Concept : Adi Ophir

Mahilde Roussel / Reste #15
Mathilde Roussel / Reste #15

Concept : Adi Ophir

Translated by Naveh Frumer


Of the many thinkers engaged in conceptual work, only few stop and ask “What is a concept?”1 This is the question I wish to engage with here. Its form is Socratic, and it is indeed in Socrates’s inquiries that it first appears.

“Philosophers have not been sufficiently concerned with the nature of the concept as philosophical reality,” argue Deleuze and Guattari. “They have preferred to think of it as a given knowledge or representation that can be explained by the [mental] faculties able to form it (abstraction or generalization) or employ it (judgment).” The two then add: “But the concept is not given, it is created; it is to be created.”2 They thereby assume that a concept can be conceived as either given or created. The idea of the concept presented here opts for a third alternative. A concept is neither given nor created but rather performed or played in the act of conceptualization. This play both invents and discovers the concept, both lets it appear and gives it existence, and in doing all this it also blurs the distinction between what is given and revealed, and what is invented and created.

Socrates was the first master of this kind of performance. After some greetings and small talk, the typical Socratic inquiry usually begins by posing a simple question about some abstract noun x. “What is x?” asks Socrates. The answers that are examined and ruled out one after the other are given in the form of definitions: “x is p.” p is a description of x, that should, according to Socrates, provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying something as x. The Socratic inquiry reveals that the conditions contained in the definition are either unnecessary, insufficient, or both. Sometimes they turn out to contradict each other or some other widely held opinion. But the aim of the Socratic inquiry, as Plato presents it starting with the middle dialogues, is not to arrive at a contradiction-free definition, but rather at a pure form of x that can be immediately perceived by the mind’s eye. The Socratic inquiry is meant to lead the soul beyond language towards looking straight at a pure form. For Plato, this form cannot be captured by a definition and is not a linguistic or mental entity. The attempt to define is part of the nature of conceptual inquiry, and the pure form that the inquirer is supposed to perceive in the mind’s eye is its goal.

The difference between the philosophical discourse’s form of inquiry and its goal is manifest in Plato’s dialogues without being explicitly articulated: it is the difference between the dialogue as performance, show, and event, and the object of inquiry that is at the center of the Socratic language game. This difference disappears somewhere in the history of the definitional view of concepts. In their broad comparative study, Margolis and Laurence argue that what is common to most contemporary approaches to the study of concepts, in the modern Anglo-Saxon versions of epistemology, philosophy of mind, and related cognitive studies, is their rejection of the definitional view of concepts.3 What they reject is not the attempt to define concepts, but the view of the mental apparatus of cognition as consisting of definitional patterns, which are regarded as necessary for conceptual cognition. For the majority of those working in these fields, a concept is a unit of mental representation, a linguistic-perceptual capacity or, following Frege, an objective sense.4 And in all these versions, concepts don’t function like definitions.

A definition is a specific kind of speech act that is part of a particular language game. With the rejection of the classic definitional view of concepts, this aspect of the concept has been ignored and the concept became an achievement, a cognitive tool (a unit of mental representation), or an object that directs our cognitive effort (a sense, an idea). This goes back far earlier than the cognitive turn in epistemology in general and in the study of concepts in particular. It appears already in Aristotle’s discussion of definitions in the Organon, where he narrows concepts down to definitional, linguistic formulas, which tell us “what it is for x to be” 5 This neglect assumed a series of new forms in modern philosophy, with the empiricists, rationalists, and above all, with Kant. All of them regard concepts as elements of our cognitive apparatus: patterns that organize sense data and allow us to identify objects and to grasp the relations between them. For Kant, a concept is a pattern that allows us to recognize what appears before us as-what-it-is when it appears. Kant’s concepts (or Husserl’s ideas, for that matter) populate the mind, and have nothing in particular to do with the language through which they are acquired, and which only thanks to its mediation can they attain their full meaning.

The “linguistic turn” has brought back the hitherto neglected linguistic dimension of concepts, usually at the expense of giving up their special cognitive and ontological status. For Wittgenstein, not much is left of concepts except for the meaning of words, determined by their use in specific language games. But the use of the same word in different language games may indicate something these uses have in common, which is more than a family resemblance; something the explication of which calls for yet another language game. In this other game, it is not enough to answer the question “what is x?” by demonstrating the use of the word in a particular language game. Instead one is looking for an explication of the very possibility of using the word differently in different language games, while easily moving between these games without much translation effort, based on the realization that it is not a mere coincidence that one uses this same word in different games. By asking “what is x?” across several language games in which ‘x’ is used quite distinctly, one is looking for a possible “conceptual definition” that somehow encompasses a variety of uses, and yet is not reducible to any one of them. A conceptual definition is a special case of what Wittgenstein called “verbal definition” precisely because conceptualization is a distinct language game. However, Wittgenstein won’t be of much help here. Concepts for him remained discrete meaning-units, and the differences between kinds of meaning and ways to understand them was ignored; the specific language game in which concepts appear was not studied.

We may start, then, by asking where concepts appear— literally, to the senses— as concepts. Clearly, they appear when people speak, write, or use general nouns. But many nouns are often used without being conceptualized at all, without the addressor or the addressee grasping them as concepts. Concepts, I suggest, appear as such only within a discourse that connects the conceptual language game and the question that summons it. They do not appear when a child, a layman, or a philosopher expresses some capacity for generalization and use general nouns properly, or when a scholar uses preconceived technical terms. In such cases, concepts are at most hinted at or implied, leaving certain traces in the speaker’s performance. Concepts properly appear when one tries to explain, to present and to express the essence of what the concept refers to. This description holds regardless of how true the concept is to the essence of the thing in question, or whether that thing has an essence or even an existence.

A concept is linguistic performance oriented to the essence of something in question. As a discursive entity, the concept does not depend upon the relation between that essence and its description, or upon the validity or reliability of that description, but only upon the orientation toward such essence. Concepts are not propositions, which can be either valid or not, true or false. They can only be more or less faithful to the essence in question. An unfaithful concept is still a concept, just as a false proposition is still a proposition.

Concepts appear when terms are conceptualized. There are no concepts without conceptualization. This holds just as much for someone who hasn’t yet got a clear concept of the general noun he is using, as for someone who uses a general noun as if its concept were altogether clear. A concept appears only when “I have no idea what this is” becomes a problem for which the concept would be a solution. Bergmann writes that “a concept turns distinct through its definition,”6 but the truth is that it becomes a concept in the first place through the effort to define (and clarify and explicate) it. When speakers of some natural language make use of unclear or indistinct concepts, they actually “have no idea what they are talking about,”7 i.e., they are unable to present the concepts they imply or that may be ascribed to them. They know how to use nouns or terms so as to let communication flow, speakers function and acts carried out. But this does not mean that they grasp these terms as concepts. To find out whether or not they do, they should be asked to explain what they mean, i.e., to postpone the flow of communication for the sake of explication and presentation. This postponement – a crucial moment in the life of concepts – is responsible for the fact the concepts are always already political (see below).

