The purpose of this chapter is to provide a concise unambiguous explanation of what concepts are. It does not take the place of the main articles on epistemology but rather condenses the essential meaning fully explained in those those chapters.
This chapter, and it's companions, "Epistemology Mistakes," "Cause," and, "Induction," are necessitated because these ideas are fundamental to almost all the remainder of philosophy and no philosophy today correctly identifies them, and, in fact has so corrupted them, no further progress in the field of philosophy is possible.
Concepts And Words
By concepts is meant what are colloquially referred to as words. While we talk about the meaning of words, it is not really words that have meanings, but the concepts those words represent, indicate, or stand for. Words are only symbols for concepts, and it it the concepts words represent that have meaning.
For the moment, this fact can best be understood by two illustrations:
1. Different words (or symbols) can and frequently are used for the same concept:
The words, home, abode, domicile, and residence, in English, all stand for the same concept, as do the words and symbol inicio (Spanish), casa (Italian), startseite (German), klab ban (Thai), and (symbol). The words and symbol are all different, but the concept is the same one, a place where one resides.
2. The same word (or symbol) can and frequently is used for different concepts:
The word, "light," is used to represent or indicate many different concepts including: "electromagnetic radiation that is visible," "seeing light," "illuminate," "a lamp," "ignite," "a signal or warning," "information," "not heavy," "gentle," "faint," "moderate," "blithe," "to land or settle."
Other words identifying multiple concepts are:
Fast: "swift," "unmoving," "immoderate," "to not eat."
Bolt: "a fastener," "a short heavy arrow," "dash," "roll of cloth."
as well as many others.
What Concepts Are
Concepts are identifications of existents.
Identification, here, only means to, "point out," or, "indicate," which existent out of all possible existents is identified. That identification might be done by simply pointing at the thing meant or by description or explanation.
Existent, here, means anything there is that a human being can be conscious of, by directly perceiving (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling or tasting) them, discovering them, or learning about them. Virtually anything that is (exists)—any entity, attribute, relationship, event, physical or psychological phenomena, experience, or idea, real or imagined, past, present, or future, may be identified by a concept.
Concepts, Reference, and Meaning
Any existent a concept identifies is what the concept refers to when used in thinking or communication and is called the concepts referent. The meaning of a concept is its referent.
Though words are what we think and communicate with, it is not the words our thoughts and communication are about, but the actual existents the concepts the words represent refer to. If we think or talk about a car, we are not thinking about the letters, c a r, or of the definition of a car, we are thinking and talking about an actual automobile.
What a concept identifies, what a concept means, and what a concept refers to are all the same thing, the actual existents specified by that concept.
This is crucial: A concept does not mean its definition.
Referents Of Concepts
The actual exitents referred to by a concept is what a concept means. It means those existents as they actually are with all their characteristics and properties and all that can be known about them, no matter how much or little is actually known about those existents.
The concept only identifies exitents. No knowledge is contained in or implied by a concept. The definition is knowledge about the existent, because it indicates what existents are referred to by the concept, but the concept itself only means the existent.
Structure of Concepts
A concept is formed by means of a symbol (such as a word) and a definition. A concept is the mental identification of an actual existent, but that identification cannot be directly perceived. The purpose of a symbol is to make a concept perceivable, because a word can be seen (written) or heard (spoken or signed). The definition indicates what existent the concept identifies. A symbol alone is not a concept, only an indicator of one. A symbol alone cannot indicate what a concept means, which is why a definition is necessary. Together, symbol and definition, make the conscious awareness of a concept and its meaning possible.
The function of a definition is to indicate what existent a concept refers to, that is, what it means.
The simplest forms of definition are called, "ostensive." A thing is pointed to or otherwise indicated when saying or thinking a word. It is the method one uses when teaching a language to another, such as a child, before the other has much vocabulary.
For example: a mother teaching her child might point to a book while saying, "book," or to a table while saying, "table," or to a toy while saying, "toy," until the child associates the word with the objects and is able to say the words himself. An ostensive definition indicates the existent referred to by pointing at it, implying, "that existent."
Most definitions are not ostensive because the things identified are not accessible to one's immediate perception, and are therefore defined verbally. But what any definition, verbal or ostensive, must do is identical. A definition must indicate what existent the concept refers to. Since a verbal definition cannot rely on the existent being directly observed, it must indicate the existent by means of description or explanation.
A verbal definition indicates what existent a concept refers to by describing or explaining what that existent is.
Methods Of Definition
Any method that will indicate what existent is referred to (or meant) by a concept is valid. The most common method is by description. An existent that has been defined ostensively is indicated by what it looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes like. When a child first learns the concepts, "book," "table," and "toy," he identifies them by what he can perceive about them: their shape, size, how they feel, and possibly smell and taste.
For anyone whose vocabulary already includes concepts of perceptual attributes like color, shape, size, position, textures, temperatures, various odors and flavors, those same objects defined ostensively can be define by describing the attributes that would be directly perceived if defined ostensively.
Conceptually, every existent for which we have a concept is whatever its attributes are by which we are aware or conscious of that existent, directly perceived or learned about in some other way.
[NOTE: By "general concepts," I mean what most concepts are, except for those that identify specific individual existents. In a formal epistemology concepts are called, "universals," in contradistinction from concepts identifying specific individuals which are formally called, "particular concepts." The term, "universals," in philosophy is helplessly muddled, which is why it is avoided here.]
Very few concepts identify single individual existents, and most that do are called proper nouns. Most concepts identify existents as, "kinds," of existents, or as a class or category of existents.
Nothing is totally unique, and there are almost always more than one of any kind of existent. The first concepts we learn are mostly concepts for individual things, like table, cup, nose, mouth, cat, bedroom, and sore, meaning the table in one's own kitchen, the cup one drinks from, one's own nose and mouth, the family cat, one's own bedroom and the small abrasion on one's own knee.
These kinds of concepts become general concepts when other existents with the same attributes by which individual exitents are recognized are encountered. The other things that are like one's own cup are cups, the neighbors animal that looks and behaves like the family cat is also a cat. Cup no longer means, "my cup," but a thing that looks like and is used as a cup, and cat no longer means, "the family cat," but anything that looks and acts like a cat.
What makes existents members of the class or category of existents are the attributes and characteristics by which they are originally identified. A general concept means any of those existents that have the same attributes, characteristics, or properties (qualities) that all existents identified by that concept have.
[For a full explanation of the nature concepts, please see the chapters Epistemology, Concepts, and Epistemology, Concept Formation.]