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Conceptualizing –
Method or Speech Figure? 1
“Conceptualizing” is developed in this article as a method of revealing, sorting and representing the meaning that is undisclosed in the old philosophical metaphors and in the symbolizations we make in our everyday life. The article rests on the understanding that at the core of the metaphors lie concepts, or stored meanings able to represent themselves anew or, to give birth to further theories. I try to illustrate that “conceptualizing” works as an apparatus made of three macro-elements. Conceptualizing “as technique” represents, points or hints at the hidden meaning. It does this with the help of the seeking self, which refers to and actively evokes this “sleeping meaning”. Finally, the layer from which the meaning is dug up was called by Charles Peirce “effete mind”. I use this notion in a modified, much broader sense.
How Is Meaning Possible?
It seems that everywhere around us there is a thick layer of thought-clichés, of exhausted minds, of things that are thought and re-thought a thousand times before they have calmly settled down and started to serve as genetic memory for digging out dead or frozen meanings. Perhaps this is what Peirce calls “effete mind”, something which we may call today “aggregates of memes”. The way our knowledge develops is by surprise, by unexpected deviation from the path of the old layer. It is like a gramophone needle that suddenly vaults over to a wrong groove of the record while the listener discovers a harmony unheard before.

Let us take an example. Chess has been played since the sixth century, when it was invented in India. Almost all kinds of variants were re-played, especially the debuts. But the “end spiel” differs so much that the specialists assert there are no two absolutely equal finals. The best players say that the supremacy of one player over the other lies in the patience to wait for the only move that can decide the game – the more surprising, the better. But the rules of the play did not change – they are strictly defined. So, can any surprise occur? All moves are fixed, although the situations differ. Paradoxically, the surprise can only be hidden in what was forgotten, in other words – in the past; something that is known but has slipped out of the mind at the very moment the player needs it.

I would like to clear up further the method of conceptualization by taking one more example from the reverse side. I have heard general semioticians who teach Peirce quote him saying that “man is a sign”. Never mind how this sounds but the entire beauty of Peirce’s thought here is lost. A widened citation would reveal the depth of his thought.

This does not prevent its being a phenomenon of something without us, just as a rainbow is at once a manifestation both of the sun and of the rain. When we think, then, we ourselves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign. (Peirce 1931–1966, 5.283.)
This is the case whereby we enjoy the beauty not as condensed into a conclusion but as it unfolds towards the process of its own creation.
The Deconceptualized World
We conceptualize the world of ideas in order to orient ourselves in it. But even at the most elementary level we still conceptualize. Any coordinated movement of our bodies means that a lightning-fast concept has been performed in our minds and we have acted according to this short scheme that we received from the mind. We conceptualize the symbols and the signs we constantly perceive, which means that we are permanently de-coding and de-ciphering the realm of signs which comes towards us. That is, we try to make a successful leap between the two distant elements out of which each metaphor consists (the traditional view of the metaphor did not change too much from the ancient times: a distant comparison between two elements, where “as if” is missing).

Conceptualizing metaphors can take place at each moment of our everyday life. It is involved in every instance of behavior or thinking. Just as there is no such a thing as an interpretation “for itself”, there is no concept or term that can fully exhaust its object. To understand the significance of a sign means to be illuminated as regards an aspect of its meaning, not to unveil its wholeness. The method of conceptualizing metaphors considers this property of the sign to be the most important one. Even the simplest sign, say a qualisign, is virtually inexhaustible by any interpretation, because each interpretation represents only one possible approach to its relevance. Even the simplest of signs needs to be conceptualized in order for it to act upon the sensations. We follow the footsteps of sign building with coded (recognizable) instructions for acting. Any sign contains traces of its creation; i.e., it represents an outcome of something that resembles the device of metaphor. There is something general in every sign, which makes possible its reading. So, by conceptualizing a sign-system (for example, a metaphor) we do not attain the same results each time we approach it.

We try to prove this claim from several different perspectives. Let us first discuss a strange but probable objection. In computer operations, the punch of a certain key evokes a certain response. This is so because the key as a sign works in an artificially created environment. But even in this case we could go deeper in defending the limitlessness of interpretation and the need of conceptualization by pointing to Peirce’s century-old claim on a similar phenomenon: “...it requires mind to apply any formula, or use any machine. If, then, this mind is itself only another formula, it requires another mind behind it to set it into operation, and so on ad infinitum (CP 5.329).” The mind behind the machine is a final interpretant, presented by any stroke of the key. This giant interpretant is in no way fully exhausted by this single stroke. In nature and life, we never reach two identical results by two equal approaches.

What is the difference between interpretation and conceptualization? Do we need the latter as one more theoretical tool? One of our assumptions was that while interpretation resembles more or less a reading or free-association process that seeks meaning, conceptualizing might be defined as a flexible scientific method. At its core lies a search for “effeteness” that unfolds from any metaphor. We can refer to the effeteness directly, or we can devise a concept to search for it at every layer from our past experience. In both cases we deal not with mental entities but with signals or stimuli, which activate the mass of sensations in consciousness, and from which we receive a symbolized (metaphorized, conceptualized) response. Conceptualizing metaphors is a method of representing, referring, or evoking meaning with the help of seeking ourselves from stored experience. Thus, it represents a process-model, which can provide explanations and derive meaning, but above all, which is applicable to diverse situations of decoding symbols from our everyday life.