A term becomes a concept only when we take the time to disengage it from its daily uses in order to put it on display, wonder about its meaning, explicate it, and render public its discursive being. When philosophers, scientists, jurists, or artists, working within a certain discursive community, use terms they don’t bother to explain, they are using them as “subjects supposed to know” [sujets supposés savoir], and address their addressees as subjects who are supposed to know as well. They use these terms as if they had already been conceptualized and clarified, and as if among the interlocutors there is a substantial-enough consensus about their meaning, the essence of what they refer to. But every time we cast doubt on these presuppositions, we might be surprised about the extent of disagreement among interlocutors, even when it comes to the most common terms. Terms are “black boxes” of meaning that people know how to put to use in order for communication to flow, arguments to be understood, and actions to be successful. Concepts are what happens when people open these black boxes and ask “what is this, anyway?”

Often enough, it’s precisely those terms that are most commonly used—that have already become common currency, and we can swear by and keep coming back to—that people don’t bother to explain, and that are used as if they were familiar and well-known, albeit in varying and sometimes contradictory manners. Such terms function as “placeholders,” and they appear in dense semantic intersections that connect them with many other terms. Think about “amazing,” “critical,” “love,” “security,” or “Jewish-Democratic state.” The power of such terms derives from their relative emptiness (which allows them to assume different meanings and to relate to many other, different, and conflicting terms), but also—and this is the flipside of the same coin—from the semantic density of the intersections in which they appear. Because of their privileged status, any attempt to determine their semantic content (for instance, through a successful explication or a novel use) will affect their interrelated constellation, but also narrow down their possible spaces of denotation and connotation.8

Often, such placeholders have the status of “discursive celebrities.” It pays off to rely on them: to keep saying “security,” “democracy,” “change” or “crisis.” When people use them they often suggest that they know what they are talking about. They speak as if they already got it, using the name of the concept as an index that points to a complex theory operating in the background, which they can always retrieve if there’s a need. In a functioning discourse, placeholder terms are far more important than concepts and the insistence on conceptualization is regarded as a disturbance to this functioning.

The investigation of concepts suggested here begins with the appearance of concepts, rather than with the mental capacity to conceptualize, which we tend to attribute to people based on their ability to identify, recognize or correctly use a certain term. It is an investigation that asks how concepts appear, and tries to learn about their essence from their appearance. To proceed otherwise means to presuppose a clear concept of the concept, together with the ability to recognize concepts even when they are not stated as such or not stated at all. Observers of cognitive behavior often attribute to their subjects a degree of understanding that is more comprehensive than what is expressed by their performance, by their reactions that indicate recognition of the concept, or by their recurrent use of a certain word. The concept attributed to the subject contains, in principle, some excess over what is being perceived by the observer—at minimum, the attributed capacity to repeatedly recognize the concept embodied in some object, or an object as a concept’s embodiment. Although the observer attributes to the subject a capacity for repetition (re-cognition, re-iteration), what repeats is not part of the repetition itself, but rather needs to be complemented: the observer has to complete what is missing from the speaker’s “conceptual picture.”

Thus the child’s capacity to recognize something, or the speaker’s repeated use of a word, must already be conceptualized in the discourse of the linguist, philosopher or cognitive scientist, in order to appear as a concept. In order to identify a baby sucking on a pacifier and to attribute to it the concept “pacifier,” one needs a richer (more complex or adequate) concept of pacifier than that of the baby. One assumes, either explicitly or implicitly, that one has such a concept when one points to the baby’s actions as expressing his having the mental representation or cognitive unit “pacifier.” More generally, the ability to pick out and recognize such a cognitive, logical or semantic unit presupposes the discursive act of conceptualization, and suggests the existence of a discursive concept that one can always go back to in order to validate this recognition. I assume therefore that prior to being a mental, semantic or logical unit, a concept is a principle of discursive activity, which gives shape to a certain kind of discursive practice, and this practice cannot be possessed but only performed with others. In order to recognize it, one has to correctly characterize this practice.

The discursive view of concepts presented here is based on Foucault’s principles of discursive analysis in The Archeology of Knowledge.9 Discourse, according to Foucault, is a more-or-less regularized linguistic activity, which regulates the production and reproduction of statements, through more-or-less regular reiterations of the relations between words and things, the “expressible” (in speech or writing) and the visible, between speaking subjects and subject matters (and later we will add: addressors and addressees), between different groups of statements, and between a statement and its material medium. A discursive formation, according to Foucault, consists of a regularity or stabilization of four dimensions of the “enunciative function,” or of the statement (énoncé) as a function of relations: the regularity of the appearance of objects in a certain space of appearance and denotation; the stabilization of subject positions with certain spaces of authority (the authority to speak, to interpret, cite, denote, show, conclude, etc.); specific groupings of different statements that have different practical effects (telling a story, making an argument, etc.); and the existence of established material ways for reproducing statements.10 For Foucault, the existence of a conceptual function or a conceptual moment (unlike a subject position or a space of denotation) is not a necessary condition for the production of statements in discourse. Indeed, some discursive regimes do not require concepts or allow for their production in the first place.11 Concepts are required only for certain kinds of discourses, and only in very few of these, like philosophy or theology, do they become what is at stake in the discursive activity.

Foucault did not discuss the individual concept as having a distinct discursive status, since he did not regard it as one of the four dimensions of the enunciative function that make discourse possible. In the same way he promoted a shift of focus from meaning to discursive patterns, he promoted a shift from individual concepts to what he called the “pre-conceptual” level, where he looked for more-or-less regular patterns of relations between statements that operate concepts grouped together by the discourse. He regarded this relative regulation as a condition for the use of concepts in discourse and for the temporary stabilization of their meaning.12 We can accept this claim (just as we can accept Wittgenstein’s view, according to which the meaning of a word—including, for that matter, the meaning of the signifier of a concept—is nothing but the way it is used in a certain language game) without thereby dismissing the question “what, after all, is a concept?” The kind of discursive analysis suggested here is thus meant to fill the lacuna with respect to concepts left unattended by Foucault, as well as other figures who brought about the linguistic turn in philosophy.

Filling this lacuna will be done mainly by Foucauldian means. A second influence on the analysis presented here, besides Foucault, is Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the concept in What is Philosophy? In what follows, I shall adopt some of their observations without committing to their complex ontology and while explicitly rejecting two of their fundamental presuppositions: (1) “The concept is not discursive, and philosophy is not a discursive formation”13; (2) only philosophy, and not science or art, invents concepts and thinks through concepts; science and art have other means for creative thinking,14 and what they believe to be concepts are not really that.15 The first presupposition is in line with Foucault’s treatment of concepts,16 expressing the same kind of waiver or disregard typical of the philosophers of the linguistic turn: giving up on understanding the act of conceptualization as a unique discursive gesture or act that is responsible for the creation, appearance, and existence of concepts. This essay presupposes that concepts are indeed discursive, that their existence cannot be detached from the event of their discursive conceptualization, and that their nature changes between different kinds of discourse. There are different ways of conceptualization according to the different discursive regimes that allow conceptualization, and unlike what Deleuze and Guatarri thought, concepts are not only a matter for philosophy, even if they are a matter of the kind of thinking that can always be called philosophical.


