Conceptual vocabulary

I will define conceptual vocabulary as follows:

Those concepts, terms, ideas, or what-have-you that form the content of our thoughts, construct those porositions by which we express thought, and thus, those concepts by which we tacitly view the world

What is a candidate for a concept in our vocabulary?

1. Gravity: we are taught, as children in school of this very odd metaphysical thing called ‘gravity’; oh, but why is it odd? You may ask. It’s odd because it is taught in us in a very dogmatic way; Very few of us come to examine the mechanics beneath our reality, but merely assume that there is some established body out there that explains it. For example; we can talk about  how relativity acknowledge the speed of light (299 792 458 m/s, but we just take it for granted of the scientific authority that such truths about physical reality our our best knowledge.

2. Classical Logic (in particular, the law of Modus Tollens): Modus Tollens is a very primitive rule of everyday inference; it is almost a practical syllogism (in practical reasoning, and is hard to go about life without. Things like noncontradiction, or law of excluded middle evoke various logical and metaphysical issues, but let us consider this as an oddity for now (e.g. debates between intuitionalism vs. classical logic etc.). Modus Tollens, unlike gravity, is perhaps something primitive about human reasoning; I dare say perhaps it is an evolutionary thing. Which leads me to my next point….

3. Evolution: The whole Kansas situation over the past few years, and creationists in general over the past century have aggrivated this point, rather than helped elaborate it. Evolution is something we are taught about the natural world; it is one of those most taken-for-granted things in our education, that people too easily misunderstand it. If we consider the notion of natural selection, by mere chance, establishing those mechanisms that form things such as our basic physiology, and, as some (Damasio), argue, our psychologies {More on that another time..}, it is astounding how it blows away the notion of telos; but because people have such strong feelings for the issue, strong feelings overcome the subtle details of the Darwinian story so much that they talk of evolution in this bastardised way, or such that evolution just looks like telos! (I have heard the latter expression among Christian Neuroscientists, and it disturbs me deeply. Evolution is so ingrained in our education in the world today, that it has almost become a folk concept.

I have a friend, for instance, who tries to explain away sexual behaviour as some construct of evolution, or rather, under my analysis, I see her as saying sexual conduct is natural because it is an evolutionary construct; therefore, if sexual desire is endemic of our nature as homo sapiens, then it is permissable. Obviously this breaks every metaethical rule in the book; namely, she invokes ‘is implies ought’. The point is, that the notion of evolution, whether accurate or not to the proper scientific story, is part of our conceptual vocabulary; those putative concepts that we use in our everyday conversation. Let me now consider a more documented example

4. During the days of Christian antiquity; we referred to a thing called ‘sloth’, which refers to a thing which we may now refer to as laziness, or accidie. But we may even class it in the same set of things as what may be in the realm of mental illness; or, what we as philosophers may call uncontroversial cases whereby our practical deliberation process is changed. Charles Taylor, in “A Secular Age” refers to how the ‘magic’ of life is being reduced away slowly, as the scientific story unwinds to inform us more about our reality. Taylor, himself doesn’t advocate this ‘reduction’ account of the secularisation (why exactly he does this is unclear…he says it is overly simplistic, but his alternative account I have yet to understand).

The specific case he gives, and it is hardly original, is a story that most of you have heard today. Depression. People these days (analogously to my friend who talks about evolution), accept that depression (how we may define that I leave that purposely open), is a  chemical imbalance; instead of being the condition of Adam’s sin into all of his children, of the recognition of our inferiority to God, or those reasons that we make for our own sense of despair; it is a chemical imbalance. This idea is imbued into our culture, and it removes the responsibility and sense of agency that we have. This idea that mental illness is not a problem or aspect of one’s character, or even that there is such a concept of ‘mental illness’ such that it affects our moral character and moral status (that is, the motivational status of action). The concept of mental illness is imbured in the conceptual vocabularies of many.


I have purposely given an ambiguous conception of ‘conceptual vocabulary’; there are various strata. At the hilt, is the transcendental realm, whereby we have the most fundamental concepts to which we are not educated, but either they are a priori, or necessary rational postulates.

The shifting concepts

There is no doubt that the concepts in our vocabulary change, or rather, some things do, while the transcendental ones may stay the same. We may ask some important questions about this change in vocabulary; we may change our conception of mass (the standard Newtonian-Einstein story); we may eliminate folk concepts; we may change the moral and social status of persons (with mental illness); and we may, just may, change the place in the world that we percieve ourselves to have (the Copernican revolution, Darwin). Let me then ask these questions:

1. What causes the change in our vocabulary? Is it sociological? Is it in virtue of the progress of science, or the process of culture? A sub question; what is the proper analysis of the progress of science; is it sociology (history of science); or philosophy (philosophy of science)?

2. What is the normative status of our concepts? This may be asked in two parts; firstly, the political and social significance of certain ideas; do we, with gravity, for instance, maintain the prejudices of normal science and thus resist the progress of revolutionary science, and in doing so, we are to hinder the paradigm shift; and also agitate the questions of the rationality of paradigm shifts (namely, when is it appropriate to move from one to another paradigm?)  The second question is this: are we legitimate to hold these concepts as true in our vocabulary? This asks two further questions; one: what does it mean for a concept to be true? (and what is truth?), and secondly: what justifies maintaining a concept as part of the furniture of our beliefs? (questions about pragmatism and realism come to mind; for example; is it legitimate to believe in numbers? even if they are false things?)

These are all difficult questions.

Michael (and Destre)

2 thoughts on “Conceptual vocabulary

  1. Short of time, but I just wanted to briefly comment about Taylor… I’m only about half way through “A Secular Age”, but Taylor’s point is not that the “disenchanted world” didn’t happen – he cheerfully concedes this – but that the usual subtraction stories told about secularisation don’t stack up. For instance, the idea that Darwinian evolution was the motor of change that ‘invalidated’ religion is roundly disproved since the foundations of exclusive humanism *pre-date* Darwin by centuries.

    So to be clear, the subtraction stories Taylor criticises are based on assumptions like the one you present here – that science has gradually invalidated religion. He attacks this by showing that modern secularisation tendencies actually predate the presumed “conflict” between science and religion – secular tendencies actually have religious roots.

    It’s a fascinating (if overlong!) read… I still have much to discover on the downward slope…

    As for your core premise here, alas, little time to comment – but the shift in language is, almost by definition, sociological. Science, for the most part, adds new terms into the language – it isn’t the primary engine of change in the shifting of existing terms… Literature and the media in general is the key influence here, it seems. We learn by copying, so as what we copy changes, so do we change.

    All I have time for – best wishes!

  2. I cannot escape that wretched Charles Taylor!!!

    He was in my sociology studies
    He is in my current political philosophy reading group…
    he’s even invading my blog!!!!

    This is how I became interested in Kant…he just kept coming up everywhere…

    In all seriousness, however, I think there is a non-intellectual forrce that impsoes on our conceptual framework. It’s too weak to say ‘literature’ influences us, I mean, how many people do you know read Henry James? Yes, there are some classics which impose on us all, like Sallinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or that horrid book by Donna Tartt.

    It is the mass consumed products that impose on our general thinking and influence our ideas and decisions, popular music, BBC News (or if you are North American, Fox and CNN), and those thigngs in our culture like dogging, fast food, or keeping open the doors for women…conventions are self-perpetuating myths (my my, I sound like Antisophie now!)


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