Thursday, January 3, 2008

philosophy as conceptual work

So, the new year begins. I have a lot of work anticipated. I'll begin the year here—and, I expect, begin to make this blog central to my work—by sharing a passage deleted from a posting today to the Habermas list.

A subscriber's recent indication of concern for “applying Habermasian conceptions” brings to mind my recent interest in distinguishing “theoretical” from “conceptual,” so let me take an opportunity to briefly discuss that, for the sake of Habermasian work (which is so conceptual).

(1) The meaning of ‘theoretical’ might best stay more associated with evidentiary or empirical inquiry, according to scientific usage of ‘theory,’ than has become common in “social theory.”

(2) A distinction between (a) speculative or ideal-typical uses and (b) hypothesizing uses of ‘theoretical’ can be important, such that use of ‘conceptual’ for (a) might often be better than ‘theoretical’ for what one is addressing.

(3) Conceptual analysis has an integrity of its own that crosses domains of validity, whereas one might expect “theoretical analysis” to be specifically about an evidentiary domain, even if not yet empirically translatable (which is normal for theory in science). Though differentiation of validity domains is vital for analysis, a coherence of considerations—typically relative to a holistic interest that’s idiomatically “philosophical”—may be post-differentiated, relative to domains of validity. Reasoning and analysis that are able to move readily among differences are thereby already post-differentiated.

It’s been common in the 20thC to consider philosophy to be integrally about conceptual analysis, which makes logical conerns integral to any other kind of concern; and ideal-typical coherence-making can be integral to analysis. A discursive inquiry is not as such norm-formative or fact-establishing or confessional. A “descendent” “discourse of appropriation” (Habermas) has its "ascendent" converse of appropriating a range of considerations, features, etc., to discourse, especially for the sake of purely discursive inquiry. Indeed, philosophical work tends toward purely discursive inquiry. Its “nature” is discursive.

In an earlier exchange with another subscriber to that Habermas list, a little quote from Habermas where he indicates his basic concern there to be about “Heidegger’s theory” expresses a basic misconception of Heidegger’s work (Is that a translator’s error? I presume not), given Habermas’ technical interest in the notion of theory.

More importantly, the whole notion of social “theory” is often confused by persons using the notion. They don’t yet differentiate the kinds of usages, indicated above, which happen to be integral to Habermas’ own work. Often, this undifferentiation is harmless, because, in conceptual proffering, the social “theorist” usually makes no pretense of methodic engagement in evidentiary inquiry (though, of course, social “theory” commonly relates itself to “empircal” concerns, thereby using ‘theory’ in both kinds of usage, as if it’s tenably the same notion across uses). This contributes, I think, to the underdetermination of social “theory”’s engagement with methodic inquiry, pretending to be part of “science” when its relation to scientific work is very marginal.

I’m overgeneralizing here in order to render a kind of point: the usefulness of characterizing activity as conceptual analysis or conceptual work. “Social theory” has great integrity as inquiry, critique, analysis, and speculation—in short, as conceptual analysis and conceptual work. But honoring an important difference between conceptual and theoretical work might give more place for both professional philosophy (as conceptual analysis that can contribute to inquiry in the "human sciences" or anthropological domains) and give more place to real science, altogether (generally) as discursive inquiry—more prominence for each than “social theory” might otherwise invite by pretending to be philosophically diligent (when it’s not) or pretending to be close to methodic research (when it’s not).