Dialog:Concepts

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Concepts

V 1 — Hey, isn't there a difference between a concept and a keyword? Why jam them together? You usually don't seem indecisive.

R 2 — Uncertainty doesn't always signify indecision. Keywords help us classify forms of experience; concepts enter more generatively into how we construct the various forms of experience. They have to do with making experience possible.

V 3 — If keywords classify the forms of experience, why not just go with them? It would lead to a full picture of cultural experience.

R 4 — Ah! But does that help us fully experience our cultural possibilities? Keywords label how people have thought, felt, judged, and acted. Concepts seem to enter into our bringing all that to pass. Diverse intellectual and emotional experiences seem to come about closely linked with various concepts, but we don't understand much at all about how.

V 5 — Hmm. It may be hard to grasp how any particular concept relates to a relevant experience, but I have the feeling you are making a more sweeping statement to the effect that we don't understand much about how concepts in general interact with experience.

R 6 — That's correct, and we won't settle it here and now. For centuries, philosophers have argued whether the reciprocal development of concepts and experience originates with the world of experience or the character of reason. Questions of origination suck us into an infinite regress. With self-formation and liberal learning, we can't address the key problems simply by finding the beginning or by adding more and more to what we know about the outcomes. We need to study the reciprocal interaction between the forming of concepts and the informing of how we think, feel, judge, and act?

V 7 — Isn't that pretty well understood? A little over a century ago, John Dewey became famous with a little book called How We Think.

R 8 — It was OK, especially for thinking as problem solving, but like most everyone else, Dewey really wrote about "how he thought" as it appeared retrospectively, recalling how he and others had solved problems. Cognitive scientists are getting closer to the actual dynamics of thinking, but even their data depends on external correlates of what has actually taken place. We cannot see, touch, feel what is happening as it is happening through molecular transactions deep within a complex neural network.

V 9 — Isn't that what they call the "hard problem of consciousness"? Do you think anyone will ever figure it out?

R 10 — Perhaps computer scientists will assemble simulacra of it, but I suspect even in those the problem of grasping the experience of what is taking place will remain. Personally, I would guess that it is a variant of the Uncertainty Principle—you can only observe the phenomenon by stopping or deflecting it.

V 11 — Well, let's assume your guess is correct and we will never know what's taking place with concepts in the experience of thinking, feeling, judging. That leaves us with the question of how concepts actually inform our thinking, feeling, judging, and acting.

R 12 — Although we don't know how these processes take place, we can observe reciprocal interactions between our experiencing ourselves and our world and our ongoing construction of an ideal conceptual repertoire. Over time we would need to explore, test, and develop the proposition, but I think a good deal of what we mean by self-formation has to do with the inward experience of concept formation, the lived experience of grasping and forming various concepts. And I think further that what we mean by liberal learning involves our becoming able as the autonomous, self-directed agents of our own activities, to turn the various concepts we grasp and form outward by using them to control what we do in and through our activities. And those activities always turn up unexpected results, which stand as the measure of our continued ignorance.

V 13 — Hey! Don't stop there. You know I'm going to ask for an example. Let's start with a very basic one—space or time, for instance. How do concepts like them pertain to our experiencing the world?

R 14 — Sorry. Bracket what I just said—I get carried away at times. Let's think about space as a concept that enters into our construction of experience. Most of us would have difficulty in giving a clear statement of our concept of space and many might even deny that they have such a concept. But I think it is fair to infer that everyone—even the great majority of animals—seem to develop and apply a concept of space defined by three axes that intersect at right angles to each other with impressive precision, speed, and flexibility.

V 15 — Help me grasp this thought.

R 16 — If things were just anywhere, just where it was relative to us at the instant of perception, we would have serious difficulty doing anything in the world. A concept of space allows us to orient things to ourselves and to perceive and act relative to them.

V 17 — Isn't that a simple matter, built into perception? Why do I need a concept of space?

