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5 The notion of 'concept'

The term concept I use is wellknown in philosophy, psychology and linguistics. In those disciplines however, the concept is interpreted in a realistic world view. On the basis of the Semiotic Triangel in this chapter I'll show again why the realistic approach is not tenable and which consequences this should have for the notion of 'concept'.


5.1. The unique homo sapiens

Although it seems obvious that philosophers should indicate as accurately as possible what they mean by their concepts and ideas, many philosophical publications do not excel in exactness. I indicated already I use a notion 'concept' fundamentally different from what is usual in philosophy. In this and the next chapter, I introduce the concepts I use first in a way as understandable as possible, to do the same exercise in chapter 7 as accurately and explicitly as possible, which chapter is therefore a bit hard to read. For that reason I build up this and the next chapter somewhat loosely, but in such a way it is sufficient to understand what I mean by the notion of concept. The definitions in Chapter 7 then can be skipped without problems by those who have no affinity with definitions and logical notations.

In contrast to the animals man is a thinking being. Because of that property, he is said to be far above those animals. Thinking and communicating he does by means of language, the possession of which is also characteristic for man. What probably distinguishes us from the animals too is having consciousness and self-awareness. Many people add to this the distinctive feature of the soul, although it is not entirely clear what it should represent exactly.

We are so impressed by these human qualities that we tend to view man as a rational thinking being, as the homo sapiens, the sensible person, an approach of which philosophy bears all traces. After all, philosophy is mainly concerned with knowing and being (in epistemology and ontology), the objective judgment about good and evil (in ethics) and the objective judgment about what is beautiful, what is art (in aesthetics).

Nowadays genetic science is so far developed it can be determined with reasonable certainty that the genetic code of man corresponds for more than 99.6% to that of Ape-men, as the ancestor of the homo sapiens is called. Something strange is happening here. While we lay the essence of the human being in the use of language, rational thinking, (self) consciousness and our soul, we appear to be biologically almost a copy of species which completely lack such beautiful qualities. Which raises the question of whether we as humans aren't overestimating the qualities which distinguish us from the animals. I will answer this question in later chapters, but in any case I think it is a wrong starting point, if we want to understand how the human concepts function, to assume that it is exclusively about specific human characteristics.

In this chapter I develop the notion 'concept' through introspection, thus from everything I experience in myself, without restricting myself to specific human phenomena. In it I involve thoughts, reasonings, spontaneous promptings, feelings, emotions, sensory experiences, fantasies, dreams, reflexes and so on. Whether or not all these aspects are treated in the usual philosophies, I leave out of consideration. I want to get as complete a picture as possible of the functioning of the mind, be it from within. Once the term 'concept' has been defined, it will be clear whether, and if so to what extent, it is only applicable to people or perhaps equally to - certain - animal species.

5.2. The - wrong - notion of ‘concept’ in philosophy

In the previous chapters my opposition against the realistic worldview became clear, an attitude manifesting again at introducing the notion of 'concept'.The concept that, as will be seen, is a well-known term in generally accepted philosophy, psychology and linguistics, in which it fits into the realistic worldview.

In the introduction I noticed that d'Abelard and some of his contemporaries in the 11th and 12th century, the scholastic period, adopted conceptualism as characterization of the universals, in addition to two other streams, realism and nominalism. I also indicated that in my view these conceptualists did their work only halfway: universals were seen as products of the mind, while at the same time they had to refer to an objective reality.

I use the term 'concept' with two changes to d'Abelard. First, I do not limit the application of the concept to the universals, I regard it as the universal building block of the entire cognitive system. Secondly, I have no claim that concepts refer to an objective reality. It is true many concepts do correspond with things that we call reality, while at the same time we see a very large number of concepts that have no relation to any objective reality outside of us.

As stated before, the way in which I give content to the notion of concept differs from the meaning it has in modern philosophy. There it's mainly about so-called lexical concepts, such as, the concept of 'chair' in the previous chapter. As philosophy teaches us, a concept is a notion we all have in common, which in our youth has been taught to us by our parents, teachers and others in our environment, who all possessed the same concept too. That would also apply to me: ever since I learned the concept of 'chair' the concept is my immutable possession, since then I know what is a chair and as long as I do not become demented, the meaning will remain the same for me.

