Defining Concepts – Not

Mentioned Matt Segall (Footnotes2Plato / @ThouArtThat) in an aside note to this recent post on Rudolf Steiner. and I have acknowledged him before here. (He’s a Whitehead scholar with whom I’ve engaged once or twice on questions of process philosophy and McGilchrist space (?) – in comments and tweet threads, but I realise I probably don’t give him enough credit because I’ve not really sought out his work directly until now.)

He shared this little (under 10 mins) talk in that aside above – on the face of it about Steiner and his Philosophy of Freedom – but it’s well worth it for his discussion of some very basic distinctions at the root of so much philosophy within the scope of my own agenda. There are some philosophical questions that are frankly at the root of any and all human endeavours.

I captured a few notes/quotes/paraphrases I find relevant:

The relationship between percepts and concepts, between observation and thinking, is a “dilemma” present in all of philosophy. The dilemma of philosophy that turns up in many different ways – mind-body dualism, relations between ideas and things in the world generally.

Oh yes. Been one of my musings recently that all our bigger problems (yes even the god-awful poly-perma-crisis) rest on just two or three fundamental ontological and epistemological questions – about what we know about or mean by “exist in reality”. (I was motivated to summarise these somehow, and may do so after listening to this.)

The difficulty of defining concepts. Concepts are different to their names, concepts cannot be reduced to words. We run into problems when we attempt to define anything (as the friends on the other dialogue are clearly discovering, and the reason Matt captured these thoughts in a separate video essay).

We can never get to the essence of the concept in our attempts at definition, we can only ever arrive at descriptions of certain sets of characteristics and aspects of “an entity” – even though we seem to be able to intuitively grasp the concept as we come to know it. This difficulty is frequently vexing.

Oh yes. Hold your definition (Dennett). Definition as a coffin (Levenchuk). And this is frankly the point my #GoodFences mantra. The whole post-post-modern / meta-modern stance in reaction to the logical positivism project.

Are we discovering or creating the essence of such concepts? There’s clearly a participatory process happening. Steiner and Barfield. Clearly something has happened in the evolution of human consciousness – since the Greeks – that has created this distinction between percepts and concepts.

Biblical allegory with Adam before and after the fall. Previously he “knew” the other animals in the garden, could name them and “speak” with them. But “epistemologically severed” after eating of the fruit of knowledge, lost direct access to the Logos.

Oh yes. Knowing in the biblical sense. The Savoir/Connaitre or Kennen/Wissen distinction we’ve lost in English. Fundamental to my own metaphysical scheme.

We had to invent “isms” to recreate connections between the knowledge and the known. Physical science has continued to advance its mathematical understanding, but somehow happy to leave intrinsic nature as something absurd (Feyman again) that can’t necessarily be understood at a human level. Another symptom of “the fall” – the split between percept and concept.

So now – Goethe & participation, something new, we can’t “undo” the fall. We have to artistically / creatively participate. An alchemical call to collaborate with nature on this task. Steiner (and Barfield?) are drawing our attention to this problem of separation and the need to bring them back together again. A problem of the “I” – being our identification within the world that connects these halves. Pre-fall symbolic activity of creating our whole self with our “thinking” (in the most general sense). Holy task, a sacrement?

Oh yes. Whatever we arrive at as our “worldview” and however we get there, having re-integrated percept and concept in “us” we are not going to be able to represent it as simply one or the other, or one empirically proving or wholly defining the other, and there must remain an element of “faith” in the value of the integrated view we’ve achieved. In my position this is “Sacred Naturalism” or natural theology.

Nice one – beautifully done Matt. I’m going to have to take a look over at the original Steiner discussion this spun out of.

(PS – will add refs to my points in those inserted thoughts above at some point.)

3 thoughts on “Defining Concepts – Not”

  1. I’m going to have to get back into the habit of following your posts. As a Humean skeptic, I find some of your metaphysical explorations a bit vertiginous. Yet metaphysics is as inescapable as my prejudices. So, as a shared record of thought-in-process, I should maybe come along for the ride. I will catch up on McGilcrist.

  2. Thanks Mark.

    Starting point for my take on McGilchrist would be this post.

    If you’ve not already read his original “Master and Emissary” I wouldn’t bother now.
    There is a great little cartoon summary of it from RSA linked in that post above.

    However, it’s a massive investment of time and money to acquire and read “The Matter With Things”
    Just read the reviews on 🙂

    Personally I have already moved on to Solms (and Friston and Levin et al)
    Mark Solms “The Hidden Spring”
    McGilchrist is mainly the external Brain/Mind-World “What” story
    Solms is mainly the Brain/Body-Mind internal “How” story

    There are of course many talks / discussions with McGilchrist out there now – many linked in the blog where I found them interesting.
    Maybe I should do an update post on the best of them?
    The dedicated discussion forum is poorly curated and full of “outliers” 😉

    Take care. Good to meet up again last night.

  3. Thanks. It’s going to be a slow process. I’ll start with that post. But prior to that I’m returning to Theaetetus, my Platonic favourite. It always seemed to me the Republic was Plato drunk and Theaetetus morning-after sober, and I think this is a journey best made with a clear head.

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