What kind of discursive being is the concept if it is not one of the functions that define a statement? If discourse, according to Foucault, is a more-or-less regularized linguistic activity, which regulates the production and reproduction of statements through the regularity of the relations between things, words, speakers, and addressees, then a concept is a special form of realizing these relations. In other words, a concept is a particular kind of statement. Unlike a term, such as “energy” or “justice,” which can be identified with a noun, based on its grammatical function and while ignoring its meaning, a concept is a complete statement that can always be regarded as “polysemous.” Let us try and find out what kind of statement is the concept, according to Foucault’s four enunciative functions.

First, as a statement, a concept is defined according to its relation to a space of appearance of objects. Every conceptual statement marks some space in which the objects that embody the concept appear (or may appear). The object’s referents are either real or possible objects that may have existed, currently exist, or might exist in some plain of reference, in a real, possible or fictional space. There can be concepts of objects and properties that never existed: fictiveness then becomes part of those concepts (e.g., an atheistic concept of epiphany), and their space of appearance is then limited to texts that describe some fictive world. A statement is a function of the relation between the spoken and the visible or the sensible, between what can be said and what can be seen. Hence the concept’s conditions of intelligibility (its distribution in a semantic space, its distinction from other concepts, and its relations to them) are not enough: to these we must add the conditions under which the objects embodying the concept become visible and presentable (including the conditions of what is invisible and non-presentable). For example, the concept of the state includes a reference to the space or spaces in which the state, its elements, or its representative entities can appear. This concept is altered when we realize that the state also appears in the market and in the household, and that in fact there is no social space in which it is prevented from making an appearance. This omnipresence of the state can be countered by an “ontological anarchism” that attributes to the state all that the regime attributes to it, except for the reality of its appearance. The state according to the anarchist can appear only in those texts that pretend to represent it.

Second, as a statement, a concept is defined according to its relation to subjects—to a speaker and to an addressee. There are concepts that everyone can acquire but only authorized speakers can produce, redefine, interpret, or deliver to others. There are concepts whose definition bears the signature of the subject who authored them (Plato’s concept of the Idea, for example, which is different from Kant’s or Hegel’s), and this signature hangs over uses of the concept by others who are inspired by, interpreting or criticizing the relevant writings of the signed authors.  Similarly, there are concepts that only subjects with a privileged status can present (e.g., the concept of God, reserved for prophets who experienced revelation), and only addressees with a certain status can attain (those who went through the proper qualification, who know enough, whose faith is strong and whose heart is willing to understand). The addressees and speakers don’t have to be real or existing. Hence it is possible to discuss concept x according to some ancient author, whose addressees were part of a bygone discursive community, and to write histories of concepts and conceptualizations (which is not the same as a history of some discourse that includes those concepts). Hence it’s also possible to reconstruct a concept without committing to its content.

Third, as a statement, a concept is defined according to its relation to a “cloud” of adjacent conceptual statements. This cloud doesn’t necessarily have a well-defined structure or field. Its nature changes from one discourse to another, and it is one of the variables that distinguishes a discourse. The concept of the state, for example, appears alongside statements that define concepts such as sovereignty, territory, border, government, law, democracy, fascism, globalization, etc. Some (but not all) of these statements aren’t just adjacent to the concept but essential components of it (see below). Other statements define the concept from the outside (e.g., statements about political associations that preceded the state or exits outside it). However, they may indicate that what is excluded from the concept in fact belongs to it by way of negation (a subject is a non-object, a Jew is a non-gentile, etc.). The environment that the conceptual statement relates to may be relatively thin (as in the case of concepts that were coined but not well received) or dense (the concept “state,” for example); highly structured (mathematical concepts) or relatively amorphous (e.g., “sadness” or “happiness”).

Fourth, as a statement, a concept is also defined in relation to a material medium that allows it to appear and to be reproduced. This relation might appear as a fairly weak requirement, one that we tend to take for granted: concepts appear when they are conceptualized, either in written or spoken language. But this difference itself, between the spoken and the written, has been the stake of much debate, from Plato to Derrida. Furthermore, the entire history of the theory of the concept as a mental unit can be seen as based on a different way of constraining the medium for the appearance and reproduction of concepts. For the cognitive sciences—and the entire philosophical tradition that converges into them ever since modern empiricism at least —this medium is the knowing mind. In the theory of the concept proposed here, on the other hand, the conceptual statement’s medium of reproduction is a space of discursive practices. For the cognitivists, a concept is not reproduced by reappearing in the knowing mind but only by the slow process of its learning, i.e., its transmission from one mind to another. From the Foucauldian perspective I am offering here, this learning process is replaced by a discursive event, a kind of performance that can never be reduced to or described by what goes on in the knowing mind.

In what follows I will examine in some details these four functions of the conceptual statement.

A.) The Plane of Appearance

Whether conceived as a mental unit or an ideal sense, a concept has long been recognized as unifying a multiplicity of appearances in a single scheme, and this scheme does not itself appear. It can only be signified or described, its existence presupposed or concluded, but it cannot be pointed to. The concept as the unity of a multiplicity or as the multiplicity of a unity does not belong to the space in which the things that embody it appear. For example, the concept of speed is embodied in moving bodies, but as a unifying scheme it appears only in that space in which it is signified, e.g., via the formula v=s/t. That is to say, in order for a concept to appear, it is not enough that something that embodies it or a signifier that signifies it would appear; nor is it enough that a conjoining of its multiple instances will take place. This conjoining must itself appear. The aim of a conceptual statement is not to explain, to justify, to request or to tell a story. It is to present the multiplicity-unifying scheme in a space of appearance—to show the multiplicity in its unity. In this sense, the conceptual statement aims to function in the same manner as a diagram, table, conjugation list, or a map—all of which present a multiplicity of detail, merge it in a single scheme, and allow grasping that multiplicity at once.

A concept, then, is a statement that presents a unifying scheme. This presentation usually takes place through a description marked by a double movement: a movement of individuation from the unifying scheme to the moments17 comprising the concept, and a movement of generalization from the moments back to the structural skeleton of the scheme. The scheme can’t be presented without presenting what it brings together, the conjoining can’t be presented without re-presenting the scheme, and this re-presentation can’t take place without verbal description. The concept’s plane of appearance is thus the discursive plane in which its description takes place.

Obviously a description requires more than repeating the concept’s name. More importantly, in order to capture the multiplicity of instances that embody the concept in a given space of appearance, a denoting won’t suffice either. Denoting is the zero point of conceptualization, but when a denotation serves as an answer to a “what is x?” question, it is usually a means for clarification or identification. The act of denoting creates the impression of a direct relation between the word and its referent, where conceptualization is superfluous. This is the case not only in the context of identifying a person or a color, for example, or a certain device of an instrument but also of using a term, a linguistic instrument: “this is the USB port,” “here is a Siamese cat,” “this is happiness.” The word or phrase only appears as a concept when someone places this direct relation under question. At that moment, when the automatic movement from signifier to signified fails, it becomes clear to the interlocutors that in order to clarify the term one has to reconstruct the way it is interconnected in a semantic network; that is, to manifest its being a linguistic entity that exists thanks to its place and function in a discourse, and not only an allegedly transparent signifier of a thing in the world. This is the beginning of conceptualization, the moment in which a concept first emerges.

