Much to my surprise, a number of people seemed to have a problem with my discussion of concepts in my post entitled On the Function of Philosophy. There, I wrote,

Concepts are not representations, nor are they ideas in minds. Rather, they are lenses and tools. They are apparatuses, every bit as tangible and real as hammers. It makes as much sense to ask “is this concept true?” as it does to ask “is a hammer true?”

The crux of the criticism seemed to revolve around my reference to concepts as tools. Somehow this got assimilated to many as the thesis that the status of a concept is to be defined in terms of its usefulness. Here it would be claimed that I am suggesting that we are to evaluate concepts in terms of whether or not they are useful. Yet clearly, for me, this won’t work because evaluation of concepts in terms of usefulness requires a pre-existent domain of uses, yet I reject the notion that there are pre-existent fields of ends, aims, or uses. Ends must be constructed and articulated. They don’t come ready made like some sort of Aristotlean telos that governs beings and that draws them to a particular end.

If, then, tools ought not be thought in terms of their usefulness, if the toolness of tools is secondary, as people like Stiegler and Bogost in Alien Phenomenology argue, to its being as a tool, how should the being of tools be thought? It seems that tools should be thought less in terms of what they are for than in terms of what they do. Put differently, we can say that whether or not a tool is useful is an accidental or secondary characteristic of its being as a tool. Uses are found for tools and machines, they don’t constitute the essence or being of tools and machines. Minimally we can say that a tool is an entity that acts on another entity so as to produce something else. The burners on my stove act on the eggs in the pan producing scrambled eggs. If we wish to understand the burner, we don’t ask “is it true?”, but rather “what does it do?” The sorts of productions produced through a tool can be endogenous or exogenous. Endogenously a tool can bring about a transformation in the thing it acts upon as in the case of the burner acting on the eggs. Exogeneously a tool can produce a new entity as in the case of hammers and nails fastening boards together.

read on!

If, then, concepts are to be thought as tools, we should ask of concepts not what they represent, but rather what they do. Here it’s important to pause for a moment. In an interesting post over at Enemyindustry, David Roden gives the example of “jelly fish” (the idea, not the entities) as an example of a concept. While I’m readily inclined to agree that the idea of “jelly fish” is a representation, it doesn’t seem that ideas like “jelly fish” are concepts in the philosophical use of the term I’m trying to develop here. I hasten to add that I’m still trying to figure out just why I have this hesitation in categorizing ideas such as “jelly fish”, “cats”, trees”, etc., as concepts. Rather, it seems to me that concepts, in the philosophical sense, refer to things like “Justice”, “Being”, “Substance”, the “Other”, “Concept”, “Object”, “Process”, “Environment”, “Communism”, “Democracy”, “Subject”, etc. In other words, it seems to me that concepts, in the philosophical sense, never refer to a determinate class of entities such as “jelly fish”, but rather refer to something far more diffuse. Like I said, however, I’m still trying to work this out in my own thought.

In claiming that concepts should be understood in terms of what they do, I suppose I’m saying that concepts are incipient practices. That is, concepts ask us to do something with them. Take a concept like Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” or epoche, or a concept like “intentionality”. These concepts call for me to describe the world and the entities of the world as they are given and precisely in terms of their givenness. Once I carry out the reduction I am to ask myself what is given in intentionality and how it is given. What is thus acted on through these concepts is experience. What is produced are the myriad descriptions we develop in phenomenology. It’s clear that these descriptions need not be useful for anything, though we may find uses for them. Here we might say, following can’t, there are concepts pertaining to the World, “Soul”, and– departing from Kant –Society.

On the one hand, concepts bring the world into relief in a variety of different ways. In my last post I evoked James’ “buzzing, blooming confusion”. Nothing, in and of itself, tells us what’s worth attending to in the world. Different systems of concepts bring the world into relief in different ways. This is to say, they bring different things forth that would otherwise remain in obscurity. The world brought into relief by Dennett’s concept of Evolution is different than the world brought into relief by Husserl’s lived intentionality. The debate between the object-oriented ontologists and the process-relationists is not a debate over which ontology truly represents the world, but over what ought to be brought into relief. Different things are attended to in each instance, while other things fall into darkness or obscurity. Along these lines, it would not be mistaken to claim that Heidegger’s concept of truth as aletheia is the concept of concepts. Concepts are not representational but alethetic. And aletheia, once it takes place, calls for a work in relating to the world. Dennett’s evolutionary ontology (he sees evolution as being at work at all levels of being, not simply at the level of life) brings forth an entire work, an entire way of engaging with the phenomena of the world analyzing it in terms of natural selection without pre-determined goals. These are concepts pertaining to World.

