The word “concept” is ambiguous. In casual use we tend to treat a concept as the object of conception: an idea we can present to others. But we will also use it in ways that suggest a capacity to conceive. For instance, in math, a teacher will present a concept to a student in multiple ways until the student gets it, and everything snaps in place and becomes clear. What exactly does it mean that the student understands the concept?
The ambiguity can be resolved if we evert our understanding of concept — flip it inside out, reversing all subject-object, interior-exterior relationships. Instead of understanding concept primarily as an object of conception, concept is understood as the subject of conception.
(In other words, a concept is not conceived. A concept conceives. A concept may conceive an idea, or a judgment, or a relationship, or an argument, or a response. Even when we are understanding, we are conceiving — re-conceiving — an existing conception. When the eureka moment hits, what did not make sense suddenly does makes sense. When you repeat words that a moment ago were recited tentatively, you now state them confidently and fluently. The sentence that was a series of disconnected, isolated words is now infused with the coherence and lucidity of a concept — not only said, but meant.)
Even in the case of an object we call a “concept”, the real purpose of that object is to induce a subjective concept capable of “getting” the meaning of the object. It serves as an objective mold against which a subjective being can take shape.
A concept is that which makes the experiential flux significant in some distinct way.
Concepts resist conception, in the same way that we cannot see sight or hold onto holding. Concepts are that by which a subject conceives an object, and experiences it as something with significance. Concepts produce objectivity, but are not themselves objects.
This is why concepts can only be defined pragmatically. A concept can only be understood in terms of what it does. Trying to understand a concept by what it is — defining it objectively — renders the very concept of concept unintelligible.
Pragmatic definition itself provides a fine example of how concepts work.
To understand a meaning pragmatically requires use of a concept.
I can provide C. S. Peirce’s formulation of the pragmatic maxim: “In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”
Without the concept by which this maxim becomes comprehensible, the maxim remains meaningless. But once the concept that renders the pragmatic maxim comprehensible is acquired, the concept is available for use in conceiving and understanding pragmatically, without any explicit reference to the maxim which engendered the concept. The more it is used, the more concept is simply a second-natural, undetected act of understanding, indistinguishable from the conception, or from the truth the conception knows, or from reality.
Acquisition of concepts changes one’s experience of reality, bringing possibilities into conception that were literally inconceivable a moment before. New concepts often effect re-conceptions of existing understandings, spontaneously changing their significance. They can also cause us to perceive new features of reality which were imperceptible or chaotic and vague.
We have many words for these new concept events. Some are inspirational, where new concepts reinforce and strengthen concepts we are already using. They may be epiphanic and reorder much of what we think we know, bringing things into clarity which had been opaque, murky or troubling. Some concepts strike depths of change that are literally inconceivable until the concept irrupts ex nihilo and transfigures literally everything. This is when we talk about conversion.
By understanding the role concepts play in our relationship with reality, it becomes possible to discuss religious experience without recourse to magical or superstition, which many thinkers, including myself, find intellectually unacceptable, or to psychology, which many religious people, including myself, find reductive, demoralizing and patronizing.
Can concepts be intentionally changed? Yes.
Does that mean we can start with an intended outcome, such as believing something we want to believe, or feeling some specific way about life that we want to feel, and develop concepts to make us think or feel this desired way? Mostly, no.
We can, however, observe the outcomes of our concepts, and work to discover or create, or discover-create (instaurate) concepts with better outcomes.
And we can even do so with constraints or requirements in mind. Whatever we develop, we might want it to help us feel the value of life more. We might want it to guide our actions more effectively. We might want it to help us explain what cries out for explanation, or to argue for what needs to be argued.
Understanding concepts liberates us from the obligation to passively accept what is presented as truth, simply because it is true. We can also ask: True, how? And we can also ask: True, how else?
Understanding concepts empowers us for pluralist existence.