CONCEPTUALIZATION
THE ROUTE TO RELEVANCE AND DEPTH
This paper is offered to support and enhance the teaching of original thought as a tool for learning and clarity. It consists of a Definition of Conceptualization; a Distinction between Conceptualization and its opposite, Didactic Learning; and an Exercise in Conceptualization as a model for an approach to thinking based on an understanding of the inside-out nature of thought and the power of the thinker to see beyond the known.
By Judith A. Sedgeman, M.A.
Adjunct Assistant Professor
West Virginia University
Department of Community Medicine
 
 

DEFINITION

Conceptualization is erroneously believed to be a dry and difficult intellectual exercise that pulls people into protracted analytical thinking. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. The definition of Conceptualization is the use of particulars to illuminate (bring to light within the mind) a generalizable idea or construct. The act of conceptualization is the act of thinking through and seeing beyond existing ideas to discover higher order ideas from within one's own mind.

Conceptualization means deliberately looking beyond the known -- i.e., beyond beliefs, assumptions, commonplace interpretations, prevailing theories, habitual conclusions and so on -- to see what is not yet known, or to understand what is not yet clearly understood. It is a use of the mind that calls upon the intellect (the known) appropriately, but counts on a dynamic intelligence beyond the intellect to keep the process alive. It is the intention at the heart of evolutionary thinking and constructive change.
Ordinary ways to express this meaning of conceptualization might include:
  Thinking for oneself;
  Bringing new ideas to life;
  Engaging in creative thought;
  Initiating ideas;
  Seeing things fresh
  Working from insight.

Conceptualization is in the realm of original thought. It is the exhilaration of diving into the clear pool of the mind's undiscovered world and seeing, for the first time, what has not been seen before. It is the adventure in the life of the mind. It is the creative process awakened and enjoyed. It is the highest expression of the human birthright of freedom of thought because it imposes no limits on the thinker. In the act of conceptualization, the thinker moves freely and fearlessly between the known and the unknown. The known cannot trap a thinker whose intent is to see beyond it, nor can the unknown strand a thinker whose wisdom draws from knowledge and experience to create context.

DISTINCTION

One way to understand the true experience of conceptualization is to think of its opposite. The antithesis of conceptualization, of coming up with one's own new ideas, would be re-thinking known ideas or others' ideas. So one might draw the following distinction:

The "known idea revisited" method is what we call DIDACTIC LEARNING. One way to describe that would be memory talking to memory. The "fresh idea" method we are calling CONCEPTUALIZATION, on the other hand, could be described as realization calling to inspiration. Realization is bringing new ideas to life, realizing deeper, higher-order ideas from within one's own mind. Realization is the route to inspiration because the creative process is exhilarating and filled with the hope of unlimited possibilities. When someone has a "realized" idea, that idea comes with an "Aha!" or a surge of encouragement and reaffirmation that the creative process is accessible.

If one looks at the mechanisms behind Didactic Teaching/Learning as compared to those of  Conceptualization, it becomes clear that they are totally distinct.

Here are the primary mechanisms of Didactic Teaching/Learning:

Assume you or others already have all the necessary knowledge about the subject.
 For example, let's say a person undertook the Didactic method to understand the concept
 of innate health. The person would think to himself, "Innate Health -- let's see. I just read  a paper about that recently. I'm sure I can remember what was in there. Maybe I should
 read some of the work referenced in that paper as well, just to cover all the bases." The
 person is operating completely in the world of the already-known, but delving thoroughly
 into that world via research and rote learning.

Think about what you know.
 At this point, the person might try to recall everything he/she had heard, read or thought
 about innate health, and, perhaps, write it all down or make a topic list.

Gather others' information.
 The person would then do some research -- call people and ask for their input, listen
 to tapes, read materials, look things up, perform a web search and download data.

Check new information against your knowledge.
 At this point, the person would see whether there is anything in the gathered information
 that enhances or is different from what the person already knew when the process of
 learning was begun.

Analyze all the information.
 The person would now look at all the compiled data and compare and contrast it,
 evaluate it, and sift out the most useful items.