Conceptualization ends when the concept disappears. Does the concept still exist outside the act of conceptualization? Like the toddler who early on learns how to distinguish the doll’s disappearance from its complete loss, the one who conceptualizes too knows how to distinguish disappearance from non-existence. She knows she can re-conceptualize when asked, because she has grasped the concept. The concept exists then as a potentiality to perform conceptualization. For the others, however, this potentiality can only be known through the actual performance.

From disappearance to loss or non-existence, there is a slippery slope. What is true for the toddler’s doll is true any the concept. It makes sense to question the existence of a concept when there are no more traces of the act of conceptualization, namely, the event in which the concept appeared. There is a continuum between the appearing concept and the concept that has been black-boxed and turned a term ready-to-use. Whoever moves freely between the black-boxed term and the performed concept is like a child who knows how to keep rediscovering the doll that disappeared. But sometimes people act as if they know how to find what is lost while denying that it has in fact been lost; likewise, they use terms and pretend they know how to reconstruct their lost concepts. Their vain pretension may be exposed by the simple question “what do you mean by x?” (or “what is x for you”?). This question is also the moment when the particular relation of the concept to a speaking subject and to an addressed subject appears.

B.) The Relation to Speaker and Addressee

Prior and in addition to the authority of the speaker and the qualification of the addressee, there is the special interest they have in the concept, which is a precondition for a term to appear as a concept. The speaker or addressee of a conceptual statement must have an interest in the essence of the thing being conceptualized. This interest depends not upon a subjective intention but upon an objective position: The speaker and addressee of the conceptual statement (the latter more than the former) must occupy the speaker’s position of a previous “what is x?” question. The special status of the concept-indicating word is derived first and foremost from the way it is positioned as the focus of a question about the essence of something. A concept appears whenever a term (word or phrase) is placed at the center of a discussion in which the definition, explication, or reconstruction of its sense—either in a general manner or in some specific historical context—is at stake. More precisely, a concept is a term placed in the empty position of the question-form “what is x?” which cannot be answered by denoting or providing usage instructions. The subject of a conceptual statement is someone who asks “what is x?” and is unwilling to settle for a denotation or usage instructions. It is a subject who is supposed not to know, or at least one who pretends he does not know and therefore asks. The request to explicate a term, to explain “what is x?” (and not merely point to it or show how it’s used) is what is responsible for its appearing as a concept.

The querying subject is never alone. In order for a conceptual statement to take place, the addressee must be someone who is in no hurry to provide a ready-made answer, an answer that fulfills the function of denotation and immediately closes the door to conceptual movement. A conceptual statement requires a community of discourse, small as it may be, whether real or imaginary, whose members share a similar conceptual interest. This interest sets a conceptual deliberation in motion, and it is only with respect to this interest that the concept appears as such. This interest is responsible for the concept being an event and a kind of performance: an investigation triggered by a particular kind of question, and shared by an entire discourse community. The existence of this community is the condition for the political existence of concepts, for concepts as political events.

Sometimes a question is all it takes to grant special status to the word that indicates x and that would become the concept-name. Unlike a term that is ready to use, the haloed concept-name bears an injunction to avoid using it, at least insofar as what has to be clarified about x has not yet been clarified. This injunction to avoid use is not yet conceptualization. The haloed name signals there is still work to be done, that one has to be responsible, wary of irresponsible uses, and suspect those who pretend to understand where there is yet no understanding. It might also signal that there is someone to turn the question to, an authority who can answer, a subject supposed to know, and a community of discourse that cherished the concept’s name.

Yet it’s not the subject-supposed-to-know who sustains the concept, but those who wish to understand,18 and the community itself could be imaginary, implicit in the questioning gesture, or actual but unaware of the new question that has emerged. The querying subject assumes the responsibility of awakening others to her question, and it is the question that should be shared with others and not necessarily the answers. No agreement regarding those is required. Consensus might bring conceptualization to an end and let concepts die. Hence a dictionary does not contain a list of concepts but at most a list of potential concepts and faded traces of past conceptualizations. The dictionary’s definitional propositions do not necessarily exist in relation to a querying subject. They might very well be a way to silence and discipline them by stipulations designed to remove ambiguities, standardize measurements, titles, or forms of usage. But when I consult the dictionary, its definitions may become a starting point for a new series of questions for which I am responsible; the concept is now under my responsibility (in the context of a shared language and of a shared interest in both the questions and the answers). My questions guide the work of conceptualization, which has an irreducible performative dimension: presenting a question, sharing it with others, looking for an answer. A concept exists only as long as it maintains an element that has not been conceived yet, which is still unattained and is perhaps unattainable,19 which is summoned by a question and which itself summons new questions.

This is a weaker, though perhaps more precise claim than that of Deleuze and Guattari, according to which a concept always appears in relation to a problem as its solution. The concept presupposes the problem’s “plane of immanence”—the space within which the problem has sense as well as possible solutions—and it brings together those possible solutions.20 For Deleuze and Guattari, a problem is independent of an inquiring subject. It has an objective sense, as does the concept that offers to solve it, and this sense is different in science and in philosophy. Hence Deleuze and Guattari’s attempt to limit concepts to problems, parallels (or constitutes part of) their attempt to limit concepts to philosophy. For them, a philosophical “question” is but a name for a philosophical problem that cannot be translated into scientific (or theological) discourse.21 I would like to reverse this: a problem is something that happens to a thinking subject. A problem is a kind of question that requires thinking, pausing, lingering, and wandering. To someone who thinks, this can also take place in science, in journalism, during a visit to the therapist or to a museum, over morning coffee, or in the classroom. And every question that arises can mark a problem, turn into a problem, or hide a problem.

A conceptual statement requires a querying subject. This subject acts: it brackets the term indicating what is to be conceptualized. The use of that term is frozen, stalled, becomes restricted, contemplative, conditioned.  The concept bears the unique signature of this querying subject, its style of thinking, and sometimes its style of writing. Descartes’s signature is imprinted on the Cogito, Kant’s on the categorical imperative, Hegel’s on Spirit, Nietzsche’s on the will to power, and so forth. Whoever asks questions about concepts that bear such signatures is destined to move in the space of questioning opened up by those conceptual personae—but there is nothing about the conceptual statement itself that requires this limitation. The discourses of the natural sciences or mathematics tend to refer to their concepts by their inventors’ names or by the names coined by those inventors, but at the same time they also make an effort to quickly naturalize new concepts and to release them from their inventors’ signatures. The same goes for philosophies that adopt scientific rhetoric and modes of thinking. Whereas in those philosophies that adopt the rhetoric and modes of thinking of literature or poetry, we find the opposite trend: limiting the conceptual statement to what the undersigned persona could have said. But one doesn’t have to choose either one of these poles. For instance, the project of conceptualization developed here bears the mark of Foucault’s signature: it regards the concept as a statement, and places the question “what is a concept?” within Foucault’s space of inquiry regarding the production and reproduction of (conceptual) statements. Yet we have no intention of limiting this project to Foucault’s questions or ideas, to “what Foucault would have said.”

