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Introduction to Concepts—The Building Blocks of Knowledge

Not all our knowledge is absolutely certain, but much of it is, and all the knowledge we must have to live successfully and happily in this world we can know. One barrier to knowledge is not knowing what knowledge itself is. The purpose of this introduction is to clear up from the beginning one major problem with all attempts to understand the nature of knowledge which is the confusion that surrounds the terminology that must be used in any discussion of knowledge or epistemology.

It is not my purpose to provide a list of formal definitions, but to explain the relationships between the concepts the terminology refers to, and to explain exactly how they will be used in this epistemology. There is no attempt here to make them understandable in terms of any other epistemology or theory of knowledge, which are all mostly confused or totally mistaken.

[Note: Philosophy and the sciences are disciplines of discovery, not authority. The question in these fields, "who decides," what is true or correct is totally wrong. No one decides what truth is, because truth is what describes any aspect of the nature of reality correctly. It is reality that determines what is true or not true, the philosopher or scientist can only discover that truth, not dictate it.

My purpose is not to dictate how particular terms or words must be used, but to establish how they will be used in this philosophy based on what seems most clear and reasonable and least likely to lead to ambiguity. The concepts and ideas expressed by these terms are those this philosopher's best efforts in reason and logic have determined are true. Ultimately, each reader and student must decide for themselves, using their own ruthless application of clear logical thinking to judge the validity of these ideas and concepts.]

Knowledge, Ideas, and Concepts

Our knowledge consists of concepts and ideas. "Ideas" is a broader term than "concepts." Concepts are like the subatomic particles of knowledge out of which all knowledge is constructed. Ideas include both concepts and combinations of concepts called propositions.— The proposition, "all men are mortal," is an idea, but so are "all" and "men" and "mortal" for example. The individual words in that proposition each represent a concept, the proposition, itself, however, is not a concept.

All our knowledge is held in terms of propositional ideas, and all reason and thinking proceeds by means of propositions as well. Since all propositions are constructed of concepts, an understanding of the nature of concepts is essential to understanding the nature of knowledge.

Structure and Function of Concepts

A concept is not a thing, not even a mental thing, it is a complex consisting of two "components" with a specific function. The components of a concept are "a mental existent," and a "specification." The function of all concepts is to identify things. The mental existent is a word, its specification is a definition which isolates or differentiates (from all other things) what the concept identifies. What a concept identifies is what it means. A concept's meaning is not part of the concept.

[Note: The "A concept's meaning is not part of the concept," may seem confusing, but what that means is, the concept "book" means any book that has or ever will exist. It only identifies any of those things, just as if one pointed to a book to identify one. The books the concept "book" identify are not themselves any part of the concept any more than they would be "part" of pointing to one.]

The only function of a concept is to identify existents. Existents can be anything: entities, events, qualities, relationships, or other concepts; concrete or abstract. If what is being identified is a specific single existent, the concept is a particular concept; if what is being identified is a category or class of existents, the concept is a universal concept. Most knowledge is in terms of universal concepts. The word concept, unless otherwise specified, means universal concept throughout the remainder of this epistemology.

Words

Though words can be written and read, spoken and heard, even signed and recognized, words, as components of concepts, are "mental" —words as we think them. Written and spoken words are only marks on paper or sounds that represent the words we think. We first have to think a word before we can say or write it and a written or spoken word only has meaning if someone reads or hears it.

Written and spoken words are symbols for the words we think, but words, as we think them, (except when we are thinking about them as words, their spelling for example), are part of concepts, not symbols for them. It is words that provide the part of a concept we can be conscious of, that is, since perception is the only kind of consciousness there is, we are conscious of a concept by perceiving the word part of it.

Definition

Since the function of a concept is to identify existents, the purpose of a definition is to indicate which existents a concept identifies. Since the identity of any existent is all its qualities, a definition specifies those qualities or attributes of an existent or class of existents which distinguishes (or differentiates) them from all other existents.

Concepts As Identification

If asked what he would like, a young boy wanting an apple might point to the apples in a bowl and say, "I'd like one of those, please." If there are no apples in plain sight, however, he might say, "I'd like an apple, please." The pointing and using the word apple have performed the same function——they identified the kind of thing the boy wanted.

It might seem like a quibble to emphasize it is not the word apple, but "using the word" apple that is the identifying action, because a spoken or written word is only a symbol, and it is the concept that does the identifying. When the boy uses the word apple, he has already identified apples mentally before saying the word, else he could not say it. It is also not the spoken word that identifies an apple for the listener but the concept, apple, which hearing the word recalls to the listener's mind.

