”This opens the scope for questioning and rethinking”
Claudia Baisini’s PhD thesis in Philosophy explores the relation between language, observation and understanding, which in turn influences action.
“I examine what we do when we talk of a phenomenon or event in a certain way. In judging a situation, we do not only rely on description but also on evaluation, and it is important to understand how the combination of these two elements leads us to see what we see, and decide what to do about it”, she says.
The PhD thesis ’Conceptual schemes and human (inter)action: disentangling fact and value for a broader vision’ sheds light on how the background structure of assumptions and presuppositions guides what is seen and not seen in observation, data gathering and explanation.
“This opens the scope for questioning and rethinking. It also provides suggestions to expand the conceptual horizon, which sets the boundaries of the conceivable and unconceivable, thus broadening the possibilities of understanding and action”, says Claudia Baisini, Research Assistant in War Studies at the Swedish Defence University.
Systems of concepts shape habits of thoughts
Previous experience contributes to shaping how we see new situations; it guides towards considering some elements as particularly salient while others are considered less relevant, discarded, or even not seen at all.
“But if we change the observation point we see elements we have been blinkered from. How we speak about something expresses a conceptual scheme, a system of concepts that have emerged from previous experience and that involve assumptions and presuppositions that are not only merely descriptive, but also evaluative”, Claudia Baisini explains.
With repeated use these conceptual schemes turn into habits of thought that are often taken for granted and guide observation implicitly.
“We don’t question them because we consider them ‘obvious.’ Think about concepts like democracy, freedom and terrorism. We make abundant use of them, yet what is meant by them varies considerably. This is not a matter of definition but rather a matter of how the concept is used, in relation with some other concepts to denote particular characteristics that are endorsed or deprecated. But endorsing or deprecating have to do with evaluation”, she says.
In judging a situation, we do not only give an account of how things are, even though this is how we present it, linguistically.
“Rather, the descriptive account is also shaped by evaluation, and it is important to understand how the combination of the two elements leads us to see what we see, and decide what to do about it. If we develop the ability to ‘see’, we can expand our repertoire of action and this is not only a matter of ‘thinking’. A broader vision involves broader sensitivity”, says Claudia Baisini.
Theoretical reasoning and argumentation
The research method primarily used in the PhD thesis is theoretical reasoning and argumentation, but Claudia Baisini has also used empirical cases, such as the concept of Islamic terrorism, the measurement of intelligence and crime and rehabilitation, to refine the theoretical standpoint.
“Scholars and practitioners who adopt different views often use similar words. However, an examination of the conceptual schemes shows that these words mean very different things in the two schemes, due to the combination of fact and value. It also leads to different ways of acting, she says.
Why did you choose this field for your PhD thesis?
“I was puzzled by the many debates where advocates of contrasting positions claimed that their views are supported by facts. Logically, it does not make any sense. And so I set out to investigate how these facts are gathered and processed into contrasting explanations.”
How can these findings be of use in society?
“Before the PhD I was working with the Swedish Armed Forces on situational awareness, situational understanding and the development of courses of action attuned to the requirements of a dynamic context. Naturally, I hope to contribute to these areas, but what I have done in the PhD can also be applied to politics, science, and law, for example, and even to many aspects of individual life.”
Claudia Baisini is a Research Assistant in War Studies at the Swedish Defence University. She defended her PhD thesis ’Conceptual schemes and human (inter)action: disentangling fact and value for a broader vision’ at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University in July 2020.