In this respect, conceptualizing stands for a search for an inactive, effete mind that gives rise to any metaphor. The effete mind provides patterns for acting. To bring to mind these patterns requires another active element, and this is the seeking self. In general, here we are outlining a process model of thinking, which shows how knowledge grows. It rests on the fundamental claim that we learn something new by making clearer something that is already known. The same is valid for the way we approach the Other. If we do not look deeper into our own consciousness, we cannot know the consciousness of the Other.

The Patina-Meaning
We can express the same hypothesis from a linguistic perspective. On the surface of language flows a stream of thought-clichés, which after some time moves to a lower layer of language, and after still more “hardens” into a linguistic structure that is something like a mound of frozen metaphors. The most successful metaphors need to touch this floor of “patina-meaning” in order to be lifted upwards, as in Peirce’s famous metaphor of the bottomless lake. We cannot be sure whether Peirce thought similarly when he invented his undeveloped concept of “the effete mind”. We can only say that my book Conceptualizing Metaphors (2005) turned out to be about this notion abandoned by Peirce, and that it developed around a different approach for deriving meaning from that presented in “Metaphors We Live By”. Unlike the reference to the well-known book by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), however, this book is not about metaphor as an object. We share the fundamental claim of both authors that metaphors are not merely poetic tools, but a part of everyday speech that affects the way we think, perceive and act. Still, the method of conceptualizing metaphors departs from this poetic figure in order to approach its object, which is the work of the mind.

Let us try to answer another strange question: why was the computer created? Was it not because of a desperate need for a more effective way of closing the gap between past and present? Today’s most advanced technologies try to emulate the way the human being learns. The newest robots can memorize, save and apply what they have learned. These machines learn by storing memories, making mistakes, trying not to repeat them... In the near future the most advanced computer will surely be the one that produces an immediate past – a pure effeteness.

It will be computers that can make the past occur each time the needle of the seeking Self touches upon the grooves of the effete mind. Then the animated past will be a step taken before being annihilated by the living present. We still do not know to where this will lead – perhaps to a combination of virtual past and real present? The two cannot merge because the past occupies real time in order to be realized as such. As for the present, we cannot have a concept of it; we simply live in it. The past can provide concepts for the future, and this is its main function; but it cannot correct our future, and this is an argument for why we cannot exert control over our present. In the present, we act by being pushed by the conceptualizing past that reflects on our action.

We can now propose a new explanation of the limitlessness of thinking and the need for its conceptualization. Any sign that signifies a segment of action from reality is inexhaustible by another sign that interprets it. This is obviously true, since an action occupies a present moment, whereas interpretation grips a past one. Action is also divided into numberless atomic segments, which were first comprehended in the past and then realized in subsequent present moments. Action and thought-action are synechistic phenomena that mirror each other but do not overlap. This is what makes knowledge a continuous process. The mediator between these two processes is our dynamic self, and it supervenes onto the temporal characteristics of both. By acting, we simply follow the patterns provided by the effete mind. By thinking we are saving the recognizable traces from our action through metaphorizing (or, conceptualizing) them. We are pushed forward by the concept devised by the past. And we dream of the coming of the inexperienced future.

Dreaming of a White Christmas
We now take one more metaphorical example and develop it into a concept, in order to demonstrate how the method of conceptualizing works with non-conceptualized material from everyday life. We try to employ all the arguments we have made up to now and to draw as many conclusions as possible.

In thinking of Christmas we usually imagine snow-covered lawns, houses, and woods lying in complete stillness. We think of family reunions, cheerfulness, going to church, singing songs, feeling cozy and peaceful. On a deeper layer rests another cliché – this is the time when somebody prepares to go somewhere, most commonly back home. The cliché in Europe visualizes this trip made in a wooden sleigh (the variant in Russia, for example, is the famous troika – a sleigh pulled by three horses). In Scandinavia, Britain and America, this is the reindeer sled with Santa Claus in it. We have to hear or otherwise “sense” the jingle of the horses’ or reindeers’ bells. This is a jolly sign that somebody is coming back.

On Christmas Eve we sing or listen to “Silent Night”, and we feel safer than we do at any other time of the year. Safety and hope – these are the two dominant emotions on this evening. This is what we expect to feel, again and again, no matter how old we are. This is the time we celebrate the myth of our childhood – that we were born to grow up in peace and joy and to have children of our own, which we will raise with the same myth. We go back to our mythological phase, and for a short time we turn into mythological creatures, careless and cheerful.

As far back as 1816, when the priest Joseph Mohr penned the verses and the composer Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the music of the unforgettable “Stille Nacht”, they were driven to do this by similar impulses. Both were serving in the then extremely poor area of Salzburg, in the small village of Oberndorf, where hope and joy were desperately needed. They made up their composition so that it emulated a cradle carol. It was not even a myth, but an allegory that they composed. It is an allegory of something lost, for which we will soon be generously rewarded. Both author and composer dig very deep into the effete mind, reaching a numberless cell, which keeps memories for genetic human development. Their seeking selves fall into the right groove of longings and expectations. Somebody’s return is the climax of the celebration. Something will happen, and it will be good. Something or somebody will step over the threshold, and s/he may stay at home until the next year. Or forever. S/he will bring something good for this home. God, perhaps?

