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[Slow Cognition] The Development of the concept of “Thematic Spaces”

Creative Attachance as Moving between Thematic Spaces

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

On July 15, 2022, I sent a long email about the newest version of the Project Engagement approach to a friend of mine.

Initially, I used “Project Engagement” to name the second half of my 2020 book Project-oriented Activity Theory. The first half of the book reviews the historical development of Activity Theory and introduces Andy Blunden’s new approach: “Project as Unit of Activity” and “Activity as Formation of Concepts”.

Following Andy Blunden’s approach, I went further and developed the following three things:

  • Developmental Project Model
  • Zone of Project
  • Cultural Projection Analysis

In the past six months, I worked on the “Life-as-Project” project and explored connected projects' complexity. Eventually, I developed the following new things:

  • Project Network
  • The Life—History Topology
  • Mapping Thematic Spaces

Most of the ideas behind these things are not new to me. For example, The notion of “Project Network” is inspired by “Activity Network”. The notion of “Life-History Topology” is inspired by “Event/Project” and “Themes of Practice”. The notion of “Mapping Thematic Spaces” is inspired by “Mapping Network of Enterprise”.

I knew all sources of these inspirations before Jan 2022.

However, there is one thing I created in Jan 2022 and It transformed from an applicational concept into a significant theoretical concept.

It’s the concept of “Thematic Spaces”.

This article aims to review the historical development of the concept of “Thematic Spaces”.

Jan 5, 2022: A Canvas

The notion of “Thematic Spaces” was born on Jan 5, 2022, when I was working on the Model of Knowledge Curation and the Canvas of Knowledge Curation. Inspired by Peter Gardenfors’ 2004 book Conceptual Space: The Geometry of Thought, I used the term “Conceptual Space” for the model of Knowledge Curation.

Later, I used “Thematic Spaces” to replace “Conceptual Spaces” for the model because I used the term to describe large cognitive containers for curating similar theoretical approaches together. What I am talking about is not the original meaning of Peter Gardenfors’ concept of Conceptual Spaces. Second, I use the word “theme” for my several creations such as Theme U, Theme Plus, and Themes of Practice.

Thus, I decided to use Thematic Space for the model and the canvas. You can find more details in The Notion of Thematic Spaces.

My first project about the notion of “Thematic Spaces” is developing a canvas called “Thematic Space Canvas” for developing tacit knowledge. See the canvas below.

In March, It became a meta-canvas and it led to the Knowledge Discovery project and the Life Discovery project. I changed the name of the above canvas to Knowledge Discovery.

I also made a meta-canvas for “Thematic Space Canvas”. See the picture below.

Eventually, I designed six canvases with the Thematic Space Canvas.

I also used some of the above canvases as mediating instruments for some activities. For example, Knowledge Discovery Activity and Life Discovery Activity.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: A Meta-canvas for Developing Tacit Knowledge.

Jan 20, 2022: A Conversation

On Jan 20, 2022, I had a conversation with a friend of mine on Linkedin via private messages. I roughly mentioned a plan for exploring the Thematic Space Canvas.

