Conceptive vocabulary

I am designing a vocabulary for discussing how understanding works, with special emphasis on the relationship between existing understandings, failures of understanding, (also known as perplexities), and extremely novel understandings (also known as epiphanies).

All my subjects of interest — design, philosophy and religion — are urgently concerned with epiphanies. But each is concerned with epiphanies for different reasons, pays attention to different aspects of epiphanies and consequently uses different language to talk about epiphanies.

Of course these are three vast subjects each filled with diverse and conflicting views and goals, but they do have common family resemblances, and I will venture to make some generalizations about the role epiphanies play in each, to show what I, personally, have taken from my encounters.

In design, there are two places where epiphanies occur, first, in the effort to understand the people for whom we design and how this helps us conceive our design problem, and, second, in determining a solution to the design problem. Often the social nature of design is both the source of trouble, but also the impetus required to reach novel ways of seeing. A concept capable of synthesizing complicated, heterogeneous data and considerations into a single elegant unity capable of being understandable, inspiring and useful to a large number of collaborators — while still doing full justice to the reality being conceptualized — is beyond the capacity of any one mind, who will almost always trade off certain important consideration in the effort to resolve the problem. But all minds looking in their own partial and particular way will check the hasty trade-offs of individuals and force effort along channels nobody would ever go if working alone – to the dismay of all involved, but to the benefit of the solution that is eventually conceived. Epiphanies in design research are usually called insights and epiphanies in solution development are called innovations. And for designers, the emphasis is usually on what techniques can be used to get the deepest insights to produce the most “impactful” and differentiating innovations, less on the particular solution (which is more a proof-point of the method’s and/or practitioner’s  effectiveness) or on the theory of what an epiphany is, or how it happens or what it is like to make it happen). Intellectual designers are most often methods geeks.

In philosophy (or at least the variety I read which tends to sit in the region between existentialism and pragmatism) is absorbed in its thought content. It struggles with assertions, arguments, metaphors, definitions, logic and struggles to resolve whatever is bothering it. In this strenuous effort, philosophers occasionally have exciting breakthroughs that allow them to rethink these assertions, arguments, metaphors, definitions and logic — or to find new ways to defend their old ones against those seeking to rethink them. Usually, the emphasis leans strongly toward the objects of thought, not the subject having the thought, so most epiphanies are characterized as new concepts or fruitful new approaches to thinking about concepts. But unlike design, there is nearly no emphasis on methods. Philosophy specifically scents out places where effective methods either break down or have never existed. Wittgenstein said it best: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about'”, that is, in perplexities. Finding that way about – making a perplexity intelligible – often arrives in an epiphany. This is the part of philosophy so indispensable to understanding epiphanies: they are reliably found in the urgent struggle with perplexing content. But if a philosopher is transformed in the struggle with perplexity or in the epiphany that resolves it, this in normally excluded from the philosophy itself, unless the philosopher is some weirdo outlier like Nietzsche.

Finally, we have religion. I won’t even try to generalize about religion, because it is entirely about effecting personal transformations, using ideas and myriad other symbolic forms, that in turn effect transformations of how religion is conceived. But these transformations are brought about through epiphanies of varying depths. The deepest epiphanies are called various things in different traditions — metanoia, nibbana, enlightenment, satori, liberation, rebirth, etc. — and fundamentally change our relationship with the infinite ground of being in ways all agree are impossible to talk about in straightforward terms. So with religion, epiphanies make use of and produce ideas, and also use techniques that induce epiphanies, but the real purpose of it all is self-transformation.

All three of these epiphanic subjects bring something important to the understanding of the general phenomenon of epiphanies. Design brings an understanding of methods and conditions useful for generating epiphanies, and specifically ones that appeal to a range of people. It also, for those alert to it, provides first-hand experience with social situations where an epiphany is urgently needed but remains inconceivable until the moment it arrives. Philosophy shows how struggling with perplexing material is fertile ground for inducing epiphanies. Religion brings the subject of epiphany into the picture, showing how epiphanies and self-transformation go together and enable new and inconceivable kinds of understanding as well as new experiences of the world and new relationships with what transcends our understanding.

Once I put together these pieces and saw them all as facets of the same phenomenon, I began to notice their features in one another.

In design, those conditions that produce epiphanies are also the ones that induce perplexities. The perplexities are hidden or downplayed by people who want to market design as an inspiring creative activity, and sometimes it is even techniqued out of existence, using mechanical processes that yield very defensible but very uninspiring facts about users, or which use careful organization of features and content as compensation for a unifying concept. But the most inspired design is simple and radical, and this inevitably involves navigating perplexity with the antimethods of philosophy. And people are transformed by this process when it is done successfully, both individually and as groups.

