Thursday, January 31, 2013

When Am I Thinking of the Thing, Itself?

The above just came through my Twitter feed. It's a retweet by someone I do follow, from someone I don't, so I've anonymized it.

When I was working in science ed, one of the things I think was valued about my input to discussions was my persistent need to tease out meanings of words, concepts, things. There are often meanings that are presumed by groups that go beyond formal definitions, and formal definitions often do not evolve to keep up with shifting nuances of meaning. I can't help but poke and prod at things like that.

One extended conversation, over several days, seemed to have most people either stumped, or bemused about why I thought it was important- and have no doubt, I did think it was important. It was my comment and question, "When I reflect on my own thinking, I find that when I think about a thing, I think in terms of images, metaphors, and similes. In other words, I think about the thing in terms of other things, not the thing itself. When am I actually thinking about the thing itself?"

Now that was a puzzler. Some suggested it might be that we do in fact think of all things in terms that are simply relational- that is, nothing has meaning except in terms of other things. I wasn't really satisfied with that; to me, it seems tautological. As I mentioned, some shrugged the question off as not very important, but it seemed to me that questions of individuality and uniqueness required a thinker to know what was distinct about "the thing itself." And that was what led me to a satisfying answer.

My solution? "I'm thinking about the thing itself when I'm thinking about how the thing is different from the images, metaphors, and similes I use to think about it."

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