  • F (a friend of mine): What is your long-term goal for the work you’ve been doing? Where do you hope it will lead you?
  • O (me): I think my vision is connecting the gap between theory and practice. My way of connecting Theory and Practice is related to my idea “Themes of Practice” which suggests a way of connecting personal life themes and collective cultural themes.
  • F: Oh, that’s a lifetime mission! I hope you succeed, :) I’ll try to do my part too. I struggle with that in my work a lot, but I found it useful to break it into ideal and non-ideal theory — bounded and unbounded practice. The tool I developed recently was meant to dip into non-ideal theory with contextual and working definitions, but the practice is as unbounded as possible, to ensure it doesn’t get in the way of the dialogue.
  • O: In this way, a creative person’s life is a process of developing a creative theme. For me, the theme is Curativity.
  • F: Would you be able to draw themes of practice out of other people, or help them do that?
  • O: Yes, this is the work of the book Themes of Practice: The Information Architecture of Social Life (2021, 440 pages, draft). The tool is the framework below and the canvas.
  • O: Also, “Thematic Space” is a new tool for “Themes of Practice” too. Though, “Thematic Space” is developed for Knowledge Curation. It can be used for Life Curation.
  • O: If we choose “Self”, “Life”, “Love”, and “Care” as primary themes of “Thematic Spaces”. Then, it becomes a tool for Developing Tacit Knowledge about “Self”, “Life”, “Love” and “Care”.
  • F: Can a concept and an activity be the same? For instance, if I choose “Connect”
  • O: There are many theories about Concepts. Each theory has its own perspective and value. For “Activity as Formation of Concept”, it is for creating some new concepts, not normal words such as “Connect”.
  • O: For “Themes of Practice”, we can consider “Connect” as a theme. And you can work on it too. However, the “Themes of Practice” framework would like to suggest some strategies to choose primary themes in order to save time for your creative life. In a simple word, you can think of a theme or a career theme as a stock. Then, you can apply the investing wisdom to choose your primary “themes of practice”.
  • F: And could we distribute the thematic space into layers of themes? To create something like a radar of weak and strong links?
  • O: If we connect more than one thematic space together, then we go to the layer of “Network of Themes”. This also echoes the notion of “Network of Enterprise” because each theme refers to an enterprise for a creative person.
  • F: I see, thanks for clarifying!
  • O: My newest article touches this idea:
  • O: For one same life experience, I can generate two knowledge sparks (insights) for two different thematic spaces: “Activity” and “Attachance”. My case is unique because these two spaces are all about theoretical approaches which have their own perspectives.
  • O: For some themes, they don’t have particular perspectives. Or, the person doesn’t develop a perspective for it. Or, there is no need to lack one perspective. For example, the “Love” thematic space.
  • F: You remind me of the doxastic attitudes.
  • O: This issue is about “End — Means”. For me, both “Activity” and “Attachance” are End, which means they are for building knowledge products. For someone’s “Love” thematic space, it is about learning and sensemaking for her own life. It is about Means.
  • F: choosing to believe, disbelieve or suspend judgment — to create enough internal room for a relationship to knowledge.
  • O: It is very exciting about “Thematic Space”. I am glad that I discover it.

I mentioned several ideas for writing articles about Thematic Space Canvas: “Self”, “Life”, “Love”, and “Care”. On Feb 17, 2022, I wrote an article titled Mapping Thematic Space #6: The “Life” thematic space.

Inspired by the Thematic Space Canvas, I designed the Life Discovery Canvas on Feb 27, 2022.

Feb 27, 2022: “Life” as a Primary Theme

In Feb 2022, I worked on the Life Discovery Toolkit and the Life-as-Project approach.

The Thematic Space Canvas is developed as an instrument for the activity of “Developing Tacit Knowledge”. I consider the Life Discovery Activity as a special type of “Developing Tacit Knowledge”, so I can use the Thematic Space Canvas for Life Discovery Activity too.

However, the Life Discovery Canvas is not an application of the Thematic Space Canvas. I only adopt the spatial structure from the Thematic Space Canvas for the Life Discovery Canvas.

The Life Discovery Canvas is not a simple 2x2 matrix for building a typology, but a multiple-dimension model for visualizing a holistic view in order to sense-make a dynamic meaningful whole.

  • The Self—Other Relevance
  • The Practice — Theory Dialogue
  • The Production Chain
  • The Communication Chain
  • The Feedforward Chain
  • The Experiment Chain
(The Feedforward Chain)

From the perspective of ecological psychology, a canvas is an environment. The spatial structure of a canvas refers to a piece of the spatial structure of our environments. Thus, we should consider spatial structure as ecological knowledge.

According to the ecological psychologist Harry Heft, “…some of the things we have come to understand about the effects of certain actions on the environment we have subsequently built into environmental structures themselves. These latter constructed embodiments of what is known — which include tools, artifacts, representations, social patterns of actions, and institutions — can be called ecological knowledge.” (2001, p.330)

Life Discovery Canvas offers an environment for discovering new potential life possible actions with a dynamic holistic view. As a model of the Life Discovery Activity, it is also a creative space, an environment for exploration.

The conceptualization part is based on Life Discovery Toolkit (v1.0), Anticipatory Activity System, Project-oriented Activity Theory, etc.

For me, this canvas is a window of my “Life” thematic space and my “Strategy” thematic space. It is also an invitation to readers for the Life Strategy Project.

May 25, 2022: An Accident

On May 25, 2022, I had an accident using a Thematic Space Canvas. The untended action led to a new significant insight: the free version of “Mapping Thematic Space”.

