Are There Concepts?

I’m back from the short vacation, so it is time to write something new…

I want here to express my skepticism about ‘concepts’ (Well, at least about the word as philosophers and cog.scientists use it. Same as with the word ‘experience’, I’m sure there is quite a nice meaning that the word ‘concept’ has in the everyday speech.) . The notion of concepts (in philo-sense) is, I think, tightly connected to language. Language consist of words which have meanings. What are the meanings of those words? For proper names the answer is fairly straightforward, the meaning of a proper name, is the individual which was baptized with that name. But, the question appears about the meaning of common nouns – what is the meaning of such words like ‘rabbit’, ‘book, ‘chair’, ‘bachelor’ and so on?

It is here, I think, that by analogy with proper names, we are inclined to think that there is some one thing, which is meaning of those nouns, so – the meaning of ‘rabbit’ is the concept of rabbit, the meaning of ‘book’ is the concept of book, and similarly for the concepts of ‘chair’, ‘bachelor’, ‘justice’, ‘milk’, ‘love’, ‘gold’, ‘tiger’ etc… Given this assumption, it is later asked what is the nature of those concepts, how do we form them, how do we recognize things as falling under certain concepts, and so on. As attempts to answer those questions we get different theories of concepts.

We have for example classical theories of concepts, where a concept consist of a list of sufficient and necessary features. This theory sees concepts as kind of definition through other ‘more simpler’ concepts. For example a concept of bachelor would consist of concepts male and not married. One sub-type of this theory is, I guess, the genus/differentia view of concepts, where concepts are supposed to create a branching tree, where the concept in the branch is defined by its ‘parent’ concept, and a defining characteristic which separates it from other siblings in the same parent. Then, there are prototype theories, where concepts are not lists of defining features but representations which contains some kind of statistical information about properties that things which fall under that concept tend to have. Theory-theory of concepts changes the focus to more holistic understanding of concepts, where what is put to front are theories people have about the world, and where concepts have their existence only as parts of those theories.

However there is a certain problem for this view that the meaning of part of those common nouns is one certain thing. Because, while we can think about John, Mary and Peter, we can’t think about chair, bachelor, book and tiger. There is no such thing as intentional act, in which the target will be simply chair (not ‘a chair’, as then it is some specific chair), simply bachelor, simply book, or simply tiger. So, if we are supposed to give names to things of which we think of, we don’t have reasons to think that there is one specific thing, which is baptized with those common nouns.

What we can think of is books, rabbits, bachelors, tigers and chairs. I think this points that when we search for the meanings related to the words like ‘book’, ‘chair’, ‘bachelor’, etc…, we should in fact look at the plural form of those words. That words like ‘book’, ‘chair’, ‘bachelor’ are simply meaningless, and that they have meanings just when in forms like ‘a book’, ‘some book’, ‘any book’, and so on…. We can think about a book, about some book, about any book,etc… but not think about book.

So, if those words like ‘book’, ‘rabbit’, ‘bachelor’, ‘tiger’ and ‘chair’ don’t have meanings by themselves, it is a reason to suspect that we are on the right way when assuming such things as concepts. (I must note here that the argument given here doesn’t work for the mass nouns like ‘gold’ or ‘water’. Though I believe that there are no concepts behind those nouns too, at the moment I don’t have any argument for those.)

What is the alternative then?

As I was arguing in few places, I think that firstly it is very straightforward that common nouns only make sense in relation to multitude. If we aren’t thinking of multitude, there is no reason for us to use common nouns in our language. So, we should focus on the plural forms – that is ‘books’, ‘rabbits’, ‘bachelors’, ‘tigers’, ‘chairs’. When we move to the plural form, what we have as a meaning is obviously not one sole thing, but – a multitude. And, that is I think also unproblematic – we CAN think of multitudes, and this capacity of ours to be aware/think/see/imagine/assume etc… multitudes is not simply being aware of some kind of different thing (where the whole multitude would be taken as ONE thing). Multitude IS multitude, is NOT one. That this is separate faculty, we can see in persons that suffer of different forms of simultanagnosia. Related to this it might be interesting to see if maybe those people in some form of the agnosia might also have problems with using, or at least with learning of new common nouns.

Say that you grant that the meaning of common nouns aren’t concepts, and that those singular forms are ‘borrowing’ the meaning in different ways from the plural forms. What is then the meaning of those plural forms? What ‘books’, ‘bachelors’, ‘rabbits’ and ‘lemons’ mean?

This post is getting too long, so I will continue with this line of thought in some other post.