Organize the information.
 In this step, the person would decide what logical type was appropriate for the occasion
 and sort the information according to that logic. Perhaps the idea would be to move from
 the general to the specific. Perhaps the idea would be to use philosophical information but
 reject stories and examples. Perhaps the idea would be to set up definitions  alphabetically. There are infinite ways to organize data.

Present the information.
 Having reached this point, the person would write, prepare overheads, or organize his/her
 thoughts to present and disseminate the learned and organized information.
The process described above is a time-honored academic process, a respected learning process, an important means of conveying information. The purpose of this paper is not in any way to diminish the value or necessity of the didactic approach to information gathering and sharing. The point is to show that it is not the only means of using the gift of thought, and it is definitely not the creative process we are calling conceptualization. It is a form of organized memorization, like preparing for an exam. At its best, it is a form of recycling and recombining and reviewing good ideas. At worst, it is an attempt to resurrect a once vital set of ideas. Those who consider it the only effective means of thinking about things are likely to increase the breadth of their knowledge to a far greater degree than the depth of their understanding, and are likely to experience difficulty when confronted with the demand for change.

Contrast the familiar process described above with the primary mechanisms of conceptualization:
 

Assume you do not know anything -- start fresh with an open mind.
 The person wanting to conceptualize would formulate a question and look at the idea to
 be explored as if he/she had never seen it before, and wonder what it truly means. This  means having the stance of a students' mind -- setting "old" ideas aside temporarily.
 Let's say the idea under consideration is, again, innate health. If the recently read
 article and the person's previous thinking about innate health came to mind at first, the
 person would foster an intent to leave those things in the background and start fresh.
Look to continue not to know.
 The person would want to remain puzzled. For example, let's say a definition of innate
 health came to mind. The person would want to wonder what that definition did not  explain, what more was beneath the surface of it, rather than assuming that the definition
 resolved something and take it for granted that the full meaning of innate health could be
 gleaned immediately from it. The definition would become a starting place for the journey  into the unknown.
Ask the deepest questions possible.
 Rather than assembling statements of fact, the person would continue to ask questions to
 take his/her thinking deeper than known facts. On the subject of innate health, for  example, the person might have had the thought that innate suggests "natural" or "born
 into". The person might wonder, "Where does it come from, then, and where does it
 'reside'? Is it 'innate' like the circulatory system, or does it mean something different?"
 Perhaps reflection would generate the answer that health is an intangible quality, whereas
 the circulatory system is a physical property. Rather than stopping at that point, the
 person might wonder, "Are intangible qualities universal or individual?"
Follow what occurs to you to do.
 In the open-ended thought process that generates conceptualization, a person will
 observe a flow of ideas that seem obvious, efficient and sensible. Such ideas might
 include, "Look this up in the dictionary." "Re-read that article I saw last week." The
 difference between the kind of resource searching that arises in the conceptualization
 process and the kind of resource searching that is the entire methodology of the didactic
 process is important to experience and see. In the didactic process, thinking about
 existing knowledge is a technique; data gathering is done because it is necessary and
 because it is the only way to get information, and there are recognized methods of
 doing it. In the conceptualization process, data gathering occurs to the person as a
 good idea when and only when it actually is a good idea that will nurture further
 discovery. It feels like an obvious next step, not like a dutiful forced march. Gathering
 information is an integral part of conceptualization, but not the heart of it; data gathering
 is to conceptualization what grocery shopping is to cooking.

Continually reflect on new ideas and remain open to them.
 The point of conceptualization is to arrive at a clear, fresh and simple truth. The
 moment of "seeing" the concept arrives with the feeling of a breath of fresh air, of
 resolution, of clarity, of understanding. Until that moment, thinking deliberately about
 any thoughts that crop up along the way is like jamming a thimble into a running faucet.
 When that moment arrives, allowing the idea to develop engenders meaningfulness.

Reflect in depth on ideas that have "life".
 When an idea comes to life as an insight or a realization or a simplifying thought that is
 experienced as vibrant and fresh, the person conceptualizing that idea would pause, and
 allow the idea to take full form and come into sharp and meaningful focus.