The identity of the apple is independent of anyone's identification of it. The apple's identity is a metaphysical fact comprised of all an apple's qualities and attributes, known or unknown. To identify an apple by means of the concept "apple" does nothing more than pointing and saying, "one of those," does. The obvious advantage of a concept is that identifying an apple does not depend on the presence of a metaphysical one—, because we can identify an apple anytime by means of the concept, we do not have to have any apples before us to think about them.

Concepts and Meaning

What a concept identifies is what it means. The concept "apple" means any apple there has ever been, is now, or ever will be. As the identifier of apples, what it identifies is the entire metaphysical nature of apples in their entire metaphysical context, because that is what apples are. That nature and context are not part of or in any way contained in the concept, apple; the nature and context pertain only to what the concept identifies, that is, apples themselves. Therefore, what the concept apple means is apples with all their qualities and attributes and all that can ever be known about them.

The concept, apple, used by a child who knows little more about apples than what they look and taste like, or the same concept used by a botanist specializing in the study of apples, means exactly the same thing. Neither the child's limited knowledge or the botanist's extensive knowledge is about the concept apples; the knowledge is about that which the concept identifies for both the child and the botanist, actual apples.

Concepts, Propositions, and Truth

Except by implication, no concept is either true or false. Concepts can be good or bad, that is, they may identify confused ideas, or be vague and poorly defined, or even identify what does not materially exist, such as "phoenix" or "Zeus." What those concepts identify are fictions, but the concepts are neither true nor false. A concept only identifies things, and is just as valid when identifying fictional things as when identifying actual things.

Only propositions can be true or false. A proposition is a statement that asserts something about an existent or class of existents. For example, "Zeus is a god worshiped by the ancient Greeks," asserts something about Zeus. If what is being asserted is correct, the proposition is true; if what is being asserted is incorrect, the proposition is false. The assertion, in this case, and therefore the proposition, is true, even though the concept "Zeus" is a fiction. The same concept can be use in both true and false propositions. "The phoenix is a common bird found in the forests of Colorado," is false, but, "the phoenix is a mythical bird of ancient Egypt," is true.

Since only propositions can be true or false, knowledge consists entirely of propositions; but all propositions are constructed of concepts, without which no knowledge would be possible. Concepts identify the existents all our knowledge is about. Technically, concepts are not knowledge, but a definition, if correct, is knowledge because it is stated as a proposition.

One might say, all correctly defined concepts constitute a kind of knowledge, but notice, it is really only the definitions that are the knowledge, not concepts as identifiers, which is their only function. Concepts imply knowledge, and most concepts would be impossible without knowledge, but imbuing concepts themselves with knowledge is an epistemological mistake. It is that mistake that is the source of such confused ideas as those that suggest knowledge somehow changes the meaning of concepts, so that what a child means by an apple, and what a botanist means by an apple would be different things.

From Here, Working Toward Knowledge

It is unlikely, and certainly not intended, that this introduction will provide anyone with a very clear picture of epistemology, though all of its basic principles have been touched on. Those who have no exposure to theories of knowledge, especially as they are being taught in most universities, may have a fairly clear idea of where this epistemology logically must go. Sadly, those who have been exposed to modern philosophy courses will not likely understand much of this.

Epistemology is not an easy subject, however. It is not a matter of discovering some one or two secrets that when understood make it all clear. It is a very rich subject, with all the complexity of human knowledge itself. It will be impossible to understand this epistemology without work, but nothing worthwhile knowing can be acquired without work. It is an aspect of knowledge itself that is greatly under emphasized.

These are some of the subjects this epistemology will address: how concepts are formed, first simple ones, then more complex ones for classes, collections, other concepts, arguments, hypotheses and theories using the processes of abstraction, differentiation, relation, and integration; the nature of concepts and the principle of simplification and what knowledge actually is; the necessity of volitional consciousness to knowledge and exactly what that means; the mechanical aspects of words, definitions, language and its necessity and role in knowledge; the nature of learning; the nature of thinking and reason, the formal principles of correct reasoning, logic; a comparison of animal, child, and adult human consciousnesses; addressing some very bad epistemological mistakes; and responses to criticisms and questions.

—Reginald Firehammer (11/01/04)

Summary

  1. Concepts are like the subatomic particles of knowledge out of which all knowledge is constructed.
  2. The only function of a concept is to identify existents.
  3. A concept is not a thing, not even a mental thing, it is a complex consisting of two "components" with a specific function. The components of a concept are "a mental existent," and a "specification." The mental existent is a word, its specification is a definition which isolates or differentiates (from all other things) what the concept identifies. What a concept identifies is what it means. A concept's meaning is not part of the concept.
  4. A definition specifies those qualities or attributes of an existent or class of existents which distinguishes (or differentiates) them from all other existents.
  5. A proposition is a statement that asserts something about an existent or class of existents.
  6. .Only propositions can be true or false.
  7. All our knowledge is held in terms of propositional ideas, and all reason and thinking proceeds by means of propositions as well.