Resource for Hegel + CHAT Symposium, April 2013

Projects and Concepts

A ‘project’ is an aggregate of actions united by their orientation to a common ideal. Actions are both subjective and objective and as the ideal implicit in a project, a concept is therefore also the ideal, or form of thought, motivating each action. A concept is the ideal, or normative line of development implicit in the actions. Actions have the same relation to the project of which they are part as word meanings have to a concept. A concept, like a project, is a larger unit, which is implicit in each individual meaningful action, disclosing its motivation. The project inheres in the norms and rules flowing from the project’s self-concept and underlying the actions which constitute the project. Projects manifest themselves as social movements (in the broadest sense), before becoming institutionalized as part of a social formation which is nothing but the product of many such social movements in the past. The movement towards institutionalization is the realization of the concept, which invariably differs from the ideal conception which initiated the project.

In the course of their development projects objectify themselves, and there are three aspects to this objectification: symbolic, material and practical. Firstly, the moment someone first communicates the concept of the project it is given a name or symbolically represented in some other way, after which the word or symbol functions as a focus for actions. The word eventually enters the language and acquires nuances and meaning through the development of the project and its interaction with other projects and institutions. Secondly, the project may be objectified by the invention and production of some new tool or by the construction of material artifacts which facilitate or constrain actions in line with the project and facilitate its integration into the life of a community. The word in which the project is symbolically objectified may then be taken as referencing this artifact, reifying the concept as if it were an independently existing object, rather than an ideal functioning as the focus of a new form of social practice which constitutes it. Finally, and most important is practical objectification: once the project achieves relatively permanent changes in the social practices of a community, the project transforms from a social movement into an institution. In this instance, the word may be taken as referencing the form of practice in which the project has been given practical objectification and normalized.

In the process of flowing through a community, a project sediments symbols, material artifacts and institutions, which remain as testaments to its activity. Such sediments may be a technological inheritance which will benefit subsequent generations, institutions – such as the legal system, universities, and scientific institutions, nation states, firms, and so on, or words and symbols embedded in our language and symbolic culture. Its legacy might also be climate change, polluted rivers or an obesity epidemic. But, whatever form they take and whatever their legacy may be, projects are what makes the world we live in and through their sediments and the concepts they have created, projects are forever implicit in everything we do. A project remains implicit in a social formation through the practical, theoretical and semantic norms it has sedimented, and this can be expressed by saying that a concept is a unit of the social formation. Every social formation is a project, made up of other projects.

Note that this differs from the view of a concept as uniting a domain of objects by a common attribute. The objects (whose objective existence is unquestioned) are deemed to be nothing other than a bundle of contingent attributes, which may be stripped off leaving nothing underneath. The corresponding view of a community is that it is made up of various groups according to ethnicity, gender, age, occupation, income level, etc. The dialectical view of concepts is diametrically opposed to this view, in taking the units of a social formation to be themselves processes of development whose ultimate units are human actions.