No author can be the master of a discourse and sovereignly define the concepts that operate within it. One can offer conceptual “territorializations” (defining lines of closure and demarcation) or disrupt existing territorializations, but one cannot determine these from the privileged viewpoint of a sovereign subject. Even the concept’s “author,” a subject of privileged authority whose signature marks a singular connection between concepts (e.g., between certainty, the Cogito, and an omnipotent God in Descartes; concepts and sense-data in Kant), cannot singlehandedly fashion the myriad of other concepts they are related to (Descartes’s God is as benevolent and omnipotent as he was to his predecessors; Kant’s concept of sense-data is related to receptivity, which is negatively related to freedom, and so on). The author whose signature the concept bears cannot own the semantic field in which the concept operates alongside others, and to shape it herself. Even when it comes to concepts that have a distinctive signature, and when the discussion is limited to their history, a conceptual clarification frees us from any pretense of sovereign grip, exposing numerous kinds of connections in the semantic field, which testify to the existence of numerous kinds of coexistence between statements, speakers, and concepts, no matter how much they are at odds with each other. In the community of conceptual discourse, the place of the sovereign remains empty, and no authorial position can fill this void.

C.) The Environment of Statements

i.) Internal Connections

Even the simplest concept requires its other from which it has to be distinguished and through which negated, hence the two are now linked together in a unifying scheme. Concepts always appear in the plural, connected to each other, in need of each other, crossing, confronting, and complementing each other. Between them there are “bridges” of arguments, claims, patterns of opposition, tables of genera and species.22 But even prior to this multiplicity there is the internal multiplicity of the concept. For a term to become a concept, the answer to the question “what is x?” has to connect at least two terms, each of which is potentially a conceptual statement. A concept is itself a semantic field, since it connects within it a multiplicity of terms through a single scheme. This scheme unifies an ensemble of moments, each of which can in principle be a concept itself. For example, each of the four enunciative functions of the statement can be conceptualized in its own right; the concept “State” contains the necessary moments of territory, sovereignty etc., each of which is itself a concept; and no concept of infinity can exist without the moments of finitude, negativity, and so on. The collecting of conceptual moments into the concept’s ensemble is different from the conjoining of the concept’s appearances (in the plane of appearance), where the scheme is repeated in the encapsulated instances.

The multiple moments of the concept are synthetically connected. The conceptual statement is meant to produce and present this connected unity within the act of connecting. “The concept is the unity of multiplicity that develops from it as a law… the expression of a multiplicity… that is enfolded, like a law, within a unity of content,” writes Samuel Hugo Bergmann, in a somewhat archaic yet still relevant text.23 Different theories of the concept look elsewhere for the relation (or the “law” that determines the relation) between multiplicity and unity, content and circumference, a single essence and its individuation into particular cases that embody it. Yet no theory of the concept I know of forgoes the bringing-together of multiplicity and its connecting in a unifying scheme. When this relation is analytic, it creates an equivalence that renders the specific discursive conditions that stabilize it invisible, and also removes the special excess of the conceptual statement, thereby preventing the appearance of a halo of unattainability and inconceivability around the concept. When the synthetic relation is presented as such, the simple substitution of one term by another never suffices, because the substituting term is a moment of the conceptual ensemble, for which the whole is always in excess to the sum of the parts.

This excess, this halo of inconceivability, is the reason why the synthetic connection is also restless. Such a connection is a necessary and sufficient condition for the semantic dimension of the concept, for its existence as a distinctive unit in a semantic space. Unlike the alleged “analytic” equivalence created by the dictionary definition, or the transparency implicit in denoting, a concept is neither the result of nor the cause for the serial substitution of one term for another or for a denoted object, but rather a connection between several terms (or moments), each of which is put into a conceptual statement or a series of such statements, whether real or possible. The terms related by the concept are supposed to be terms whose conceptualization is presupposed or deferred in favor of conceptualizing the concept in question. At any moment, though, a question might arise that would steer the discussion away from one concept and towards another, causing a new concept to appear. The act of conceptualization is supposed to place such distractions under control, to suspend answering new questions that require new conceptualizations, without forgetting that it is committed to going back and addressing everything it bracketed along the way. That means that the work is infinite—a “bad” Hegelian infinity—and that every closure is temporary and tentative. Closure is not the regulative ideal of the act of conceptualization, but its mode of progress; its repetition is intertwined with the repetition of its failure, and this goes on as long as there are interested speakers who are not fed up with it yet.

The connection between the moments of the concept is presented in a series of “bridging statements” that make up the conceptual statement, although it is eventually meant to be conceived at once, like a picture conceived by the mind’s eye, a presence that seems to freeze time, apparently independent of the time it takes to unfold it in the act of conceptualization.24 This picture “resides” within the conceptual statement, “lingers over it” as a unifying scheme, even though the statement cannot state the picture without breaking it up into its elements, and without ending up in a to-and-fro motion between the moments and the whole. This motion takes place as a series of reiterations that insert a difference into the unifying scheme, dragging the feeling of presence back into the flow of time. The pictorial presence of the concept is neither a presupposition of the conceptual statement nor its achievement, but its unattainable goal. Aiming for it is a constitutive rule of the language game of conceptualization. Its attainment—were such a thing possible, as Plato foresaw—would be the end of that game; it would drive the concept out of discourse and the querying subject out of the boundaries of language and into a state of pure—and empty—contemplation. Yet pure contemplation would be merely pure staring, and would spell not only the end of the conceptual statement but also the end of thinking.

In the plane of appearance, the concept brings together multiple appearances and frames them within a single scheme. Yet these don’t necessarily have to appear together. I don’t have to be able to capture in one glance all the recruited soldiers, weapons, vehicles, bases, and posts, even though each embodies for me, with its symbols and uniform, the concept “army.” Things are different in the semantic plane, where, in order to understand what an army is, I have to be able to simultaneously connect terms such as state, violence, weapons, war, uniforms, ranks, command, obedience, etc. I need both to understand each of these independently and to place them in their mutual relations until they form a comprehensive picture of the concept “army.” Each of these terms, being a moment of the concept, is necessary for its clarification. But as mentioned, each can be further questioned for what it is, thereby further lingering the original movement of conceptualization, sending our thought spinning in all directions: outward—towards new concepts—and inward—because of the need to use hitherto un-explicated concepts as terms for the explication of the concept in question. The full understanding of a concept requires unfolding the conceptual statement that lies folded in the term. Hence the conceptual statement is doomed to be infinitely restless. In order to gain or simulate control over this spinning, authors of conceptual statements – the present author included – act as if the concept’s moments are terms, or as if the question that brings their conceptual excess to the surface can be frozen and bracketed, at least until the conceptual picture becomes clearer. They act as if the interconnected terms are known, allowing the conceptual statement to perform an act of closure.

