What is a Concept?

After grading the first set of papers for my Teaching Assistantship this year, I’ve noticed that a common problem of reasoning can be attributed to not understanding what a “concept” is.

For example, take the concept “Rule of Law”. The rule of law is the notion that everyone is equally before the law. Perhaps better – it means no one is above the law. But the rule of law is a concept, not a scientific hypothesis – it is not “true or false” based on whether it corresponds to reality. The rule of law is not “false” because someone is factually above the law. In fact, it isn’t false or true at all – it’s a concept. But what is a concept?

A concept is something in your head. It’s a notion, a picture, an idea. But it isn’t only in your head – what’s essential to concepts is that they can be shared. I can write a book about a concept, (i.e. “The Concept of Irony”). I can have an opinion about a concept, an opinion others might disagree with. We can even argue about the implications concepts have on the world (i.e. “What is the role of the notion of multiculturalism in Canada’s self-image, law and politics?”). The concepts can really “be” in the world – for example, we can discuss whether Canada is “really” a democracy. We can even talk about what a concept “really means” in terms of what a concepts actual implications are when we apply it in society, or science and technology, and we can do this only because we assume that the content of a concepts application exceeds any person’s intention. What this means is that concepts are not only “in your head”, not only “in shared reality” (between our heads), but they actually concretize in or into the world.

So concepts are in the world, but earlier I said that concepts are not scientific hypothesis – is this not a contradiction? Presumably, if concepts really described the world, they would merely be a kind of scientific description, which is either falsifiable or, if un-falsifiable, mere claptrack. The mistake here is to assume a strong distinction between description and production. Concepts, especially political concepts, are both normative and descriptive – they describe a state of affairs, but they also imply that some state of affairs ought be brought about. What do I mean by this?

Take for example “The Rule of Law”. The rule of law means that the law is above everyone – including the one who makes the law. Like I said before, the Rule of law is not ‘false’ because the rule of law does not exist in every state. However, the rule of law may or may not exist in a state which claims to follow the rule of law. The rule of law is an “ideal”, an “idea”, a notion, or a concept, which can be held up to situations where it does not apply in order to discredit those power structures which justify themselves by way of concepts like “the rule of law”. For instance, Obama can use “the rule of law” as an ideal to justify his ad hawk legal structures for dealing with prisoners  – but at the same time critics can point out that his policies are anything but enactments of the rule of law. Ideals are themselves above everyone – anyone can pick up a concept and use it, anyone can show that someone who claims authority due to some concept is falsely employing the concept and not deserving of the authority.

Furthermore, the rule of law is concept of particular interest because it contains an inner tension in its essence.  Since it does not specify anything about the content of the law, can specify that different groups are to be treated differently before the law. So, the rule of law need not guarantee rights to all – it can guarantee rights to the nobility under the law, and under that same law take rights away from the peasants. This differential allotment of rights can be thought to be consistent with “everyone is equal before the law”. However, the universality of “everyone is equal before the law” conflicts with unequal allotment of rights. If everyone is equal before the law, it intuitively follows that the law should have the same content for all – that the law should not specify rights and benefits specific to one’s station. This tendency towards university unites the Magna Carta, the text which first secures the rights of the nobility against the absolute dominion of the king, with the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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One thought on “What is a Concept?

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