Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Resilience: Some Philosophical Remarks on Ostensively and Stipulatively Defined Concepts

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Resilience: Some Philosophical Remarks on Ostensively and Stipulatively Defined Concepts

Article excerpt


The notion of resilience has gained considerable support within sustainability research over the past couple of decades (Walker & Cooper, 2011; Parker & Hackett, 2012). Introduced into the sustainability context by ecologist Crawford Holling and his followers (see, e.g., Gunderson & Holling, 2002), first in the Resilience Network and later in the highly influential Resilience Alliance (Walker & Cooper, 2011), the concept has garnered great appeal within sustainability science for at least two reasons. First, it is alleged to have "integrative" and "discipline bridging" capabilities (Holling et al. 2002). The fact that sustainability science has to be an inter- and trans-disciplinary venture is ubiquitously accepted among practitioners in the field and crossing disciplinary (and other) boundaries is essential to this aim (Kates et al. 2001; Jerneck et al. 2011; Ziegler & Ott, 2011; Thorén & Breian, 2015). The second reason is that the notion of sustainability itself can be construed in terms of resilience, or rather that resilience can be used as a foundation for understanding (or realizing) sustainability (Ludwig et al. 1997; Perrings, 2006; Anderies et al. 2013).1 We focus in this article mainly on the concept of resilience and its discipline-connecting capabilities.

In academic publications pertaining to the concept of resilience, the discussion to date has generally been on differences in the content of various definitions of this key term. Brand & Jax (2007), for example, consider resilience as a boundary object that serves as a flexible concept with different meanings for various users, but at the same time allows for interdisciplinary communication. Strunz (2012) suggests that the concept is "polysemous," meaning that it has many similar, though difficult to disentangle, meanings, and argues that this conceptual fluidity is not problematic in all contexts. Strunz mentions research that is "in touch with societal stakeholders" as a candidate where less rigid concepts may be beneficial.

We seek to focus here on another aspect of resilience, one that has thus far been overlooked, namely how and with what aim the concept is defined. We begin by establishing the distinction between concepts defined ostensively and concepts defined stipulatively. The definitions associated with the former serve to identify something in the world and focus, for example, on a particular phenomenon. The latter type of definition, by contrast, is often used to highlight a distinction, or conceptual joint. We then argue that psychologists define the term ostensively while ecologists often define resilience stipulatively. This distinction arises despite the fact that the different usages share a conceptual core that transcends disciplinary boundaries.

We continue from this observation to note that in sustainability science, where it is expected that the notion of resilience can bridge disciplines, debates on different understandings of resilience have focused exclusively on the content of the definitions. Nonetheless, we argue that the distinction proposed here matters. An ostensively defined concept and a stipulatively defined concept point toward different interdisciplinary relations. Specifically, in the former case conceptual coherence is secondary to ontological overlaps while in the latter case conceptual coherence is more important. An ontological overlap here signifies the sharing of an interest in the same phenomenon.

A caveat is in order before we proceed. We offer what is first and foremost a philosophical argument and aim to make a philosophical point. Accordingly, we do not provide thoroughgoing reviews of the relevant literature from psychology, ecology, or sustainability science that would allow for robust generalizations concerning these fields. Such a study would indeed be interesting and is perhaps a natural continuation of the present discussion, but it remains outside the scope of this particular article. …

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