Conceptual analysis and conceptual design

Updated: Jul 13

The Reichstag in Berlin
The Reichstag in Berlin: the conceptual architecture of many buildings is at the heart of their design. Why don't we examine the underlying concepts of our technologies in a similar manner?

A lot of human knowledge is constructed by humans.

What does this mean?

Well, the concept of ‘constructed knowledge’ stands in contrast to the idea that most knowledge is in the world waiting to be discovered. Instead of ‘discovering’ and ‘uncovering’ ideas, we construct, interpret, create and invent knowledge. This knowledge becomes ingrained into our behaviour and our communities, so that we can’t imagine anything else.

Let me go through an example with you.

Where is the future?

I mean it. Show me where the future is.

What gesture did you make?

I would bet that you pointed in front of you. Most (~99.99%) people think the future is in front of them, and the past is behind them.

However, there are the Aymara people in the Andes who do the exact opposite, they gesture behind them when they talk about the future and in front of them when they talk about the past.

It is hypothesised that we all have an idea of where our bodies are in relation to time. Many cultures picture a person walking when they envision time moving forward. If we are walking down a path, then the past is behind us, because that is where we have already travelled, and the future is in front of us, it’s the terrain we haven’t yet seen.

Whereas the Aymara people see time as something which occurs around a person. The body is static. Consequently, they can see everything in front of them, and that is the past, whereas the future is behind them, and that is what they cannot see.

Before it was thought that the concept time was a ‘cognitive universal’ in humans. This means that we ‘naturally’ think of the past as being behind us. It was thought to be a biological fact. But the Aymara case shows that this is not true. Our view of time and our relation to it is a cultural construction.


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Constructed concepts

This idea of envisioning the location of time, and our bodies in relation to it, cannot be found anywhere outside of human and animal existence. It is a narrative we tell ourselves to make sense of time, and in many ways is part of the human condition.

Constructed knowledge is not any less real than unconstructed knowledge, but it does mean that there is a lot of work to do to analyse the existing constructs and concepts underneath our technologies and beliefs, to see if we can reconstruct them, or design new concepts.

Innovation and ethics

Innovation and ethics go hand in hand.

If we define ethics as the study of how humans should live, and use the philosophical method to untangle how technology design is affecting how we live, then we can start to build products which are designed in entirely new ways. These new designs can fit different ideas about how to live an ethical life.

This process is called conceptual analysis and conceptual design. First off, we analyse different technologies to understand what concepts are embedded into them. This may not be obvious – quite often these technologies have been built within existing structures, and little thought has been put into the concepts that rule them. Secondly, we think about how we would build the technology which is based on a different concept. This is the design element of ethics.

Perhaps this would make more sense with an example.

The recurring concept

Descartes is the conceptual artist behind many of our technologies. For example, his theory of identity: “I think therefore I am” or “cogito ergo sum” leads us to believe that we can have a rational mind without our community.(1) This means that a lot of our technology is individualistic to the extreme. I've previously done some work to show how this notion of an individual who can rationalise without the aid of others has led to some incorrect ideas about how to approach polarisation in society.