What does grammar tell us about the nature of our representations of the world? Do the linguistic categories that we use fundamentally shape the way we organize our understanding of the world? Do different cultures or different linguistic communities possess different “conceptual schemes”? Are different conceptual schemes incommensurable or can we translate from one to the other? These questions come up in the context of any discussion of social ontology — what does the social realm consist of? In an earlier post we noticed that “thing” and “object” are ontological categories that perhaps don’t work as well in the social realm. Perhaps more fluid categories such as process, relation, or activity work better.
First, what is a conceptual scheme? It is an interrelated set of high-level, abstract concepts that allow us to break the empirically or historically given into a discrete set of cognitive boxes. We might think of it as our highest-level concept vocabulary, within which more specific descriptors are arranged. Our conceptual scheme gives us the mental resources needed to represent, describe, and explain the empirical reality we encounter. Color, shape, mass, position, and force might be examples of components of a conceptual scheme for the realm of ordinary empirical experience. Structure, group, ideology, and network might be components for the realm of ordinary sociological experience. A conceptual scheme is thought in some way to be comprehensive: all the phenomena in a certain domain ought to find a place within the conceptual scheme.
Peter Strawson offered a very focused analysis of the everyday metaphysics involved in the ways we analyze and represent the world around us. He proposes in Individuals (1959) that we can do “descriptive metaphysics” by examining the conceptual schemes we actually use. And he argues that there are core conceptual categories that are universal. (Paul Snowdon provides a useful discussion in his article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Here is Strawson’s preliminary description of a conceptual scheme:
We think of the world as containing particular things some of which are independent of ourselves; we think of the world’s history as made up of particular episodes in which we ourselves may or may not have a part; and we think of these particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talk to each other. These are remarks about the way we think of the world, our conceptual scheme. A more recognizably philosophical, though no clearer, way of expressing them would be to say that our ontology comprises objective particulars…. Part of my aim is to exhibit some general and structural features of the conceptual scheme in terms of which we think about particular things. (Individuals, 15)
How might we begin to provide a “descriptive metaphysics” for social knowledge along the lines of what Strawson describes? It is clear, to begin, that sociological analysis generally involves a rich and intertwined set of concepts and ontological assumptions about social phenomena. Consider the range of approaches we might take in analyzing a complex historical phenomenon such as fascism: as a social movement, as a political psychology, as an expression of psychopathology, as an ensemble of ideological currents, as a set of political institutions, as a collection of social constituents, and so on, indefinitely.
More fundamentally, what conceptual choices do we need to make when we consider the swirling, fluid complexity of politics, culture, and struggle in Europe in the 1930s? We might place ideological and cultural change at the center; we might focus on the artistic and literary creations of the period; we might emphasize power or social class; we might give primary emphasis to economic change; or we might be drawn particularly to differences in behavior and regime across countries and regions of Europe. Each represents a different way of conceptualizing the historical reality of the 1930s in Europe.
So how can we make some progress towards analyzing social grammar or social conceptual frameworks? We can ask this sort of question at two levels — ordinary social cognition and language, and organized empirical social science. At the ordinary-language level, we can ask questions like these: how do ordinary speakers represent the social world in which they live? What is the nature of the American-English social vocabulary, the descriptive and referential terms that American people use to make statements, draw distinctions, and offer generalizations about the social world they inhabit? At the level of theory, we can consider a given area of research and ask about the semantics and logical relationships associated with the terms that theorists use to describe and explain the phenomena of interest.
For ordinary language, we might find a list of common terms such as these:
- Washington [the Federal government, the bureaucracy, the political system of the Congress, the major Federal agencies]
- Lansing [state government and its bureaucracy]
- justice / injustice [of taxation, affirmative action, executive salaries]
- corruption [misuse of powers of office in private or public sectors]
- major economic institutions [banks, banking system, corporations]
- major economic facts and circumstances [unemployment, poverty, recession]
- religious institutions
- religious / ethnic identities
- facts about race, racial differences, racial inequalities
- interpretations of socially oriented behavior by others [altruism, egoism, pride, shame, rudeness]
- judgments about unfavorable social change [“kids have no values anymore”]
Ordinary people use these concepts and other to organize and criticize their social world; and they are often articulate about what they mean by the various concepts. But ordinary social cognition is perhaps less able to sketch out the relations that exist among the various social phenomena; this, perhaps, is one of the key tasks of social theory. (Here is an earlier post on ordinary social cognition.)
Second, we might consider the vocabulary and conceptual resources of a given sociologist or sociological tradition. For example, here are the main concepts Michael Mann uses in his description and analysis of European fascism in Fascists:
- fascism [to be defined as “the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism”]
- fascist followers and activists
- power organizations
- social movement
- social constituency [groups characterized by status, class, occupation]
- authoritarian regime
- democratic regime
- capitalism [as an industrial social whole]
- social power [ideological, economic, military, political]
- individualism, racism, ethnic purity ideology [as components of ideology]
- major events and crises — World War I, the Great Depression
- religious institutions and ideologies
These specific concepts could be related to a fairly short list of higher-level social concepts or what we might call social categories: individuals and their characteristics; social groups; structures; ideologies; events; influence terms [power, prestige, status]. But almost all the concepts on the list drawn from Mann’s work involve a conceptual assemblage from the higher-level categories. Capitalism is a set of structures, a set of social movements, and a set of ideologies. Racism depends upon both structure and ideology. Modernity is an ideological-cultural formation, a technological-scientific stage, and a socio-economic formation. So the relation between the higher-level category system and mid-level sociological concepts is not one of subsumption but rather one of assembly, combination, or construction.
