What

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What do we seek by asking What?

(To be revised)
06/25: Before revising this further, it is important to substantially draft the section on Lifeworlds. Without having drafted it, judging what to deal with in this section (and others as well) will be difficult.

In asking What?, we seek, not a thing, we seek a concept to enhance our power to think about experience.

Let's take an instance. A small child points to a flat, black, shiny object on her mother's desk and says, "What's that?" Her mother answers, "That's my cell phone. You see me making phone calls to others with it." What was the child seeking in asking, "What's that?" Mother's answer gives the child, not the physical object, but the name of the concept that we connect in intellection, not only to mother's particular cell phone, but to a whole class of things we call "cell phones" of which mother's flat, black, shiny object is an instance.

Instead of asking, "What's that?", the child could have just grabbed her mother's cell phone, as she undoubtedly does on occasion. But in asking "What's that?", she didn't want the object, she was asking for the concept that signifies the object in thought. At that point in her thinking, the concept was little more than a name for a nearly empty concept she might associate with a peculiar pattern of mother's behavior. Interested in the activity that seems to go with the concept, she will pick the phone up and mumble into it, mimicking activity suggested by the concept, but not really getting what "making phone calls to others with it." She'll keep trying from time to time, and bit by bit she'll recognize more features, really affordances, what she needs to do in order to actualize what the concept means, which she doesn't at first grasp or understand.

Let's note that at their root, concepts have intentional meaning. They concern, not identity, but perceiving and effecting stuff. If the mother answered, "It's a Google Pixel 4, IMEI 3567...622, she'd have given the identity but the child would shoot back, "What's a Google Pixel 4?" Adults will often answer a child's question with a simple factoid, an identifying name, say, "the moon", and the child will reply asking "What's the moon?", and the exchange can go on and on, branching out to other interrogatives as long as the adult sticks to factual responses that don't have meaning within the child's intentional world, her lifeworld. Here's a better Q&A —
C:"How far away is the moon?" . . .
A: "Unh. I think about 240,000 miles, but that doesn't mean much does it? If you walked all day, every day until you got to be older than your granddad, you'd still have a ways to go." . . .
C: "Wow! That'd be pretty hard. I wonder how those astro somethings did it?" . . .
A: "I think in a rocket, but all I know about rockets is that they can go very far, very fast, but even so it took them three days to get there." . . .
C: "Hmm. Someday, maybe, I'll figure out more about them."

In asking What? we are seeking concepts that we institute with meaning and import in our lifeworld, the world in and with which we intentionally interact, perceiving and effecting it purposefully. In the life course of the person, and in that of human collectivities, people come to perceive the possibility and recognize the value of constructing various intellectual worlds to perceive and act within, with vital interests abstracted away to substantial degrees. Multiple modes of abstraction build up collectively, and each person acquires a unique subset of these modes in the course of their educational formation.

These abstract worlds function as dynamic constructions within our lifeworld according to the way we abstract out our agency from them, even though we will keep that agency existentially present through the value and use we attach to the various systems of abstraction. And as we institute diverse forms of abstract thinking into our personal intellectual lives, maintaining our sense of agency becomes a continuing challenge.

Concepts, like notions, exist in thought. Even more strongly, conscious thinking takes place by means of concepts. We use them cognitively to construct and manage our lifeworld and our experience within it. By asking What? we are trying to expand our capacity to think consciously about what takes place in the world in which we live by mentally associating concepts to what does or might take place in experience. Thus children, on getting hold of some powerful, new concepts quickly see splendid possibilities with them, not yet having much experience of how the devil lies in the details.

Asking What? in the course of study leads us to form and grasp the power of concepts. Asking What? here on A Place to Study leads us to reflect on what concepts empower us to do in living our lives and to contemplate what enables us to recognize concepts in action from the flux of experience. As a start in building A Place to Study, let's concentrate on 4 ways concepts empower our living (conceptual empowerment) and 4 experiential sources from which we can extract vitally important concepts (conceptual exemplarity). These are by no means exhaustive, but broadly set a start. In this way, we anchor conceptual study, not in the various branches of knowledge, but in the challenges and opportunities of lives well lived.


  • Conceptual empowerment — Here we consider four vital matters, four ways concepts enable overlapping modes of acting.
    • Anticipation conceptually postulates a goal or telos with reference to which we can activate and guide the capacities we need in order to seek or avoid the telos.
    • Concern defines and assesses our capabilities with reference to our goals so that we can use them optimally in the effort to actualize our anticipations.
    • Predicament takes account of the interlocking causalities in the circumstances bearing on our effort to use our capabilities to effect our anticipations.
    • Possibility recognizes and tests the limits established on anticipation in light of our concerns and our predicaments.
  • Conceptual exemplarity — Here we concentrate on four domains of experience from which we can extract vitally important concepts.
    • The lore of life consists of the cultural ideas that people, around the world and across the generations, have formed in ordinary experience and pass on through it to their progeny. We mine and refine this lore, the ore of cultural thinking.
    • Hidden lives compose the great tidal flats of human culture, which buffer stormy forces and stream rich nutrients that nurture the wondrous diversity of human achievement in through historical life. Each life matters. Each person merits the fullest possible resources for achieving fulfillment for themselves to share joyously with others.
    • Exemplars result from the power each and every person possesses to feel moved by an exceptionality intimated by what appears unusual, noteworthy, in their lifeworlds. We identify and empower our exemplars, good and bad, who in and for themselves lead human lives as you or I are doing, and thus we lead our human lives with inspired self-direction.
    • Masterworkers rise above exemplarity to define a sphere of common endeavor through the corpus of their work and its power to evoke further aspiration, effort, nuance, meaning, and achievement by others. Masterworkers establish styles, shape tastes, define craft, and set norms through the capacity of their peers to recognize excellence.

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