccessible to research because the human mind is an indivisible whole. Only by tracing the multiple lines of development that contribute to concept formation can we grasp what a concept is. And this was Hegel’s special gift as well. Rather than taking concepts as things, which inevitably reduces them to sets, he took concepts to be processes of development.
Among the research projects I touched on, those of the Conceptual Change movement and Nancy Nersessian’s work stand out as fruitful lines of research, because they focus on processes of change and development, rather than the final products of development. The work of Activity Theorists like Yrjö Engeström, who studies the formation of concepts resulting from organisational change is another fruitful line of research on concept formation. Other present-day Vygotsky scholars working in educational psychology are also shedding light on concept formation.
Even the work of cognitive psychology, which has focussed on the recognition of common objects is useful insofar as recognition is a process of development, namely microgenesis. In connection with certain kinds of activity, an understanding of cognitive microgenesis is invaluable, even if it falls short of a psychology of concepts.
So before moving to answer our question, it should be observed that I have tried to follow a narrative which is reflective of the outcome we have arrived at. First, a review of the concept of concept in the various disciplines as it is found today brought before us the fact that we have a problem. Our philosophical-historical review brought out the fact that this problem has been with us for more than 300 years, and traced the real historical process of solution of this problem. This still leaves much research to be done, but I hope that by presenting the problem that a concept of concept is meant to solve, and tracing the real process of its solution in the history of science and philosophy, we are now in a position to answer the question.
The answer to our question requires us to describe what a concept is in terms of its being a form of thinking and acting, and at the same time, what it is which is represented by a concept.
In answering the first question, Vygotsky has told us that the human mind is an indivisible whole, and even though concepts are the units of thought, we cannot think of the mind as being an additive sum of mutually exclusive concepts. Rather, concepts may be imputed to the mind on the basis of the production of word meanings and other actions. Word meanings are the form in which concepts are realised by the psyche, but we cannot equate concepts with word meanings, since words are only signs for concepts, and it would be an all too obvious mistake to identify an object with its sign.
Though at first a child or adolescent cannot separate a concept from the word through which it was acquired, a concept becomes independent of the word in the course of its development. At the same time, there are an infinite number of ways any concept can be defined, because a true concept is always part of a system of concepts and has meaning only in relation to all the other concepts which form the system of concepts of which it is a part. So a concept cannot be adequately represented by any one image or definition, and conversely, a concept can be realised in any number of different actions or definitions.
In stating that the human mind is an indivisible whole I am not making any particular claim about the human brain. All the psychological functions which Vygotsky called the ‘higher psychological functions’, including not only concept formation and speech, but attention, memory, representation, judgment and so on, are artefact-mediated mental formations which are constituted in structural combinations of all the elementary psychological functions with which we are born. So the brain may well be differentiated and divisible, but the mind is not.
How then should we investigate concepts as individual mental processes? The principal research method has to be based, as Vygotsky showed, on word meaning, but all domains of intellectual activity, including music and the arts in general, and physical pursuits whether sports or work-activity will also shed light on concepts. But we must always remember that word meanings are only the realisation of a concept, not a concept in itself. The human mind is an indivisible whole.
A concept is the sum of all the meanings it produces, but these meanings have to be taken in the context in which they are produced. A concept may be realised in quite different meanings according to whether a person has to give an instant definition, recognise an object, use the concept to complete a categorisation task, write an extended essay on the concept, evoke the concept in an intellectual action of some other kind or is simply mistaken. A concept may be realised in different meanings by members of a jury making a decision on a person’s guilt or innocence, a parent offering loving guidance, a mentor seeking to understand, or a political leader considering social policy. In short, it is only possible to say what a concept is, even in terms of its realisation in word meanings, in the context of the activity in which the concept is to be realised. A word is meaningful only within the context of the relevant project. One and the same concept will be realised differently in different projects.
Let us turn to what it is that we have a concept of.
Somewhere, sometime, a problem arose within some institution or social formation which presented itself as a predicament, and this situation was grasped as a new concept. In this precise context what is represented in the concept is transparently clear. ‘Freeway’ may have appeared as a great solution to the problem at the time, but freeways as the instrument for replacing community with suburbia took some time to unfold. ‘Freeway’ as the ideal of a project was concretised, and turned out to be quite other than it seemed at the beginning. ‘Freeway’ is also the ideal in a negative sense for all those who fought against freeways during the 1960s and ‘70s. To the extent that the campaign against freeways succeeded in modifying the project of freeway-building, it also changed the concept of ‘freeway’.
There is a sense in which this meaning of ‘concept’, as the solution to a predicament, is the real meaning of the word. But the concept exists and is understood differently from different standpoints. Vygotsky tells us also that individuals grasp a concept when it arises as the solution to some problem in their life. So for example, a suburban resident or car driver understands the meaning of ‘freeway’ without the sharp edges it had in the original context in which it arose, and without the nuances it accrued, but in terms of their own projects – getting to work, having a nice environment in which to raise their kids, keeping in touch with friends, etc. But nonetheless, the meaning the word ‘freeway’ has for a suburban resident or car driver anywhere is in a fairly direct sense derivative of the concept of freeway as an extended project.