In philosophy concepts usually are lexical concepts, associated with words. Philosophers state a direct relationship between the concept of 'chair' and the word CHAIR[1] used for it within the English language area, such as the word STUHL in German, CHAISE in French, and so on. Beside there is a relationship with the actual, physical seats in the world. In addition for philosophers the concepts have a structure . For example, 'chair' is a subclass of the concept of 'furniture' and it has as its own subclasses: the concepts 'leg', 'seat', 'back', 'arm' and 'upholstery'. So the notion concepts in philosophy stands for static states in our mind, linked to words, linked to physical objects and composed of subclasses corresponding to the parts of the objects concerned. Moreover, perhaps the most important characteristic, all members of a (language)community share the same concepts.

How widely accepted this interpretation may be, it does not match the way the mind functions and is fundamentally incorrect. The term 'concept' as I will define it here arises from introspection and deviate from all aspects mentioned in philosophy:

  • A concept is not a static but a dynamic notion. Concepts arise, change constantly and can disappear again.
  • Many concepts are not necessarily linked to words or names, while in those cases the words or names are themselves part of the concept.
  • Only a part of all concepts are linked to objects in what we call the - material - reality
  • A concept cannot be analysed in subclasses
  • A concept is an individual phenomenon: two people cannot possess exactly the same concept.

As to the last point: because I work from introspection a concept is not a generally shared notion but an individual one, of which I do not know a priori to what extent it is shared by others, not even in the same (language) community. In later chapters it will nevertheless be found that within a culture or language group a considerable degree of intersubjectivity occurs, not on account of the intrinsic nature of concepts but due to autonomous human behaviour.

The term 'concept' defined in this way is relative, in contrast to the usual objective claim in philosophy, which is, as will be seen below, also expressed in linguistics.

5.3. The semiotic triangle

In the traditional philosophical approach we see three elements: the concept, the word and the physical object. This distinction is also made in linguistics and is referred to as the semiotic triangle, first introduced in 1923 by the linguists Ogden en Richards.

Semantic Triangle
umberto ecoThe figure shows the most familiar terms. I'll use the terms word, concept and object, in the Scolastic Period indicated with vox, conceptus and res. Various linguists and philosophers used other expressions, a number of which are showed by Umberto Eco[2] in the following figure.
Sem.driehoek.ECOThe triangle has been applied both to words as to sentences and even complete texts.. For the most elementary interpretation I quote a passage from a recent textbook: Cognitive introduction to language and linguistics by René Dirven and Marjolein Verspoor[3], page 26:

If you want the term 'apple' evoke in the mind of a discussion partner you can use three symbols. You can point your finger at the apple (indexal sign), you can show or draw a picture of it (iconic sign) or you can pronounce the sound sequence /æp.əl/ (symbolic sign). The question now is how in a symbolic sign like apple the sound image or the image of the script can be related to the object one sees. The word is of course not the thing itself, but only a symbol for the thing. A symbolic sign consists of three components: there is a certain form that symbolizes a concept (or meaning) and this concept relates to a category of entities in the conceptual and experiential world. This relationship between the three elements mentioned (form, understanding (or meaning) and entities) forms the semiotic triangle. (....)

Although dozens of interpretations have been given for this semiotic triangle since Ogden and Richards introduced it in 1923, the following presentation can be indicated as a cognitive interpretation. There is a direct, although conventional, connection between the form (A) of a word and its meaning(s) (B), and also between the meaning or the linguistic concept (B) and the entity from the world of experience (C); but there is only an indirect connection between the shape of a symbolic character A and the entity from the world of experience C. Therefore, a dotted line is used here. Only with an iconic sign is the relationship between the character A and the entity from the world of experience C more direct.

This semiotic triangle is a further elaboration of the vision of the founder of modern linguistics, the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure. He introduced the two terms 'signifier' and 'signified'. These terms are used here from the beginning as synonyms of word (form) and meaning. (....)