The original version was renamed “Mapping Thematic Space (Guided version)”. For example, the picture below is the guided version. You can find the original Thematic Space Reflection Report here.

The new version of “Mapping Thematic Space” only considers the primary theme and data without using the canvas. See the picture below.

It also inspired me to reflect on the concept of “Space” for the “Thematic Space” project.

I want to emphasize that there is a difference between the concept of “Thematic Space” and the instrument of “Thematic Space Canvas”.
While “Thematic Space Canvas” is a good tool for understanding the concept of “Thematic Space”, we can do something with the concept of “Thematic Space” without using the “Thematic Space Canvas”.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: This is just an accident.

While “Thematic Space Canvas” is a good tool for understanding the concept of “Thematic Space”, we can do something with the concept of “Thematic Space” without using the “Thematic Space Canvas”.

Finally, this tiny difference led to a major difference. I started connecting it with “project engagement”.

May 26, 2022: Theme as Space

On May 26, 2022, I wrote the following piece about the notion of “Theme as Space”.

My notion of “Theme” can be understood as “Topic”. Originally, the source of “Topic” is “Topos”. According to the Merriam-webster dictionary, “Latin Topica Topics (work by Aristotle), from Greek Topika, from topika, neuter plural of topikos of a place, of a topos, from topos place, topos”.

According to Aristotle, we need a Topos because we can remember a thing by remembering the Topos in which the thing is placed.

If we use the technique of “Deep Analogy” and use “Etymology” as a perspective, then we can understand “Theme” and “Space” into one thing. Theme (Topos) is Space!

Originally, I read the idea of “Theme (Topos) is Space” from a Chinese scholar‘s book Spatial Narratology. The scholar quoted Christian Norberg-Schulz’s discussion about the topic — topos relationship from Genius Loci: Towards a phenomenology of architecture.

Traditional narratology is about the linear temporal narrative because a story or a text is easy to understand if its structure is organized in a temporal sequence. However, some modern writers use spatial simultaneity as the primary approach to organize their stories. They often use the technique of “Juxtaposition” to create a spatial sense in their writing.

The technique of “Juxtaposition” is a nonlinear spatial narrative approach. I adopt it for Thematic Space Reflection Report. If you read my thematic space reflection reports, you can find there is no linear temporal narrative structure. All notes are just listed without a predefined logic structure.

Though the Structure of Knowledge Discovery Canvas (and Life Discovery Canvas, etc) has its predefined logic structure, it is still a structure of “Juxtaposition”. All 16 blocks are not organized in a linear way.

A person can use Thematic Space Canvas in different ways by perceiving its spatial structure and potential connections between different blocks. The canvas doesn’t control the process of sensemaking but offers a space for sensemaking.

June 29, 2022: An Attachance

On June 29, 2022, I made the following diagram to connect “Project Engagement” and “Themes of Practice”.

The diagram connects “Event — Project”, “Life — History”, and “Life Themes — Cultural Themes” together.

The Life-as-Project approach uses “events” and “projects” to present social context and individual biography. The difference between “events” and “projects” are individual involvement. If the person directly gets involved in an activity — it means she is the subject of the activity or part of the community of the activity — then the activity is a project of her biography. If the person doesn’t directly get involved in the activity, then the activity is an event of her biography.

The diagram presents a connection between “Project Engagement” and “Themes of Practice” together. Both two ideas are my creations, but they belong to two different knowledge enterprises.

  • The “Project Engagement” Approach is part of the Project-oriented Activity Theory which belongs to a knowledge enterprise inspired by Activity Theory.
  • The “Themes of Practice” Framework is part of Curativity Theory which belongs to the Ecological Practice approach, a knowledge enterprise inspired by Ecological Psychology.

Originally, I called this diagram “Life, History, and Multiverse”. Later, I renamed it “The Life — History Topology” because I want to explore it later with topology. You can find more details in Life Discovery: “Project Engagement” and “Themes of Practice”.

While the pair of concepts of “Event — Project” is not new to me, the “Life — History Topology” is a brand new idea that was born from the newest Lifezone. I used the term “Zone” to refer to a social interactive space between two people around a particular theme, a shared activity, or a joined project. I also used the “Self, Other, Thing, Think” schema to discuss the Lifezone perspective, see the diagram below.

