I am curious whether there are any wide-spread philosophical thoughts about the nature of the mental concepts by which we grasp reality, know or understand things.

Note that I do not directly mean the discussions about what it means to know something, or how we define knowledge. Instead, I am interested in a more practical/pragmatic perspective on the subject: before we define knowledge or its acquisition, we must have already formulated an abstract concept of the things we make statements about. I am interested in references or works about the methods by which we do so.

For example: Assume I stand in front of a hot stove. I predict that if I put my hand on this hot stove, it will singe my hand. How did I arrive at this prediction? I would argue that I formulated a mental model of the universe in which I put my hand on the stove, and following the rules of my mental model, my hand would get burned. I equate this (maybe false, definitely incomplete) model with reality, and thus I don't put my hand on the stove.

Finding out if this is knowledge or not then would demand testing its truth value, justification, and belief, plus whatever the Gettier problems might match - but that's already beyond my question. I would like to know about the case before that: how we get a handle on the universe in the first place.

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    This seems to be the classical question of epistemology. How do we come to know what we know? All the classical rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza) and all the classical empiricists (Hume, Berkeley, Locke) were concerned with this... the debate between rationalism and empiricism led up to Kant. Is this what you're referring to? I think the question has gone a bit out of fashion in recent decades... more focused on the nature of language and meaning now. – Ameet Sharma Apr 21 '20 at 15:01
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    Thank you for the answer, and please forgive my lack of clarity in the problem statement. As it might betray, I am not intimately familiar with the nuances of their works, but I imagine my question starts earlier. Before I can discuss whether the statement 'grass is green' is true, I first need concepts of 'grass', 'being', and 'green', as well as a number of other implicit assumptions (for example that the universe is consistent enough for the answer to this question to have any meaning). As I understand it, these concepts seem presupposed, and people mainly discuss their re-arrangements. – J.Galt Apr 21 '20 at 15:12
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    @J Galt, No problem. You're a natural philosopher as you've come up with a lot of fundamental ideas on your own. I think there are two broad theories... one is innateness/rationalism... we have at least some fundamental concepts innately when we are born without any sensory input. The other is the Empiricist/tabula rasa side. Where the mind is a blank slate and the senses deliver concepts directly. I'm posting a link here that summarizes this debate: plato.stanford.edu/entries/innateness-history – Ameet Sharma Apr 21 '20 at 15:31
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    This does definitely seem to be related to (and maybe even directly address) what I am after! I will have to take some time to work through the linked article and familiarize myself with these concepts. Thank you very much for your patient and helpful answers! – J.Galt Apr 21 '20 at 15:47
  • “I would argue that I formulated a mental model of the universe in which I put my hand on the stove, and following the rules of my mental model, my hand would get burned”. I would argue that your mommy said, don’t touch it! Or perhaps you did touch and you got a very direct lesson from a hot oven. – Gordon Apr 24 '20 at 19:45

It seems like, a question about practical epistemology - how do we begin to know, before we have even defined knowledge? Sartre's aphorism response is 'Existence before essence', we begin by being, and living, and only then can abstractions and systemising them begin. There is the generalisation of the problem beginning in any specific place, expressed in Munchausen's Trilemma. For me the solution is Hofstadter's idea of strange loops, we begin systemising wherever we are, and weaving our methods & systems together into something that coheres. Our knowledge also crucially depends on language, a tool developed in community which shapes our minds from infancy, so via the The Private Language Argument we are already woven in and expressing from our culture, by the time we can do something as complex as question.

Tegmark & Wu's 'AI Physicist' is an interesting case of 'throwing' an unprepared mind into unknown physics. Alpha Zero provides similar insights, into how learning can be pictured as interactions who's results are used to weight predictive probability trees. And Nancy Cartwright in How The Laws Of Physics Lie argues we are only ever working with mental 'toy models', who's inferences are always conditioned by how valid the abstractions we make are, which we must make for making inferences to become tractable.

John Vervaeke has some interesting ideas, and is part of a modern renewal of interest in philosophy in the idea of wisdom. He uses terms around relevance realisation, cognitive grip, and the idea that a good effective understanding of our situation depends on a salience landscape, which highlights truly important things from 'noise' (his series Awakening From The Meaning Crisis, linked to there, is a great intro to Western Philosophy). Examine what we do, try to find guidance how to do it better.

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    These are very interesting references, thank you very much! I shall read into them in greater detail. – J.Galt Apr 21 '20 at 18:51
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    @J.Galt Good question. Good answer. But I think Husserl can be brought in here too. Don’t ask me to explain it, but you may want to study Husserl if you are interested. – Gordon Apr 24 '20 at 19:59

This is a very old question. Consider Meno’s paradox. Meno asks Socrates how he can learn anything if he does not know what he is searching for, for if you know what you're looking for, inquiry is unnecessary, and if you don't know what you're looking for, inquiry is impossible. Therefore, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible. Socrates responds with his [Plato’s] [in]famous Theory of Recollection: that the soul recollects memories from previous lives when exposed to experiences in this life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meno#Meno's_paradox. In this context, you may also want to note how the Platonic Forms (later, Universals), the supposed objects of our "recollections," from our past life in Platonic Heaven, rounds out his Theory of Recollection (see the last section here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platonic_realism).

For a non-voodoo response to the apparent epistemological quandary, consider Wittgenstein’s “therapeutic” response to the di/trillema, as outlined in On Certainty (discussed here: https://humstatic.uchicago.edu/philosophy/conant/Wittgenstein,%20Moore,%20and%20Therapy.pdf).

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