The connection between the moments of the concept is presented through propositions. This does not entail that a concept can be reduced to a series of propositions.25 The concept appears through propositions yet is not composed only of them; its unifying scheme “inheres” or “subsists”” in those claims in the same way sense “inheres or subsists in the proposition,” according to Deleuze,26 or the way a square inheres in the space enclosed by four lines and angles. The concept cannot be grounded in propositions—be it a single proposition that ties together all other propositions or the sum of all propositions into which the terms themselves break up when they are treated as concepts—without leading to infinite regress. Propositions connect the different moments of the concept, and this connection cannot be stabilized, because no moment (or aspect) exhausts the concept, nor can it be reduced or expressed in terms of another aspect. The concept requires all its moments, and even if there are only two or three of them, the concept has to throw our thinking around from one moment to the other (at an “infinite speed,” according to Deleuze and Guattari), in order to contain both without being reducible to either one.27

Ever since Plato and Aristotle, philosophers tended to regard the concept’s moments as its sub-species, and the concept as a species of a broader genera. But even this simple scheme is unstable, since the concept has to simultaneously contain both the sub-species to which it is individuated and the genera to which it belongs, and which it cannot contain but only illustrate or instantiate as one of its moments. In order to nonetheless stabilize this scheme, philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel were tempted to try and think of a general order in which all concepts participate to varying degrees of abstraction. This logic led Spinoza, Hegel, and others to argue that the complete concept of every essence is ultimately the way in which it is contained within the concept of a certain totality—God, Spirit, or the Infinite Substance. But a taxonomy of genera and species is insufficient (for a concept also appears according to the unique relations between them), and anyway, it is but one kind of individuation. The composition of different moments in a single concept isn’t necessarily derived from a previous order, and isn’t necessarily differentiated beyond the moments that contain it, even if each moment can itself appear as a concept.

ii.) External Connections

As mentioned, the conceptual scheme that brings together a multiplicity of terms is itself connected to multiple terms that are external to it through various kinds of propositions. Some of these propositions connect those terms to the concept as its possible yet unnecessary qualities or manifestations (a relaxing color, an enlightened regime, etc.); others do just the opposite: they negate the possibility of a certain term being a quality or manifestation of the concept (an immortal man, a Kosher pig, a resident alien who has the right to vote). This map of interconnections, according to Foucault, is precisely what radically changes when the discursive regime changes: certain connections that previously seemed impossible now appear to be contingent, contingent connections are now necessary, and so on. But what makes the conceptual statement unique is not merely the existence of such a map of connections and the various “bridges” that are constructed between concepts and terms, but its relentless movement of containing some of the terms it excludes thereby distinguishing and defining the concept by way of negation. In order for this carving of the concept from its environment not to be arbitrary, the concept must negatively contain whatever delimits it: the Jew must contain the Gentile; the public—the private; the allegedly a-political and value-neutral science—the political dimension that it excludes and the values with respect to which it is neutral; and so on … When this paradox is taken into account, the concept also appears to be an unfinished work of closure, an effort to bring a multiplicity under a unifying scheme.

Closure doesn’t mean closing up. The closure determines the forms of connecting with other terms and concepts, and with the problems and statements they are related to. These problems, like concepts, appear in clusters. The effort to explicate concepts is also the effort to distinguish problems, to take control of the wild, irregular, and unpredictable aspects of the movement between them. But every distinction—between problems as well as concepts—is a kind of connection. The correct carving of the concept should bring about the conjoining of separate moments (that are inseparable once the concept is conceived),28and the appearance of unity out of and beyond multiplicity. But this is not enough. Correct carving also means correctly connecting. Both carving and connecting can’t take place without repetitions, duplications, and copying from one context to another. The regulation of the relations within and among concepts is temporary, changes from time to time, and is completely dependent upon discourse as an arena of mutual interactions between many participants.

The interconnectedness of concepts means that conceptualization may have far-reaching consequences. “Key concepts” are those whose explication reverberates throughout a relatively wide discursive space.  They are the primary interest of historians of concepts, who study them together with entire discursive fields. But one cannot tell in advance which are the key concepts. It requires tracing the effects of conceptual change as it takes place. Hence every effort to intervene in a discourse through the redefinition of key concepts is destined to fail. Key concepts belong to the past and may only be recognized retroactively; in the ongoing, lived present of discourse there are only more or less intensive efforts of conceptualization.

Key concepts and “analytical concepts” are the two ends of a continuum of discursive interconnectedness. A key concept “pulls” along with it a whole network of statements, terms, propositions, and other concepts that spread out across a large space. An analytic concept is a term that can be explicated by exchanging it for another equivalent term without sensing a difference. The analytic substitution seeks to close the question; like the act of denoting, only inside the realm of language, it is the zero point of conceptualization. But sooner or later substitution fails, for a concept cannot be substituted without a remainder by another equivalent term, or by the thing that it denotes. A concept is a term whose semantic and referential excess is manifested by the unfinished work of explication that always fails to exhaust it. With key concepts this excess, this halo of unattainability surrounding the concept, is obvious and cannot be ignored. This halo indicates what is yet to be explicated or understood with respect to the semantic field, to the experienced world, to the subjects the concept is connected to, and to the conditions under which the conceptual statement can be repeated.

iii.) Displacement

The conceptual work displaces a term from the context of its use, its “natural” environment, in which its discursive nature usually goes unnoticed, into another context in which its discursivity is thematized and explicated. In other words, the conceptual statement is simultaneously linked to two distinct sets of statements, the distance between which is not fixed and depends on the kind of discourse in which conceptualization takes place. (Herein lies the weakness of the dictionary in explicating concepts. To the extent that it disengages words from their natural environment, it provides them a very poor alternative environment; to the extent that it leaves them in their natural environment, it provides them poor explication, for instance, by demonstrating their known uses. The non-specialized dictionary belongs to no living discourse).

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates acts as if he is after a philosophical dictionary, yet his specialty is the uprooting of terms from their daily usage environment. In the early aporetic dialogues he leaves the interlocutors confused, but in later dialogues Plato provides a new environment of statements, in which the terms at stake gradually appear as a concept. This environment is what Plato refers to as “dialectics,” and it specializes in making carvings and distinctions, and in reorganizing an entire network of terms, allowing for a convincing re-articulation of the concept in question. What the Socratic dialogue shows with respect to conceptual work—starting with stopping of the natural “flow” of language, lingering and wasting time, up to the special attention it gives to the carving of concepts—is far more important than what Plato says about concepts (that they are Ideas or pure Forms). The Socratic dialogue functions like a work of art, inviting later philosophers to interpret what it shows.

Nietzsche, and in a more significant way Wittgenstein, together with numerous intellectual historians and anthropologists who were influenced by them, suggested the opposite movement: from the privileged plane in which conceptual clarification takes place back to “natural language,” to those colloquial or professional uses of the term that are specific to this or that context of activity. But no matter how narrow or short lived is the context of use, the terms used may still be conceptualized. There is always a point in asking “what was x?” for the people of this or that culture, period, or language game, over and above the particular, concrete uses x had. There is a point in studying the chronicles of a concept by unfolding the transformations of its use. There is a point in grouping together certain uses as instances of the same usage-pattern—e.g., the pattern that keeps generating the illusion that the agent is a subject endowed with will, that the aim of punishment is to reform the sinner, or that language is a relation between words and things. Once such a pattern is identified or reconstructed, there emerges a more-or-less determined concept.

