Thursday, May 10, 2012

Something Missed: Conceptual Exercises

So far so good on the "ideal day" thing, but argh, I forgot about conceptual exercises! For years now they've been the greatest difficulty of my self-improvement ventures. I recognize its great value, but have yet to refine it into a form that would allow me to do it on a regular basis without hesitations.

To explain its nature to those who don't know, my conceptual exercises are a more intensive form of the basic vocabulary exercise, where I not only try to learn the meaning of a word, but also establish its place in a conceptual chain and ground it in the fundamentals of knowledge, therefore making it a piece of knowledge rather than a mere vocabulary word.

For instance, to borrow an example from philosopher Ayn Rand, take the concept "furniture." Furniture doesn't actually exist; it's a category that organizes similar household objects that do physically exist, such as chairs, footrests, chests, and so on. In performing a conceptual exercise on this term, I would explicitly recognize that this is a concept a level above the perceptual level -- a category concept -- and note the concepts directly attached to it in a chain, the chairs, couches, and whatnot. Then I would visualize in my head various incidents of the things that would fit under the concept, and there we go: I've recognized the concept's distance from perceptual reality, noted what it subsumed, connected it to perceptual reality by visualizing its referents, and thus grounded it in reality.

The process will change slightly depending on the concept -- in order to ground a concept denoting physical action, for instance, I might actually perform the action to ground it rather than visualize it, or if the concept denotes a term in singing I might vocalize instead -- but this gets the gist of it down. It goes beyond looking a word up in a dictionary and be satisfied with the meaning right then and there. Oftentimes I would have to look up several terms at once to establish the chain, as I would have to do more research do understand the concepts used in the definition itself. It's exhaustive alright.

All of this is towards honing the precision of my language, thinking, and learning, to make me a more precise and appropriately certain person. You can't gain full certainty of the meaning of a term by merely looking it up in the dictionary and going "blah blah, here's the meaning," especially when you don't grasp the terms used in the definition itself.

I think this is a very valuable intellectual exercise. It's certainly done well for my vocabulary, and made me a better thinker. The problem is that it has some failings that keep me from being able to maintain it comfortably, so while I've been holding onto this exercise for years now I'm very sporadic in its practice.

What holds me back is the act of gathering terms to perform the exercises on. On a regular basis, I view it as very disruptive to the flow of my day to stop and record a term for later exercise. If I'm reading a text without taking notes on it, for instance, I hate having to pause to take note of a single word when all I want to do is establish a seamless flow in my reading pace. Or when I'm out and about, unless I'm very curious, I don't like pulling out my voice recorder to dedicate a file to a single concept. To my mind they're all unwelcome and petty interruptions. I have no problem doing the exercise itself . . . I just hate the process of gathering material for the exercise. That is what has stopped me and kept the exercise at bay for so long.

As part of living ideal days I want to incorporate this again into my regular routine. If I can just refine it in just the right way, it would be an invaluable daily practice, one that would really move me mentally forward in the passing years. But how do I get over that darn hangup?!?

I think I may have figured out a way. As stated before -- regardless of the fact I'm not in school -- I want to incorporate studying as a facet of my life, and I think if I perfect that habit then I'll be able to effortlessly mesh conceptual exercises into it. The trick is to seam the exercises into the studying in a way that it becomes part of the ongoing process without being a separate process itself.

Maybe that's been my problem all this time: Having conceptual exercises be a separate process, where I would gather and record times, hold onto a time, and delay performing exercises on them until the end of a reading section, the end of the day, or whatever. If I can integrate the practice into another practice then maybe its distinctness will disappear and allow me to feel more comfortable in maintaining it.

In other words, perhaps the conceptual exercises is something better done on the fly rather than something that's built up into a separate activity. Instead of recording a term for later practice, during my note-taking process I should habituate myself into quickly performing an exercise on a confusing term during the studying, to incorporate it as just an aspect of  the overall note-taking process.

Studying seems to be the best and only practical venue for this, because due to its intensively intellectual nature I think this is the only process where I wouldn't be annoyed at conceptual exercises since they wouldn't break my concentration or disrupt me, and be perfectly easy to switch back and forth between reading and doing exercises. Every other venue for this practice I've tried, conceptual exercises have been so disruptive that they would inevitably be dropped.

So the trick is to both incorporate the exercises as an integrated aspect of the studying process rather than making it an isolated activity, and to habituate studying itself.

Hopefully this is the best solution, because I don't want to forgo the mental benefits for any more years longer.


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