A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Am I Missing Something?

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on January 18, 2008

As I’m thinking about the discussion of the previous post on concepts, I’m thinking that the situation seems pretty simple. Maybe I’m missing something, but here is how I see the simple story…

I see a rabbit, and then see another one. I can see that both are similar, and assume that there are further common truths about them separate from this gestalt similarity. I also can assume that there are lot of things which share this similarity.
Because I live in a linguistic society in which the language is used in all kinds of practices, it is helpful to have a word to refer to the rabbits. So in a specific baptizing practice (probably also linguistic practice), I can choose a word to refer to rabbits. Namely I choose to call any of them ‘a rabbit’, and to call them ‘rabbits’.

I don’t see here any need for ‘concepts’. There are rabbits, there are people who can become aware of them, and those people are part of linguistic society and can use a word to refer to them. Also, I don’t see a need for there to be a word for rabbits, in order for me to be able to think of them. In fact, thinking in terms of this simple story it is quite impossible for there to appear a word for rabbits, if we already didn’t become aware of the rabbits.

Of course, once the word is there, same as with proper names, a person can use it and expect that the word has a meaning, which goes back to some initial baptism (or some similar linguistic practice). But, that doesn’t mean that there is some ‘concept’ which goes along with the knowledge of the word. After all, one might not be able to recognize rabbits from cats, and still use both words. If such person asks how to recognize rabbits from cats, for sure he will mean rabbits by ‘rabbits’ and cats by ‘cats’.

‘Nuf said about rabbits
Cows demanding inclusion in philosophical examples
(Cows Staring, Hencio)

6 Responses to “Am I Missing Something?”

  1. Enigman said

    Hi, I’m wondering about how we construct possible objects by combining concepts, such as a possible blue lemon, if we don’t have concepts, just the lemons of this world, which are all yellow or green. I’m thinking that we have a fuzzy concept of a lemon (in each of our idiolects, but including the idea that it is probably what the experts say it is (cf. asking about rabbits and cats)), and that we then get the subjective possibility that blue lemons might be metaphysically possible (might be allowed by the experts’ concept of a lemon).

  2. Hi Enigman,

    I think that when we hear some new common noun we have that idea that (probably) there is something in the world that this word refers to, and that there are people that know that thing to which the word refers to. By ‘knowing that thing’ I mean what I have already mentioned – that they became aware of some multitude (which shares some similarity). So, I think the scenario with experts fall into this group. While non-experts know that there are such things as aluminum and molybdenum, they aren’t aware of the similarities on base of which those multitudes differ, and those similarities are the base on which experts will recognize aluminum from molybdenum.

    But again, I don’t think there is need for concepts here. The expert is aware of two multitudes in each of which things share certain similarity. He uses two common nouns to refer to each, and we as part of the linguistic society, can also use those words, supposing that there are multitudes to which those words refer, and of which someone is aware to.

    Of course I’m skeptical that we are combining concepts when we imagine a blue lemon. It is known that little kids rely more on characteristic features – if you show them blue lemon they probably won’t accept it is a lemon because lemons are yellow. But I don’t think that this means that there is concept by which they say what is a lemon and what isn’t. Instead I think that they have become aware that there is multitude of things in the world which share some gestalt similarity, and now when one shows them a blue lemon, they just pronounce that this isn’t one of those things, because it doesn’t share that gestalt similarity. As grown ups of course our awareness of the world changes, we become aware that lemons grow on trees, that trees grow themselves from seeds, etc… and we can accept blue lemon to be a lemon. (but we won’t accept that toy-lemon is a lemon or that candy lemon is a lemon as much as it looks like a real lemon)

    So, instead of ‘conceptual development/change’, I think what goes on is simply ‘awareness development’, and we are inclined to think that there are some concept that change, only because we have a word for this multitude, which doesn’t change while our awareness of the place of that multitude in the scheme of the things in the world changes. Also it is said that there is holistic to analytic shift in this conceptual development, but I think that actually, it is holistic to more holistic shift, we go from the gestalt perceptual similarity to becoming aware of the wider context of phenomena, and how those things fall into this. We become aware of plants vs. animals, how plants grow, how some of them have fruits that we eat, etc… So, it is not that our awareness of lemons shrinks to some simple definition of DNA, but it grows.

    Again, talking about ‘blue lemon’ I don’t think that I need abstract ideas to do that. I can just bring forward an image of a lemon (but this is not concept right?), and change the color in my imagination.

  3. theBLAH said


    When speaking of language in relation to cognitive concepts such as concept, there may be an area of confusion entering.

    As you mentioned, language is a societal construct, primarily used for communication (communication of what?). In this way, grammatical convention (plurality, atomic word element, etc) may confuse the topic, such as in the case of “book” not referring to anything, while “gold” or “water” do.

    I believe you are correct in there not requiring a word for cows, in order for you to be able to think of them, but this is where I think there is fuzziness in the the analogy of language and concept.

