Reconceiving concept

Concept. Con- + -cept. Together-take.

A concept takes together a multiplicity as a unit.

Concepts do not have form; concepts give form.

It is not possible to give an example of a concept. Concepts can only be demonstrated.

Most of what we say about concepts, and the way we use the term “concept” is pure category mistake, ontological confusion. We misunderstand the kind of thing a concept is, and the practical consequences proceeding from this misunderstanding generates profuse unintelligibility.

How do we acquire a concept? We follow what it does. We follow an argument, an analogy, a story, a pattern, a system, until we pick it up, and reproduce it in ourselves. We follow along, and then we get it. We are initiated into the concept and start using it.

Really well-conceived concepts become habits, and are no longer guided by language or by intention. They guide language and participate in our intentions. They become imperceptible extensions of our personal being, reflected in our experience of reality.

Concepts are intellectual concavities, and this is one reason why we so often resort to spatial metaphors when speaking of concepts. We enter concepts, inhabit them, and look out from them, perceive from them, understand from them, experience from them, respond from them. Concepts are not convex objects that we can grasp. Concepts are that by which we grasp.

Concepts comprehend. Concepts are not comprehended, though truths are comprehended when a concept is received or conceived.

Do we conceive an idea? I would prefer a more finely-articulated account, that includes invisible, silent, but crucially important moral deeds: We face an incomprehensible situation. We try to comprehend it, despite the fact that we have no plan, principles or precedents to help us comprehend it. We enter the void of inconceivability; we undergo perplexity. “We do not know how to move around” in perplexity. We cannot even state the problem we are trying to solve or the question we need to ask, much less answer it. So we grope. We follow faint hunches. We try, fail, try, fail. We follow our noses and our guts. We cannot say what or who guides us, but we are guided, very subtly. If we keep our heads — if we refuse to turn around and flee back to old, familiar, inadequate concepts — if we stay alert to inaudibly quiet voices speaking in native languages of our most private personhood, we somehow conceive a way to think the inconceivable, and a concept is born. The concept then comprehends the situation and generates an idea. But our coarse, public words leap to “I had an idea.”

Concepts are conceived, not comprehended. But often when we acquire a concept we re-conceive it and become able to comprehend that by which the concept was demonstrated, we bolt right on past the demonstration and enjoy having an effusion of ideas of our own, that, suddenly, miraculously, erupt — having been made possible through this new concept.

When we are taught a concept, often we only credit the teacher teaching us the content of the demonstration. We credit ourselves for the outpouring of new ideas, inspired by this little nugget of truth. We are inspired, become creative, and revel in our new powers of insights and invention.

The modest nugget of truth that conveys a concept through demonstration, initiates a learner into new possibilities of thought inconceivable prior to the insight, and inspires myriad acts of creativity — could this be the philosopher’s stone?

Until we acquire a concept, all ideas comprehended by the concept are incomprehensible, or even more often they are misunderstood — that is, they are grasped using concepts that comprehend its content in a different and conflicting way. Even meaningful artifacts, whose meaning is known, felt or otherwise accessed by way of an alien concept, are opaque until the concept is acquired.

Well-conceived concepts form systems of cooperating concepts. They function together, harmonize together, corroborate and reinforce one another, combine to make coherent sense of things. Such concept systems make “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Concept systems, which use concepts to select and connect other concepts, are philosophies.

As with simpler concepts, philosophies cannot be given directly. They are always demonstrated. When a philosophy is demonstrated, it is necessarily demonstrated using content, but what animates the demonstration — the movements of concept — is the real substance of the philosophy. When the concepts are received the content of the philosophy is comprehended, and, more often than not, confused for the philosophy.

I learned to conceive concepts this way from Nietzsche. I would read his arguments and aphorisms, puzzle over them, turn them this way and that, entertain them, fight them, connect them in various ways, and generally struggle to make coherent sense of what he was saying. He would reduce me to despair, which would cling to my entire lived experience for days and weeks. The unresolved perplexities would pile up and intensify. Then he would resolve one of the perplexities with a tiny crystalline insight. This little seed of a clue would instantly resolve the problem perfectly, then explode beyond the problem, resolving myriad known and unknown perplexities, so rapidly and comprehensively it was nearly impossible to keep track of the knowledge that suddenly was just existent, appearing ex nihilo. Even well-understood knowledge would be blasted apart, evaporated and reconstituted in new significance. And the change went beyond knowledge, too, into capacities for understanding. Truths that had been incomprehensible just seconds before were now perfectly obvious.. I found myself inventing completely new ideas, brilliant ideas, inspired by earlier aphorisms or images. …But then I would read on, and there it would be, typed out, verbatim: one of my original thoughts. Nietzsche was somehow inducing these original thoughts, then proving that it was intentional, in some inconceivable way.

Two problems arose from this experience. The first was the hardest. I found my reconstituted philosophy disturbingly resistant to language. I was unable to convey what I knew, and even the things I knew in this new way were misunderstood entirely by the people around me. And worse, when I would try to convey what I understood, it inflicted terrible anxiety,. People wanted to not know what I so badly needed to say, and it was excruciating. I was intellectually imprisoned. I called it “solitary confinement in plain sight” The loneliness was crushing. But the second problem became the kernel of a more mature philosophy that wanted to understand and articulate how Nietzsche was able to write this way, and what it meant about the human condition and reality itself.

Eventually, after many reconceptions, a few very deep transformative ones, and many smaller localized ones, I began to think of concepts and philosophies as inexhaustible levers for changing our fundamental experience of life, and for opening new possibilities for materially changing the world in ways that might be wiser than if we immediately leap to fixing what seems obviously broken in obvious ways. And then I realized: this is what we always do when we design.

There is a crucially important step that occurs in human centered design after user research and before detailed design where we attempt to make sense of what we learn and put it into a form conducive to shaping and motivating design work. Traditionally, it has been called concept, but the word “concept” normally denotes an artifact, an object, a prototype, a model. The process of getting to that concept is often hellish, and often in proportion to the depth of the research. Teams are gripped in anxiety. I realized design concepts have exactly the characteristics I listed above. The “concept” demonstrates a concept so team members can pick it up and use it to guide their design work.

To be continued…

One thought on “Reconceiving concept

  1. ‘Such concept systems make “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”’

    I see what you did there. :)

    I 100% agree that the outcome of philosophizing is a concept system that make things hang together. But I expect that you agree that the process of philosophizing, ie conceiving such an outcome, is not simply a process of rearranging fully formed concepts until they fit together better/well”.

    My expectation is based on your inspiring description of the process of philosophical conceiving: “Even well-understood knowledge would be blasted apart, evaporated and reconstituted in new significance”.

    It’s this process of blasting apart and then restructuring of prior concepts that is missing from Sellars’ definition of the “aim of philosophy”. One might argue that by using the term “aim of philosophy”, Sellars was talking only about the outcome, so the “hang together” aspect is all that is relevant.

    I would argue that the aim of philosophy is not just to hang together things for its own sake, the aim of philosophy is to take apart old concepts in order to create new concepts that themselves can be hung together in new ways. So a description of the aim of philosophy should include that aspect.

    Your posts and discussions regarding precision inspiration have helped me see this so much more clearly–by provoking me to break apart and reconstitute some of my key concepts. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

Leave a Reply