Beware Excessive Conceptualization

Conceptualization is a skill. The process involves working out an idea or explanation and formulating it mentally. Everyone can and does conceptualize, but like all skills, some people are better at it than others. Speed matters for many of those who consider themselves intelligent. They demonstrate their erudition and big IQ numbers – and impress others – with their ability to come up with swift conceptualizations of just about anything that crosses their path. Or so they think. In reality, we are all familiar with the person who can snap out ideas and explanations that sound plausible at the time, but which soon prove incomplete, inadequate, or just plain wrong.

Old fashioned alarm clock with a question mark on its face.

Solid conceptualization (putting the pieces together) needs time and all of the mind’s resources. The language portion of thinking must be supplemented by association, intuition, etc. (image:

Careful consideration of the evidence suggests the best quality conceptualizations take a long time to formulate. Since intelligence, patience, and dedication (or obsession) are required, high-quality conceptualizers are rare. Speedy conceptualizers are usually poor-quality conceptualizers. Slow conceptualizers have the right idea, but most people lack some of the other qualities needed to do a good job. A special attribute of artists of all kinds is their strong preference for not pinning themselves down with fixed conceptualizations.

Rapid conceptualization can lead to another common problem: excessive conceptualization along rigid and erroneous lines. The hasty conceptualizer accumulates a vast store of half-baked ideas and ill-considered concepts. The rapid rate of formulation leaves little time for due considerations of consistency or integration with other material. The big ego makes backing down or admitting errors unthinkable.

A characteristic attitude of the fast or poor-quality conceptualizer is an inflexible emphasis of, and reliance on, language. Thinking may draw on associations and intuition, but in the end, formulating ideas and concepts is a linguistic process. Many thinkers elevate language to a status it does not deserve. In a sense, they are trapped inside language (the conscious mind or ego). They fail to see that not everyone conceptualizes in this limited way.

Psychiatrist Elizabeth Wright goes so far as to say “inhabiting language” is good and normal while those who are not so trapped, those who are “inhabited by language” are psychopaths! This cannot be true. Language is a tool. It is a function along with the other tools in the psyche such as imagination, intuition, memory, emotion, will, and resonance. Thinkers use their tools; they do not inhabit them. Look what happens to those who “inhabit” their imaginations. Language looms large because it is the seat of our consciousness and therefore appears more central than it really is.

It is precisely the ability to see past the ego illusion that allows us to recognize the resources of the unconscious mind, accept and integrate the constant self that we find there, and become whole.

A conceptualizer defined only by language, who inhabits language, must inevitably have an impoverished sense of self. Since only the ego uses language, the much larger and more complex non-linguistic unconscious has no role to play in defining the person. More to my point, without the resources of unconscious associative thinking, intuition, resonance, and so on, there can be only limited ability to conceptualize at a high level of skill.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Beware Excessive Conceptualization”

  1. I see and agree with what you say about conceptualisation… and I think it’s possible to form a hasty conceptualisation using previously well thought through information, ideas and experiences that you believe to be relevant, a continuation of previous conceptualisation, but without becoming aware of significant though perhaps subtle differences… this is where adapting well to new information is important. Even the most flexible mind is unlikely to have all of the relevant information at whatever point in time. So, as you say, it is important to take your time and update.

    The language aspect, for some reason, is harder for me to grasp I think. Language kind of translates the work of the unconscious and concious tools… so e.g. in my paragraph above I’m not 100% sure that I have accurately conveyed my understanding, and I could go over the words many times to check or adjust them. But I won’t. I don’t want to give myself a headache this early in the day!

    Instead… perhaps I think that I think using language because it’s the only way I can give my thoughts form, but really the brain works too quickly for language… when I was younger I deliberately started slowing my thoughts down to a speed that I might speak at, because I felt I was missing ideas along the way, ideas leading on to other ideas were lost. Also conclusions tend to make more sense if you know how you arrived at them. (Does that sound crazy?) Was I trapping myself in language by trying to do this, or just trying to harness my thoughts/ideas so that they could be used?

    I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger too, and I think writing poetry was more in tune with my thought processes… which I can’t explain language wise, it may have been a shorter route from idea/feeling/unconscious to language because it uses language differently. You can convey meaning in so many different ways with less words. But then it could have been more like taking a break from thinking because in some ways you use more words to convey less meaning more deeply too. Now I think it’s possible that ‘language’, however much I love it, may have always taken more effort because of the highly visual aspect of my thoughts?

    I apologise if this all just sounds like scrambled thoughts! My brain feels a bit like that today.

  2. Emma, you have it right when you say language is how we give our thoughts form. Associative thinking, intuition, and visualization (picture thinking, imagination) all feed into thought and we must convert them to language before they can be expressed as spoken or written word. Simile, metaphor, symbol, allusion, and image are techniques employed by writers and poets to bridge the gap where plain prose cannot convey the essence of what these artists have experienced in their minds. The artist is skilfully presenting words that will prompt associations, intuitions, and visualizations in the mind of the reader, thus reconstituting something of the original complex mental processes that gave rise to the work. This aspect of the written word is what makes poetry and prose so much more lively, colourful, and interesting than dry analysis.

    A person trapped inside language is someone who places too much reliance on analysis (always linguistic) and does not take enough account of the other workings of the mind. In other words, there is an excess of stepwise logical thinking based on a collection of facts, and a paucity of the enriching insights offered by the unconscious mind and the imagination. We see the problem with the analytical approach when we study highly creative people who have become famously stuck. These individuals all have some story to tell of a dream with a powerful visual image, an unusual association, or a sudden stroke of intuitive insight that got them past the blockage. They all admit to having been locked into a rigid way of seeing the problem they were trying to solve. The liberating non-rational (i.e. not arrived at by reasoning) insight provided a sudden new perspective.

    As a visual artist, you are by nature someone who works both sides of the fence. It does not surprise me that when you turn to words, poetry would be your preferred choice. Poetry is so much richer in simile, metaphor, symbol, allusion, and image than prose.

    Your sense that “conclusions tend to make more sense if you know how you arrived at them” is the essence of both understanding and why we enjoy understanding. Most people share the feeling. The trouble lies with “how you arrived.” To give satisfaction, an explanation does not have to be correct. It only has to appear correct! The volume of misery arising from this aspect of human cognition is immeasurable.

  3. Thomas, totally agree with your analysis. To me the basics of the poetry is not about analysing what we have seen or felt, but to instil what we are seeing and feeling, is about reconstructing the chemistry.


  4. Qiquan, poets such as you seem to understand instinctively the need to go beyond the logic of plain language and draw on the mind’s greater resources to enrich their words and share complex experiences. Others have to learn this.

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