Following Kant’s understanding of reason in The Critique of Pure Reason, reason differs from the understanding in that understanding functions in a “piecemeal” fashion, taking things “entity by entity”, whereas reason is “problematic” in the precise sense that it seeks to unify the disparate in a system. Reason is “problematic” (problem posing) in the sense that it strives to comprehend how the disparate fits together. This is precisely what concepts pertaining to world do. In and through concepts we encounter the phenomena of the world as a “problem”. How does the disparate fit together? When Dennett formulates his evolutionary ontology, he is proposing a unifying arche that proposes a way of approaching the disparities of the world in a system. Likewise with the process-relationists and the object-oriented ontologists.

On the other hand, concepts can transform the very nature of our selves, generating new forms of cognition, affectivity, and goals. The ethical philosophies of Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Spinoza, Kant, and Zizek are not so much systems for determining right or wrong as they are what Foucault called “technologies of the self”. The manner in which I cognize and the affects I experience and of which I am capable are entirely different depending on whether I embrace Kantian ethical concepts or Lucretian ethical concepts. Just as concepts pertaining to world institute a project through which to comprehend the disparate phenomena of the world, concepts pertaining to self propose a way of relating to the self so as to produce a certain sort of self. As a Stoic I engage in a practice that leads me to evaluate my desires, judgments, and beliefs in a particular way (as Epictetus puts it, “in terms of what is in my power and what is not within my power). In this way, I seek to cultivate a new form of affectivity or of experiencing myself. Likewise with Kant’s categorical imperative or Badiou’s subjects of truth. Each of these ethical concepts is a technology of the self that produces different types of selves. And it will be noted that in each of these concepts of self we get different aims, goals, and ends.

Finally, we get the concepts of society. The concepts of society propose ways of living together and relating. Communism is a concept of society. Democracy is a concept of society. Liberalism is a concept of society. Each of these concepts propose very different types of social world and all of them announce a work, a project, for producing a particular kind of work in producing that kind of social world. Just as concepts of the world stitch together the disparate phenomena of the world within a particular conceptual framework and just as the concepts of self stitch together the life of a self within a particular conceptual framework, concepts of the social seek together the social within a particular conceptual framework.

Concepts arise from problems and generate problems. This in three ways. As is the case with any tool, it is a problem which occasions the invention of the tool. However, the problems that occasion the invention of concepts are poorly understood by academic philosophy. Academic philosophers speak as if the problems that occasion the inventions of philosophy can be formulated like a laundry list: “what is knowledge?”, “what is being?”, “what is truth?”, etc. Like participants on the Chris Matthews show, everyone is supposed to take a position from a set of predetermined possibilities and duke it out. Yet the problems that occasion conceptual invention seldom appear in the philosophy itself. Rather, they arise out of the world in which the philosophy is enmeshed. Not only does the philosopher seldom articulate the immanent field that occasions her concepts, but it’s likely that the philosopher is herself seldom aware of the problems that occasion her concepts. Along these lines, Michael, of Archive Fire, has recently articulated the beautiful concept of “feral philosophy“. As Michael writes,

Feral theory, or ‘feral philosophy’ operates outside of the civilizing processes of institutional and canonical strictures, and attempts to think wildly through the exigencies of practical and political life in opposition to homogenizing conventions. Of course, such theorizing is not without its influences, or founding premises, but it radicalizes those legacies, resources and logics by forging monstrous alliances between discourses and paradigms, while intentionally mutating them for explicitly pragmatic and strategic purposes. A feral theorist, then, is a bricoleur who preys on the theoretical fauna of numerous authors and subsists by plundering the cultivated fields of all available disciplines, carving out niches of praxis and resistance.