On April 14, 2022, I sent an email to a theoretical sociologist after I received a recommendation from Academia. We had an email conversion in the following ten days.

I started re-reading his books, papers, and articles. He developed a meta-theory of theoretical sociology and wrote three books and many academic papers in over 10 years.

This is a new Lifezone to me and the primary theme of the Lifezone is Sociology Theories. We exchanged ideas on a mobile message app and shared files through emails.

He encourages me to explore the pair of concepts of “Event — Project” further. I also learned “a mechanism of unfolding” from his meta-theory of theoretical sociology. He doesn’t use the term “a mechanism of unfolding” in his book, but he uses the pair of concepts of “synchronic — diachronic” to describe the transformation from micro immediate situated activities to macro social structures.

Following his approach, I used “synchronic mapping” to describe the immediate “Event — Project” match. I also used “diachronic unfolding” to describe the development of a chain of Projects and a chain of Events.

This is a fantastic Social Attachance. I attached my mind to the newest Lifezone which offers me a new opportunity to improve my theoretical frameworks from the perspective of a meta-theory of theoretical sociology. Moreover, his books and papers also inspired me to re-learn Activity Theory and asked myself a question:

Is Activity Theory a sociological theory?

It’s not easy to answer this question because there are many branches of Activity Theory. In fact, the term “Activity Theory” is not an official name for a particular theoretical account. People just use it as a name to refer to a family of similar approaches.

You can find more details in Re-learning Activity Theory.

Also, there is a Thematic Attachance. The connection between “Project Engagement” and “Themes of Practice” can be understood as an attaching action which means I attached the notion of “Themes of Practice” to the “Project Engagement” approach.

In April 2022, I conducted a mini project called Significant Insights Analysis by using 12 insights I captured from Jan 2022 to April 2022. The most popular technique behind these 12 insights is Creative Attachance.

Since my 12 insights are all about thematic thinking, the technique Creative Attachance means Thematic Attachance too.

June 30, 2022: The Complexity of Project Network

On June 30, 2022, I designed the Life Discovery Board (public, v2). The major difference between v1 and v2 is the following part which is about the Complexity of “Project Network”.

In fact, the notion of “Complexity of Project Network” (CPN) was born on June 30, 2022, when I was designing the v2 board.

July 2, 2022: A New Principle

On July 2, I wrote an article to reflect on the Life-as-Project project.

I connected the notion of “Theme as Space”, the concept of “Thematic Space”, and the “Flow — Story — Model” metaphor together.

From the perspective of the Slow Cognition project, Life Discovery is a particular type of Knowledge Discovery and the primary theme of Life Discovery is “My Life”.

The objective of the Life Discovery Activity is to Develop Tacit Knowledge about “My Life” and turn Tacit Knowledge into resources for actions.

By connecting the Project-centered Approach and the concept of “Thematic Space” together, we can find the following connection:

Life = Project = Thematic Space

While Life is a chain of projects, it can be understood as a journey of moving between various thematic spaces.

Each project has its primary themes and other secondary themes. By joining projects and leaving projects, we are practicing our significant Life Themes. Thus, these projects are Thematic Spaces too.

So, I developed the 7th basic principle of the Life-as-Project approach: “Project as Thematic Space”.

You can find more details in Life Discovery: Biography, Journey, Program (and a possible book, Part 2).

July 6, 2022: Partonomy and Taxonomy

Inspired by the picture below, I wrote a short post about the concept of “Thematic Space” on July 6, 2022.

The concept of “Thematic Space” combines Thematic Thinking and Spatial Thinking together.

If we make a list, then it refers to Thematic Thinking.

  • Name
  • Email
  • Website
  • Instagram

The above tiny list only contains four items which are four categories. Thematic Thinking sees things in differences and similarities.

In contrast, Spatial Thinking cares about the meaning and value of spatial structures of environments without considering categories.

  • {<maggie>[@(singingbearshop].com)}
  • {email}
  • <name>
  • [Instagram]
  • (Website)

Thematic Thinking and Spatial Thinking follow two different logics:

  • Partonomy
  • Taxonomy

When we think about thinking, we usually think we are thinking in words. However, linguistic thought is not the only way of the human mind. Cognitive scientist and psychologist Barbara Tversky argued that spatial thought is the foundation of our abstract thinking in her 2019 book Mind in Motion: How action shapes thought.

