Shaping concepts to clarify events and purposes
This essay is an attempt to describe the mental processes involved when one is working to clarify situations in the pursuit of one's purposes in life when one is living through complex, interrelated and dynamic situations. What I regularly do to make sure that I am on top of these situations is sit down and write something like this essay and write and re-write it over and over and over again. By doing this the issues gradually take shape in my mind and the situation becomes clearer. But what exactly am I doing when I do this? How and why do my perceptions become clearer? If we want to think more clearly we must think about thinking itself. To start off let us look at how we experience our thinking and what we think about.
How do we experience our thinking?
I am sitting in front of this wordprocessor thinking as I write. I am experiencing thinking as the construction of a stream of words. I experience it as if I was talking to other people, although, of course, there is no one else here as I write. I experience thinking very similar to the way I experience talking to people. It is like talking to people but there will be a delay before they (you) can receive my act of communication. (Not verbally but written down).It is also different in that unlike speaking I go over what I have written over and again before I release what I am communicating to other people. When I am thinking through writing I can go backwards and forwards through my text adjusting, changing, anticipating contrary opinions and answering them in advance, fashioning and shaping the text both from the point of view of its content and to make it more understandable to other people.
Now when I am talking to people directly I may indeed be doing what is called 'thinking aloud' where there is no gap between my thoughts and other people hearing them. I may also think private thoughts which I decide not to communicate. Nevertheless the experience of thinking is an experience of using the means of human communication - in this case words which are written down.
Of course not all thinking is done in words - ideas may be expressed in pictures, in graphs or mathematical equations. In each case though the act of thinking is experienced through shaping or constructing mediums of human communication(words, symbols etc.)
But what exactly does 'constructing' and 'shaping' mean here? Words and symbols are not the same as the things that they represent. The artist Magritte painted a picture of a pipe under which he wrote (in French) 'This is not a pipe'. What he meant was that it was not a pipe but a picture of a pipe. The letters p and i and p and e put together have a meaning for people but although you can see the word on a page, like the picture of the pipe the word is not a pipe either, you cannot smoke a word. We do not relate to, or use, words in the same way we use the things they represent. We use them in communication about those things and in our thinking.
If I was to tell you that I was given 'something' for Christmas I would have communicated less than if I told you that I was given a 'pipe'. In both cases I have only used one word but the word pipe has a richer information content than the word 'something'. If I was to tell you I had been given a Hookah I would have communicated even more (if you knew what the word meant - it is a pipe where the smoke is drawn through water to cool it before reaching the mouth that is often associated with smoking narcotics). Saying that I had been given a Hookah might have caused you to raise an eyebrow and start asking yourself questions - "Is this man an illegal drug user?" When we use words they convey meanings and they are more or less suggestive, they may convey connotations of something else. Poets use words in this way to convey not only a meaning but a feeling or a situation.
So we can use words with quite different levels and kinds of information contents. Of course we can also increase the information content not just by changing the word but by adding new words. I could have said that I was given 'something that you put in your mouth and smoke'. That would have been more specific but it would have still not clarified whether it was a pipe, a cheroot, a cigar or a cigarette etc.
It will be noticed in this respect that when we communicate, and it is the same as when we think, we are engaged in an active process of choosing words (or other means of communication) that meet the information requirements of the situation we are in. How successful we are in shaping our words to the situation depends very much on our purposes and what our situation is. Clarity is that state where our words (or other representations) have an information content that match our purposes. We usually use the word 'clarity' in contexts dealing with our experience of vision - where we can see detail in a sufficiently sharp focus instead of a it being merged together in a visual blur. In a blur the information content of a visual experience is lost - and may not be enough for our purposes (as when we are short sighted and cannot see bus numbers so do not know whether to request them to stop or not).
Abstract is the word we use to describe words of representations that convey a limited information content, concrete is the word we use to describe words or representations which have a higher information content. (Thus an abstract painting may represent the figures of human beings through painted shapes that leave out much detail - the picture will look at if it has been simplified into shapes like circles, spheres, triangles or oblongs.)
