Thinking with concepts

Thinking with concepts

In our everyday lives, it seems natural for us to talk about the things that are processed by the company that we work for. We go to work and we talk about insurance policies, home-loans, phone-plans, children’s board games, magazines, fast-food meals and stocks and shares.

When we have these conversations, we take it for granted that we are talking about real and factual things. We do not see that there is any difference between talking about a loaf of bread and talking about the financial position of a public limited company.

The reality however is, that when we talk about anything that is meaningful to us, we have already formed a concept in our minds about the nature of the thing under discussion. That means, we have translated the actual item into an abstract concept that represents to us the inherent nature of the item.

Without this ability to create abstract concepts in our minds, we would be unable to make value judgments or think about how different things fit together.

Concepts are like the air we breathe. They are everywhere. They are essential to our life, but we rarely notice them. Yet only when we have conceptualized a thing in some way can we think about it. Nature does not give us instruction in how things are to be conceptualized. We must create that conceptualization, alone or with others. Once it is conceptualized, we integrate a thing into a network of ideas (as no concept stands alone).

We humans approach virtually everything in our experience as something that can be “decoded.” Things are given meaning by the power of our mind to create a conceptualization and to make inferences on the basis of it – hence, we create further conceptualizations. We do this so routinely and automatically that we don’t typically recognize ourselves as engaged in these processes….

…it is precisely this capacity [to create concepts through which we see and experience the world] of which you must take charge in taking command of your thinking. You must become the master of your own conceptualizations…

Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life, Richard Paul, Linda Elder
FT Press, 24 Aug. 2013, page 99

Our ability to create concepts within our minds is the bedrock on which our reasoning rests. The concepts that we form in our minds determine the value judgments and logical associations that we can subsequently make.

In reality, therefore, before we even begin to think about a problem we have already determined the way that our thoughts will proceed and the possibilities that we will be able to identify, by choosing to conceptualise the items at hand in a particular way.


Accurate concepts

When we transform the things in the world around us into abstract concepts, we make qualitative decisions about how we will view these things from now on. The subtlety of these decisions is as nuanced as life itself, however it is possible to identify some basic choices we make when deciding how to decipher reality.

Personal or impersonal: Some ideas are close to our feelings, other ideas we hold at an arm’s length. We can choose to relate to something in a close and personal manner, or we can choose to view the same thing impartially and from a distance.

For instance, a worker in a factory may relate to their work with pride and satisfaction, but it is likely that an accountant in head-office will relate to the worker’s output from a purely financial perspective. The worker sees the inherent goodness in what they produce, the accountant perceives the commercial usefulness of the same thing. Both of these conceptualisations are valid; the worker has adopted a personal view and the accountant has adopted an impersonal view, of the same reality.

The accountant’s impersonal conceptualisation is fitting for their job, their impersonal approach enables them to determine the correct course of action needed for the financial wellbeing of the company. Were they to be passionate, they would be unable to make decisions that could involve cutting a particular product or service, for example.

However, the worker’s personal perspective is fitting for their job. Because of their personal involvement, they will apply the best of their skills and knowledge to ensure that they can take pride in the quality and robustness of their work.

Important or trivial: We can conceptualise something as having minute relevance to ourselves, or as being overwhelmingly important.

For example, some people may ignore a minor skin blemish, but other people may pay thousands of dollars to have it invisibly removed. Alternatively, some people may feel it is important to prevent the destruction of natural habitats, but other people may feel this is a minor detail in improving farm productivity.

Our decision to spend time and energy on something, often depends on how significant we think the thing is. Subsequently, it is important to realise how our initial perceptions influence our subsequent course of action. Otherwise, we may pay too much attention to something insignificant, or too little attention to something that could have great potential.

Controllable or uncontrollable: Sometimes we perceive that we have influence over something, at other times we live with an attitude of “that is just the way things are”. That means, we may choose to view something as being under our influence, or we may prefer to feel that it is unalterable and that nothing we could possibly do would have any bearing on the outcome.

For example, we can view the variable quality of manufactured goods as something that is due to natural circumstance and that is beyond our control. Or we can view the variable quality of manufactured goods as something which we can improve on using precision technology and equipment.

Alternatively, we may see the pollution in the city that we live in as something which is an inevitable part of living an urban environment, or we may see pollution as something that we can eliminate through petitioning to change local traffic regulations.

If you perceive that you have influence over an outcome, but in reality you don’t, you may waste your efforts and achieve no results despite a lot of hard work. If you believe that you don’t have influence over an outcome, but in fact you do, you could miss out on an opportunity that was easily within your grasp.


Feeling your way

When we assess reality, we have to decide whether we are seeing something new, or if we are seeing something that we can categorise according to prior experience and knowledge. There may be some aspects of an experience that we can categorise in accordance with our previous knowledge, and other aspects of the experience that we discern as new and original.

Sometimes the best way to perceive what is genuinely new and fresh in what we are seeing, is to connect to the experience and let it wash over us. We can then retroactively think about the way the experience made us feel, and see if we tasted something new.

We set every new fact or impression in the framework and light of our existing knowledge, and this “apperception,” as it is called, is a large and vital factor in all our knowledge.

We thus see things, not only as they are, but also as we are. The mind itself is an active and determining agent in forming our knowledge. Every one thus sees his own objects and creates his own world. It is these differences in minds that make the immense differences in the things men see. When Turner showed one of his sunsets to a friend and the friend remarked that he had never seen such a sunset, Turner replied, “Don’t you wish you could?”…

These… constructs are the representatives in our minds of the realities of the objective world, and therefore it is of the first importance that they represent them accurately… Any inaccuracy or error in them… may undermine and ruin our whole structure of thought and life.

The Psychology of Religion, James H. Snowden, page 29

The best way to understand the nature of new things that we see and experience is to let them talk for themselves. If we approach new experiences with an open mind, we are likely to be able to discern the true essence of what we are looking at. However, if we approach new situations with preconceived ideas, we are likely to see what we expect to see, and miss new insights that we could have gained.


Take away

It can be a struggle for us not to project what we expect to see, onto what we are actually seeing. By keeping an open mind, we can discern the subtle innuendoes that hint at the true essence of what we encounter. However if we retrofit new experiences into what we are expecting, we may miss new vistas of growth and opportunity.

One day, I received a cutting from a Chinese business magazine. It had interviewed a famous visitor from the West, one of those rare people who has influenced almost everyone’s life all over the globe. He had been my student some thirty years earlier; he became the venture capitalist who was the first to invest in Google, Yahoo, eBay, humble start-ups that eventually changed the world.

He was asked who had been the greatest influence on his career. He named me, and gave this reason: I had taught him that things are not what they appear to be.

It is unusual for a teacher to be understood by a pupil. But he saw precisely the true measure of my ignorance. Every time I encounter an object, a person or an experience, I do not see only it, but also how else it could be. I am always asking myself: How could it be otherwise?…

The process of creating something useful and beautiful out of what I learn does not resemble building a house out of bricks that have been ordered in advance. It is more like painting a picture which gradually takes shape. As I add and subtract colours and contours, each opens up possibilities that I did not imagine beforehand, and I rush off to deepen my understanding of them, and research new territories, which in turn open up new vistas and new meanings for the too naive or simple thoughts I began with.

The Hidden Pleasures of Life: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future
Theodore Zeldin, MacLehose Press, 2015

Life is full of opportunity, but in order to be able to connect to this flow of energy, we may have to draw back the curtain of assumptions that we live safely behind.