A concept is an abstraction or generalization from experience or the result of a transformation of existing concepts. The concept reifies all of its actual or potential instances whether these are things in the real world or other ideas. Concepts are treated in many if not most disciplines both explicitly, such as in psychology, philosophy, etc., and implicitly, such as in mathematics, physics, etc.
In metaphysics, and especially ontology, a concept is a fundamental category of existence. In contemporary philosophy, there are at least three prevailing ways to understand what a concept is:[See talk page]
- Concepts as mental representations, where concepts are entities that exist in the brain,
- Concepts as abilities, where concepts are abilities peculiar to cognitive agents, and
- Concepts as abstract objects, where objects are the constituents of propositions that mediate between thought, language, and referents.
The term "concept" is traced back to 1554–60 (Latin conceptum - "something conceived"), but what is today termed "the classical theory of concepts" is the theory of Aristotle on the definition of terms. The meaning of "concept" is explored in mainstream information science, cognitive science, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind. In computer and information science contexts, especially, the term 'concept' is often used in unclear or inconsistent ways.
There is debate as to the relationship between concepts and natural language. However, it is necessary at least to begin by understanding that the concept "dog" is philosophically distinct from the things in the world grouped by this concept - or the reference class or extension. Concepts that can be equated to a single word are called "lexical concepts".
Issues in concept theoryEdit
A priori conceptsEdit
Kant declared that human minds possess pure or a priori concepts. Instead of being abstracted from individual perceptions, like empirical concepts, they originate in the mind itself. He called these concepts categories, in the sense of the word that means predicate, attribute, characteristic, or quality. But these pure categories are predicates of things in general, not of a particular thing. According to Kant, there are 12 categories that constitute the understanding of phenomenal objects. Each category is that one predicate which is common to multiple empirical concepts. In order to explain how an a priori concept can relate to individual phenomena, in a manner analogous to an a posteriori concept, Kant employed the technical concept of the schema. He held that the account of the concept as an abstraction of experience is only partly correct. He called those concepts that result from abstraction "a posteriori concepts" (meaning concepts that arise out of experience). An empirical or an a posteriori concept is a general representation (Vorstellung) or non-specific thought of that which is common to several specific perceived objects (Logic, I, 1., §1, Note 1)
A concept is a common feature or characteristic. Kant investigated the way that empirical a posteriori concepts are created.
The logical acts of the understanding by which concepts are generated as to their form are:
- comparison, i.e., the likening of mental images to one another in relation to the unity of consciousness;
- reflection, i.e., the going back over different mental images, how they can be comprehended in one consciousness; and finally
- abstraction or the segregation of everything else by which the mental images differ ...
In order to make our mental images into concepts, one must thus be able to compare, reflect, and abstract, for these three logical operations of the understanding are essential and general conditions of generating any concept whatever. For example, I see a fir, a willow, and a linden. In firstly comparing these objects, I notice that they are different from one another in respect of trunk, branches, leaves, and the like; further, however, I reflect only on what they have in common, the trunk, the branches, the leaves themselves, and abstract from their size, shape, and so forth; thus I gain a concept of a tree.
— Logic, §6
In cognitive linguistics, abstract concepts are transformations of concrete concepts derived from embodied experience. The mechanism of transformation is structural mapping, in which properties of two or more source domains are selectively mapped onto a blended space (Fauconnier & Turner, 1995; see conceptual blending). A common class of blends are metaphors. This theory contrasts with the rationalist view that concepts are perceptions (or recollections, in Plato's term) of an independently existing world of ideas, in that it denies the existence of any such realm. It also contrasts with the empiricist view that concepts are abstract generalizations of individual experiences, because the contingent and bodily experience is preserved in a concept, and not abstracted away. While the perspective is compatible with Jamesian pragmatism, the notion of the transformation of embodied concepts through structural mapping makes a distinct contribution to the problem of concept formation.
Plato was the starkest proponent of the realist thesis of universal concepts. By his view, concepts (and ideas in general) are innate ideas that were instantiations of a transcendental world of pure forms that lay behind the veil of the physical world. In this way, universals were explained as transcendent objects. Needless to say this form of realism was tied deeply with Plato's ontological projects. This remark on Plato is not of merely historical interest. For example, the view that numbers are Platonic objects was revived by Kurt Gödel as a result of certain puzzles that he took to arise from the phenomenological accounts.
Gottlob Frege, founder of the analytic tradition in philosophy, famously argued for the analysis of language in terms of sense and reference. For him, the sense of an expression in language describes a certain state of affairs in the world, namely, the way that some object is presented. Since many commentators view the notion of sense as identical to the notion of concept, and Frege regards senses as the linguistic representations of states of affairs in the world, it seems to follow that we may understand concepts as the manner in which we grasp the world. Accordingly, concepts (as senses) have an ontological status (Morgolis:7)
According to Carl Benjamin Boyer, in the introduction to his The History of the Calculus and its Conceptual Development, concepts in calculus do not refer to perceptions. As long as the concepts are useful and mutually compatible, they are accepted on their own. For example, the concepts of the derivative and the integral are not considered to refer to spatial or temporal perceptions of the external world of experience. Neither are they related in any way to mysterious limits in which quantities are on the verge of nascence or evanescence, that is, coming into or going out of existence. The abstract concepts are now considered to be totally autonomous, even though they originated from the process of abstracting or taking away qualities from perceptions until only the common, essential attributes remained.
