Exploring conceptual thinking and pure concepts from a first person perspective


Traditionally, conceptual thinking is explored via philosophical analysis or psychological experimentation. We seek to complement these mainstream approaches with the perspective of a first person exploration into pure thinking. To begin with, pure thinking is defined as a process (how we think) and differentiated from its content (what we think about), the concepts itself. Pure thinking is an active process and not a series of associative thought-events; we participate in it, we immerse ourselves within its active performance. On the other hand, concepts are also of an experiential nature. And yet, little is known about what is it like to have or produce a thought, a concept, or an idea? Is a concept our own construction, a product of our own activity, or is it something we merely discover instead of producing it? We address these issues in a systematic first person enquiry into pure thinking.

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  1. 1.

    To be explicit about our background that informs our approach in a general manner (specific references will be given below), we stand in the tradition of modern experimental psychology and of cognitive phenomenology; one of the authors is trained as a mathematician (RZ). We both also have a background in the philosophical works of Steiner, concentrating on epistemological issues, particularly Steiner (2016a, b).

  2. 2.

    Our approach seems to be Husserlian, however, as Lohmar (2010, pp. 78–79) and Gutland (2018a, b, p. 12) have shown, Husserl eventually believed that concepts are in need of a sensory foundation to be experienced as meaningful. This contradicts with our belief pointed out in this paper that there is an experience of pure concepts which is independent of any sensory input or linguistic occurrences, although the latter experiences may occur parallel to it.


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We thank Fergus Anderson, Christopher Gutland, Christian Tewes and the two anonymous referees for helpful comments that worked towards an improvement of our paper. We would like to thank the Software AG Stiftung for supporting this project.

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Both authors made substantial contributions to the conception and the design of the work; RZ made the first draft, UW has been revising it critically for important intellectual content; both RZ and UW gave final approval of the version to be published. RZ and UW both agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

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Correspondence to Renatus Ziegler.

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The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Ziegler, R., Weger, U. Exploring conceptual thinking and pure concepts from a first person perspective. Phenom Cogn Sci 18, 947–972 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-018-9593-8

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  • Active conceptual thinking
  • Pure concepts
  • Process account of thinking
  • First person approach
  • Reflection of thinking
  • Phenomenological analysis