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.

23 thoughts on “Are There Concepts?

  1. Hi Tanasije,

    This is a very interesting post. You say that:

    “[…]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.”

    I don’t think this is necessarily problematic, provided that the proponent of concepts is careful in thinking out their view. They should say that concepts are primarily that *by which* we think, not that *of which* we think. So they need not say that there is some intentional act whose object is simply chair. Instead, they should say that the concept of a chair is a constituent of “intentional acts” directed at chairs (at least, so long as we aren’t just thinking of some chair as “that wooden thing over by the table”, etc). Of course, the concept of a chair *can* be the object of an intentional act, but in that case we should say, e.g., “John is thinking about the concept of a chair”, or “John is thinking of the concept CHAIR”, not “John is thinking about chair.”

  2. Hi Tanasije, I very much liked this post, partly because while that distinction (‘by which’ vs. ‘of which’) does seem important, your post was very clear (I keep thinking that I need to know more about the concept of concept, but get lost in such distinctions very quickly). But why the problem with mass nouns, I’m wondering; could you not use a similar argument with ‘gold’ as the concept, vs. ‘gold’ as a particular amount (a magnitude rather than a multitude) of gold? Anyway, I’m looking forward to your following posts…

  3. Thanks Enigman!

    I agree that we aren’t thinking about concepts also in case of mass nouns. What I meant is that it is hard to express this easily through linguistic argument as in the case of count nouns, as we speak of ‘thinking about milk’ or ‘thinking about water’. So, it isn’t obvious as in the case of count nouns, that the meaning of those words can’t be a concept.

  4. I am fairly new to this blog, so apologies if my comment misses some subject matter of past posts. The discussion of this post is very intriguing, especially because I think it is in line with some other work that is skeptical about classical views of concepts. The assumption that lies in the background is that concepts act as the glue between our language and the world, and it seems right to take some issue with that. Mark Wilson in his recent book Wandering Significance spends a great deal of time talking about this “classical gluing” and some of the issues it gives rise to. I’m not yet well-versed in the sort of alternative view he suggests (I’m reading his work as part of a reading group), but I would highly recommend it to those who want to explore this issue further.

  5. Hello pal, and welcome back I hope your vacation was as good as your post.

    On the topic, whenever someone mentions “concepts” and “substance” I think of John Locke. In third book of “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” John Locke writes about use of substances, I am too lazy to write about it so I will simply copy paste his opinion that I hold to be true (plus the thing that I think real essence does not exist).

    “2. The Essence of each Sort of substance is our abstract Idea to which
    the name is annexed.

    The measure and boundary of each sort or species, whereby it is
    constituted that particular sort, and distinguished from others, is that
    we call its ESSENCE, which is nothing but that abstract idea to which
    the name is annexed; so that everything contained in that idea is
    essential to that sort. This, though it be all the essence of natural
    substances that WE know, or by which we distinguish them into sorts, yet
    I call it by a peculiar name, the NOMINAL ESSENCE, to distinguish it
    from the real constitution of substances, upon which depends this
    nominal essence, and all the properties of that sort; which, therefore,
    as has been said, may be called the REAL ESSENCE: v.g. the nominal
    essence of gold is that complex idea the word gold stands for, let
    it be, for instance, a body yellow, of a certain weight, malleable,
    fusible, and fixed. But the real essence is the constitution of the
    insensible parts of that body, on which those qualities and all the
    other properties of gold depend. How far these two are different, though
    they are both called essence, is obvious at first sight to discover.”

    So just for those lazy guys: when we talk about concepts or substances we refer to nominal essence, while we do not know real essence of those


  6. Thanks for pointing to that paragraph Aki,

    Locke’s ‘abstract idea’ (which he calls nominal essence) sounds as one incarnation of those “concept” thingies that I’m skeptical about. If I have such abstract idea, to which I ‘annex’ the name ‘rabbit’ or ‘gold’ you would expect that I can *think of it*. But as argued, I can’t think simply of rabbit (not ‘a rabbit’). So, the name doesn’t seem to be annexed to some such abstract idea.