In a physicalist theory of mind, a concept is a mental representation, which the brain uses to denote a class of things in the world. This is to say that it is literally, a symbol or group of symbols together made from the physical material of the brain. Concepts are mental representations that allow us to draw appropriate inferences about the type of entities we encounter in our everyday lives. Concepts do not encompass all mental representations, but are merely a subset of them. The use of concepts is necessary to cognitive processes such as categorization, memory, decision making, learning, and inference.
Notable theories on the structure of conceptsEdit
The classical theory of concepts, also referred to as the empiricist theory of concepts, is the oldest theory about the structure of concepts (it can be traced back to Aristotle), and was prominently held until the 1970s. The classical theory of concepts says that concepts have a definitional structure. Adequate definitions of the kind required by this theory usually take the form of a list of features. These features must have two important qualities to provide a comprehensive definition. Features entailed by the definition of a concept must be both necessary and sufficient for membership in the class of things covered by a particular concept. A feature is considered necessary if every member of the denoted class has that feature. A feature is considered sufficient if something has all the parts required by the definition. For example, the classic example bachelor is said to be defined by unmarried and man. An entity is a bachelor (by this definition) if and only if it is both unmarried and a man. To check whether something is a member of the class, you compare its qualities to the features in the definition. Another key part of this theory is that it obeys the law of the excluded middle, which means that there are no partial members of a class, you are either in or out.
The classical theory persisted for so long unquestioned because it seemed intuitively correct and has great explanatory power. It can explain how concepts would be acquired, how we use them to categorize and how we use the structure of a concept to determine its referent class. In fact, for many years it was one of the major activities in philosophy - concept analysis. Concept analysis is the act of trying to articulate the necessary and sufficient conditions for the membership in the referent class of a concept.
Arguments against the classical theoryEdit
Given that most later theories of concepts were born out of the rejection of some or all of the classical theory, it seems appropriate to give an account of what might be wrong with this theory. In the 20th century, philosophers such as Rosch and Wittgenstein argued against the classical theory. There are six primary arguments summarized as follows:
- It seems that there simply are no definitions - especially those based in sensory primitive concepts.
- It seems as though there can be cases where our ignorance or error about a class means that we either don't know the definition of a concept, or have incorrect notions about what a definition of a particular concept might entail.
- Quine's argument against analyticity in Two Dogmas of Empiricism also holds as an argument against definitions.
- Some concepts have fuzzy membership. There are items for which it is vague whether or not they fall into (or out of) a particular referent class. This is not possible in the classical theory as everything has equal and full membership.
- Rosch found typicality effects which cannot be explained by the classical theory of concepts, these sparked the prototype theory. See below.
- Psychological experiments show no evidence for our using concepts as strict definitions.
Prototype theory came out of problems with the classical view of conceptual structure. Prototype theory says that concepts specify properties that members of a class tend to possess, rather than must possess. Wittgenstein, Rosch, Mervis, Berlin, Anglin, and Posner are a few of the key proponents and creators of this theory. Wittgenstein describes the relationship between members of a class as family resemblances. There are not necessarily any necessary conditions for membership, a dog can still be a dog with only three legs. This view is particularly supported by psychological experimental evidence for prototypicality effects. Participants willingly and consistently rate objects in categories like 'vegetable' or 'furniture' as more or less typical of that class. It seems that our categories are fuzzy psychologically, and so this structure has explanatory power. We can judge an item's membership to the referent class of a concept by comparing it to the typical member - the most central member of the concept. If it is similar enough in the relevant ways, it will be cognitively admitted as a member of the relevant class of entities. Rosch suggests that every category is represented by a central exemplar which embodies all or the maximum possible number of features of a given category.
Theory-theory is a reaction to the previous two theories and develops them further. This theory postulates that categorization by concepts is something like scientific theorizing. Concepts are not learned in isolation, but rather are learned as a part of our experiences with the world around us. In this sense, concepts' structure relies on their relationships to other concepts as mandated by a particular mental theory about the state of the world. How this is supposed to work is a little less clear than in the previous two theories, but is still a prominent and notable theory. This is supposed to explain some of the issues of ignorance and error that come up in prototype and classical theories as concepts that are structured around each other seem to account for errors such as whale as a fish (this misconception came from an incorrect theory about what a whale is like, combining with our theory of what a fish is). When we learn that a whale is not a fish, we are recognizing that whales don't in fact fit the theory we had about what makes something a fish. In this sense, the Theory-Theory of concepts is responding to some of the issues of prototype theory and classic theory.
- Class (philosophy)
- Concept and object
- Concept learning
- Concept map
- Conceptual art
- Conceptual blending
- Conceptual clustering
- Conceptual framework
- Conceptual history
- Conceptual model
- Conversation theory
- Conveyed concept
- Formal concept analysis
- Fuzzy concept
- Hypostatic abstraction
- Notion (philosophy)
- Object (philosophy)
- Schema (Kant)
- Social construction
- Symbol grounding problem
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