In fact, every concept is a family of concepts, because the original social context passes and the context takes on a life in other contexts and other projects. But viewed from the standpoint of other projects, the concept is only a shadow of its original self. Concepts exist only within whole systems of concepts. A concept is indigenous to one particular system of concepts, but still exists in other systems of concepts according to its practical relation to other projects. A ‘freeway’ might be discussed in the context of finding one’s way home, situating a restaurant, choosing an automobile, ... What we have here is an infinite variety of particular concepts, each of them representing a particular solution to a particular problem. At more and more remote cognitive distance from the object, the contradiction which is at the heart of the concept becomes more and more indistinct. But altogether, a concept could not exist and certainly could never make its way into the general everyday life of a community, other than by means of particular manifestations of the concept in all the various projects which make up social life.
Where I have referred to ‘system of concepts’ above, what is meant is a project. A project, such as represented by ‘freeway’ brings along with it a range of subordinate concepts, such as ‘on ramp’, ‘lane’, ‘flyover’, ‘verge’ and so on, but also absorbs all the other concepts of the language in a modified form, from the point of view of ‘freeway’.
The apparent dualism of a concept, as a unit of mind and what the concept represents in the world, is overcome because it turns out that a concept is the self-consciousness of a real project. So there is no dualism. It can be seen that any community is made up of a tangle of projects, each of them being the subject of a concept in the sense of a representation of the situation from which the project originated, and concretises in the process of the realisation of its ideal. Every project is motivated by some ideal realised as the negation of some problem. Every project has its ‘particularism’, a point of view from which all the other various concepts can be evaluated, and integrated into a whole.
So I have dealt with individual actions (word meanings) and particular projects, which are activities, made up of artefact-mediated actions including word-meaning, and finally I come to the universal.
By universal, I refer to the words and other artefacts which give unity to all the individual actions and particular projects as evocations of one and the same concept. Vygotsky correctly observed that in its psychological development a concept becomes independent of the word with which it was learnt. However, because a project can only exist and realise a concept by means of collaboration between people, the word can never be dispensed with. Words change, get translated into different languages and so on, but never without some modification of the concept. Word as signs for concepts are essential for the existence of a concept.
It should be clear from the above that a concept not only represents its object, but along with the activity it mobilises, it equally constitutes and even produces the object. In fact, the functions of representing, constituting and producing are inseparable.
As Hegel explained, every concept exists as individual, particular and universal. These three moments of the concept are never completely in accord. There is always a measure of dissonance between them, and this is manifested in the dynamics of the concept. What an individual means when they use the word is never quite the same as the meaning produced in any other context.
When a new concept is created, corresponding to an innovation in social practice, a new word is invariably coined (or a new use of an old word) as an objectification of the new concept. Very often, it is not only a word but a useful object which is created as an instrument of and a focus for the new social practice. Here, the distinction between tool- and symbol-artefacts is useful. In the 1930s, the word ‘freeway’ was invented to describe a solution to traffic problems. The idea was also objectified in regulations, signage, town planning documents and engineering designs – symbolic artefacts which are essential to the objectification of the new idea and its consolidation in social practice. But also, and most importantly, freeways were built in bitumen and concrete. At this point, it is actually secondary whether people refer to these structures as ‘freeways’, provided social practices are changed in the intended way. Objectification as a tool is the most stable kind of objectification which a concept can acquire. Tools cross the language barrier, and afford activities even in advance of the concept.
When the sign for a concept is taken as the sign for a class of artefact, we talk of the objectification of the concept, and all the words used to consolidate the naming of artefacts by the word are part of that objectification. Even when people no longer use freeways for the purposes for which they were designed, those concrete structures would still be there and we might still call them ‘freeways’. Under these conditions, it makes abundant sense to take the relevant concept to be the concept of the object named, and simply accept that the concept is the ideal form of a category of objects. A concept can be taken as a category of objects just so long as the activities which constitute these objects as such continue to be practiced. The idea of the artefact as an instantiation of the concept is inculcated in people’s minds. Participation in the relevant social practice is dependent on understanding the artefact as not just an objectification, but as an instantiation of the relevant concept. Participation in everyday life carries with it ontological commitments.
The same goes for new discoveries in natural science. A certain procedure may bring to light some aspect of practice which is most simply and directly expressed by saying that such and such a category of object exists, in Nature, independently of human activity and has such and such properties. Again this makes abundant sense, and for 99% of scientific practice cannot be faulted. It is only when one comes to notions like sub-atomic particles and speeds approximating the speed of light or masses comparable to the mass of the entire Earth, that problems arise with this point of view in natural science.
