Non-classical conceptual analysis in law and cognition

Some time ago I discovered a distaste for classical conceptual analysis, with its talk of individually-necessary-and-jointly-sufficient conditions for concepts. I can’t quite remember when it began — probably it was first triggered when reading Lakoff’s popular (and, in certain circles of analytic philosophy, despised) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things; solidified in reading Croft and Cruse’s readable Cognitive Semantics; edified in my conversations with neuroscientist/philosopher Chris Eliasmith at Waterloo; and matured when reading Elijah Millgram’s brilliantly written Hard Truths. In the most interesting parts of the cognitive science literature, concepts do not play an especially crucial role in our mental life (assuming they exist at all).

Does that mean that our classic conception of philosophy (of doing conceptual analysis) is doomed? Putting aside meta-philosophical disagreements over method (e.g., x-phi and the armchair), the upshot is “not necessarily”. The only thing you really need to understand about the cognitive scientist’s enlarged sense of analysis is that it redirects the emphasis we used to place on concepts, and asks us to place renewed weight on the idea of dynamic categorization. With this slight substitution taken on board, most proposition-obsessed philosophers can generally continue as they have.

Here is a quick example. So, classical “concepts” which ostensibly possess strict boundaries — e.g., the concept of number — are treated as special cases which we decide to interpret or construe in a particular sort of way in accordance with the demands of the task. For example, the concept of “1” can be interpreted as a rational number or as a natural one, as its boundaries are determined by the evaluative criteria relevant to the cognitive task. To be sure, determining the relevant criterion for a task is a nigh-trivial exercise in the context of arithmetic, because we usually enter into those contexts knowing perfectly well what kind of task we’re up to, so the point in that context might be too subtle to be appreciable on first glance. But the point can be retained well enough by returning to the question, “What is the boundaries of ‘1’?” The naked concept does not tell us until we categorize it in light of the task, i.e., by establishing that we are considering it as a rational or a natural.

Indeed, the multiple categorizability of concepts is familiar to philosophers, as it captures the fact that we seem to have multiple, plausible interpretations of concepts in the form of definitions, which are resolved through gussied-up Socratic argument. Hence, people argue about the meaning of “knowledge” by motivating their preferred evaluative criteria, like truth, justification, belief, reliability, utility, and so on. The concept of knowledge involves all the criteria (in some amorphous sense to be described in another post), while the categorization of the concept is more definite in its intensional and extensional attributes, i.e., its definition and denotation.

The nice thing about this enlarged picture of concepts and category analysis is that seems to let us do everything we want when we do philosophy. On the one hand, it is descriptively adequate, as it covers a wider range of natural language concepts than the classical model, and hence appeals to our sympathies for the later Wittgenstein. On the other hand, it still accommodates classical categorizations, and so does not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so not really getting in the way of Frege or Russell. And it does all that while still permitting normative conceptual analysis, in the form of ameliorative explications of concepts, where our task is to justify our choices of evaluative criteria, hence doing justice to the long productive journey between Carnap and Kuhn described in Michael Friedman’s Dynamics of Reason.

While that is all nice, I didn’t really start to feel confident about the productivity of this cognitivist perspective on concepts until I started reading philosophy of law. One of the joys of reading work in the common-law tradition is that you find that there is a broad understanding that conceptual analysis is a matter of interpretation under some description. Indeed, the role of interpretation to law is a foundational point in Ronald Dworkin, which he used it to great rhetorical effect in Law’s Empire. But you can find it also at the margins of HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law, as Hart treats outlying cases of legal systems (e.g., international law during the 1950’s) as open to being interpreted as legal systems, and does not dismiss them as definitely being near-miss cases of law. Here, we find writers who know how to do philosophy clearly, usefully, and (for the most part) unpretentiously. The best of them understand the open texture of concepts, but do not see this as reason to abandon logical and scholarly rigor. Instead, it leads them to ask further questions about what counts as rigor in light of the cognitive and jurisprudential tasks set for them. There is a lot to admire about that.