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.

"Folk" sociology

All of us are sociologists, at some level. We have social concepts in terms of which we analyze the social world around us — “boss,” “working class guy,” “politician,” “evangelical”, “millennial generation”. (Stereotypes of groups defined in terms of race and class probably fall in that category.) We operate on the basis of stylized schemata about social causes — what sorts of things influence what other things. And we operate with some stylized social facts. (“Bad economic times make people more suspicious,” “Big cities are more unsafe than towns,” “Elections are decided by big campaign contributions,” “Midwestern people are more socially conservative than Californians.”) Putting all these sorts of assumptions together, we can say that we possess a conceptual framework and causal theory of the social world, which helps us to navigate the social relationships, conflicts, and needs that we have in ordinary life. Action proceeds on the basis of a representation of the world.

What this comes down to is the obvious point that humans are cognitive beings who undertake to conceptualize and explain the world around them; they come up with conceptual schemes and causal hypotheses about how things work, and they construct their plans and actions around these frameworks. We are “cognitive” — we undertake to represent the world around us, based on observation and the creation of organizing concepts. And, of course, many of those concepts and hypotheses are badly grounded; they don’t divide the world in a way that is really illuminating, or they offer stereotypes about how things work that aren’t actually true. (“Don’t bet on red — it’s come up four times in a row, so it’s not likely to come up next time.” That’s a false statement about a series of randomly generated red and black events, and the player who follows this rule will lose to the player who is guided by probability theory.)

This sort of everyday social cognition is similar to what philosophers of psychology call “folk psychology” — the ordinary categories of thought and action that we attribute to each other in order to describe and explain each other’s behavior (intention, belief, pain, anger, …). And philosophers have asked whether there is any relation at all between folk psychology and scientific psychology. (Ian Ravenscroft treats this issue in the philosophy of psychology in his article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Some philosophers have argued that the most fundamental and scientifically satisfactory explanations of individual behavior will be couched in terms that bear no relation at all to the concepts of ordinary mentalistic psychology.

So what is the status of folk sociology? We can ask several questions about this common sense framework of social cognition and expectation. First, where does it come from? What are the social processes of learning through which we arrive at the specifics of the social assumptions and concepts that we employ? Second, to what extent are there important differences across individuals with respect to the features of their social frameworks? (For example, we can explore whether there are cultural and national differences, gender and race differences, or generational differences across different groups and cohorts.) Third, we can examine the degree to which these categories and assumptions are rigid, or whether they are open to modification through additional experience — “learning”.

A different question, though, is also important: What is the relationship between these ordinary sociological frameworks and scientific sociology? Is there a relationship at all? Can scientific sociology learn from common sense? And can common sense improve its grasp of the social world through interaction with scientific sociology? Might we speculate that ordinary common sense does a fairly good job of picking out the salient features of the social world? Or, on the contrary, might we judge that the categories of “folk” sociology are about as misleading as pre-modern, magical concepts of nature? Or perhaps, might we say that rigorous scientific sociology can serve to refine and improve upon our “folk” concepts of the social world — lead us to abandon categories such as race, for example, in our efforts to understand Obama, Michael Jordan, and DuBois?

The example of the natural sciences would lead us to one set of answers on these questions: “folk” knowledge of the natural world was not in fact a good guide to scientific physics, and the concepts of modern physics bear little intelligible relationship to common sense concepts of ordinary experience of tables and chairs. One way of putting this is to say that physics concepts are “theoretical”, whereas common sense concepts are “phenomenological” (based on immediate experience).

Whether that is a valid distinction or not in physics, it probably is not a valid distinction in the social sciences. Social life is more transparent than the physical world; so our best scientific understanding of the social ought to bear some understandable relationship to the categories of ordinary social cognition. Common sense may not be highly specific in theorizing the concept of “power” in social life; but the phenomena of power are in fact fairly visible, and ordinary common sense captures these phenomena reasonably well. It is possible to paraphrase virtually any esoteric sociological thesis about power, in terms that are understandable in ordinary social experience. And likewise for exploitation, alienation, disaffection, racism, prejudice, discrimination, and affinity groups (to list a grab bag of sociological concepts): each of these concepts can be related to ordinary experiences and ordinary, common sense categories of social interaction.

So here is a possible answer to our original question — how do ordinary social concepts relate to those of scientific sociology? We can say that there ought to be a critical but intelligible relationship between the two sets of concepts. Scientific sociology can point out the limitations and blind spots of ordinary ways of representing the social world. But ordinary social observation and conceptualization constitute the real content of sociological hypothesis and theory. So both systems of social knowledge fruitfully interact with each other, and — ideally — lead to a rising level of competence in cognizing and understanding society.

