Problem, Concept and Theoretical Practice

Thus construed as a history of the ways in which the constitutive elements of a general problem come to be redistributed in a particular period, the history of (forms of) problematization(s) should, from a methodological viewpoint, first result in the identification of the specific problem encountered by a domain of practices in this period: an encounter that will possibly give rise to the formation of one or more new concepts and, where necessary, lead to the formation of a new type of knowledge (savoir). This is what is at stake in a concept-centered method of historical inquiry. We must therefore introduce the importance of concepts in a history of (forms of) problematization, in particular clarifying their relationship to “problem” and practice.

I shall not seek to demonstrate here the close link between knowledge and concepts, but simply accept with Kant that all knowledge requires a concept, and with Gaston Bachelard that concepts are the “centres around which knowledge of reality is concentrated,”3 on the premise that concepts are a matter of knowledge. A concept emerges of necessity in a field of knowledge and practice faced with a practical problem. Here we touch on a crucial characteristic of the concept identified early on by Jean Cavailles, for whom “the invention of concepts is a requirement on the part of problems.”4 In fact, a concept always emerges in connection with a problem— that is, as suggested by the etymology of the word, in connection with an obstacle to knowledge (connaissance et savoirs), and hence to the deployment of the forms of savoir faire invested by them in practice. Faced with a problem encountered by practices, which existing concepts in their constituted form are unable to solve, the emergence of a new concept is how the movement of knowledge (and, therefore, practices) can be restored—and this through the new segmentation of realities operated by the network of concepts as recomposed in response to the emergence of a new concept.

As the fruit of the specific practice of abstraction—more specifically, of “conceptualization,” as opposed to abstraction through language and its words—a concept is in fact the vehicle through which the thinking/acting subject appropriates the world. This is why Althusser could claim that we continuously live in and under abstraction,5 and also why, for my part, I maintain that abstraction is our practical relationship to the world (on abstraction see also Hibou in this volume). Faced with a specific practical problem encountered by a sphere of practices in a given period, the specific practice of abstraction intensifies, possibly inducing the emergence of a new concept which a definitional work will make it possible to specify and to situate in the conceptual matrix within which it emerges. This is the work peculiar to the theoretical practice, which the archaeological method makes it possible to view close up, capturing the emergence of a new concept and describing the process of knowledge (prods de connaissance) of which this new concept becomes the object with, where necessary, the formation of a new knowledge (savoir).

This domain of radically heterogeneous practices (practice of abstraction, theoretical practice, discursive and nondiscursive practices, etc.) is fixed on by the analyst, who describes them in the historical complexity of their respective, mutual implications and thus accounts for their problematiza- tion. At the heart, then, of the history of (forms of) problematizations are a general problem, a specific problem—to be isolated in the particular way it is bound up with the general problem—and a domain of radically heterogeneous practices, with their savoir faire and the technico-practical knowledge to be found in them. Such are the factors that intellectuals must fix on in their self-appointed task of establishing the history of problematizations, which is also a way for them to problematize their present.

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