My favorite philosophers are always what Michael calls “feral theorists”, or figures that were outside of academic philosophy such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Lacan, etc. Let’s take the example of Hume in the history of philosophy. What is the problem of Hume’s thought? What problems, what “ferality’, animate his conceptual invention. It seems to me that the problem that animates Hume is not the question “what are the origins and limits of knowledge?”, but rather, “how can I destroy the force of despotic authority?” And here, of course, the authority in question is no doubt the authority of religion and sacred texts. Hume sees a world pervaded by witch burnings, religious wars, and despotic governments based on religion. Religion serves as a foundation of the State. And that religion finds its ground or foundation in sacred texts. Hume therefore targets this claim to knowledge based on revelation. If knowledge becomes a problem for Hume, it is not out of some abstract desire to know or solve the problem of how we can represent, but to formulate a series of weapons that would undermine the authority of the state. In this regard, section 10 of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is the closest we get to a formulation of Hume’s problem. Spinoza faces a similar problem as can be seen in the Appendix to Part 1 of the Ethics, though he develops a different strategy by trying to defuse the alleged teleological nature of God and to develop a naturalistic reading of scripture in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. Leibniz, for his part being the diplomat that he was, attempts to develop an ontology or metaphysics in which Protestantism, Catholicism, and Calvinism can seen to be consistent with one another. In all of these cases, the problem that animates philosophy is not what professors would refer to as a “problem of philosophy”– “what is knowledge?” for example –but something extra-philosophical that occasions the invention of concepts.

The second sense in which philosophy and conceptual invention is born of concepts arises once concepts are invented and when they are engaged with the world. Recall that concepts put us to work. We do something with concepts, engaging the world, ourselves, and society in a variety of ways. Yet in putting concepts to work in analyzing the world, problems arise. Take the example of Marx. “System of production” is a concept. Marx argues that social relations are to be understood and comprehended in terms of the system of production belonging to that society. Yet then the Marxist encounters the French Revolution. All sorts of inequalities resulting from the system of production can be located in French society during this time, yet it’s noteworthy that France had suffered tremendous farming problems for years– resulting, it appears, from “The Little Ice Age” –that pushed the population to the point of starvation due to bad harvests. Now clearly this is all bound up or entangled with systems of production, yet this is an agency other than the system of production. Now the Marxist finds that he must invent new concepts to account for this other agency if he is to understand social relations. Something new must be introduced into the theory. The important point here is that we discover the need for these new concepts (Bellamy develops a number of these concepts) arises as a result of putting our concepts to work in the analysis of the world or the deployment of reason.

Something similar happens in Lacan. Recall that middle Lacan, the Lacan of the symbolic, argues that the symptom can be fully resolved in the symbolic. In other words, for middle Lacan, the symptom is “mute speech”, a message addressed to the Other that hasn’t articulated itself in speech, and which therefore insistently repeats in some sort of action (like repetitive hand washing). Yet like Freud before him in Analysis Infinite and Finite, Lacan discovers, in the course of his practice, that although all the symbolic underpinnings of the symptom might be uncovered and articulated in the course of analysis, the analysand still repeats symptomatic formations. This application of the concept and the symbolic leads Lacan to the discovery of the Real, objet a, sinthome, and jouissance as a way of accounting for this repetition beyond symbolic articulation, and leads him to completely reconceptualize the ends and aims of psychoanalysis. We now get Joyce, as that poet of repetition with a difference, as the model of what the end of analysis should look like. And indeed, Lacan, beginning with Seminar 10, completely critiques, implicitly, all of his earlier work as a result of this encounter… An encounter that would not have been possible had he not first followed the development in practice (the Clinic) of his concepts.

Finally, the invention of concepts generates problems among concepts. Feral philosophers are often committed to multiple concepts. And just as pieces of wood don’t always fit well together in the building of a house, concepts do not always fit smoothly together. As Harman argues, concepts often fail to fit together and philosophers can therefore end up laboring at concepts for decades to fit them together. This too leads to conceptual invention. Spinoza argues that each attribute is independent of the others, purely immanent, and only able to produce causal relations with modes under the same attribute. This leads to the invention of the concept of parallelism to account for how mind and body interact without interacting. Harman argues that objects are completely withdrawn from one another, yet is nonetheless committed to the thesis that somehow objects relate and interact. This leads to the invention of the concept of “vicarious causation”. There is an endological plane of development with respect to concepts that doesn’t arise from the feral world or wilderness.