Social construction?

It is common to say that various things are “socially constructed”. Gender and race are socially constructed, technology is socially constructed, pain and illness are socially constructed. I am inclined to think that these various statements are reasonable — but that they mean substantially different things and are true in very different ways. So it is important to be more explicit about what we mean when we refer to social construction.

There is one broad distinction that is most fundamental in this context — the distinction between the construction that happens in the formation of knowledge and that which occurs in the social process involving self- and other-representing agents. The distinction is one between the observer and the observed, and it is not absolute. Participants are themselves knowledge producers, and what we will recognize as their social construction involves their creation of schemes of representation. Nonetheless, there is an important line to draw between the constructions of the observer and the participant.

The crux of the issue is whether social reality is the creation of the men and women who make it up, or whether the reality is shaped and created by the conceptual lenses through which the observer frames the social phenomena. As a social realist, I want to maintain the separation between the social reality as constituted and experienced by the actors and the conceptual schemes of the observer. This position implies rejection of the epistemological version of social constructivism, the view that the observer’s concepts determine social reality.

There is a complication that needs to be addressed but that doesn’t change the basic perspective of realism. This is the point that in some unusual circumstances it is the case that scientific concepts and theories feed back into behavior and thought of participants. The definition of some mental illnesses is a good example, as is the form of a variety of human institutions such as the factory or the prison: concepts constructed by social theorists and critics feed back into the design of the institution with the result that the next iteration of the institution is indeed partially the construction if the theorist. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

So in what sense are gender, race, or technology instances of social construction from a realist perspective? It is a social reality that societies embody identities for various groups of individuals and these identities are framed by the thoughts, behavioral, and strategies of people in society. Moreover, these thoughts and behaviors change over time as a result of the contestation that occurs around the identities. So the formulation of the identity of “African-American professional,” “Jewish garment worker,” or “gay Texan” is ultimately the result of a process of contestation, repression, and interactive social behavior. It is socially constructed through visible social processes and mechanisms. And it is constructed, not by the external observer, but by the active and subjective participants.

And what about technology? In what sense is the evolution of a technology like the bicycle or automobile socially constructed? (Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change) What historians of technology usually mean by this assertion is a denial of the idea that there is an inherent pathway of technology change that is implied by efficiency and the natural properties of materials and designs. Against this inevitable-ism of function, historians note that the actual path of technology development is most commonly driven or constrained by cultural preferences and expectations. Young men wanted an exciting adventure in their automobile in the 1910s — and so the boring electric car was doomed (Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age). Weapons designers shared a culture of precision — and so inertial navigation superceded radio-guided systems (the predecessor of GPS) (Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance). In other words — technologies are socially constructed by the imperatives of culture in the surrounding society.

So there is a sense in which social constructivism is true and informative — and thoroughly consistent with social realism. And there is another sense in which the phrase is extreme, philosophical, and inconsistent with an empirical and realist study of social reality.

(Ian Hacking has an interesting take on these issues in The Social Construction of What?.)

Coverage of the social sciences

Suppose we took the view that the social sciences ought to provide sufficient conceptual and methodological tools to analyze and explain any kind of social behavior. This would be a certain kind of completeness: not theoretical or explanatory completeness, in the sense of having a finished set of theories that can explain everything, but conceptual completeness, in the sense that there are sufficient conceptual resources to give a basis for describing every form of social behavior, and methodological completeness, in the sense that for every possible research question there are starting point for inquiry in the social sciences. And, finally, suppose we stipulate that there are always new hypotheses to be discovered and new theories to be invented.

If this is one of the ultimate aspirations for the social sciences, then we can ask — how close is the current corpus of social science research and knowledge to this goal?

One possible answer is that we have already reached this goal. The conceptual resources of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology serve as a “fish-scale” system of conceptual coverage that gives us a vocabulary for describing any possible configuration of social behavior. And the most basic ideas about empirical research, causal reasoning, hypothetical thinking, and interpretation of meaning give us a preliminary basis for probing and investigating any of the “new” phenomena we might discover.

Another possible answer goes in the opposite direction. The concepts of the social science disciplines are parochial and example-based. When new forms of social interaction emerge we will need new concepts on the basis of which to describe and represent these social behaviors. So concepts and empirical knowledge must go hand in hand, and new discoveries will stimulate new concepts as well.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose the social sciences had developed to this point minus micro-economics. The reduced scheme would involve many aspects of behavior and thought, but it would have omitted the category of “rational self-interest.” Is this a possible scenario? Would the reduced set be complete in the sense described above? And what kind of discovery would be required in order for these alternative-world social scientists to progress?