The conceptual statement, which copies sections of one environment and plants them in the other (in order to grant them new status and meaning), also bridges the two discursive environments, and allows for the movement backwards (in order to teach, instruct, correct, or embarrass those who use the term in its “natural” environment). But first the explication of a concept freezes the movement in one discursive environment and generates movement in another. But this freezing is also an intervention, an invasion, a viral movement that may spread in every direction without taking over. It is a toiling, restless parasite that may settle anywhere and invite itself to any conversation. It traces a path like water eroding the soil, forming ravines, changing the landscape. Discursive environments differ in how immune they are to invading conceptual work, how much they resist when it appears or, alternatively, the degree to which they invite it, open up to it, and are willing to adjust to its results. In principle, though, there is no discursive environment that the conceptual work cannot join in order to expropriate terms from it and bring clarified concepts back to it.

Colloquial, everyday political discourse in our contemporary, developed societies is among the most resistant to conceptual invasion. The governmentalization of the state and of its politics, together with the “economization” of society and the political, require black-boxing, and cannot afford to spend the time needed for the work of conceptualization. Hence the conceptualization of ready-made political terms—regardless of its content—is always already a form of resistance to the powers that be.

D.) The Material Medium

i.) Wasting Time

If a conceptual statement is a relation and a movement between two relatively distinct discursive environments (whatever the distance between them), then its material medium, in which it appears and can be reproduced, must enable their bridging. As mentioned, this bridging means freezing movement in one semantic space in favor of movement in another. The request to define, explicate, or reconstruct a sense lingers and defers the use of that term. This lingering and deferring of a linguistic flow in a discursive environment is a primary condition for the conceptual statement. Time, or rather a sense of “having time to spend”—as opposed to some concrete space of speech or writing—is the primary, rather rare, and most important material condition for the occurrence of the conceptual statement.

The interruption to the discursive flow may be momentary. Such interruptions are typical of misunderstanding in daily conversations and to the need of precision in technical, bureaucratic, juridical, and various scientific discourses. They are parasitic to the main interest people have in the exchange, to the demand for efficiency that is invested in it. But conceptual lingering can be discourse’s very interest, one common to many speakers. If there is a sense in which it can be argued that concepts only appear in philosophical discourse, it is because only in that discourse is this deferral institutionalized; only in it the time wasted on postponement and lingering is precisely a time invested in the very things that are at stake; only there does the enjoyment of the language game derive from what comes about when one defers, and excellence is measured in terms of the virtuosity involved in that deferring. Different discourses differ in how tolerant they are to this conceptual lingering: in the way they seek to limit its duration, continuity, frequency and range, granting it a shelter or withholding their patronage from it. Rather than rely on the idea of a tight relation between conceptual work and philosophy, in order to exclude what is not philosophical enough, we should use this relation in order to characterize the continuum between an endless deferral and a ready-made answer that never defers.

ii.) The Politics of Conceptualization

The activity of conceptualization defers the use of the concept, its naturalization and “routinization” into language. Therefore every pragmatic discourse (either in the juridical, economic, scientific or, of course, the political field) tends to develop an allergy to it. This deferral isn’t just a matter of a waste of time and inefficiency, but a potential for real trouble because of the impact conceptualization may have on an entire discursive field, and this may affect the political order itself.

However, the fundamental antinomy between conceptual work and political discourse rests on a common ground. Both the King and the philosopher have interest in definitions. The ruling power wants to define (and delimit29) territory and population, goals and means, a structure of hierarchical authority, and occasional zones of liberty within it. The philosophizer wants to define as part of her attempt to understand what is it for something to be what it is. The explicating definition, unlike the governmental definition on the one hand, and the dictionary definition on the other, is not a means but an end. It does not have a closed horizon, although its permanent aspiration is to close the concept and to correctly distinguish it from others. At any moment it might come into conflict with the efforts of the ruling power to impose closures. The former would give way to the latter only when the community of conceptual discourse is ready to enlist to one of the ruling power’s projects.30 If, as Deleuze argued, all philosophers have hitherto been philosophers of the state, it is not because they engaged in conceptual work, but because and insofar as they ceased to do so. This does not mean that they have stopped playing philosophical language games; philosophy is exercised through many language games other than the conceptual one, and these may resonate well with the ruling power’s interests and goals. But the ruling power can only use these language games by uprooting them from the space in which conceptual thinking moves, or by linking them to an already frozen conceptual movement, i.e., by forcing a conceptual closure.

The reproduction of the conceptual statement requires a space in which conceptual movement would not be interfered in. The statement’s material is precisely the condition that makes this movement possible. Plato’s deep fear of writing has to do with its image as a medium that threatens to ossify the movement of thought, embalming it in written signs. There is no need to agree with the Platonic demonization of writing (presented to us via spectacular writing, of course) in order to understand this worry; there is no need to share its admiration for the “living voice” and to accept its metaphysics of presence in order to confirm the complete priority of the performative event over the desired accomplishment that lies at the bottom of this preference for speech over writing.

What, then, is the performative event of the conceptual statement? It is the opening and response to the “what is x?” question; it is the ex-position and an ex-plication of what is conceptualized, articulating the moments that make up the concept, and recollecting and recomposing them within a single, unifying scheme. The conceptual statement shows the synthetic composition of its individuating moments, presenting, at the surface level of the discourse, the multiplicity of these moments in its coming together. This statement also signifies the space of appearance of the objects that embody or might embody the concept, points to its relation to a question, and through it to the subject who is allowed to ask and to answer. Above all, the conceptual statement presents itself as such, in public, as an explication of a concept; it is a public exposition of the concept’s discursive being, of the fact that it is a discursive entity.

What the discursive statement shows in the presentation of the concept isn’t necessarily what it says. What the conceptual statement says usually has to do with unfolding its constitutive moments and describing their interconnections, expressing, as quoted above, a “multiplicity… that is enfolded, like a law, within a unity of content.”31 In this sense it is like a picture that shows without saying what it shows, and there is always something left to say about what it shows. No narrative, let alone any caption, can exhaust the visible, which is essentially irreducibility to the sayable. The obligation to say what has not been said is not self-evident. In the case of the work of art, it derives from the sanctification of the image in a museal display room, a sanctification that adds a halo of excess to the visible which words are never able to exhaust, and which leads to an infinite task of interpretation, an obligation to try and bring this excess into language. A similar difference lies between what the conceptual statement shows—in the event of its performance—and what it says. But in this case there is no obligation to bring the excess of the shown into language. In this case there is no institution that sanctifies the excess of the visible, and yet the movement of conceptual thinking can always position itself within this difference, in order to go on asking “what is x?” and to ask it now with respect to the discursive conditions that made the conceptual statement possible in the first place. This question is essential because the discursive nature of the conceptual statement both enables the concept to appear as a unifying scheme and sets its arbitrary limits.

Attention to the discursive condition does not come at the expense of the semantic content, as suggested by the dictionary, for example, but rather includes and suspends it at the same time. A dictionary definition is a public presentation of a term that directs attention to its semantic content. As a textual institution, the dictionary directs the reader to the meaning of a word insofar as it can be isolated from its context (thereby pushing other properties of the word to the background, for example, its sound, its oral appearance). The explication of a concept is the detachment of a term from its non-problematic usage environment, displaying it in public in order to direct the theoretical gaze to its discursive appearance, insofar as it can be isolated from specific contexts of use. But the performance in which a concept’s discursive appearance is displayed has its own conditions.