Present what comes to mind and feels obvious.
 As such ideas take form, they are conceptualized, i.e., fully realized as a construct within  the mind of the thinker. Presenting such ideas, in the moment, is a means of sharing the
 life, the hope and the passion of discovery -- and that sharing stirs the minds of others,
 just as a wave rolls through still waters.
 

THE LEARNING CURVE OF CONCEPTUALIZATION

Although the notion of conceptualization, as opposed to didactic learning, is appealing, it is sometimes challenging for people to get started. People who are committed to the habit and the safety of didactic thinking are afraid and distrustful of conceptualization because they have little comfort or experience with free-fall into the unknown and they are not necessarily at ease in trusting their own creative process. On the other hand, thinkers who thrive on insights and love the unknown are often afraid of the commitment to evolving logical ideas that is the direction of  "conceptualization." They dislike the effort of thinking through their insights in order to place them in a context and express them.

A willingness to look closely at the process of conceptualization makes conceptualization seem more realistic and possible to habitual didactic thinkers and makes conceptualization less fearful to insightful thinkers. It works this way. Before a person becomes "a natural" at anything, the person goes through a learning curve. Anyone can relate to this in terms of driving a car. If people had to drive their cars under the same level of stress, anxiety and effort they experienced the first time they ever got behind the wheel, there would be no drivers. Driving would be too hard to do. But people equip themselves for driving by learning the rules of the road, practicing stopping and starting, familiarizing themselves with the gauges and functions of the car, gaining experience in the 'routines' of using the signals, mirrors, wipers, emergency signals, etc. At some point, all at once, all of that is "easy" and people simply drive. Confident in their knowledge, they drive in a natural state of mind, "thoughtlessly", but nonetheless fully equipped to use their knowledge. That is the point at which their knowledge becomes the servant, not the master, of the moment.

The same is true with conceptualization. People can learn to use their thinking so that they readily, easily and seemingly without effort conceptualize rather than consistently rote-learn things and try to hang onto the known -- or rather than continue to have insights that never seem to be fully formed, relevant, or linked to the evolution of a deeper and deeper understanding of something important.,

Getting started calls for setting the mind in a new direction -- one might think of it as looking to be surprised and delighted. This is not, however, purposeless musing. Conceptualization implies that there is a point towards which the thinker intends to move -- bringing clarity to something. As people learn to conceptualize, they engineer their natural thinking by asking themselves open-ended questions, by clearing their heads even when it seems like they have already got a good idea, by being willing to be confused along the way, by being patient enough to look beyond the known in search of something more profound, by developing increasing faith in the mind's capacity to generate profound understanding seemingly out of the blue.

For example, one way to move towards conceptualization of an idea is to ask oneself what it is not -- i.e., what would be the opposite of it, just as we did to draw the distinction between didactic learning and conceptualization. Going back to the example of innate health, the question "What is the opposite of innate health?" could lead to an interesting set of opposite terms, such as "imposed illness". Whenever one considers the opposite, it leads to revealing distinctions, or previously unrecognized fundamental differences.

Any pair of opposites, however, have common qualities at a deeper level. Once the distinction is seen, looking for those common qualities further deepens the inquiry. One might ask, in the case of innate health, "What is fundamental to both 'innate health' and 'imposed illness'? Any number of things might come to mind. For example, the terms suggest a continuum from natural to unnatural, and they have in common that they represent extremes on this continuum. For example, they are both descriptive of potential states of human functioning -- potential because anything innate may or may not be manifest and anything imposed may or may not be brought to bear. Entertaining such questions is not pointless because it exercises our creativity, just as running around a track is not pointless because it keeps the body in condition.

Another way of turning one's mind away from the known towards the unknown is to try to imagine metaphors for a term. Metaphors must arise from the unfettered imagination, and must arise from a clear understanding of something. It is impossible to come up with a workable metaphor for a misunderstood or fuzzy idea. Earlier in this paper, for example, the writer used the metaphor of "jamming a thimble into a running faucet." That idea did not exist in the author's mind or memory until the moment it came to mind. It came to mind as an image of (metaphor for) what it would be like, deliberately, for no constructive reason, to try to obstruct a natural flow.