With philosophy, design provides interesting insights into how philosophy pervades everyday life and might improve it at the level of how we think. Watching teams struggle to make sense of a practical perplexity until an epiphany delivers a way to think and “move around” in the problem, and watching how team members clash and “storm” until an epiphany allows them to “norm” around a common understanding of the problem, so they can then collaboratively “perform” raises the epic question of whether many other irresolvable problems aren’t really undiagnosed philosophical problems. Religion’s self-reflective focus contributes to philosophy by asking questions about how the condition of one’s subjectivity contributes to what material is unintelligible, and whether the epiphanies of philosophy don’t operate on the subject as well as on the understanding of the material. It certainly does seem to be the case, if one is open to it, that a philosophical epiphany does enable a subject to conceive and perceive new truths in reality.

Finally, with religion, both design and philosophy supply mundane examples of epiphany and conversion experiences that challenge some of the traditional imagery associated with religion that are off-putting to many secular modern people. We get a chance to see minor world transfiguration, death-and-rebirths, dark nights of the soul, we even get to hold hands and walk on top of chaos without sinking and drowning in it. These experiences provide new access to religious modes of understanding, without flattening, disenchanting or diminishing what makes religion so important to so many people by reducing it to merely sociological, psychological, aesthetic, ethical or political terms. Instead it expands the other fields and invests them with some of the sacred dignity of religion.


So, believe it or not, all that was background for what I really want to discuss, which, if you can remember back to the beginning, concerns the design of a vocabulary that can be used 1) to bring out these features of epiphany, perplexity and  everyday relatively untroubled understanding across all three domains equally well, 2) in a way that emphasizes their commonality over their differences and, hopefully, 3) enriches the sense of what’s going on with epiphany, perplexity and understanding in each of them. I can attest that it has for me, but this is my baby, and I’ve been told more than once that my baby looks far prettier to me than to others.

So the vocabulary is built around a simple subject, verb, object sentence: Conceptions conceive concepts.

Concept designates any particular way of taking-together of anything as a unity.

Conceiving designates an act of taking-together as a unity.

Conception designates a subjective capacity to take-together in some particular way.

It’s exactly the same relationship between any faculty, the use of the faculty and its object. Sight sees object. Without sight, there is no seeing visible objects even if they are there for others to see. Hearing hears sounds. Without a sense of hearing, no sound is heard even if a sound is there for others to hear. Without the appropriate conception, a concept is not conceived, even if it is there for others to conceive.

What makes conceptions fascinating is that they can be acquired, where sensory faculties cannot. Nobody has ever made a blind man see, but people have helped people without a particular key conception acquire it, enabling them to conceive what was inconceivable, which is experienced a lot like being blind but suddenly living in a world of sights. New conceptions make new realities appear from nothingness, ex nihilo.

All these words are based on the same root words. Con- together + -capere ‘take’. We could say a together-takability takes-together together-takings, but that would definitely earn me postmortem exile to whatever infernal ring of hell Heidegger is broiling in, and I’d hate to have to listen to that blowhard antisemite eternally trying, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, each time more opaquely than the last, to match the brilliance of Being and Time. “Conceptions conceive concepts” already has me on the watch list, and I’ll be lucky to clear purgatory within a billion years.

The big question is whether we need this word “conception”. What is it for? Why can’t we do without it. My short answer is that when we try to do without it, we end up using it anyway but in sneakier, less graceful forms.

Let’s run through how the language is used:

When we encounter something we do not understand, this is because we can’t conceptualize it. It is a jumble of elements without form. It is chaos. Usually, we just filter chaos out as noise, nonsense or something for someone else to deal with. We do this all the time, and we’re used to doing it. We don’t understand but it’s irrelevant.

Sometimes the right concept is just elusive, and if we give the matter a little thought we figure it out. We try understanding a few ways (that is we try some concepts that seem applicable) and then it comes to us what is going on. The concept was there in our heads and was lurking in the problem, we just didn’t match it up quickly. In some intuitive way we sensed we had what it took to make sense of it. Both the problem and the solution were conceivable. Other times the problem is just complex and requires coordinated use of concepts. We tinker, piece together the solution, then see a concept in the whole that unites the concepts into a clear, coherent system. We built up to the concept bit by bit, then recognize a concept in the form of the whole. Or sometimes someone explains the situation or makes an analogy that brings the right concept to mind and they show us the answer. None of these situations are ones where this vocabulary is terribly useful. These are conventional ah-ha moments.

