In this guide we are using the word concept to mean simply a group of things resembling each other in a describable way. We understand conceptualization to be a process by which the mind infers a thing to be of a certain kind, to belong properly to some given class of things. Hence, if I describe someone as clever, I have placed the person into a generalized group of people (those who are quick-witted).

Our minds understand things in terms of how they relate to what we believe to be true. We interpret the world by putting objects into categories or concepts, each of which highlights some set of similarities or differences. We then link the thing with other concepts, in the process validating a certain set of inferences.

For example, if I see a creature before me and take it to be a dog, I can reasonably infer that it will bark rather than meow or purr. Furthermore, by placing it into the concept of dog, I create a family of meanings by means of other concepts interrelated with that of dog, such as animal, furry, muzzle, paw, tail, and so forth.

In learning to speak our native language, we necessarily learn thousands of concepts that, when properly used, enable us to make countless legitimate inferences about the objects of our experience. Unfortunately, nothing in the way we ordinarily learn to speak a language forces us to use concepts carefully, or prevents us from making unjustifiable inferences while engaged in their use. The mind that creates meanings can create them well or poorly. Indeed, a fundamental need for critical thinking is given by the fact that as long as the mind remains undisciplined in its use of concepts, it is susceptible to
any number of illegitimate inferences created by egocentric or undisciplined mental acts.

The process of learning the concepts implicit in a natural language such as English is a process of creating facsimiles (in our minds) of the concepts implicit in the language usage to which we are exposed. But we cannot “give” anyone the meaning of a word or phrase; that meaning must be created individually by every person who learns it. We can give a person a dictionary definition of a word, but that definition must be interpreted and, in effect, paraphrased in the mind to gain initial ownership of it. When we misinterpret a definition, we mis learn the meaning of the word in question. Thus, we create in our minds a meaning that conflicts with the established meaning of the word.

To take command of our thinking, critically and creatively, requires that we take command of the language we use. Many of our ideas or concepts come from the languages we have learned to speak, and in which we do our thinking. Embedded in the educated use of words are criteria or standards we must respect before we can think clearly and precisely by means of those words. We are free, of course, to use a given word in a special way in special circumstances, but only if we have good reason for modifying its established meaning.

Such special stipulations should proceed from a clear understanding of established educated use. We are not free, for example, to use the word “education” as if it were synonymous with the words “indoctrination,” “socialization,” or “training.” We are not free to equate pride with cunning, truth with belief, knowledge with information, arrogance with self-confidence, desire with love, and so on. Each word has its own established logic, a logic that cannot, without confusion or error, be ignored.

Each word has a home in at least one established system of meanings. To learn the meaning of any one word in a system of words, we have to learn something of the other (interwoven) meanings. We have to re-create that system in our thinking, and we must base that creation on meanings we have created previously. Learning the meaning of a word is not a simple task, because in each case we must create a new concept in our minds out of modified old understandings. This requires that our creation be ordered, restrained, regulated, and controlled. Words do not mean anything we want them to mean. We must construct meanings in our minds that are accurate — given established educated usage. As always, thinking that calls for assessment (criticality) works hand-in-glove with thinking requiring creative production.