Upon examination, that metaphor has the quality of clarity and depth. There is no connection between a thimble and a faucet, so there is no natural relationship. The person jamming a thimble in a faucet would be deliberately intervening in something in a way that contributes nothing and actually makes no sense. That metaphor helps to make the pitfall of unnecessary thinking more meaningful. It relates a human capacity (jamming the thimble) to a natural flow from a source beyond the human's control -- the flow of water through the faucet. It represents an action that is harmless, but foolish and misleading -- exactly the feeling of over-thinking something for no reason.

Still other mental preparation for conceptualization might involve:
Reflecting on stories or examples that would illustrate the idea;
Considering the impact the very existence of such an idea has on the world or
 on people;
asking oneself what would be missing in the world or in people's lives if this
 idea did not exist ...

An even deeper form of reflection that would lead to conceptualization is to consider a scale of fine distinctions between the idea and its opposite. This is deeper because it ultimately brings to mind a "turning point", or a point of discontinuity, where the opposite breaks down and the idea begins to form -- and it makes manifest the thought process or experience that is recognizable as one's mind moves in one direction or the other.

Again, taking the example of the ideas we've been working with -- innate health and one of its opposites, imposed illness. Let's say one wanted to break them down on a scale of six elements, three illustrating steps or stages or logical sequences of health and three illustrating steps or stages or logical sequences of illness. The potential choices of terms are infinite. And the terms could come from anywhere -- from synonyms and antonyms, from observations of life, from construction of logic -- from whatever occurred to the person doing the conceptualizing.

For purposes of illustration, let's just select synonyms and antonyms and make a scale that is built from "degrees" of each quality. Innate health might lead one to the terms well-being, vigor and vitality -- vitality seeming to be the "highest" expression of the spirit or essence of liveliness and enduring strength. Imposed illness might lead one to the terms ailment, affliction and infirmity, infirmity being the "lowest" term on the scale as it suggest long-term, unchanging disease. The terms are arbitrary. But in the process of conceptualization, terms useful to the person doing the conceptualizing will appear obvious. So, using the terms above as examples, the following scale could be produced:
 

Vitality  
Vigor Innate Health
Well-Being  
--------------------------------------- --- Point of discontinuity -------------
Ailment  
Affliction Imposed Illness
Infirmity  
As part of the conceptualization process, such scales have NO intrinsic truth or value; they simply provide a vehicle for moving the mind towards clarity and precision. They might or might not hold up to scrutiny. But the mere creation of the scales, followed by wondering if and why they make sense, and asking what they reveal about the term under consideration, moves the thinker towards depth and relevance. Asking the deepest possible questions, not creating elegant constructs, is the point of such an exercise. Creating a construct along the way can reveal deeper questions or unearth logical flaws.

For example, the scale above opens the door to a number of profound questions. Some such questions might be: Do the experiences of lack of well-being below the line of discontinuity on this scale in any way suggest the absence of well-being? Does "infirmity" preclude "vitality"? Does "vitality" preclude "infirmity"? Is "illness" an illusionary state, a veil drawn across the state of well-being?

EXERCISE

The following shared exercise is meant to reveal the power and depth of conceptualization -- to show how it precludes misunderstanding or missing the point by taking things at face value. And it is meant to draw the thinker into a deeper world where ideas are touching and meaningful.

Let us together conceptualize an often-spoken expression that is common to everyone familiar with the inside-out world described in the works of Sydney Banks, whose theosophy is the basis for this approach to thinking: Listen for a Feeling.

There are two ideas to conceptualize here, two simple words that most people assume they understand completely. Two words we have all used comfortably since childhood. Two words that appear self-evident. Listen. Feeling.

But the expression itself is paradoxical, despite the simplicity of the words. How does one "listen" for something that is not a sound? What is the connection between a listening state and a feeling?

The paradox of that expression has, in this author's experience, been addressed most often in off-handed ways that do not look beneath the surface to find the deeper meaning of the expression. For example, people say:
You'll just know when everyone is in deeper feeling.
A certain feeling state arises and the idea is to get in touch with it.
Stay in touch with your own deep feelings.
Don't pay any attention to my words; just try to pick up on the feeling.

None of those statements are particularly profound or logical. But what would come of it if we conceptualized this expression? What if we started by assuming we didn't really know what it meant and wondered what it truly meant?