  7. In a way word “concept” already describes what those are, so if that is your opinion you should change the word for it since “concept” is something that exist in mind but not in reality (yet, you can think about it and you can point to it (in mental sense) but you cannot visualize it – this is simply alternative to nominalism and realism called conceptualism, and I am “follower” of this dogma)
    I think it is clear that you cannot visualize this idea (simply because if you do you are not visualizing a concept but specific someone/something), but point is visualizing is not thinking, so you can think about those, it is obvious that you can think about air or god without visualizing them. Important thing is to note that you think about nominal essence, so in a way while you are thinking about rabbit, you are thinking about his properties but not some real, existing rabbit, or as Locke puts it some real existing essence. I do not think nominal essence is same as your concept, but that nominal essence is what lies beyond your concept. In a way concept refers to (concept is sign for) nominal essence. When you say that nominal essence does not exist than you are simply not making sense since (at least it seems to me) concepts are referring to something.


    p.s. I created that blog –

  8. Would you say that when I think of air, I’m thinking of something which is “in my mind”? I think not. If I think of/about air, I’m thinking about something outside of me. Same thing is with rabbits. If I think about rabbits, I’m thinking about those things in the nature. And I can think about a rabbit, one of those. And I can think about any rabbit or some rabbits. And in all those cases, I’m thinking about things which are not “in my mind”. The other option “thinking about rabbit” (not ‘a rabbit’), doesn’t make sense to me. It is not grammatical even.

    BTW, I put the phrase ‘in my Mind’ in quotes, as I think that ‘Mind’ is referring to mental faculties, and not some private place, so in general I’m skeptical about existence of things ‘in the Mind’ as long it is not metaphorical speech. One part of this is my arguing against ‘phenomenal experience’ or ‘conscious experience’ terms as often used in philosophy.

  9. Guess my grammar is not as good as yours so there were some confusions. Anyway, I used air as example of thinking without visualizing (unless you visualize it as atoms in everyday speech, and I really doubt that) not as thinking about something that does not exist. About “a rabbit” and “rabbit”, I will just say that I see “a rabbit” as concept, so explanation I gave would be for “a rabbit” (that is obvious, I think). So point is that you can think about “a rabbit” (in fact lets go one step further, you need to think about “a rabbit”, it is crucial for communication)simply because it refers to nominal essence (that is not essence in ordinary way, since this essence does not exist without one who thinks). Consider for example biology, it would be impossible without “a rabbit”. Thinking about “rabbit” is in fact thinking about “the rabbit” (thats sounds funny, reminds me on Bugs Bunny) is visualizing rabbit so it is not thinking with concepts. How can we think about “the rabbit”? As Descartes, Locke and everyone after thought – we simply combine ideas we already posses. So in a sense we are thinking alike, we just use different words (I think lol).

  10. Hello Tanas — i’m jumping in here a bit late, so i’ll keep it short. I think there are a couple of problems with this post. The first has to do with meaning, and the whole problem stems from this sentence near the beginning:
    “Language consist of words which have meanings.”
    But the basic unit of meaning in language is not the word but the sentence — or, in more formally logical terms, the proposition. Focussing on the word level as you do here reduces meaning to reference, which is only one component of the meaning. A word by itself, out of any context, hardly means anything. And you’ve reduced the scope of “meaning” even further by ignoring words other than nouns.

    Second, the doctrine you are expressing here seems to be the one called “nominalism”, which asserts that only individuals or particulars are real, and reality has no room for generality. General concepts are merely names (hence “nominalism”). That would entail that there are no “natural kinds” at all, that all classifications or categories are completely arbitrary. Would you agree that your position can be stated that way? If so, i think there are some obvious objections, which i’ll state if you wish. If not, then i don’t see why you object to using the word “concept” in reference to general ideas. The usefulness of the word does not depend on thinking “that there is some one thing, which is meaning of those nouns”. I think it’s obvious enough that we are not talking about “one thing” but about a “family resemblance”, as Wittgenstein put it.

  11. I had two birthdays to attend today, and returning from them I’m now (not so) slightly drunk. To avoid saying something stupid (“like I love you”) I will respond to Aki’s and Gary’s comments tomorrow.

    Richard, darn, I’m sorry to hear that. I checked the spam, hoping that it ended there, but it isn’t there.