The incompleteness of alternative-world social science is fairly evident. There would be important ranges of behavior that would be inscrutable without the concept of rational self-interest (market equilibria, free-rider problems). And the solution would appear fairly evident as well. These gaps in explanatory scope would lead investigators to ask, what is the hidden factor we are not considering? And they would be led to discover the concept of rational self-interest.

The moral seems to be this: it is always possible that new discoveries of anomalous phenomena will demonstrate the insufficiency of the current conceptual scheme. And therefore there is never a point at which we can declare that science is now complete, and no new concepts will be needed.

At the same time, we do in fact have a rough-and-ready pragmatic confidence that the social sciences as an extended body of theories, concepts, and results have pretty well covered the primary scope of human behavior. And this suggests a vision of the way the social sciences cover the domain of the social as well: not as a comprehensive deductive theory but rather as an irregular, overlapping collection of concepts, methods, and theories — a set of fish-scales rather than an architect’s blueprint for all social phenomena.

Social description as science

Descriptive research and writing in the social sciences is generally looked at with a degree of condescension. The complaint is that science should be explanatory, and descriptive work is both shallow and trivial. We can almost hear the doctoral supervisor responding to the candidate who has spent a year in primary research in the field and in tax offices in Indonesia, producing a finely detailed descriptive study of how the fiscal institutions actually work across levels and regions: “That’s well and good, but what do you make of your findings? What patterns have you discovered? Why do the variations you’ve documented occur as they do? Where’s your theory?”

The “shallow and trivial” criticism is unfounded and unjust. Our talented field researcher will have found an enormous and surprising range of variation among the institutions and practices he has studied. And these variations cannot be inferred from some general theory of fiscal institutions. They must be discovered and documented on the ground. Further, we can’t come up with any useful theory of institutions in the absence of some rigorous, concrete, and particular descriptions of a variety of institutions. We need the complexity and texture of good, rigorous description to help produce genuinely explanatory theories. (Robert Klitgaard’s treatment of corruption fits this description nicely; Controlling Corruption.)

So detailed descriptive research is important — because the social world is unruly and varied, and there is no single rule or law that generates this diversity; and it is difficult, in that it requires extensive and disciplined efforts at observation and discovery. Moreover, descriptive research is theoretical in one important respect: deciding upon the features of the phenomena that are worth recording is itself the result of preliminary hunches about what is salient or significant. (Of course there is no such thing as pure description.)

At the same time, the critic is right in one important respect: having documented variation in practices and local implementation of the basic fiscal institutions, it is quite reasonable to expect the researcher to try to find some explanations of this variation. Our graduate student now needs to reconsider the manuscript and try to determine whether any of the variation and particularity makes sense from the point of view of known social mechanisms. Why did the Indonesian fiscal system evolve into the variegated structure it now consists of? And this is where social theory is most useful — not as a grand explanatory scheme, but as many small bits of theory capturing some relevant features of behavior and institution-building in these particular circumstances. So, for example, our graduate student may notice that principal-agent problems are endemic in fiscal institutions. Given that taxes are being assessed and paid, all the participants have some motivation to subvert the process. So it may be that some observed variants can be explained as strategic efforts to solve principal-agent problems. Or as another example — limited and unreliable forms of communication may exist in some parts of the country under study, and features of the fiscal system in these under-served regions may have been selected because they are less reliant on swift, accurate communication.

Maybe this gives a basis for assessing the role of descriptive inquiry in the social sciences.

  • Because social phenomena are heterogeneous and plastic, there is an important and enduring role for careful descriptive inquiry. The task of discovering and documenting the variety and diversity of social phenomena is both important and intellectually challenging.
  • Because social phenomena emerge from purposive human agency, there are an open-ended number of social mechanisms that are potentially relevant to the diversity that is discovered.
  • And because we are ultimately interested in explaining as much variation as we can, it is desirable to bring those theoretical widgets to bear on various elements of the diversity that is discovered in the descriptive research.

And, finally, it is unrealistic to imagine that either description or theorizing can be conducted solely independently. Instead, description requires theorizing and conceptualizing, and theorizing requires some accurate descriptions of the world to work with. As Kant wrote in a different context, “Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind.”

(As I imagine the hypothetical example above I think of Alfred Russel Wallace’s fine and detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Malay archipelago, and the role that this detailed natural history played in the formation of his own and Darwin’s theories of natural selection. The purpose of the theory was to find some degree of order in the intricate diversity of the biological domain. But the biology of species had a major advantage over the sociology of institutions and practices: there was in fact only one governing mechanism, random variation and selection, so it was possible to encompass the full range of observed diversity under a single ecological theory. The case is different in the social world because there are multiple independent causes leading to social differentiation.)

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