Bad Habits: The Philosopher as Concept-Monger

You don't understand me...

In the analytic tradition, one popular characterisation of philosophy has been that it is conceptual analysis. After the Quinean attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction, this view has become less popular, but it still has its adherents. The idea is that philosophers take a problem (e.g. free will) and then decompose it into a set of pertinent concepts (e.g. responsibility, determinism, freedom, agency), clarify what these concepts might mean and how they relate to each other, and thereby hope to remove the air of mystery which hangs over the unanalysed problem. Ordinarily, at most, such a philosopher might recommend we use a word in a different way (e.g. talking of ‘free agents’ but not ‘free actions’ or vice versa), or stop invoking certain concepts at all (e.g. final causes). But there is another less conservative model of philosophy which also takes its object to be concepts, most often associated with recent continental thought.

Deleuze thinks philosophy is the “continuous creation of concepts.” (WIP: 8.) In part, this is meant to align philosophy more with productive activities, which make and create, than those that test and observe — philosophy is to be more poesis than theoria. Deleuze brings his own inflections to the notion of the concept, and thereby philosophy as concept creation too. But the details of Deleuze are not my concern here. Instead of criticism of Deleuze, my focus here is the kind of uses (or misuses) to which this idea of philosophy as concept-creation has been put.

The main ill-effect of the idea of philosophy as concept-creation which I want to point to here has been its reinforcement of one way of approaching philosophers. So, we get the philosopher-as-conceptual-toolsmith model. At its worst, we end up with synecdoche run amok, where one prominent idea comes to dominate everything else about a philosopher’s work — Wittgenstein = language games, Foucault = power-knowledge, Levinas = the Other, Badiou = the Event, etc. For example, Simon Critchley describes the post-Kantian landscape thus:

you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. (New British philosophy: 187)

Similarly, Graham Harman claims that Heidegger only really had one idea which he endlessly repeats, namely the tool-analysis. But even without this extreme hermeneutic reductionism, there is a real coarsening which can go on when we chisel down a philosopher to a handful of headline concepts.

All of this is not to say that philosophers do not produce new concepts. Nor is a plea for endless textual analysis and scholarly ensconcement such that we never put a philosopher’s ideas to work in a new context. And neither does it display a blindness to the realities of communicating philosophical ideas in circumstances where people do not have the time or inclination to master more than the headline ideas of many thinkers. Instead, all I want to do is make the observation that emphasising the concept-creation model of philosophy too much can promote some dubious tendencies in both historiography and contemporary critical debate.

Firstly, unsurprisingly, it often leads to trading in caricatures and straw men. Second, it tends to drive a mechanical style of philosophy, whereby the aim is to ‘apply’ the concepts of the master-philosopher to a given material rather than approach it afresh — ‘I will now give a Foucauldian/Wittgensteinian/SR analysis of x’. Third, it tends to occlude the historical dimension of much philosophy (responding to a certain set of material circumstances; intervening in a historically evolving tradition). Fourth, it can also shroud what is valuable in philosophical work, which sometimes is the purchase which a new concept provides, but is often dissolving a bogus problem, reframing a question to allow it to be answered, effecting a more diffuse change of perspective on an issue, instilling a sense of Entfremdung with respect to something we’ve taken for granted, and so on. All these dangers make me wary of overplaying the image of the philosopher as a forge for concepts.