For the sake of simplicity and example, we'll use two methods of conceptualization for this exercise, a different one for each term. Bear in mind that this conceptualization could lead much, much deeper if the person conceptualizing remained in discovery longer and went about exploring each term in several ways. It works best if we consider this exercise as just a starting point, the training wheels on the tricycle of discovery.

To begin to conceptualize listening, let us use the means of drawing a distinction between listening and its opposite, not listening. What would not listening mean? What are the attributes of someone who is not listening? To do this, we would reflect on what would be going on in the mind of someone who was not listening. A list similar to this might come to mind:

Qualities of Not Listening:
No consideration to quietude, openness
Not looking to hear anything
Mind engaged in indiscriminate thought
Inattentive
Unfocused, scattered
Reliance on memory; not hearing something new

A companion list then would come to mind, describing the attributes of listening.

Qualities of Listening:
Quiet, open
Looking to as-yet unknown
Stillness of thought; calm mind
Attentive
Awake, attuned
No focus on personal memory

To look beyond the comparison, we would then ask what is common to both these lists -- what is the common ground of the attributes described?

We might end up concluding that each list described a "state" of attention or inattention; a person's choice of what to do inside his/her own mind; a stance or an attitude. To look beyond that, we might ask what all those terms have in common: What do they describe?

The answer would appear to be that each of them describes a way of holding and using one's own thinking. Each of them describes the person's capacity to think freely. Beyond that, one might ask what would allow a person to move towards one or the other stance freely? The answer to that might be the degree to which the person understood and experienced the power of thought as an internal human capacity, the degree to which each person felt empowered to change his/her mind and adopt a different stance.

At this point in the exercise, we can see that listening is an internal experience of the listener, a way of thinking and experiencing that thought. This is a much more powerful notion than the common idea that listening is "taking in what is happening outside." The listener's relationship to the outside world, in this conceptualization, shifts from passive to willful and changeable.

The next step is to conceptualize the idea of "a feeling". In this case, just for the purposes of this exercise, we might use the method of creating a scale. One way that works well to create a scale is to use a dictionary or a thesaurus and find related words.

In the case of "feeling", if we consult several dictionaries, we will notice that the common thread in the definitions leads to the notion of intuition or inspiration -- to a self-generated experience, something that comes from within. In every case, the antonym (opposite) of feeling is "knowledge" or "reason" as an extreme, with varying words indicating a person's being out of touch with his/her own experience. Arbitrarily, from a number of related words, we might pick the list below:
 

INSPIRATION  
REALIZATION INTUITION
FEELING  
--------------------------------------- --- Point of discontinuity -------------
INSENSITIVITY  
INATTENTION KNOWLEDGE
APATHY  
The scale produced is surprising and puzzling. Until this exercise, for example, this author had never considered that "a feeling" was linked to "intuition," a form of a priori recognition from within, or beyond, a person's intellect.

What did this conceptualization exercise suggest about the expression "Listen for a feeling"?

Certainly, it suggests that a feeling is not some intangible "presence" out there in the air. It suggests something more meaningful and focused than "the spirit behind the words." It suggests a realization, an intuitive understanding. Indeed, it suggestions conceptualization.

It suggests "Stay attuned to intuition," as opposed to "Think about knowledge." It suggests the very core idea of the notion of the creative process and original thought, the usefulness and value of ideas that are recognized by a positive feeling. It suggests realizing ideas for oneself to experience the power of understanding.

The subject of this exercise was picked entirely at random by the author, simply by asking several colleagues what they thought was an over-used expression that most people didn't really reflect about at all. The author's intent was to show the power of conceptualization to bring to life any idea that has long been taken for granted.

It occurred to the author to find the original use of this expression, which led to the book Second Chance, (Duvall-Bibb, Tampa, FL, 1983) written by Sydney Banks, theosophist, whose deeper questions have inspired an entire, principle-based approach to understanding the power of thought.

The following passage leaped from the page:

"How can I possibly listen for a feeling?"
"It is listening that allows you to receive the feeling. It is the feeling that has the power, not the knowledge. Knowledge without a feeling is simply memorized words, and is of very little value."
 
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