One question that seems to arise from this might be why do we communicate and think in abstract words and symbols at all - why not always use concrete, specific words when we think? The answer is that it is impossible to always be concrete and, in any case, it often serves our purposes to communicate and think in abstract ways.
It is impossible to always be concrete because even if we think of the word 'pipe' we have already seen that this more concrete word than the word 'something', is itself a word for a general category of objects of many different shapes and sizes, which may be made out of different materials, owned by different people, made by different manufacturers etc. It is a word used to describe a tube for passing water through as well. But we can live with and use this single word just fine when we hear or use it in contexts which tell us enough for our purposes. In lots of situations it is unnecessary and irrelevant to be too concrete. Indeed where we are too concrete we may mislead. Consider the following remarks :
"Did you know that Jane gave me something for Christmas?'
'Did you know that Jane gave me a pipe for Christmas?'
The first remark is more likely to convey the idea that being given something was itself noteworthy, an important event. The second remark conveys more a different idea that has probably some reference to smoking.
Talking and thinking in abstract ways serves useful purposes when we want to clarify the general nature of things. Often it is not the detail we want to focus on but "the bigger picture" and, to use the visual metaphor, we paint our concepts with a broader brush because too much fine detail would be distracting from what we are trying to express. It might draw our attention away into the details when we are trying to consider the whole. As explained earlier to represent things abstractly tends to be to simplify them. (As in an abstract painting). I want to go on now to discuss whether there are any general things we can say about what we think about that are useful. Can we make any useful abstractions about the world that clarify our thinking.
Abstractions about the universe that aid our thinking - general features of reality
So far we have talked about using words to describe 'things'. When one thinks of material things one tends to think of things that are relatively durable and unchanging like tables, chairs, buildings, pipes. Words and thoughts themselves can also be described as 'things' as they exist even if they do not have such a three tangible dimensional character in quite the same way as a pipe does. Is there anything at all we can say that it useful about things in general? I believe that there is and that is that every definite thing exists in a context - and that context is its relationship to everything else, a relationship that evolves over time.
Another way of understanding this is to lay aside our description of the world as if it was a collection of static things and to describe it instead as a flux, a flow of interrelated events. Our tendency is think about things and about events as different. But objects like buildings, mountains and pipes can also be thought of as interrelated event-flows. To be sure they are events that, to the everyday human perception, are evolving very slowly - but they are changing nonetheless. My argument may at first look like a quibble with words but what I mean may be expressed like this: If we were able to point a cine camera at a demolition site where building is intended and if we were to leave it running with one frame being taken every hour, then, eventually when we ran the film after the demolition and the subsequent structure was built, we would see an event-flow taking place in a very clear fashion. Moreover, were we to leave the camera running and take a frame every year for a hundred years thereafter, we would again see the building as an event (or series of events) when, eventually it decays, is renovated, rebuilt and finally comes down.
Our tendency is to regard objects not as events because, in our own time frame they change relatively slowly. For human purposes what matters, indeed, in the case of tables, chairs and pipes is their durable and unchanging character. They are made to be durable and thus usable. Free energy is taken from the environment to make them so in a form suitable for our purposes. The tendency of these objects to entropy, their tendency to rejoin the general flux in a way that no longer suits our purposes, is something we have to consciously work against. This is indeed why consciousness emerges in the universe in the first place - to find points of orientation for species that try to responsively maintain a living and reproduced "durability" against the entropy tendencies in the chaos of the universal flux. Too much hot, too much cold, too different an atmosphere, too much or too little water in the right form and right place, too little available energy in food form make us die quicker than we would - and however much we try to slow it down the body event-flow for each and every one of us buckles, become brittled and wrinkly and then dries up or rots. Thinking is merely a highly developed form of representing and patterning the flux so that our species can fashion the flux to manage more comfortably the repetitive process of rebirth and decay continuing our species through each generation as part of the broader living process with other species in the cosmic whole..