    For you to think of cows, you must notice the difference between cows and not-cows. This notice of difference, what we find note-worthy, is what leads to the notation of the word for cow.

    It seems to me that the word “cow” is simply an assignment of distinction between what we notice when we think or react to a cow – it is a name for the feeling of cowness that we have, and which is made up of the differences noticed between cow and not-cow.

    I think there is an active part here with the idea of concepts and their existence. Rather than concepts being seen as an objective thing, concept would rather be made up of the distinguishIng of one set of features from another. The concept of “book” is the active part of our paying attention to certain features of the object, while ignoring others. “Blue lemon” tells to pay attention to all things we would normally think of as lemon, except ignore color, or replace with blue.

    In this way, a concept of “cow” may not exist until the actual distinction begins. Perhaps it can be seen from two different directions; is the cow concept the actual act itself of us distinguishing features we assign to cow, or can the concept of cow be seen as the instruction set, that which leads our attention to the features we normally assign to cowness?

    I apologize if this isn’t in a very coherent format, but I hope that I have a point, and was able to get at least a part of it across :) I won’t make up excuses, i just may be too lazy to rewrite it in a more fluid manner :)

  4. Hey THEBlah (Rob), happy to see you here! And cows are saluting you! :)

    Sincerely I get lost with this talk about concepts those days. Few years ago I was happy reading about different theories of concepts, and it seemed to me as one of the central questions about mind. It seemed to me that theory-theory of concepts is pretty good. Also I liked lot some ideas that concepts are organized as frames, which I noticed in some Lakoff paper.

    Few questions about what you said:
    You said that concept BOOK is the active part of our paying attention to certain features of the object. But let’s talk about COW instead…
    Are you saying that we have ability to recognize cows? I would agree that after kids see cows, they will generally be able to recognize cows. But do they need to pay attention to certain features in order to recognize cow as a cow? I think kids don’t do that, at least not consciously. So, would you say that concept COW (if it is to be active part of paying attention to certain features) is unconscious part of our thinking? If you are thinking that there might be some such entities by which we think (e.g. some kind of subconscious informational representations in our brains), it doesn’t seem like something outlandish (I would probably find it weird to use the word “concept” for such entities, but that is another issue).

    If this is not it, I would like to know where does this need to talk about concepts come from? You discuss that concepts could be this or that, but this is kind of discussion where we know what we are talking about, something of which we are aware, and now we try to give a theory of that something; like – what are lightnings? But while one can point me to lightnings, so I will know what we are talking about, I’m confused what we are talking about when talking about ‘concepts’.

    We become aware of cows, and use the word ‘cow’ to refer to them. We become aware of the books in the world, and use the word ‘book’ to refer to them. I’m aware of the books, and I’m aware of the cows, and when talking about cows and books (there, I’m using those two words), I’m not talking about anything else but cows and books.

    Anyway, I guess your comment will seem very coherent to you now, after reading my response :)

  5. Brian said

    I agree with your statement that a word for rabbits is not required to think of them. But language is so much more than a recognition: “there’s that…thing.” Naming becomes important, essential, when we recognize the multitudinous possibilities that devices such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, etc. create for a word such as “rabbit.” Naming a thing is to ensnare it, to arrogate it’s properties for ourselves. Over time, we explore the concept’s possibilities, we build our own edifices upon the semantic foundations we inherited; hence, Bugs Bunny, the easter bunny, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, lucky rabbit feet, ad infinitum.

  6. Hi Brian,
    Yeah, I’m not saying that language is referring. Communication is social practice – informing, asking, ordering, wondering, marrying, partying, joking, and so on… But most of those practices are related to the things in the world, so informing is informing someone about something, asking is asking someone about something, etc…, so we have words to talk about those phenomena in the world. About rabbits, books, governments, and so on. If we want to inform somebody about rabbits, or if we want to ask someone about rabbits, and so on, we have the word ‘rabbit’ to speak about them.

    We do have knowledge of rabbits, we can imagine rabbits, we might have feelings towards rabbits, relate rabbits to other things, make stories with fictional rabbits. There are social phenomena which includes fictional rabbits or imaginary rabbits. But, I can’t see how anything of this implies that there are such things as concepts.

    This talk about concepts seems like some need for reductionism, where we will have some ‘atoms’ from which we can build up our awareness of the world, when it seems to me the case is pretty complex and not reducible in such way.

    To make a metaphor with rabbits includes not just awareness of the rabbits and knowledge about them, but social phenomena which includes fictional rabbits and awareness of the social phenomena, which awareness isn’t some simple representation but lot of experiences through which we lived, and in which we were in some way related to those phenomena (e.g. Bugs Bunny). It involves further the awareness of the practice of language, awareness of how different words are combined and used to do some linguistic act, and will include the very awareness of the possibility to make a metaphor, etc…

    So, when I think in those complex terms, and how those phenomena relate, I can’t see the need for there to be concepts.

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