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Thinking with Concepts

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).

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. In our everyday life, we don't first experience the world in "concept-less" form and then deliberately place what we experience into categories so as to make sense of things. Rather, it is as if things are given to us with their name inherent in them. So we see trees, clouds, grass, roads, people, children, sunsets, and so on. We apply these concepts intuitively, as if the names belong to the things by nature, as if we had not created these concepts in our own minds.

If you want to develop as a thinker, you must come to terms with this human power of mind—to create concepts through which we see and experience the world—for it is precisely this capacity of which you must take charge in taking command of your thinking. You must become the master of your own conceptualizations. You must develop the ability to mentally "remove" this or that concept from the things named by the concept, and try out alternative ideas. As general semanticists often say: "The word is not the thing! The word is not the thing!" If you are trapped in one set of concepts (ideas, words), you can think of things in only one way. Word and thing become one and the same in your mind.

To figure out the proper use of words, the proper way to conceptualize things, events, situations, emotions, abstract ideas, it is important to first achieve a true command of the uses of words. For example, if you are proficient in the use of the English language, you recognize a significant difference in the language between needing and wanting, between having judgment and being judgmental, between having information and gaining knowledge, between being humble and being servile, between stubbornness and having the courage of your convictions. Command of distinctions such as these, and many others, in the language has a significant influence upon the way you interpret your experience. People who do not have this command confuse these important discriminations and distort the important realities they help us distinguish.

Test the Idea
Testing Your Understanding of Basic Concepts

To the extent that you have a sound command of the English language, you should be able to state the essential differences between related but distinguishably different realities that are marked by words or expressions in our language. To the extent that you can, you are conceptualizing the ideas labeled with these words in keeping with educated use.

In this activity, you will test your ability to do this. What follows is a set of related words, each pair illustrating an important distinction marked by our language. For each set, write down your understanding of the essential difference between each word pair.

After you have done this for each set of words, look up the words in the dictionary, and see how close your ideas of the essential difference of the word pair were to the actual distinctions the dictionary entries state or imply. (We recommend the Webster's New World Dictionary.)

  1. clever/cunning

  2. selfish/self-motivated

  3. power/control

  4. friend/acquaintance

  5. love/romance

  6. anger/rage

  7. believe/know

  8. jealousy/envy

  9. socialize/educate

In learning to speak our native language, we learn thousands of concepts. When properly used, these concepts enable us to make legitimate inferences about the objects of our experience. Unfortunately, nothing in the way we ordinarily learn to speak a language forces us to use concepts carefully or prevents us from making unjustifiable inferences in using them.

Often we misuse or confuse ideas because of our indoctrination into a social system, resulting in a distortion of our experience. As developing thinkers, we must continually distinguish the concepts and ideas implicit in our social conditioning from the concepts and ideas implicit in the natural language we speak. For example, people from many different countries and cultures speak the same natural language. The peoples of Canada, Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, Canada, and the United States all speak English. By and large, they implicitly share (to the extent to which they are proficient in the language) the same set of concepts (codified in the 23 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary). Nevertheless, the people in these countries are not socially conditioned in the same way.

What is more, a person from China or Tibet could learn to speak the English language fluently without in any sense sharing in the same social conditioning. Because of this, natural languages (French, German, English, Swahili, or Hindi are examples) are repositories of concepts that, by and large, are not to be equated with the concepts implicit in the social indoctrination of any social or cultural group speaking the language. This is a difficult insight to gain, but it is a powerful and essential one.

In the United States, for example, most people are socially conditioned to believe that capitalism is superior to any other economic system (it is called "free enterprise"). Americans assume that no country can be truly democratic unless it has a capitalistic economic system. Furthermore, Americans assume that the major opposing systems, socialism or communism, are either wrong, enslaving, or evil (the "Evil Empire"). People in the U.S. are encouraged to think of the world in these ways by movies, the news, schooling, political speeches, and many other social rituals. Raised in the United States, Americans internalize different concepts, beliefs, and assumptions about themselves and the world than they would have had they grown up in China or Iran, for example.

Nevertheless, in a decent dictionary of the English language, lexicographers would not confuse these socially implied meanings and psychological associations with the foundational meanings of the words. The term communism would not be defined as "an economic system that enslaves the people." The word capitalism would not have the definition, "an economic system essential to a democratic society."

Nevertheless, because we are socialized to believe that we, as a people, are free, reasonable, just, and caring, we assume that our behavior matches what these words imply. Words often substitute, in human life, for the realities named by them. Fundamental contradictions or inconsistencies in our lives, then, go unquestioned. This is part of the self-deceptive tendencies to which the human mind is prone.

Critical thinkers learn how to strip off surface language and consider alternative ways to talk and think about things. For example, when thinking sociocentrically, we become trapped in the view of our peer group and society with little or no conscious awareness of what it would be to rationally decide upon alternative ways to conceptualize situations, persons, and events. Most people are awed by social ritual, in particular the trappings of social authority, status, and prestige. They live their life, as it were, in surface structures. Critical thinkers learn how to think sociologically. They therefore come to recognize when their ideas are controlled by social rituals, social expectations, and taboos.

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