  12. Hi Gary,

    The basic idea of relating meanings to common nouns in the post is to put attention on the process of new common noun appearing in the language. Such appearance can for sure happen just when certain social practices are in place, but it seems unproblematic to me that
    a) new common nouns appear because there is something to which people want to refer (like rabbits,bachelors,books,birds,trees etc..) and
    b) there has to be something analogous to process of baptizing like in case of proper names. In this practice, the common noun is give to something that we *think of*.

    Then, in the post I continue to think about what this of which we think of, can be in case of those common nouns, and it seems to me that it can’t be anything like Concept of Rabbit or General Idea of Rabbit as I can think of rabbits, a rabbit, any rabbit, some rabbit. Simply ‘rabbit’ can’t appear as intentional target of my intentional acts. (Though as Jason pointed, one can take concepts to be theoretical things by which we think, and this sounds better to me).

    Do words have meanings separate from sentences? I don’t see why not. a) We have dictionaries which clear up those meanings for us. b) If the appearance of the word is related to a practice of baptizing, it is implicit in the baptizing that the word will be used to mean something that two or more people will agree it to mean, i.e. that which is baptized.

    Anyway, I’m ignoring other words and full sentences, but I was thinking of merely those common nouns. In this previous talk about concepts and general ideas, I was also thinking of common nouns like ‘rabbit’, ‘book’, ‘bachelor’, etc… Do you think that I’m missing something because limiting this thinking to just this group of nouns?

    As for the question if this is nominalism and if general concepts are merely names, I would ask here – what general concepts? If denying that there is general idea, or concept means that I’m a nominalist, maybe I am. But I think that rabbits, books, mathematics, bachelors and furniture are real phenomena, and that they would be there and that there would be truths about them even we don’t have words for them. So, I don’t think that the categorizations are completely arbitrary. So, maybe that is not nominalism then?

  13. Aki,

    But a rabbit is not a concept, right? It is an animal. Biology (of rabbits) of course is possible only because people become aware of rabbits, and started to study them. But I don’t see where there is need of concepts there. We do have ability to recognize rabbits, and to learn things about them. But is there something else there in all that process aside from the rabbits and those our abilities which we would name ‘concept’. (Of course, it might be that there are theoretical entities in our brains or something, which we might call concepts, and ‘by which’ we think, e.g. information about the rabbits encoded in in bunch of neurons. But I doubt this too)

    BTW, I think there are people who think that concepts are actually abilities, but I’m not sure how that is supposed to work – by having several concepts, do we have several different abilities?

  14. IMHO when we think about one specific rabbit, the rabbit, Bugs Bunny, we think about animal, but when we think about a rabbit, rabbit without identity (there ya go…) then we think about concept, no matter if it is singular or plural (it doesn’t matter if we think about a rabbit or rabbits), we do not think about specific being in specific time and place (entity) so we are thinking about concepts. Ir is easy to test this theory, can you imagine a rabbit? Yes, you can probably even visualize, for example white rabbit, but when you see black rabbit you wont make a completely new concept just to fit this one in. U gave example with lemons, blue lemon is lemon with different color. I quoted Locke just to show that thinking like this does not necessarily mean you are Platonist since you can speak about nominal and not real essence.
    Why do I think concepts are important for science? Because if in biology you collect properties related to one species, you will not talk about one entity but about set of entities (this is Mill’s theory). If you read what I wrote in paragraph above, this means you are collecting properties of one specific concept. In fact if concept is formed through abstraction, you might say that whole science is process of making (precise) concepts. (This is opposed to Kant, who thought we were born with concepts, I think we learn all of them)
    I do not know theory that relates concepts to abilities, but I can simply propose my own answer to this question. If knowing more words means knowing more concepts, or if knowing more concepts knows knowing more facts, or if knowing more concepts enables you to combine words better… more concepts means more language ability.

  15. Tanas,

    I guess i don’t really understand what this discussion is about. I thought it was about a theoretical model of how thinking and meaning work. It didn’t even occur to me that your question (“Are there concepts?”) was an ontological or metaphysical question. I can’t make any sense of it in those terms, so i guess i’d better leave this language game to those who know how to play it! Sorry for the interruption.

  16. Aki,

    I think that you mention one thing that I was after (or against :) ) in the post. That we can think of something like idea of rabbit, or as you say ‘rabbit without identity’. When I think about a rabbit, I can’t think about a rabbit without identity.

