Concepts: Meanings, Games and Contests
I am suggesting neither that there are differences of opinion about concepts which possess an uncontestable core, nor that concepts are linked to incommensurable theories. Rather I see concepts and categories as shaped by political goals and intentions. Contests over the meaning of concepts, it follows, are contests over desired political outcomes.
(Bacchi, 1996: 1)
CT did not have sexual relations with that woman.’ When I first heard
A this statement from President Clinton in respect of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky my first response was to judge it in terms of its truth or non-truth. While, of course, there are many kinds of sexual activity surely, I thought, he either had or had not. Yet the Clinton case is a classic example of what would be defined as conceptual contestation. By this I mean two things. First, that in the everyday the meanings of particular terms are varied. Second, that in certain circumstances different protagonists will forcefully and protectively deploy their specific definitions in a contest over meaning. Thus Clinton drew on what I personally would understand as an extremely narrow, even technical, definition of sex. Others deployed a wider meaning that might accord with more everyday meanings. The truth did not lie in the physical act that was or was not undertaken. The truth lay in which definition was going to take precedence.
For those of us who might have some vicarious enjoyment from the contest over meaning in the Clinton case, the turn to the drier academic field of texts and theory has perhaps rather less of a hold on our attention. Yet such texts are full of issues of conceptual contestation that are enacted in much the same way as the Clinton case. Here the contests over meaning are central to the development of a particular field of theorization and, in consequence, to the political implications of that field. Moi (1999) offers a useful example in this respect when she discusses the sex/gender distinction that provides the basic framework
for much feminist theory in the English-speaking world. In contrast to the Clinton case where discussion of the term sex was related to the physicality of sex acts, within feminism the term sex is primarily used to make distinctions about what is meant when we use the term ‘woman’. Thus sex is the term that is used when referring to woman as a biologically sexed body and gender is the term that denotes the socially produced meanings of woman.
What is useful about Moi’s analysis is that she illustrates two important features of conceptual contestation. The first point is that we need to take account of the historical and cultural situatedness of meaning. As Moi notes, prior to I960, feminists used the term sex to include the social and cultural meanings now associated with gender. In the 1960s English-speaking feminists introduced the sex/gender distinction as a strong defence against the biologically deterministic meanings that were predominant in understandings of the term woman in masculine theorizing. In addition, there is no sex/gender distinction in French (sexe) and Norwegian (kj0nn). The second point to note is that dominant meanings are always open to challenge. As in the case of the original call for a distinction between sex and gender, more recent poststructural theorization has challenged the meanings of sex as being confined to a reference to a biologically sexed body. Moi (1999: 4) notes that the purpose of this challenge is to shift our understandings of the sexed body as an essence and to refocus the meanings of sex as incorporating concrete, historical and social phenomena. In this way poststructuralist theorizing seeks to avoid the biologically deterministic meanings of the term sex and to develop an account of sex and the body as historically located.
In the Clinton case the debate ensued over the meanings of sex but there never appeared to be any doubt about what constituted woman. Monica Lewinsky’s sexed body was sufficient evidence. Indeed, in the everyday we rarely spend time analysing and discussing the meanings of the most common terms in our language. However, the feminist debates that Moi sets out in terms of the sex/gender distinction were concerned with the meanings that constitute woman. Indeed, it is the theme of ‘What is ‘‘woman’’?’ that provides the illustrative framework for this chapter as I draw on the varied debates and issues that have been of concern in answering this question. This serves as the context for my primary purpose, which is to set out the theorizations of language, meaning and acts of conceptualization that have appeared to me to be most relevant to the development of my own imminent understandings of the conceptual literacy that I outlined in the Introduction. I therefore draw on the theme of ‘What is ‘‘woman’’?’ for exemplification.
I begin with poststructuralist understandings of language and meaning. These draw on Derridean notions of the deferral of meaning through differance. There are several points that I have found important here. The first is the recognition that is given to the role of language in shaping our understandings of reality. The second is the attention that has been given to the instability of meaning. This has given a focus, for example, to the lack of guarantee over the transference of meaning. A third point is the attention that is given to the power relations of language.
In the section that follows I explore issues of power and language through Plumwood’s (1993) deconstruction of dualism. Plumwood’s work is exceptionally useful in highlighting the embedded nature of power relations within language. This is because she illustrates how we need to look beyond the coupling or pairing of terms in language. For example, language operates in terms of binaried pairs through which each term in the binary draws its meaning. However, Plumwood’s analysis illustrates something of a rhizomatic quality as she also explores how meaning draws from networks and webs of connection that extend beyond the binaried pair.
The third section of this chapter is illustrative of how my own conceptual literacy draws from what I now understand to be Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. There is considerable debate in the literature on Wittgenstein in terms of whether he is a deconstructionist or a pragmatist (see, for example, Nagl and Mouffe, 2001). For example, Moi (1999) suggests that the central point where Wittgenstein and Derrida part company is on the Derridean idea that meaning is always deferred. Such debate is, of course, evidence of the multiple ways in which we might read a particular author. My own concerns with Wittgenstein are rather more mundane. My beginnings here arose from a concern to recognize the contextual dependency of meaning and to find an analytic framework that offered a useful explanation. Meaning may be multiple, varied and diverse. It may carry on beyond our intentions and it may be taken up in a host of ways. However, meaning is not idiosyncratic in the sense that any meaning goes at any time. If it were, it would be virtually impossible for us to communicate. These issues are not denied in poststructuralist theorizing. Meaning is derived from the discourse within which it takes place (Weedon, 1997). Yet my (mis)reading of work in this field has left me with a strong impression that within standard accounts of poststructuralism the contextualization of meaning is usually in the background of a more fully foregrounded concern to emphasize the transience of meaning. In my brief acquaintance with Wittgenstein I do not believe that his analysis encourages such backgrounding. Rather, for Wittgenstein, context is key.
In the fourth section of this chapter I explore the political terrain of contestation of meaning. Here I set out Connolly’s (1993) analysis of essentially contested concepts and his associated term of cluster concepts. It seems to me that Connolly’s analysis bears a strong resemblance to Wittgenstein’s and Plumwood’s rhizomatic approaches with their attention to networks and diverse forms of meaning that branch out in all directions. I also draw on Tanesini’s (1994) analysis of the politics of meaning where she highlights that we need to understand contestation over meaning as claims about how a word ought to be used rather than as attempts to describe how a word is used.