Conceptive understanding is a matter of presequence: given some particular fact, to what questions can it be understood to be an answer? This is hermeneutic meaning.

Synthetic understanding is a matter of consequence: given some particular fact, what facts follow, logically and or causally? This is pragmatic meaning.

But “what follows” is determined by (enabled and limited by) what questions we can meaningfully ask. Conceptive understanding is what makes live questions live, what animates our asking, what invests a search with urgency.

The primary and universal givens and questions of mundane human life — practical questions concerning other people, faces, animals, natural and artificial objects, dwellings, terrains, emotions, dispositions, intentions, and so on — are universal because all people are concerned with them. Upon these, questions of biological functioning hang. “What is this?” “What can I do with it?” “Is it dangerous?” “Can I use it?” “Can I eat it?” “Should I get away from it?” “Should I approach it?” “Can I break it into pieces?” “Can I make something out of it?”

From these primary givens all manner of complex synthetic understandings can be built up. These ramifying, interconnected syntheses form systems.

Sometimes synthetic systems will “click” and a gestalt will emerge from a system. One suddenly intuits the system as a whole. Or, better, one intuits a whole together with its parts, as an articulated whole. In such cases we develop a complementary mutually-reinforcing conceptive-synthetic understanding.

(Philosophers, especially, love conceptive-synthetic understandings, though they rarely foreground this taste and instead simply look through it at their various objects of thought. But this is how conceptive understandings essentially are: they are not themselves objects of thought, but instead mediate our thinking and produce some sense of objectivity. This makes them impossible to think about if we expect all thinkable entities to be mental objects. Synthetic understanding, failing to find graspable elements to connect, makes an objection: “This does not compute.”)

Conceptive understandings are not necessarily limited to synthesized gestalts — or at least, they don’t have to be, unless we intentionally limit them. To liberate themselves from irrational notions, many rationalists discipline their thinking to fully accept as true only synthesis-vetted conceptions, and to tune out or psychologically compartmentalize the many other conceptions — such as mental, emotional, verbal and imaginative associations, aesthetic perceptions, superstitions, fantasies, etc. — that happen constantly during any ordinary day. We select some conceptions to take seriously and integrate into our sense of truth, and bracket innumerable others that interfere with our systematic understanding of truth built up from primary givens.

My belief is that there is another unacknowledged ground of truth that complements primary givens, with a conceptive understanding of the ultimate whole. But, being conceptive, it shares that unnerving refusal to be an object of thought, and instead mediates our sense of “everything”. I have called this “enception” — that whole from which all conceptive understandings are articulations. I believe it is precisely from our enception that all conceptive understandings derive their meaning, their life, their urgency, their animation. And so, if we only permit truth in the form of synthesis of primary conceptions, our overall sense of meaning in life can become attenuated or even cut off and starved.

I believe all healthy religious life attempts to discipline thought and action to articulate one’s enception in such a way that one’s sense of truth is animated by it. Ideally, because I am both philosophically religious and religiously philosophical, I want the synthetic truths I build up from primary givens to mirror, as exactly as possible, the gestalt givens that I spontaneously recognize in the world around me.

Or to say it better; I want my angels to ascend all the way from Earth and to descend all the way from Heaven on the same ladder.


Let’s call the state of full enceptive-synthetic correspondence synesis.

I learned this word from Richard J. Bernstein who died on July 4th this year. May his memory be an ever-expanding, ever-deepening, ever-intensifying blessing.

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