Concepts and the world

What is the relation between concepts and the world? And how do we arrive at a conceptual scheme that provides a perspicuous way of representing reality?

This way of putting the question invokes one of the central polarities that has defined modern philosophy, including the traditions of Locke, Descartes, and Kant. It is the contrast of representation and reality; the polarity between the structures of mentation through which we conceptualize and represent the world, and the world itself, the given, the objective features of reality independent from our schemes of representation. Richard Rorty’s title, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, expresses his skepticism about this polarity and about the conception of the relation between knower and the known that it corresponds to. But the intellectual conundrums these questions raise are unavoidable.

One of the views that we can take on the relation between mind and world is “realism”: the idea that, for a given range of stuff, the stuff is independent from the ways in which we represent it. So we can be realist about fish or electrons, for example; and what this means is that we think there are real fish and electrons, and that their properties are objective and independent of the ways in which we conceive or represent them. But there is a huge problem with this view — even as much as I want to defend a form of realism. It is the problem that “properties” are not objective features of the world, but are rather attributes singled out by concepts. And concepts are part of our mental schemes — not inherent or objective features of the world that we are representing. So properties are not objective features of reality. “Facts” are similarly representation-dependent: we can’t express a fact about the world except on the basis of a set of concepts. So we can’t say that properties and facts are independent of the scheme of representation. And this seems to lead to the conclusion that naive realism is untenable.

The alternatives to realism include idealism and conceptualism — the view that the properties of “stuff” are constituted by the mental schemes that we bring to the study of “stuff”. But idealism is intellectually unpalatable, in its Berkeleian version anyway: in the idea that there is no objective, material world, but only a set of subjective mental representations conforming to an orderly succession in the mind. A particular version of conceptualism is the Whorf hypothesis, according to which different cultures inhabit different worlds because of the fundamental and incommensurable differences that exist between their conceptual schemes (Benjamin Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality). And there is the Kantian version of these ideas — the view that empirical reality cannot be recognized except through an organizing set of concepts or categories; so naive realism is ultimately incoherent. There is nothing we can say about a “noumenal” world — a world as it really is beyond the categories of empirical experience.

So we might cautiously admit to the correctness of “conceptualism” — that anything we say about the objective or real features of the world in inevitably couched within a set of concepts or categories, and there is no uniquely best set of concepts on the basis of which to analyze experience. This doesn’t take us to idealism, however. It doesn’t say that the world is subjective or constituted by consciousness; it doesn’t say that the world lacks an independent status from the mind. What it says is that knowledge and representation of the world are inherently conceptual — and this is an act of mentation rather than simply a reflection of the objective features of the world.

Within this conceptualism, we might say that the best we can do is to acknowledge that the world of stuff interacts with the knower; the knower brings a set of concepts to his/her interactions with stuff; and knowledge and the world are the joint product of this interaction. This view isn’t necessarily idealist in the Berkeley sense — according to which reality is simply an ensemble of mental representations. But it is non-objectivist when it comes to the facts about the world: the facts are dependent upon a scheme of concepts within the context of which we characterize states of affairs. And, at the same time, it permits us to assert that there are objective facts of the matter once we have settled on a conceptual scheme.

This set of issues has special relevance to the philosophy of social science; I’ll have to return to the topic in another posting.

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