Concepts

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Concepts

A long time ago, when I was 5 or 6, I said something, I forget what, but an adult shot back, "that's pretty sophisticated for someone your age." I felt a bit embarrassed, nodded, and hid my ignorance of the word. The intonation left me uncertain—was it a gentle reprimand, or an encouraging compliment? What could "pretty sophisticated" mean? In my little world the person was enough of a somebody that I thought I better figure it out.

At first I didn't ask my mother or father because I didn't want to disclose that the person had frowned on me, if that was what they had done. For months, perhaps a couple years, I kept trying to figure the word out whenever I heard it used. That wasn't often, but now and then I'd pick it up and tried to parse its meaning, to little avail. After a while I did ask my mother, saying I was curious about this big word I'd heard. Her explanation helped a little, but it was pretty abstract and I had trouble relating it to my experience.

As time went on, still curious, it almost became a game. I heard more uses and got good enough reading to see it in print and to look in a dictionary for it. It was more abstract than my mother's explanation, but in time, I came more or less to understood how one used the word, and the game wore out. By then whether I'd been complimented or reprimanded had long ceased to matter. I was into rough 'n tumble outdoors stuff and couldn't care less whether being sophisticated was good, bad, or indifferent. All the same, the idea had become part of my stock of conceptual resources for thinking about experience as I and others lived it. In such ways, concepts form in our experience and take on value and importance in our capacities for self-formation.

It is good, I think, that we now and then take circuitous paths to grasp a concept, as I did with sophistication. It gives us a feel for drawing our thinking into our world of experience. But as the maxim goes, "art is long and life short." Hence, with conscious exploration we can speed, extend, and diversify our acquisition of such concepts. That's our business here.