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Thinking With Concepts

Taking Our Students on a Journey to Personal Freedom

Concepts are to us like the air we breathe. They are everywhere. They are essential to our lives. But we rarely notice them. Yet only when we have conceptualized a thing in some way, only then, can we think about it. Nature does not give us, or anyone else, instructions in how things are to be conceptualized. We must create that conceptualization, alone or with others. Once conceptualized, a thing is integrated by us, into a network of ideas (since no concept or idea ever stands alone). We conceptualize things personally by means of our own ideas. We conceptualize things socially by means of the ideas of others (social groups). We explain one idea by means of other ideas. So if someone asked us to say what a “friend” is, we might say, as the Webster’s New World does, “a person whom one knows well and is fond of.” If that same person asked us to say what it means to “know someone well,” we would respond by introducing yet further ideas or concepts.

Humans approach virtually everything in experience as something that can be “given meaning” by the power of our minds to create a conceptualization and to make inferences on the basis of it (hence to 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 in order to make sense of things. Every act in which we engage is automatically given a social meaning by those around us.

To the uncritical mind, it is as if things are given to us with their “name” inherent in them. All of us fall victim to this illusion to some degree. Thus we see, not shapes and colors, but “trees,” “clouds,” “grass,” “roads,” “people,” “children,” “sunsets,” and so on and on. Some of these concepts we obtain from our native language. Some are the result of...

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