Why Something “Matters”?
Meaning is about ordering, comparing and translating. Something means more than something else. Meaning is also about hierarchy, conventionality, and values. In my book I am not dealing with the classical revelation of the problem of meaning as a semantic, syntactic or causal outcome of inquiry. Neither do I investigate the countless theories of truth-conditions or evaluative descriptions. Rather, I start from pure curiosity by asking the naïve question: Why does one thing matter and another not?

For a newborn child only a few things matter. As the child grows, the number of things that matter to him increases. As old age sets in, a person’s range of interests naturally narrows down again. For a man on his deathbed almost nothing matters. But who defines the values that matter? For example, how did the myth arise that what is real matters and what is fictional does not? If we jump ahead to the near future when, thanks to genetic engineering, even brain cells will be replaceable, can we be sure that the same values will matter for these half-artificial human beings? Why do we ask such a question? Is there any unveiled relationship between ethics and philosophy? This is an old question, which seemed to have been solved long ago, but which is soon to be asked anew.

We now need to examine the question, already posed above, what do we mean by “effete mind” and “effeteness”? We saw that Peirce did not provide an explanation. He employed the term without clarifying it. The term played into his seemingly vague concept of the universe: “The one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws” (CP 6. 25). He soon gave up this notion, which was tidily linked with his earlier view about objective idealism, and rarely returned to it later. What is the kernel in this short remark that makes us think that it is capable of elaboration? It is a notion with the potential to be elaborated further in many ways. It is also general and vague, as Peirce intended. In just one part of his sentence – “...inveterate habits becoming physical laws” – he managed to place an enormous amount of meaning: that matter is ruled by habits and develops from a less orderly to a more ordered world, to a crystallized mind.

This obliges me to say, as I do say, on other grounds, that what we call matter is not completely dead, but is merely mind hidebound with habits. It still retains the element of diversification; and in that diversification there is life. When an idea is conveyed from one mind to another, it is by forms of combination of the diverse elements of nature, say by some curious symmetry, or by some union of a tender color with a refined odor (Peirce 1931– 1966, 6 158).

This is another strange and poetic explanation of how Peirce viewed the way we think. The somehow non-dead matter is a kind of exhausted mind, a bulk of past thoughts – the effete mind. It provides us with models or patterns of action. We do not attain complete ideas from anywhere. “Symmetry, tender color and refined odor” participate in the magical combination of creating a sense that can be conveyed and communicated. By virtue of our seeking selves we activate these traces from the past and conceptualize them. We make our own meaning.

Does such a view not correspond to recent discoveries of genetic engineering? Today we know that our cells (even those that do not belong to the brain) have “memories” about their origins as human organs, along with other “memories” about this particular human body of which they are a part. But we have to be very careful. What we call “memories” is material. These are not tactile traces, but rather genetic codes of information. Still, there must be a vital thought, a sum of rules, an ultimate law that governs our life. Somewhere in our consciousness must exist a kind of aggregation of thoughts from the time before we were born. One very important way that things “matter” is by constant reference to this mere “mind, hidebound with habits”, to the effete mind.

Let us now try to answer what might at first seem to be a remote question. Why do some events from our lives, such as Christmas, not lose their significance? Do we really like to live in an allegory or in a myth? What makes us feel safe in poetic figures? I think the answers here (if any) must be supralogical, or rather, “pre-logical”. We have to accept the fact that there is something higher and more important than meaning, or that there is a kind of ultimate meaning. Perhaps we are looking for pre-existing moods of our collective mind, something like an undiscovered myth, by which we will save ourselves. This is similar to huge depositories of effeteness, where everything that is occurring has already happened.

We do not need to reflect on this latter example. It denies any reasoning for itself, being made openly in a metaphysical course of thinking. It can only become significant by closing with one more remark by Peirce:

I hear you say: “All that is not fact; it is poetry.” Nonsense! Bad poetry is false, I grant; but nothing is truer than true poetry. And let me tell the scientific men that the artists are much finer and more accurate observers than they are, except of the special minutiae that the scientific man is looking for. (CP 1.315)
We can agree with either opportunity that Peirce offers – we can continue to observe these special minutiae, or to stay with the good old metaphor. Perhaps we have one more option, thanks to the notion of the seeking self: to supervene on both. Can we say today something different on the same topic, on the nature of scientific findings? The great men of science have made their discoveries among the special minutiae mentioned by Peirce. The great poets always knew about them.
1 Conceptualizing is a method outlined in the book of Ivan Mladenov Conceptualizing Metaphors. On Charles Peirce’s Marginalia; first published in 2006 by Routledge, London & New York. ISBN 0–415–36047–1.
Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Peirce, Charles S. (1931–1966) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vols. 1–6 edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931–1935. Vols. 7–8 edited by Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.