But sometimes we are faced with something we don’t understand, and we cannot avoid trying to understand it. It might be something that’s gotten under our skin, and we don’t know what to do with it. Or external circumstances might force it upon us. We have to make sense of it, but there is no sense to make. We struggle and struggle, fruitlessly. We try out every angle we know, every problem-solving move in our repertoire, but nothing works. We still can’t even say what the problem is, much less make progress solving the unintelligible the mess we are facing. We’re banging our head against an unyielding wall. This is a perplexity. We get desperate, and experiment more and more wildly, grope in the dark, thrash about. We obsess, and turn the problematic aspects and salient features of the perplexity about in our heads and see if they form any kind of constellation.

What is going on here, in my parlance, is that we lack a conception that makes the problem conceivable and conducive to conceptualization (that is . Why don’t we just say we lack the concept needed to conceive the problem and solution? We could, but what if what is perplexing us is a concept? What if we are wrestling with a concept that someone we trust  told us makes perfect sense, but we’re at a total loss to understand it ourselves? We lack a concept to understand the concept?

Then you might ask whether we might use the word understanding, instead. We lack the understanding of the concept. But then, if we lack  understanding of a perplexity, doesn’t this mean we lack an understood concept to use to resolve the perplexity and render it intelligible?

My language works far better. A conception is what is lacking — a conceptive capacity to conceive — to abstract an intelligible concept from the chaotic content which permits that content to be comprehended conceptually.

And that same conception is at work when the epiphany regarding the perplexity also conceives the concept in many other places, sometimes in forms that are not immediately recognizably the same. The truths just appear from nowhere. If we do recognize the same concept at work we might show it by making an analogy. This analogy will make sense to anyone who has the conception, and will be perplexing to anyone who lacks it. They’ll literally have no conception, and it will be inconceivable how the two examples are analogous.

Again we can say someone who understands the concept, can “get” the analogy, but all you’re doing now is smuggling a more ungainly synonym for conception back into the formula. You haven’t gotten by with a different structure, you’ve just swapped words (and in my opinion, downgraded them) without gaining anything. “An analogy makes sense to anyone who understands the concept, but will perplex anyone who does not.” There is always a capacity to conceive, understand, whatever, and where the capacity is lacking, the conception or understanding fails to happen.

I’m also going to develop this notion of conception, conceiving and concepts into a redescription of subjectivity and objectivity.

I’m going to treat understanding a subject as developing a capacity to conceive objectivity in a particular way. And I’m going to point out that this is as true for a personal subject as an academic subject. If I understand my wife, Susan, that means that I can conceive the way she conceives and be able to construe the objective truth she will see in most situations. Likewise, if I understand calculus, I learn to conceive a domain of math problems and to understand  how it makes objective sense of the world in one particular way. In a situation calling for calculus, I’ll see the applications for using calculus concepts even before I’m consciously remembering formulas.

But all too often we confuse our own objective truths pertaining to Susan’s subjectivity, generating all kinds of metadata about what she does and says, or what her motivations might be, or monitoring her brain activity and claiming this is understanding her. This definitely produces some kinds of truth, but it is not understanding Susan.* We are trying to form concepts referring to Susan’s mind, when we need to be adopting conceptions with which we can conceive the conceptual world Susan inhabits, enabling us to redescribe things as she does, and to perform actions she will perceive as wonderful.

All this is what people very crudely indicate when they talk about empathy, but what they end up focusing on is trying to figure out what feelings the other person is probably having and then having their own feelings about those feelings, because feelings are subjective. It’s hopelessly misconceived, and I plan to set things right.

We’re always concept-mongering when we ought to be figuring out and adopting conceptions, and we rely too heavily on the conceptions we already have, even when there are clear signs they are inadequate.

Speaking of inadequate conceptions, I’m starting to crap out after almost 12 hours of writing, so I’ll stop now.


  • By the way, speaking of understandings about things, my knowledge of chaos theory is a great example of understanding things about a subject, without understanding the subject. Thanks to James Gleick, I know about the history of chaos theory and some of its heroes, and I have a smattering of knowledge from the field, but I am not even close to understanding chaos theory as a subject. I’d also argue most Nietzsche scholars only understand things about Nietzsche and things he wrote from the conceptions of other philosophies, but have not even once conceived and experienced the world from the conceptions of his philosophy.

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