It is sometimes thought that our conceptual systems are simultaneously contingent and deeply influential in determining how we analyze the world around us. Different conceptual systems lead to different and incommensurable representations of the world. Donald Davidson wrote a pivotal essay on some of these questions (“On the very idea of a conceptual scheme” (1974; link)). Here is how Davidson summarizes the conceptual-relativist view:
Conceptual schemes, we are told, are ways of organizing experience; they are systems of categories that give form to the data of sensation; they are points of view from which individuals, cultures, or periods survey the passing scene. There may be no translating from one scheme to another, in which case the beliefs, desires, hopes and bits of knowledge that characterize one person have no true counterparts for the subscriber to another scheme. Reality itself is relative to a scheme: what counts as real in one system may not in another. (5)
But ultimately Davidson argues that conceptual relativism and incommensurability are unintelligible. They are claims that cannot be stated coherently. And more positively, Davidson argues that we can understand each other’s concepts and words by making use of a principle of charity: we interpret the other’s speech, vocabulary, and syntax in such a way as to maximize the truth of statements he/she utters.
We do this sort of off the cuff interpretation all the time, deciding in favor of reinterpretation of words in order to preserve a reasonable theory of belief. As philosophers we are peculiarly tolerant of systematic malapropism, and practised at interpreting the result. The process is that of constructing a viable theory of belief and meaning from sentences held true. (18)
We get a first approximation to a finished theory by assigning to sentences of a speaker conditions of truth that actually obtain (in our own opinion) just when the speaker holds those sentences true. The guiding policy is to do this as far as possible, subject to considerations of simplicity, hunches about the effects of social conditioning, and of course our common sense, or scientific, knowledge of explicable error. (18)
(Here is a good discussion of Davidson’s view in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
What is the situation in the field of social knowledge? Are there deeply divided conceptual beginnings for the analysis of the social realm? Or can we be confident in the mutual comprehensibility across practitioners of Marxist sociology, Durkheimian sociology, and ethnomethodology?
We can get some leverage on this question by asking whether we can provide concrete examples of candidates for alternative sets of social conceptual schemes. For example, are individualism and holism distinct conceptual schemes for social cognition? The first identifies human individuals as the fundamental “particular”; whereas the second identifies the social whole (structure, morality, ideology, class, way of life) as the fundamental particular. The first requires that we define or specify higher-level social entities or conditions in terms of a compound of features of individuals; the second takes the social whole as irreducible and specifies individuals in terms of their relations to a set of social factors.
Here is another possible example — perhaps materialism and idealism are distinct conceptual schemes within which to organize social experience. The materialist scheme identifies a set of circumstances of the human organism (needs), the natural and build environment, and the forms of social activity that transform the environment as fundamental to social analysis. The idealist scheme takes states of consciousness — ideas, ideologies, moralities, wants, preferences, modes of reasoning — as fundamental to social analysis and undertakes to characterize social facts in these terms.
Or consider a third possible example: structure and process. A structure is an enduring configuration of social characteristics and positions, reproducing a set of powers and constraints for individuals enmeshed in these social relations. A process is an ensemble of things in circumstances of change over time. Structures emphasize permanence and stability; processes emphasize change and impermanence. So perhaps the “structure” lens leads sociologists to a very different representation of the social world than the “process” lens.
These examples make it credible that there are in fact alternative conceptual beginnings from which we can analyze the social world. What does not seem to be true, however, is the idea that these beginnings are incommensurable. Instead, it seems persuasive that ideas and statements that originate in an ontology of social wholes can be effectively restated in an ontology that originates in a world of individuals; likewise, materialist and ideological approaches to the social world seem compatible and mutually constructive rather than contradictory and incommensurable. The dichotomies considered here are not exclusive or incompatible. In fact, any adequate explanation of a social process or outcome is likely to need to refer to both sets of categories. And this implies something very similar to the position Strawson and Davidson arrive at: the idea of inter-translatability and mutual comprehension across these large conceptual divides.
(These questions converge to some extent with several other lines of thought — the Whorf hypothesis (Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf), Quine’s theories of indeterminacy of translation and ontological relativity (Word and Object, Ontological Relativity), Kant’s view that all knowledge is structured through a set of “categories” including cause, space, time, and objects (Critique of Pure Reason), and Kuhn’s view of the incommensurability of scientific paradigms (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Significantly, Strawson discusses Kant at length in The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Davidson takes up the debate with Quine, Whorf, and Kuhn.)