I want to highlight three ideas I learned from Barbara Tversky. The first is about taxonomy and partonomy, the second is about individual differences in mental rotation, and the third is a story about the Feynman diagram. First, Tversky said, “Spatial hierarchies are partonomies, not taxonomies like the categories of objects, events, and scenes…Partonomies are hierarchies of parts; taxonomies are hierarchies of kinds…categories allow reducing the amount of information in the world…”(p.77)

While Thematic Thinking follows the logic of taxonomy, Spatial Thinking follows the logic of Partonomy. The designer of the above business card doesn’t just list the items below but organizes them in a structure of Partonomy.

  • {email}
  • <name>
  • [Instagram]
  • (Website)

The outcome is awesome! We see both a meaningful whole and its several parts.

According to Barbara Tversky, “Like taxonomies, partonomies allow inferences, but inferences of containment, not of properties. If a knee is part of a leg and a leg is part of a body, then a knee is part of a body. ”(p.78)


I answered it in Knowledge Discovery: The “Double Theme” Strategy.

Thematic Thinking and Spatial Thinking are a pair of opposite themes. The concept of “Thematic Space” is the outcome of connecting this pair of themes.

The term Space can be understood as a Container. In Thematic Space: Place as Container, I point out that there are two types of environments for developing tacit knowledge: physical environments and social environments.

The Thematic Space Canvas is a cognitive artifact for visualizing Thematic Spaces. However, we can live with Thematic Spaces without using the Thematic Space Canvas.

July 7, 2022: A New Method of Mapping

The new insight “Life as a journey of moving between thematic spaces” led to a new method “Mapping Thematic Spaces”. It also echos the model of “Project Network”.

On July 7, 2022, I made my first case study on “Mapping Thematic Spaces”.

I used my journey of developing the Life-as-Project approach as an example of the notion of “moving between thematic spaces”. In Life Discovery: Biography, Journey, Program (and a possible book, Part 3), I listed the ten themes for the six-month journey and made the following diagram.

The model of “Project Network” is a multiple-level network that considers 1) a network of Themes, 2) a network of Projects, and 3) a network of People.

  • All theoretical approaches and frameworks belong to the network of themes.
  • All real activities such as developing a toolkit, designing a canvas, and hosting a program, are part of a network of projects.
  • All things about people’s biogeography are located in the network of People.

The diagram is a map of the archive of my six-month journey in developing the Life-as-Project approach.

All theoretical approaches and frameworks belong to the network of themes. Each Theme refers to a Thematic Space.

And the network of Projects is considered as “Practices” of “Themes” from the perspective of the “Themes of Practice” framework and the perspective of Project-oriented Activity Theory. For example, the “MNB” (the AAS Board @ Milanote) is guided by the “AAS” framework. The “LDA” (the Life Discovery Activity) is guided by the “LAP” (the Life-as-Project approach).

You can find more details in Life Strategy: Moving between Thematic Spaces.

July 15, 2022: The Final Words

Two weeks ago, I reviewed the development of the Life Discovery project over the past six months. In the past six months, I applied the Project Engagement approach to Life Discovery Activity and developed a series of tools such as a toolkit, a canvas, and several models and frameworks.

I also joined the following three Life Discovery Projects:

  • Shaper & Supporter Lab: I am a researcher.
  • The AAS Board: I am a coach and a service designer.
  • The Slow Cognition Project (Phase I): I am a creator.

I used three metaphors to summarize the journey and edit a possible book: Life Discovery: The Life-as-Project Approach for Creative Life. You can find more details in the following articles:

Last week I detached my mind from the Life Discovery project and attached my mind back to the Project Engagement approach.

I wrote a long email to a friend of mine and introduced the new version of the Project Engagement approach to her.

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

It’s clear that the past six months is about exploring the complexity of Project Network. The outcome expanded the Project Engagement approach from the level of a single project to the level of a web of projects.

Finally, I discovered a new theoretical metaphor for developing a new social theory.

Life = Projects = Thematic Spaces = Events = History

What a fantastic journey! How many moves between thematic spaces did I make within the journey?

I am also working on building a new website for the Platform Ecology project. You can save the following links:

You are most welcome to connect via the following social platforms:




The Knowledge Curation Project and other ideas

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Oliver Ding

Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.