I see this as taking a naturalistic ontological stance in relation to the concept, and such a stance is entirely appropriate for most projects. But it is not appropriate for a critical approach to the study of concepts. The ontological stance to be taken with respect to concepts, has to be appropriate to the relevant project, and it is not appropriate for our project to naïvely accept a concept as naming a category of objects, as if the social practices constituting the object as an instantiation of the concept could be left out of account and taken as given. The study of concepts is therefore a critical activity, because it brings to light exactly how some object or situation comes to be brought under a concept, analysing the social practices by which an object is constituted, and the words by which an object is represented and associated with other social practices.
The word ‘reification’ is often reserved for taking an ontological stance in relation to a concept which takes some object or state of affairs to be an independently existing instance of the concept, without sufficient basis. We may not treat a concept as if it named an independently existing object or attribute, when it would be more correct to take it as naming a process or a role within some system of practice, outside of which it would not exist as such. For example, Anna Sfard (2008: 301) says that ‘learning disability’ is the reification of a condition which someone may be facing at a certain time in certain conditions, but the concept carries the implication that ‘learning disability’ is a timeless, discourse-independent attribute of a person. Likewise, feminists point out that gender is a reification of the place of a person in social practice, and not the culturally invariant character of a human being that it is taken to be. Such usage of the word ‘reification’ calls into question not only the concept, but the social practices which construe it. On the other hand, whatever we think of freeways, it is unlikely that we would describe the designation of a broad highway cutting through the countryside without intersecting other roads as ‘reification’.
One of the most important forms of objectification is the creation of texts, by which I mean everything from government regulation to advertising, literature and everyday speech. But every kind of objectification gives permanence and substance to a concept. When we take our idea of the good life and erect a building in line with that ideal, people will be living with that idea of the good life for long after. Ideas of learning are objectified in the design of schools and classrooms, and long after teachers have learnt better and are trying to teach differently, they are constrained by the concept of learning of their parents’ generation, objectified in bricks, mortar and timber when the school was built.
But as I explained in connection with the work of Alexander Meshcheryakov with deaf-blind children, it is only thanks to such objectification that human communities pass on their wisdom generation after generation. Here we see concepts as implicit in the relevant artefact, as affordances or potentialities and constraints which are built into them along with the physical relation they have to other artefacts (such as with keys and locks, or suburbs and freeways).
It is also usual to use the word ‘objectification’ to refer to projects which have become so stable, usually thanks to being built into legislation, literature and landscape, that they have become institutions. The concept is then deemed to name the relevant social practice itself, rather than the artefacts underpinning the institution. In this case, it is the artefacts supporting the objectification (such as signage, uniforms, buildings, rules and regulations) which tend to get taken for granted. Concepts are always combinations of artefacts and activities, but in one case or another, it is the artefact or the activity which is reified as the exclusive focus of the concept.
I have insisted that a concept is not a bundle of attributes or features. Now I have to qualify this insistence. Essentially a concept is not a catalogue of features which are used to categorise things. But at certain junctures in certain projects, the concept must be realised in just this form, which I call ‘abstract generality’. This is particularly the case when we are dealing with bureaucratic or legal decisions which have to take into account texts and practices which already take a concept to be determined by certain attributes. A jury in a murder case has to know exactly the legal criteria for ‘murder’ in order to make a decision. An election requires every voter to make a decision and cast a vote as a supporter of this candidate or that. A concrete conception of the relevant decision may be appropriate for analysis and commentary, but bureaucratic processes usually oblige us to apply abstract general criteria. Abstract general concepts are not geared up for discussion about the matter. These bureaucratic principles penetrate our entire life in these times. In a strong sense then, many concepts can be defined as abstract general conceptions, and in order to see beyond the abstract general conception it is necessary to take a critical stance in relation to the relevant bureaucratic institutions and practices which constitute the concepts.
Likewise, representations are in essence not concepts, but in very many circumstances, it is precisely a representation, often a very stereotypical representation, which guides people’s actions. Again, it is not so much that a concept is or is not a representation, but that a concept may be realised as a representation in certain conditions. For example, when you first meet someone and as yet have no real knowledge of the person, you begin with a representation of them. Or, if you are trying to find your way in a town, you rely on visual images as signposts. But a concept is like a city, and is not exhausted by a few images. But insofar as much of social life depends on popular conceptions which may never go beyond recognition of situations, representationalism exercises considerable reality in our lives, even if as a theory of mind it does not stand scrutiny.
The important thing here is to recognise the distinction between an actual concept, which is invariably deep and complex, and the myriad of realisations of the concept which are produced under different circumstances. An actual concept will take a lifetime to explore.
A concept is the nearest thing human beings have to eternal life. To realise a concept and nurse it into the world is the best we can do. A concept means a change in social practice. Isn’t everything that happens in history, and goes on to become more than a footnote, marked by the launching of a new concept? And creating a concept is something any one of us can do. But not every concept survives its birth, and outlives the day funding is withdrawn or its founder dies. A concept has to put roots down in fertile soil if it is to realise itself. This is the challenge for those of us who want to make a difference: work out how to make something which is but a twinkle in your eye into a sustainable project that outlives its creators because it meets a real social need. As such, people will go on talking about it for a long time to come, and their lives will have been changed as a result.
This is why it is worth knowing what makes a concept.