Quoted in Gabriele Tarde’s Laws of Repetition: “Scientific knowledge need not necessarily take its starting-point from the most minute hypothetical and unknown things. It begins wherever matter forms units of a like order which can be compared with and measured by one another, and wherever such units combine as units of a higher order and thus serve in themselves as a standard of comparison for the latter” (Von Naegeli. Address at the congress of German naturalists in 1877).
This is incredibly helpful for my own thinking. When we take some understanding that helped us make sense of X, and use it to make sense of Y, what exactly is repeated that makes it the same understanding or idea or conception?
To get very specific and concrete, when I first began to understand Nietzsche the conceptions I learned, which I found nearly impossible to articulate explicitly, helped me re-understand a great number of previously unrelated questions, confusions and mysteries that (at least prior to the understanding) seemed unrelated to the material Nietzsche was presenting. Reconceptions burst forth from nowhere and rippled through my memories, changing them. I knew it even prior to recollection. I could feel the change in my soul with an intuitive immediacy that defied language, but which could be used almost effortlessly. The changes even altered my perceptions of music, poetry and the world.
To me, it seemed like I’d just read something exciting that inspired new ideas. I would be forced to put the book down and think, talk or write. But sometimes these inspirations were related to problems Nietzsche had sketched out earlier in the book but left suspended, painfully unresolved. Often, the next day, when my inspiration subsided enough to permit further reading, I would read one of my own thoughts, printed out on the page. Nietzsche had implanted a thought in my head.
One other peculiar effect of these reconceptions was learning how many of my explosive new thoughts were rediscoveries of commonplace insights that I thought I understood well enough, but rejected as truisms, cliches or platitudes or nonsense. Think again. Things I’d heard recited myriad times suddenly had intense meaning, and I was the first to discover what was hidden in plain sight. It took dozens of humiliations to realize I was not the first to unlock the deeper significance of these words. In fact, I was the last. This insight was new only to me. But they could be known only through this strange kind of explosive, renewing reconception.
So, again: What was conveyed in this learning that resulted in new understanding? What was rippling through my psyche? What was I using to make new sense of memories and new experiences?
For now, let’s call these mysterious, indirectly known entities conceptions.
Why were these conceptions so easy to use, but so hard to talk about, much less encapsulate with explicit language?
How do we discover or invent — or instaurate — new conceptions? (Or, more often, rediscover, reinvent, reinstaurate conceptions that are new to us?)
What if all our understandings are just the workings of conceptions? And what if our overall understanding of everything in total is just interrelated conceptions working in concert, perhaps related and coordinated by yet other conceptions?
If we change our conceptions, what impact can this have on our most basic understandings of personhood and of the very nature of truth and reality?
When can we change our conceptions? When should we change them? When should we preserve or protect them?
And, finally, how do we decide together as a society which conceptions we ought to adopt and use in our lives together? Consider the complicating factor that it is up to our existing conceptions to make decisions about what conceptions should be changed to preserved…