    Wouldn’t the following be weird?

    “I’m thinking about a person. Because that person has no identity, I can’t think about that person again. Because it is not specific person, that person can’t have any specific color of eyes. Or as long as that person has color of eyes, it has all the possible colors of eyes.”

    But I think this obviously goes against what we mean when we say that we think about a person. When I think about a person, it CAN have different color of the eyes, but it MUST have some specific color of eyes. It MUST have some specific height etc… Again, I can’t think of some concept – PERSON. And that in any intentional act, be it perceiving a person, imagining a person, assuming a person, thinking of a person etc…

    As for the science, I still don’t see the need to talk about concepts. We become aware that there are rabbits, we can recognize them, and collect data on them. We can assume that they have some ‘deeper common essence’ or not. And in the process we can have the word – ‘rabbits’ to refer to them. But… why concepts?

  17. Gary,

    Hmm, no, I wasn’t proposing any theoretical model, nor am I saying that the word ‘concept’ is fully useless. As I said in the post, I’m sure ‘concept’ has nice meaning, I’m just thinking that there is specific kind of use of the word philosophy-based, where we talk about concepts – RABBIT, BOOK, BACHELOR, FURNITURE etc…, but of which usage I’m skeptical for the reason I pointed to in the post and in the comments.

  18. I think it is reasonable to state that you can think about person without thinking about eye color of that person. Heres example of how you can think (in fact how you must think) of one thing without taking into account all of properties (or better to say definite properties, since I am imagining person with eyes, but I am not imagining color):

    Think about car. Any car. You can think of it as new WV or old Mercedes, it really does not matter. Now you are saying that I have to think about color of that car too, since car cant be colorless. Ok, so we pick a color, and now I ask you to think about engine, brakes, bumpers and to pick their color, shape, size, material, quality. Car cant be egnineless (hehe), so same logic we applied to color of car must be applied here. Then I ask you to think about properties of this engine, for example about valves, since no engine can have no valves. Then I go even further and ask you to think about valves and their properties etc… Or we can go in another direction and when you imagine car I ask you to imagine surface under car, simply because cars cant float. Then I ask you to imagine place where this surface is located, etc. I might end up asking you to imagine whole universe simply because car cant exist in void.

    You probably can do this, but it is obvious that this isn’t the way we think. We imagine something, and probably most basic properties, like shape. It is irrational to require eye color or anything more specific as part of concept, simply because concept is abstracted – it takes into account only what is important. It is obvious that I can imagine person without eyes, I have to think of eye color for this one too? (This is just because I hate words like MUST lol)


  19. Oh, for sure you are right about what you are pointing to, but that is not what I’m saying.

    I’m not saying that you have to think of the color of the eyes when you think about a person (or really when you see him, imagine him, assume him, etc…). I’m saying that when you are thinking of a person, as a person he will be specific person with truths about him, he will either have eyes or not, there is no person with both eyes and no eyes, if he has eyes he will either have this color of the eyes or another. Of course I might not think of those things, but that I don’t have to think of those things don’t make it ‘undetermined’ general idea of a person. We may say, that as long we don’t specify any of those things, it may be without eyes or with eyes, with blue eyes or with brown eyes, and so on. But it is *a person*, it is not a general idea, and the moment we say that the person can be without eyes, that same person can’t be also with eyes.

    So, to talk about the car example. I’m not saying that when you think about a car, you need to think if it is WV or Mercedes, if it is new or it is old, and so on. I can of course, hear a story which does mention a car, and doesn’t mention any of those details and still understand it. But when I’m hearing the story, I’m not thinking of some ‘general car’. I’m thinking of some specific car. And it is either VW or Mercedes or some other kind, either old or new, etc…

  20. As a response to Aki let me point to a posts I wrote before a year, and which come I think very close to some of the issues (especially because in one of them I quote Berkeley, who I think attacks Locke on the notion of ‘abstract ideas’). Here is the post: A Guy Walks Into A Bar.

    Also as further response to Gary, and the issue of existence of particulars vs. general concepts, let me point to the post Against ‘Particular’ as a Noun.

    Maybe those two posts will just succeed to make more confusion, but IMHO they point to some interesting moments.

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