Conceptions and concepts

I’m noticing that I am using the terms “concept” and “conception’ very differently from how Langer uses them.

In my way of thinking and talking about them, conception is a conceiving move — and what is conceived through the conception is a concept. When a student is presented with a new kind of math problem and does not “get it”, in my terminology what the child lacks is a particular conception that makes it possible to get the concept.

From my perspective, Langer looks at it inside-out. For her concepts are the essential structure of meaning (which I agree with), but then makes conceptions the messier particulars that form around the structure and flesh it out as a particular object. She first makes the distinction in a footnote: “I have called the terms of our thinking conceptions, not concepts. Concepts are abstract forms embodied in conceptions; their bare presentation may be approximated by so-called ‘abstract thought,’ but in ordinary mental life they no more figure as naked factors than skeletons are seen walking the street. Concepts, like decent living skeletons, are always embodied — sometimes rather too much.”

A few pages later, while discussing how abstracted or stylized images can be recognized as representing a real object, she elaborates.

That which all adequate conceptions of an object must have in common, is the concept of the object. The same concept is embodied in a multitude of conceptions. It is a form that appears in all versions of thought or imagery that can connote the object in question, a form clothed in different integuments of sensation for every different mind. Probably no two people see anything just alike. Their sense organs differ, their attention and imagery and feelings differ so that they cannot be supposed to have identical impressions. But if their respective conceptions of a thing (or event, or person, etc.) embody the same concept, they will understand each other.

A concept is all that a symbol really conveys. But just as quickly as the concept is symbolized to us, our own imagination dresses it up in a private, personal conception, which we can distinguish from the communicable public concept only by a process of abstraction.

I’m still pretty early in the book, and I havent read it in 10 years, and last time I read it I was less sensitized to this distinction, so I am not sure whether I will adopt her terms or stick to mine. But I do have two questions forming in my mind:

  1. Will she discuss acquisition of capacities for using new concepts and the experiences we have struggling to understand concepts we are not yet equipped to conceive? Or, failing to recognize the failure and simply misunderstanding? Or the experience of suddenly acquiring a new concept and having the uncanny experience of instantaneously re-understanding the world as a whole (which I connect with conversion and transfiguration)? These are crucial questions for me, and the word “conception” does a lot of work in my way of accounting for these experiences.

  2. Is the formal concept hidden within the messy flesh of objects a vestige of Platonic form? It seems that making concepts the outcome of a conceiving operation rather than a recognition of pre-existent underlying structure might be a cleaner break with Platonism (as well as correlationism), and make Langer’s thinking play nicer with Pragmatism.

Leave a Reply