Summary


This theory, alone, is little more than a framework, distilled from methods and patterns which are found in the practices and theory of countless other disciplines. It is not meant to define which activities are conceptual labor and which aren’t; that would be as useful and possible as documenting every change in the surface of a river. It is more to say that one can identify patterns of conditions, habits, and questions that tend to be useful in understanding and navigating almost any river.

A shared language of conceptual labor can enhance the speed and quality with which such patterns can be understood and shared, in the work that we recognize as work as well as the important areas of our personal lives as citizens that we each labor daily to improve.

To go one step further, it suggests that though these patterns of work are not secret, but they are usually hidden in the fabric of the conventional stories we tell about work. By naming and studying these patterns, we should be able to spot them more readily, rather than falling back on comfortable narratives of how work should go.

Some patterns are simple to translate between disciplines. “Put your tools away when you are done” can be easily applied by someone who doesn’t work with physical tools. But ask any expert who loves their field, and they will tell you how their profession has taught them something about the rest of life that they never knew before. Some might even be ready with a pitch for why everyone should study what they study. We can’t assume that they’ve all discovered the same things, or in the same proportions. It is a compelling thought to imagine that their enthusiasm is justified, and that countless secret methods, useful to anyone who does hard work, lie hidden behind the labels we use to organize professions and subjects.

It is my hope that with a framework such as this theory, the lessons we learn from the hard work we do in one discipline can be more readily translated and applied to another. The more familiar we are with common patterns of conceptual labor, the more quickly we can recognize them when they show up in new circumstances, dressed up in the appearance of a novel task. We have yet to appreciate the extent to which valuable practices and knowledge can be transferred from the ontologies of one field to another.