Methodological notes on Concepts and Empiricism

This blog piece articulates how and why concepts can be useful tools to work with in order to articulate the dynamic and practical political thinking generated within embodied, situated activist practices.

A motivating a theory of concept

In many domains of social life, there are conceptual models through which relationships between people are understood. These concepts may relate to common, broad categories of relationships as in the case of friends, colleagues, employers and lovers. They might also be more specific: developed within particular social and professional milieus – the relationship between lawyer and client, researcher and informant, commuters sharing adjacent seats. These models guide how we should behave, the expectations we might have of others and the possibilities which might be realised within the bounds of that model. While necessary and helpful in navigating social interaction, and forming a common understanding, these conceptual models can implicitly fix the possibilities of social life and carry unfair and imbalance social norms.

These concepts are honed and negotiated through several mediums: all originate in social practice but they are also described and reinterpreted in forms of social discourses in film, fiction and commentary. Some are the subject of scientific study while others are regulated in law. Individual instantiations of these relationships will exceed and stretch the conceptual model in detail, intensity and shape. Awkwardness or excitement might arise from the intersection of these conceptual models and creative conceptual thought might be needed to invent or stretch new concepts to navigate new social terrain. Concepts are not abstract and atemporal universals unchanged by time and material practice. Yet nor are they reducible to the concrete relationships that give rise to them: concepts extend the concrete, delineate possibilities, carry knowledge and inform the next iterations of practice. Concepts, in short, both shape relationships and are themselves shaped by the dynamic, diverse and intricate material relationships the constitute social life (Cooper, 2014).

In some domains of life, particularly those outside of institutional structures, there is no such a stable set of concept resources to mediate and navigate relationships. Here, the logics which govern how the community interacts with itself are developed and a precarious order arises out of uncertainty. It is important, then, to develop conceptual resources and a conceptual orientation that open possibilities for working together, are inherently dynamic and are not necessarily prescriptive, but are light footed, playful and responsive to the material conditions in which we are embedded. In these settings new concepts might be forged to articulate new ways of working together or, as is more often the case, concepts might be borrowed from other aspects of life, become stretched, rearticulated and refracted through its new material conditions.

In other words, the material interactions involved in activist (and other) practices are dynamic and productive. The problem is how to tease out these conceptual innovations that emerge, even fleetingly, to recognise new tendencies and new possibilities for political relationships in developing political fields.

A theory of the Conceptual

Academic work clustered around what we might call ‘philosophical empiricism’ or ‘New Empiricism’ has developed methodological innovations drawing on Deleuze’s notions of empiricism and concept (Bal, 2009; Cooper, 2014; Gane, 2009). Deleuze rejects the idea that concepts should be primarily associated with general categories – fixed mental abstractions that collect together different aspects of the world and obscure difference and singularity. Rather, concepts are dynamic intensities – incorporeal assemblages that arise and are shaped through the local social situations that not only represent what is happening but articulates the possibilities for action.

In Deleuze’s view, conceptual creativity is not only a question of explanation or categorisation but tools of navigation always connected to the problems encountered in the course of entanglements with the empirical world. Problems are not objective but are always invented – motivated by intentional actors or what Deleuze would call ‘conceptual personae’. It is in the tension between the empirical world and philosophical and political thought that concepts are generated and already existing concepts become refracted to expose new possibilities. In this way, transcendent concepts that point toward a world beyond the present such as justice or law are always immanently shaped by the material present.

Conceptual creativity might seen in the creation of new concepts but equally be articulated through the rearticulation existing concepts. As abstract objects of thought and speech, concepts travel from context to context, discipline to discipline, subtly changing their role and meaning. Gane uses the metaphor of concepts as bridges that constantly are being assembled and disassembled. As bridges, they articulate possibilities rather than represent a static reality. In this way concepts are affective – they articulate ways in which through engagement in materially situated practices of working together a collective’s capacities to be affect and be affected change.

There are elements of Deleuze’s notion of concept that are not taken forward by this methodology. Conceptual creativity is an elitist practice that falls to philosophers to carry out (Deleuze and Guattari, 2011; Massumi, 2002). More democratic understanding of conceptual development has been crafted elsewhere. For Cooper (2014), it is the role of concepts to move or reverberate between actualisation and imagining. The imagination stretches concepts to realise new potential to enact markets, property, the state, or democracy in ways other than they currently are practised. Actualisation in the activities of communities responding to social problems supports, sustains and shapes the direction of future movements. In practice, these aren’t separate processes but occur through one another. If one wants to understand the generativity of social life one needs to remain attentive to conceptual innovations and subversions that occur the dynamic and creative lives of those around us.

As Gane argues, Deleuze’s notion of concept is intimately tied to his understanding of empiricism – that is a project that does not only explain phenomena by tying them to pre-established, static systems by trying to locate and foster novelty (Gane, 2009). It means drawing concepts that are developed in one social milieu into new ones – not with the purpose of absorbing the new object of inquiry into the old concept but by locating the dissonance and tension, the transformations and inversions that indicate the new realms of political possibilities. Bal, working in the interdisciplinary humanities, argues that travelling concepts is an asset rather than a liability – it allows us to see the connections between contexts but also keep alert to the innovations and creativity at work in new spaces.

How might this work in practice?

That’s something I’m working out! But if theory is anything to go by the practice will not be contained by the theory, but will exceed it in response to the infinitely complex realities of empirical world!


Bal M (2009) Working with Concepts. European Journal of English Studies 13(1): 13–23.

Cooper D (2014) Everyday Utopias: the conceptual life of promising spaces.

Deleuze G and Guattari F (2011) What is philosophy? Repr. London: Verso.

Gane N (2009) Concepts and the `New’ Empiricism. European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 83–97.

Massumi B (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press.