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Analysing the concept of 'concept'


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Analysing the concept of 'concept'
Date: 23 March 2005 13:04

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 12 March, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'What are concepts? How does analysing the concept of a 'concept' help to illuminate the way language works?'

I liked what you said about 'attachment' and the social aspect of language. Surely, whatever we have to say as philosophers of language about concepts must include the social dimension of language.

I am not so sure about what to say about autism. I was under the impression that at least some 'autistic' children have the power of speech. Of course, there are degrees of autism, but let's concentrate on one of the main defining marks of the condition, namely the incapacity to form the notion that 'A believes that P'. E.g. Johnny doesn't know how to respond to the question, 'How does the mountain look to Jilly?' but can only say how the mountain looks to him. So he is at a loss to explain the point of a story that depends on A's being unaware of a fact that B is aware of.

You ask the autistic child to describe what he sees, and he says, 'There is a mountain, with sheep and trees.' Johnny would not be able to say this if he lacked the concept of 'mountain', 'sheep', 'tree'. Yet it does seem that there are some very fundamental concepts that Johnny does lack, like 'person', 'belief'.

Wittgenstein's answer to the question, 'Where are concepts?' is that concepts are not in Plato's heaven, nor are they 'in the head' but rather that they are embedded in forms of life. Of course, this is not to deny that each of us internalises something when we learn 'how to go on' with words, but this knowledge is more like a practical ability than a picture which we carry around in our heads. The point about private languages is that no internal picture would suffice for following a rule, because the speaker still has to grasp how the picture is to be used.

The American philosopher Hilary Putnam, who is responsible for coining the phrase 'Meanings are not in the head', takes a view not unlike Aristotle's, that concept words name things in the world around us. E.g. the meaning of 'gold' is not 'yellow metal' or any list of properties we attribute to gold but *that thing there*. The more that science teaches us, the more we learn about the concept. This does not only apply to concepts of 'natural kinds' (determined by our interest in scientific explanation). As I argue in the program, an over-arching consideration is the *point* of a concept, the work that the concept does for us or the rationale for introducing the concept into the language, which in the case of natural kind concepts is our interest in a maximally explanatory classification but which might be significantly different in other areas of discourse.

Consider moral concepts. Would it be possible for a creature completely lacking in any sense of 'moral' obligation to acquire our moral concepts, as a means of predicting our behaviour? Such knowledge would surely be a great advantage to an amoralist. Some philosophers have argued (notably John McDowell) that a creature that was insensitive to the demands of morality would be incapable of acquiring the concepts. That would be a very good example of how a certain form of social existence was a prerequisite for acquiring certain concepts. In other words, no amount of observation or intellection would suffice to grasp the meanings of moral concepts in the absence of any motivation to be moral.

A basic consideration on semantic meaning which Wittgenstein famously expressed in the Tractatus is that it should be possible to understand what is meant by P without knowing whether or not P is true. It follows that however we define concepts, it must be in such a way as to leave room for the actual investigation of reality. The point of concepts is precisely to allow such room, while directing our view. This is how concepts serve as 'tools' of thinking.

Where do concepts come from? Do new ones come into existence? Of course, people have thoughts that no-one has thought before. Einstein is one example. But, again, of course, the thoughts that Einstein entertained didn't simply pop into his head from nowhere.

The more we learn about Einstein's intellectual biography, the more we understand how he could have come upon the thoughts that he expressed about, e.g., the nature of space and time. It is a truism that each generation of scientists (or philosophers) stand on the shoulders of those who went before. A new concept, e.g. 'space-time' embodies a new thought, but just as we can trace the roots of the 'new' thought, so we can trace the roots of the 'new' concept.

All the best,