Concepts are like Tardises

Pat Parslow has recently written about the difficulty of tying down concepts: "From this 50,000’ view, a major part of the ‘size’ of the topic has just become almost vanishingly small. Step far enough back, defining your parameters appropriately, and you can genuinely make the ‘problem’ smaller by taking a larger view." …
He goes on to say: "I am prepared to be convinced that there are concepts (or topics) which are clearly and cleanly defined – I am just not in a position to be able to identify any. When trying to identify the meaning of a set of words, I always find that there are more and more links to other things the more closely I look. How about you?"
From Pat Parslow's post "how big is my topic?"

Well, this rings very true.

I think language allows us to treat a concept as a black box, a contained meaning to be built on in our making sense of the world. We don't unpack the black box unless that is the focus of our investigation. If a person is at all curious, they realise that if you peer inside any black box you'll find a world like a tardis. Beauty. Society. Dialectical Materialism. The same goes for things: Beefburgers. Clouds. Vanish Stain Remover. Tell me a thing and I betcha it's someone somewhere's job to design/find/analyse/sell/etc that very thing. There is always more depth and texture to everything, if you're receptive to it.

In his concept of the semantic river, Wittgenstein imagined concepts as boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles and grit in a moving river. The top layer churns constantly, defining its edges as it rubs against the next stone, constant change, very reactive to the water currents. The biggest deepest layer takes the longest, but slowly slowly the layers above and beside shape its edges and define it. I love this metaphor for the way events and experiences churn our conceptual understanding of reality: concepts are fluid.

So a concept is rarely as simple as we signpost, and it isn't really static. It's a construct to make thinking possible.

It reminds me of being on a train through towns and suburbs, staring into people's gardens and houses. How can that garden, that kitchen, that street, that school, be as full of life and meaningful as my garden, kitchen, street, school where I grew up. Every life is a black box until you show any curiosity, and empathy. Deciding to believe in the depth of other people's lives is liberating. But you can't live too empathetically all the time, you can't feel raw to other people's lives: it eats you up. You can't soak up everyone's sorrows, it exhausts you and makes you unable to live well yourself.

You should believe that every life has as much depth as yours but you can't factor it in to your everyday life, any more than you can unpack every concept in everday language.

We have to abstract and simplify in order to operate competently in the world. That shorthand is never the whole story and we shouldn't let our language trick us into forgetting that no concept lasts forever. That's also why we should fight over meaning, not out of pedantry, but because concepts are what drive us to act. Rights, fairness, poverty, privilege: these concepts should be re-owned, re-defined and acted on, again and again: this is what drives progress.


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