Yet concepts are not all we find in philosophies. Deleuze and Guattari, in What is Philosophy? also argue that philosophies are animated by “conceptual personae”. The conceptual personae of a philosophy– and sometimes there’s more than one as in the case of Kant –is not the philosopher, nor is it itself a concept, but rather it is akin to the subject that animates a philosophy. This subject is characterized by a particular sort of normativity, affectivity, embodiment, and, if we must use the term, “judgment”. In Ecology Without Nature, Morton writes that,

[i]deological determination depends not just upon the content and form of an artwork or rhetorical device, but also upon the subject position that it establishes. The artwork hails us, establishing a certain range of attitudes. (80)

The conceptual personae of a philosophy is the subject or the way in which the philosophy both hails its readers as well as the philosopher herself. The conceptual personae or personaes that animate a philosophy are not themselves a concept, nor are they true or false, but they are a sort of hailing that comes to animate and transform the philosopher and the readers hailed by the philosophy. It is the operator of concepts and what a system of concepts or a philosophy invites us to undertake.

In Zizek and Badiou, the conceptual personae is that of the activist. In Kant, Brassier, and his few followers, the conceptual personae is that of the “tribunal of reason”, the judge, the legislator. In Nietzsche and Deleuze the conceptual personae consist of the artist, the schizophrenic, and those personae that are to be fought such as the dogmatist and the Kantian-Hegelian defenders of common sense and the Image of Thought… Those that would function as a tribunal of reason and judgment rather than invention. Philosophies, in addition to inventing concepts, endlessly create conceptual personae and philosophers enjoy (and suffer) the becoming of their conceptual personae over the course of their work.

The conceptual personae is not to be evaluated in terms of whether its true or false, but rather is normative through and through. I have sometimes been accused of “bad psychoanalysis” in these sorts of discussions, yet the issue is not the psychology of my interlocutor, but rather the conceptual personae that animates the thought of my interlocutor. Conceptual personae define the sense of a philosophy. They are normative through and through and embody a certain desire, form of affectivity, psychology, and set of social and political desires. It is not simply what is true or false in evaluating a philosophy that matters, but also the desire and affectivity that animates this philosophy, its conceptual personae, that is of importance. Just as the racist can say all sorts of true things about the social world while we still wonder why he fixates on these particular things and in this particular way, we also ought to wonder why philosophies come to activate these particular desires, these particular forms of affectivity, these particular goals and aims. Why is it that so many philosophers act like hall monitors or scolds wagging their fingers? What desire is animated in these attitudes or conceptual personae? What is the true desire? Here I recall a classmate in grad school that went from being a rightwing conservative republican to a militant Marxist. At the level of concepts, these universes were completely different; yet perhaps something remained the same, perhaps some set of desires, aims, and affects, remained the same across these disparate conceptual universes.

So what’s the gripe with representation and truth? In part the gripe arises from my alethetic conception of truth. There’s always a prior disclosedness that precedes any propositional statements about the world, self, or society. Somehow representational conceptions of truth always miss this. If Brandom is so disappointing and filled with sad passions, then this is because he begins well with his expressivism and inferentialism, yet then reterritorializes everything back on the proposition, on language, arguing that an inference is what can serve as a premise and conclusion in another linguistic formation and that the implicit is what is already there rather than invented. Those with a rather priestly and noxious will to power find this appealing because it allows them to both police (by appealing to community standards without ever asking how those standards are formed) and to reduce everything to what is masterable (the linguistic, representational, and propositional) without engaging with the world and its aleatory surprises. Somehow these attitudes seem to evoke the conceptual personae of the legislator and judge, both of which I believe are inquisitorial, contrary to the spirit of invention, and noxious. Yet at the end of the day, the worst part about those “philosophers” that focus on representation or how representations accurately mirror the world is that they’re boring and trite. They seem to believe that the fate of the world rests on questions of whether or not I recognize my friend Morton or whether I solve a mathematical equation correctly. Yet as Deleuze asks in Difference and Repetition, who is the person that fails to recognize Morton or solve the mathematical equation correctly? The tired, the distracted, the fatigued. Yet worst of all, what these ways of posing philosophical questions seem to desire is the reduction of von Foerster called non-trivial machines to trivial machines. A trivial machine is a machine that produces a predictable output on the basis of a given input. A non-trivial machine is a machine that modifies and transforms itself as a result of the outputs it produces when given certain inputs. Do we not find, behind these desires, the desire to create robots in the worst possible sense? Aren’t these the same desires we see currently inhabiting the discussions of education reform in the United States? Isn’t the triteness of representational thought, its refusal of aleathia and the adventure of conceptual invention, the height of instrumental rationality and normalizing discourse?