Let us remember again, however, that 'events', 'things', liquids', 'gases' 'buildings', pipes etc.. are word representations at a particular level of abstraction. To understand a building as an evolving physical event we need to study it in its internal interdependencies (the interrelationship of the roof, walls, foundations, guttering, windows, doors etc. made out of particular materials and in a particular configuration) and in its external interdependencies (the climate of wind, sun and rainfall, people use, pollution, leaves falling in the guttering etc.) The evolution of the building also arises out of the human interaction with it - for example the changing needs of building users leading to conversion.
The important point here is that when we think about the building (for example, for design purposes) what we are doing is creating in our minds the appropriate pattern of interrelationships with words and drawing at the right level of abstraction to suit our purposes. The thing about a pattern in this respect is that it shows the interconnection between elements.
The point then is this. If the world in general can be characterised as an interrelated flux of events then when we think we will think better if we seek words or other representations, at the right level of detail, that will show the interrelationships from the point of view of change (or from the point of view of preventing change) in the context of our purposes. Thinking is a creative act doing this. We shall now turn to some issues of doing this in more detail.
The relationship of thought to its purposes and its objectives
The positioning of the viewer in relation to that which is viewed is an important element in what can be seen. This is rather obvious in relation to our visual perception. As we look at the vase in front of us on the table we cannot see all the way round it without moving. Someone sitting at the other side of the table may view the same vase but will have an entirely different visual experience. We say that they have a different point of view. But the phrase point of view is not only used to describe our visual experiences it is also used to describe the way we think about the world. It is important because our point of view depends on our purposes and our experience. Neither our purposes nor our experience may be the same as those of other people (or other species). Yet it sets a framework for our thinking.
What this means more concretely is that what we notice is partly determined by what we are looking for. I once wrote an essay at university which discussed whether business accounts should be secret or not - I said that open accounts would help trade unions in their negotiations. The accountancy lecturer wrote on my essay "This is not likely to impress employers." He had never thought of open accounts to help trade unions as an idea - because it seemed self-evident to him that accounts were written for employers. He thought from an employer point of view. What we think is partly dependent on what we are thinking for and who we are thinking for. The bias in the vested interest point of view is usually in the choice of what to consider. Most economics is a system of ideas which is claimed to be unbiased. It is claimed that economists study the facts and do not engage in discussions about what ought to be. Actually, of course, the bias in economics lies in the choice of what will be thought about and from whose point of view.
Of course we have to recognise too that what we notice and think is partly dependent on what we have the time and resources to discover. Our thinking in pursuit of our purposes frequently occurs under time pressure and often we cannot get all the information we want before we must act. Even worse, if one is wise enough, one will realise that there are likely to be all sorts of hidden issues that one will only become aware of while living and working through a situations. The pursuit of our purposes takes us into the future and one cannot have all the information one wants to fully predict or determine the future. Our thinking may seem wonderfully clear, but be naive nevertheless, because we may lack the experience to be aware of all the aspects of a wider picture and therefore of other interpendencies and influences. Indeed we may be in situations which no one can accurately clarify in words because no one has been there before and only with hindsight will be be able to fashion concepts to clarify new influences and interdepencies that no one has been aware of before.
If we want to change things we are more likely to think in terms of the world as flux, as events, than we are if we want to keep things the same. And what we experience will also effect what we think - if our experience is limited, perhaps if it has been deliberately kept limited (as with official or commercial secrets) then what we think is effected by that too.....What we can think is therefore at least partly likely to be effected by our place in society and our power. Sometimes new insights arise because groups in society who have been unable to find a solution to their problems with the ideas of the elites are able to express more clearly how the world looks from their different experience and their different point of view, in order to create purposes that would suit them better and find a voice that is eventually heard.
This is important because if what we think seems to be in the forms of ideas that contradict established wisdoms this may be because established wisdoms may not be noticing relationships that are inconvenient and that would produce change.
November 1995 and April 2000
© BRIAN DAVEY