In my last post I offered a two-part description of the concept: the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity. I then suggested both these definitions come together in the learning process. Learning, in this view, is a transition of the concept as an external tool into the concept as an acquired capacity. I concluded by suggesting that the transition into the concept-as-capacity phase reveals the ecological nature of the subject-concept dynamic. In this mode of understanding, a subject is not the kind of being that can simply acquire new concepts while remaining identical to him or herself. Instead, from the ecological view, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept.
In this post I want to explore the two moments in the life of a concept again, but this time I want to reverse the procedure. Rather than describe how a conceptual tool becomes an internalized capacity, I aim to describe the process of unlearning or unknowing a concept. I have been thinking about the importance of unknowing ever since picking up Whitney Bauman’s new book Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic. In this work Bauman thematizes the importance of learning to unknow by drawing from several traditions of unknowing, including the traditions of deconstructive philosophy and negative theology. Bauman’s aim is to, “break apart the process by which concepts constrain and choke identities and life so that multiple identities and lives can come to exist” (21). Certainly, Bauman’s concern here is with the ethics and politics of identity, but he also wants to explore what, exactly, concepts are. For Bauman, “Technology and concepts are equivalent; they shape reality and bodies . . . Concepts help to shape our realities into specific ways of becoming” (6).
Bauman is also very clear that his philosophy of concepts is not a form of Idealism, but is rather an irreductive and immanent naturalism of emergent and multiscalar levels. Humans, like all living creatures, are meaning-makers, and one of the ways in which humans make meaning is through the creation and inheritance of concepts. On this point Bauman also recognizes the ecological nature of the subject-concept relation. Along side the “histories, languages, genetic evolution, stable climate, and surrounding earth communities that make meaning possible,” humans “make meaning and are made by this meaning” (22). These statements track nicely with the two-moment account of concepts-as-tools and concepts-as-capacities I articulated in my earlier post. For Bauman a concept is a tool, equivalent to a technology, and it is a symbiotic agent, transformative for the subject and generated by people in specific ecological contexts.
The importance of unknowing in this discussion lies precisely in Bauman’s ethical concern with how concepts “constrain and choke identities.” Bauman’s point is that meaning-making practices have consequences for the living out of genders, laws, rights, economics, ethics, and institutions. In response to the constraints enacted by inadequate conceptual understandings, Bauman’s work is principally aimed at cultivating what he calls a “planetary identity,” or a polydox and planetary ethic that refuses the stifling and violent nature of globalization; but Bauman is not merely trying to persuade his readers to value a new understanding of what a planetary subject might look like, he is also making the case for unlearning another understanding of what globalization has to be — globalization as monological, heteronormative, christian, capitalist, and so on.
In my view such a practice of unlearning represents a third dimension of concepts. In the process of learning, the concept is viewed from the outside, as a tool taken up in thought, reading, and discussion. As the concept is slowly understood, the subject gains it as a new mode of understanding, and the concept becomes part of the subject’s perceptual ability to encounter the world. However, the new conceptual capacity does not simply transform the subject, it also displaces some of the conceptual understandings the subject already enacts. In many ways this displacement, whereby the acquired capacity is transformed back into a tool that can be discarded, is the goal of all critical philosophy. The critical maneuver aims to unlearn in us a variety of naive or outmoded conceptual understandings about reality. Here the two moments of the concept are reversed: Through learning, the concept-as-tool is integrated into the subject as a capacity, but through the critical practice of unlearning the concept-as-capacity is revealed once more for what it is — not an innate component of all subjects, but a tool that can be rejected, often with great difficulty, for pragmatic, aesthetic, ethical, or logical reasons.
The ecological approach to concepts and subjects is in this way both critical and constructive. Every conceptual capacity is a creative event that also acts as a displacing agent in the business-as-usual nature of concepts, which through unlearning can re-appear to the subject for what they really are: skillful means for gaining access to reality in certain ways but not direct bearers of reality in itself. Insofar as a concept will necessarily make absent some aspects of phenomena just as it brings to presence others, it is an organized form of unknowing that coalesces boundaries and connections, presence and absence, knowing and unknowing. In my last post I ended by saying that an “I” is always an “I-in-the-making,” and to this we can now add that an “I” is also a process of unmaking, unlearning, or unknowing.