To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter


The asceticism of the concept

This aridity of the philosophical speech takes us directly to another facet of opposition between life and philosophy: the ascetic dimension of the concept. The concept is a crucial tool of the thinking, if not the main one, as is generally accepted in philosophy, in particular since Hegel. For the German philosopher has put forward this “tool” as what constitutes the scientificity of our mental activity. That is why he rejects story telling, which for him is definitely not philosophy, even when encountered in a classical philosopher such as Plato, who indulges in telling stories, as Hegel sees it, when for Plato the myth still had an important founding role in the thinking.

What is a concept? It is an intellectual representation, which capture the theme or the prominent idea in a given discourse; we could as well call it the “key word” or “key expression”. It can be included in the speech, or can be induced by it. Often it can be considered as a category, a common name to a multiplicity of objects. “Apple” is therefore a definite concept that refers abstractly to an infinity of objects with different form, size and color, but that have in common certain criteria that allow them to enter in the category of “apple”, a concept which in return define those objects that correspond to it. It is the result of a double operation. An abstraction, since it keeps only some characteristics of the objects and not others. For example “ripeness” does not enter in the definition of the apple, even though that concerns us in “life” when we deal with apples. And a generalization, since the characteristics retained are applicable to all the objects that belong to the category. It is a mental object with a double dimension. Comprehension: the totality of the constitutive characteristics. Extension: the totality of the objects these characteristics can be applied to.

Therefore it is short—generally one word, sometimes two or three, rarely more—and abstract or general, since it does not refer to a concrete thing. To show the process and degrees of abstraction, Kant has an interesting distinction between empirical concepts, that refers to objects we can perceive, and derivative concepts, that we cannot perceive, since they refer to relationship between objects, and qualify them. “Hole” or “man” would be empirical concepts, “equal” or “difference” would be derivative concepts.

Actually, it is not so much the concept that interests us here, but the dynamic itself of conceptualization, the production of concepts. As Hegel indicates in his realist scheme—one for whom ideas are real—we don’t want the concept to be determined merely by its object, i.e. to be the concept of something, where reality would be external to the thinking, but rather we aim at a concept which is the object itself of thought: something as a concept, where reality is engendered by the thinking itself. For it is this activity of conceptualization that is a problem for man, reasoning, more than the concept itself, which, as a passive virtual mental object does not represent any concrete threat: to give and use a name, arbitrarily, can be an activity that implies no particular intellectual accomplishment.

Then, what is conceptualization? It is the activity of recognizing, producing, defining and utilizing concepts, integrated in a global thinking process. Each of the four aspect of conceptualization presents some kind of difficulty, which constitutes reasons for resisting conceptualization. But in a general way, the problem with conceptualization is that it consists in an action of reduction, of shrinking, that has a dry and harsh connotation, for the following reasons: we are going from the concrete to the abstract, from the multiple to the simple, from the actual to the virtual, from the perceptible to the thinkable, from entities inscribed in time, matter and space, to acosmic, immaterial and atemporal entities: we enter the realm of pure ideas, the realm of thinking the thinking.

And if most often the idea of reduction carries a negative connotation, we should remind the reader that in philosophy, it can be on the contrary a positive and useful activity, such as in the concept of phenomenological reduction, as proposed by Husserl. It is a mental process where we are invited to bracket the world and suspend our judgment, in order to seize the inner reality of a phenomenon, in itself, as it appears. Of course, we have to give up on all surrounding reality, in order to contemplate the objects of our mental perception disconnected from any context. This phenomenon can happen naturally, when we are astonished, but the process of phenomenological reduction asks us to recreate artificially such a natural occurrence, a very demanding task that allows us to seize the inner essence of an object of thought by abandoning to the extent possible our established world view, which subjectively taints our thinking. The reduction process can as well occur by observing the variation of appearance of a given object, in order to give up the contingent characteristics and conserve only the necessary, its essence, thus revealed.

Recognizing a concept, in someone else’s speech or in one’s own, is difficult because we have to select, among all the words pronounced, which ones are the center of the thinking pattern expressed by the given speech. It is a difficult process, since we have to eliminate a lot of words, in fact most of them, to only keep one, or very few. We loose the narrative perspective or the overall explanation by nailing the point with a single word.

Producing a concept is difficult because we have to convoke a term which transcends a given reality, we have to identify a term which unites a plurality into one single determination, we have to divide a totality of undetermined objects by a process of naming that implies creating determined categories, or we have to qualify a global reality through a specific term, what can be called labeling. There it seems often that our own language escapes us, that reality is beyond our capacity to think it.

Defining a concept is difficult because we have to determine the reality the concept encompasses. We would rather give examples, since the concrete or the particular comes more naturally to the mind than the abstract and the general. To define is to touch at the essence of a reality, to determine and outline its nature, it is one of the most demanding mental exercise. To do this, another common easy way is to produce synonyms, but even though this might be useful, the problem remains: it does not say how to determine the nature of this reality. The problem as well is that some concepts of a highly transcendent nature are in general used to determine or qualify other concepts: they seem to refer only to themselves, as self-evident entities. This is the case for example with “good”, “beautiful”, “true”, etc. Therefore, they seem to escape any definition, and any attempt to do so will always appear reductionist and highly questionable.

Using a concept is probably the easiest aspect of conceptualization, since it can be done in a much more intuitive fashion, less formal. Of course, to determine if a concept has been used in an appropriate fashion is part of the utilization, and this would be the hardest part of it, since we have to evaluate our own thinking. In order to do this, we have to maintain a rather clear idea of the meaning of a concept. But then again, intuition can sometimes function quite well, and after all, language is taught to us in a rather “natural” or reiterative fashion, as a daily practice, more than as a conscious process. The common reticence of school children to study grammar and a certain abandonment of its teaching in modern pedagogy brings some evidence to prove our point about the “artificial” nature of this formal activity. Although from our standpoint “artificial” is in no way contradictory with necessary.

Thus, to synthesize what is ascetic and unpleasant in conceptualization—and therefore contrary to life—are the following requirements. Having to choose and give up, because we want everything. Producing specific terms with a specific function, because it looks formal and complicated and we prefer what is easy. Dealing with abstractions that have no immediate empirical reality, because it is useless and a waste of time. Analyzing the thinking and becoming conscious of one’s thinking, because it is frightening. One could object to our idea that conceptualization is cessation of life by simply saying that what we described is merely some kind of intellectual work, and that work is part of life, even if we don’t like to work, and some people like to work anyhow. We would like to answer this objection in two steps. First we will deal with the work aspect, then with the intellectual aspect.


Page created: 16.03.09. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:41.