R 18 — A simple matter! What do you mean by "built into?" That's the concept. The newborn infant lacks developed spatial perception.

V 19 — Oh. Yeah. It takes some months before they can locate things in space well relative to themselves. So what is the concept they develop?

R 20 — Stand up straight, look forward, and raise your arms with the index fingers pointing left and right, level with your line of sight. Imagine yourself to be three lines intersecting behind your eyes, extending straight, the vertical up and down, the line of sight forward and back, and the left-right line outward from your fingers. Those axes define the conceptual space of your lived experience. As you move—bob and weave, lie down and jump up, twirl, dance, and somersault—these axes tilt and turn with our movements. A fairly simple recalibration of coordinates allow us to track the relation of objects around us in our efforts to act intentionally on or with them. That is the conceptual space of lived experience. Don't try driving without it.

V 21 — OK. I guess when I feel dizzy with all that twirling and somersaulting, it indicates that I haven't been able to keep up with the recalibration. But you've really only described a kind of as if concept. Should we perhaps call it a capacity, as distinct from a concept? I see how I might start thinking about a rudimentary working capacity and develop a concept that describes what I can do through the capacity, and then I might revise the concept and experiment with the capacity and set up a kind of back and forth between the two, improving each in its own way.

R 22 — Excellent. The concept serves as our intellectual construct to describe, interpret, and explain the existential working of the capacity. With the concept of space, we just considered the concept visually, but the spacial axes work with sound, but somewhat differently, communicating presence more than relative location. To touch they may communicate something about location and to substance as well, to smell something about their condition, and to taste about their composition. And as experience changes, develops, we adjust the concept as well.

V 23 — Yeah. I think my spacial capacity includes a mapping of my body around the intersection of the axes as flexible boundaries allowing me to prevent collisions with stuff around me. When I learned to drive, I remember after a little experience developing a sense of the car's dimensions as an extension of my own boundaries, enabling me to drive close by or under things, relatively confident the car wouldn't hit them.

R 24 — Right. The concept facilitates forms of experience and novel experience elicits changes in our concepts.

V 25 — I'm catching on. Let's talk quickly about time. Is it more or less like space?

R 26 — More or less, I think. We might think of it as another line intersect with the spatial axes, here and now, projecting forward towards the future and backwards from the past, but it is hard to visualize because our vision takes place with our three dimensional spatial construction. I think as a concept, time enables us to consider experience of possibility, actuality, and stability—things that might take place, things that are happening, and things that continue or endure with greater or less degree of permanence.

V 27 — Interesting. Are there other really basic concepts that we use in constructing other forms of experience?

R 28 — Probably, but the responses are a little more controversial among those who have thought seriously about things like ethical and aesthetic experience—assertions of obligation and judgments of beauty and taste, for instance. Many suggest that in thinking about ourselves and our circumstances in our lifeworld, we work with a fairly limited set of operational concepts for making judgments about quantities, qualities, relations, and modalities.

V 29 — I might ask you to explain "modalities," but let's move on. This is quickly getting complicated and I can see that for various types of experience—historical, political, economic, religious, social, and so on—we will find complicated generative concepts. For each, I'm sure people have found ample opportunity for disagreement and confusion.

R 30 — Too true. And let's not get hung up on all that. For our purposes, whether we describe or state various concepts "correctly," for instance as I may or may not have done with space, is not so important, for the verbal statement of the concept will radically differ from the concept as it works in the lived experience of a person—people can talk a good game about "justice" while acting a bit otherwise.

V 31 — Are you suggesting a radical disjunction between life experience and language?

R 32 — Not a complete separation, but connection quite short of a direct linkage, one "through a glass darkly," as the Bible put it.

V 33 — Hey! You're not stopping there, are you?

R 34 — Sorry, but I think I have to. Remember what we said about people find nearly impossible to comprehend the linkage between existential capacity and rational concepts. Well, here's a task for you!