Optimal thought and optimal fitness through reason, logic, science, passion, and wisdom.
Concretize Concepts
Concretize Concepts

Concretize Concepts

In tutoring some students in chemistry through the years, I’ve seen an improper use of language in our culture. 

Students are not being trained to use language to form and use concepts, but to use language as empty symbols and as “social constructs.” They do not develop concepts for, and therefore do not know how to think about, substance, element, compound, heterogeneous mixture, homogeneous mixture. 

What is needed is a good theory of concepts, and a good epistemology, in teaching and education.

Concepts are formed from a number of concretes cognitively unified on the basis of a similarities with each other and differences from other things. They always involve a genus, a differentia, and layers of context.

When, for example, we form the concept of dog, we form a unified consciousness, a single mental unit, from a number of concrete dogs we have been aware of — but in contrast to other animals like humans, cats, birds, etc. For most of us if not all, “animal” is the implicit genus of dog. We cannot see dogs as similar amidst all their differences without a broader context that makes dogs seem all the same by comparison.

And we do that in context of, e.g., the animal vs. plants, and the living vs. the inanimate.

We need to start with the concretes. We need to put them in context of other concretes that drive the mind, or help drive the mind, to find those concretes the same enough to form a concept: dog, cat, substance, magnesium, reason, abstruse, epistemology, etc.

“Substance” is an important basic concept. We need to see that some stuff is the same kind of thing all throughout, and not some pile, stack, or conglomeration of different things. We need to see, touch, smell, perceive, that some stuff is the same throughout vs. other things. We need to see how, abstractly, glass, water, (simple) ice cream, ice, iron, muscle, blood, etc. are the same, in contrast to ice in water, ice cream with goodies in it, a bird, conglomerate rock, etc. This is key in getting to element.

“Element” we can form when we determine a basic building blocks of both substances and non-substances. Water might be an element — but we find we can break it down into stuff (hydrogen and oxygen) that cannot be further (chemically) broken down, but which can be resynthesized into water. So water ain’t an element. Steel we find we can break down, but iron we cannot. Iron is the element. We need specific concretes to put together to make a valid concept — and reality comes first, not the word or concept.

Without concretes and a context, we do not have a concept. We cannot ignore the concretes. We cannot bypass them. We cannot start with “pure consciousness” (there is no such thing) and deduce reality. Reality comes first.

I see this problem in physics a lot, too — for example, with the concept of projectile, which lots of students have trouble with because teachers, lacking a good epistemology (which I can empathize with! I did not figure out epistemology on my own, but had to learn it from others!), do not start from the first level: they do not provide their students with independent, individual awareness of thrown rocks, shot arrows, balls projected off a table, water balloons thrown, bullets shot, canon balls shot vs. birds flying, jets flying, kites flying, self-propelled missiles shooting toward a target, rockets shooting upward, and all vs. cars moving, horses running, people walking and mountains sitting still and rocks lying there not moving.

Getting the similarities and differences between these things drives the concept home and makes is possible (and easier!) for students to think about. A rock flying through the air (compared and contrasted to other things) is what projectile is all about; projectile is not about some cognitively deficient, reality-empty mathematical equation, word string, or “state of consciousness.”

To do better in education, we need to get real. We need to keep our thinking and teaching focused on concretes and the real world.

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