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Concepts—We think by grasping

Since about 1770, old words such as democracy, freedom, and the state have indicated a new horizon of the future, which delimits the concept in a different way; traditional topoi gained an anticipatory content that they did not have before.[1]
Uh-oh. This looks like it might be a bit hard. I thought concepts are universals that aren't supposed to change since about 1770. What's going on?
I don't think it will be too difficult. Concept has an old, original meaning, simply "something conceived in the mind; a notion, idea, image, or thought."[2] To be a notion, idea, image, or thought conceived in a mind, it must be so conceived at some time and place, and consequently it has a history. A lot of thinkers treat concepts that way, as historical ideas, not abstract universals. It actually avoids some hard problems and helps to clarify what living persons do in thinking about important matters.
Can you give me the gist of treating concepts in this way, skipping who those thinkers are and what they say.
Concepts describe and construct mental actions through which we grasp, make sense of, explain, or interpret complex phenomena.
Wait, there's that term action. Are we back with Verbs?
Yes, but I think in a somewhat different way. Agency figures into the matter differently with concepts. Verbs in the active voice indicate an action taking place through the intention of an agent trying to bring the action about. The intended action may not come to fulfillment for many reasons, but the agent's effort clearly takes place. Concepts allow us to think about active processes that are too complicated to clearly identify agency by postulating an ideal, fictitious agent for them.
Let's go slowly. Can you exemplify this idea of "an ideal, fictitious agent" and explain where you want to go with it?
Sure. You complained that you had difficulties with Emile Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society when you tried reading it the other day. Let's look at the first sentence—"Although the division of labour is not of recent origin, it was only at the end of the last century that societies began to become aware of this law, to which up to then they had submitted almost unwittingly." Does this make any sense to you?
Whoa! What sort of question is that? Don't try to put me down! You're right, the sentence doesn't make any sense to me, but it's Durkheim, way up there and difficult, and those who know say he is important. Who am I to say his sentence doesn't make sense?
It's no put down, just the opposite. We have to read as Durkheim's peers, not as some inscrutable authority. He was a person no more, no less, than you and I are. His language should make sense, not because he's "Durkheim," but because we expect a writer to write meaningfully. If he seems not to, we can and should think about what he wrote to see what sense we can make of it, and if we can't make sense of it, say so.
OK. I see several phrases in the sentence that might indicate historical consepts—the division of labor, societies, maybe the last century and this law. What doesn't make much sense is the idea of these societies submitting to this law and their doing so unwittingly.
Why doesn't it make sense that they submit unwittingly?
Persons can submit unwittingly, and I suppose lots of people might together submit to someone as in a cult. I think it is difficult for a government to submit unwittingly, but I guess it might be tricked into submission by a super sly opponent, but how does the division of labor force submission or societies become aware of a law? It's a manner of speaking.
I think so too. To grasp what Durkheim was trying to say we need see if we can unpack its meaning. The key phrase, a concept, is "the division of labor." What is going on with that concept?
Well, I'd say it means a process through which the members of a group of people specialize in their work, this person doing one kind of task and another a different kind, and together they produce more than they would if each person did the full range of tasks.
Yeah. It is an active process dividing work up into specialties.
I guess we can say that the concept, "the-division-of-labor," implies a verb meaning "to divide work up into specialties and to allocate it to persons according to their talents."
And is the anything further that seems important to you about the concept?
Unh. If we think of the phrase as a verb and ask who that agent doing it might be, we are kind of stuck thinking the verb is its own agent, or appealing to some larger concept, say capitalism, as the agent. But that doesn't really work because as a verb the concept points to something actually taking place in the real world, and the concept, something conceived in my mind, isn't going to have influence there.

  1. Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Todd Samuel Presner, trans., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) p. 5.
  2. OED, concept, I.1.