What defines an object or image as a work of art, namely, a visible object that demands infinite interpretation, is not some essential quality of the object but its exhibition—its public display—within an institution that sanctifies images and objects as works of art. This exhibition pulls the image or object out of its “natural” environment, detaching it from whatever use it may have had. Thanks to the artistic context of the viewing provided by the museal institution (by its very definition), together with the habitus of the trained spectator, the exhibition directs our gaze and attention to the aesthetic appearance of the object or image, namely, to the way in which it is present to our senses and the way it acts upon them and through them upon our emotions and cognition.

In the same vein we can add that the courtroom, or the Royal Society, which adopted court-like discursive patterns, has created distinguished places for the public display of proofs regarding factual claims (the courtroom) or causal ones (the scientific experiment). What we have here is the detachment of things and objects, claims and bits of narrative from their “natural” environment (which might be nature “itself,” or the cultural environment in which they usually appear), and their reweaving into the structure of an argument in order to generate a proof and display it in public. Unlike the museal exhibition, but similar to that of the dictionary, the juridical or scientific exhibition isn’t meant to present its case as an object about which one can talk forever without exhausting its meaning; on the contrary, it is meant to put an end to endless debate, to establish the facts of the matter and to draw the necessary conclusions.

In various philosophical contexts, conceptual statements indeed strive – or seem to strive – to put an end to debates, suggesting standards for how to decide on the matter at hand and to complete the work of conceptualization—and yet they have never succeed in doing so. The exhibited event always exceeds what is said in it, and there is no effective sanction on someone who tries to keep asking and interpreting. Unlike aesthetic (the museum), semantic (dictionary), factual (courtroom), or causal (scientific experiment) exhibitions, conceptual exhibitions don’t have an institution of their own. Certainly, the academic department of philosophy cannot and does not serve as an institution of such kind. Conceptual work is just one of its many tasks and not necessarily the most essential one. At the same time, different types of discourse provide different conditions for conceptual work, and also differ in the degree of tolerance or allergy they demonstrate when that work stretches for too long, disrupting existing discursive patterns and suggesting others instead. One may distinguish here between three types of discourse. In the more pragmatic discourses, such as administrative or juridical ones, discursive activity presupposes and relies upon extensive definitional activity, which aims at fixing the meaning of terms and easing their uninterrupted use. Second, in the more contemplative discourses, the work of conceptualization frequently interrupts discursive activity. Finally, in philosophy and in the more “philosophically-prone” fields of the various sciences, conceptual work is an end and not only a means; here the movement that takes place within a concept (within its different moments), or between concepts, is the movement of thought itself.

Philosophy and these “philosophically-prone” fields tend to welcome conceptual work and be patient with the time it takes. But this patience and tolerance is not enough to compensate for the lack of an institution whose aim is to provide the conceptual exhibition with the kind of conditions the museum provides for aesthetic exhibition, the courtroom for the factual, and the dictionary for the semantic one. Plato tried to establish his academy for that purpose, yet it was quickly flooded by other questions and new practices of inquiry. Even before the demand that it would promote faith or prove beneficial to society, the academy failed to provide conceptual inquiry with taken-for-granted institutional conditions that would help direct the attention of viewers/listeners/readers to the discursive dimension of the concept, to its being a unique statement. The Socratic moment has never been institutionalized. What, then, is required in order to sustain it? All that it takes is the patience of the addressees—in fact, a single addressee, willing to share the question and not stop asking, would be enough—and the existence of a discursive community whose speakers are ready to waste the time required in order to think. These conditions can appear anywhere, at any time, in almost any context, but by the same token also to disappear with the least display of intolerance on the part of the powers that be, with every demand for a different kind of attention—practical, aesthetic, religious. Lacking an institution, everything depends on the interlocutors; they, and only they, can serve as the guardians of the concept.


Adi Ophir is associate professor at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, at Tel Aviv University.

1. I wish to thank Ariella Azoulay, Dikla Bytner, Roy Wagner, Lin Chalozin-Dovrat, Yoav Kenny, and Itay Snir for their comments on previous versions of this text.

2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press), 11.

3. Stephen Laurence and Eric Margolis, “Concepts and Cognitive Science,” in Concepts: Core Readings, ed. Margolis and Laurence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 3-81.

4. This typology follows Margolis and Laurence, “Concepts and Cognitive Science.” For a similar typology see the entry “Concepts” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

5. The Greek expression became the Latin essentia, and Aristotle’s definition of definition may be read accordingly as “the stating of essence.”

6. S. H. Bergmann, Introduction to Logic: The Theoretical Science of Order (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1964), 63.

7. In Hebrew, the expression “to have no idea (about something)” is literally “to have no concept.”

8. Philosophers tended to regard such “placeholders” as concepts as well. But then one should distinguish two types of concepts: “empty placeholders,” whose function neutralizes or blurs the unattainable excess of the concept, and terms which the attempt to clarify or define manifests their excess. Only the latter will interest us here.

9. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).

10. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, part 3, ch. 2-3.

11. The Jewish Midrash would be an example of a discourse that doesn’t require concepts at all. Military discourse, and others that take place under conditions of strict obedience, do not allow for the creation of concepts because they do not allow the freedom and time for the questions that summon them.

12. Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge, part 2, ch. 5.

13. Deleuze and Guatarri, What is Philosophy?, 22.

14. Deleuze and Guatarri, What is Philosophy?, 8-9, 33-34.

15. Deleuze and Guatarri, What is Philosophy?, 150.

16. Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the concept relies heavily on Deleuze’s reading of Foucault. Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

17. Or “components,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology.

18. When the question is addressed by a teacher to a student or an examiner to an examined, the addressee is simultaneously supposed not to know—so that the term would appear as a concept—and to know—in order to answer correctly. The student who truly understands is not the one who knows how to give the answer that is expected of him, but the one who knows how to relate the answer (the explanation) to the question and why it must be kept open. The role of the teacher is to teach how to keep the questions open.

19. In Hebrew, ‘concept’ (mussag) is a passive-adjective form of the verb ‘to attain’ (le-hassig).

20. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 42, 79-80.

21. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 79.

22. “Bridges from one concept to another” is an image of Deleuze and Guattari’s, What is Philosophy?, 19, 23.

23. Bergmann, Introduction to Logic, 72.

24. “The concept is defined by the inseparability of a finite number of heterogeneous components traversed by a point of survey at infinite speed … the concept is … thought operating at infinite (although greater or lesser) speed.” Deleuze and Guatarri, What is Philosophy?, 21.

25. I am following here Foucault’s distinction between a statement and a proposition. The Archeology of Knowledge, 80-81.

26. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 31. This, however, does not mean that science contains no concepts, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, What is Philosophy?, 33-34.

27. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21-22.

28. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21.

29. The Hebrew infinitive le-hagdir (to define) comes from the same root as le-gader (to fence, to delimit).

30. A point Roy Wagner misses in his discussion of conceptual and governmental closures. “Response to ‘Preface,” Mafte’akh 2 (2010).

31. Bergmann, Introduction to Logic, 72.