Entities are all possible members of all possible types of categories such as persons, business, actions, events, situations, characteristics, etc. Ideally, they exist in our world of experience, but they can also only exist as fantasy in our conceptual world, such as gnomes, mermaid-lovers, unicorns, giants, ghosts and spirits ".

So far the quote. The writers apparently don't realise the last sentence shows the fundamental problem of the triangle. Ideally, the entities really exist in our world we experience, they say. But it is not only ideal, it is also necessary the entities exist in that world; for all other the triangle has no meaning at all. You can imagine that our concept of 'chair' refers to a real chair, but what should a concept like 'ghost' refer to? To the entity 'ghost' in our conceptual world, as the writers formulate it? Then it refers to itself, man does not know a concept of 'ghost' outside his own conceptual world. The entities which are indicated with the top of the triangle are exactly the entities in our conceptual world. Thus in that case the upper point of the triangle refers to itself, which has no meaning. In addition the point at the right side is then  missing, so there is no longer a triangle.

However, the problem does not only occur with fantasy concepts. Mathematical and logical concepts such as numbers and propositions do not refer to anything in the world of experience either. With general terms the same problem occurs. If someone in my presence pronounces the sound sequence /æp.əl/ or if I read the written word 'apple', it arouses a certain state in my mind. For example, I form an image of an apple or I'm aware of the taste, such things come up in my mind. That combination of experiences I call my concept of 'apple'. At the same time a real apple can be present in the vicinity, and I can be aware that my concept of 'apple' actually relates to that concrete apple in my world of experience. That is entirely in accordance with the semiotic triangle.

However, there is a fundamental difference between sentences like "I love apples" and "That apple is rotten". In contrast to the second sentence, the former does not refer to any concrete apple, while the word "apples" does indeed evoke the concept of "apples" by the listener.
The relationship between a word and the matching concept, between the left point and the top of the triangle is evident, assuming the word is known and the listener is listening. As soon as the word is pronounced or read, it will bring up the associated concept in the mind of the listener or reader. Conversely, if someone raises a certain concept to his mind, the accompanying word will often appear easily.

Opposite to it the relationship between a concept and the physical thing it refers to is of a different nature, in the figure of the triangle indicated with an arrow. In the sentence 'that apple is rotten' it will be clear the speaker is referring to a specific apple in his vicinity. However when I say 'I love apples' I don't refer to a collection of concrete apples. It could be argued that I mean to say I like all apples in the world. However, that interpretation is untenable, just because I cannot know all apples in the world. It could happen one day I taste an apple I do not like at all. One can defend the view that the specific term 'apple' refers to an element in reality, but such an element for the general concept of 'apple' is missing. There is the general term 'apples', but general apples don't exist.

The conclusion is obvious. The relationship between symbol and concept is the same for all kinds of concepts, I do not see any indication that the human mind makes functional distinction between them. SaussureThe left leg of the triangle is therefore generally valid. But that is different for the right side. If words could only relate to things in what is called reality, in the semiotic triangle the relationship between the concept and the state for which it stands could have meaning. However, because we use symbols just as well for general, abstract and fantasy concepts which only refer to themselves, not to elements in reality, the triangle isn't generally valid. The conclusion must therefore be that the semiotic triangle is not an adequate model for the functioning of the human spirit.
Possibly Ferdinand de Saussure did realise this problem. Anyway he took the question of reference to lie beyond the linguist's purview. That was right, the later developed semiotic triangle didn't represent progress in linguistic science, it proves just to be a fundamental mistake.

I choose another way.  I acknowledge a relationship between words and the associated concepts exists. However, due to the way I will define the notion of concept hereafter, the corresponding symbol will be part of the concept itself and reality will emerge as one of the many human concepts. The semiotic triangle has totally evaporated then.


[1] In philosophy it is customary to design concepts with capital letters. To accentuate the difference, I use a notation between apostrophes.

[2] Umberto Eco (1932 - 2016) was an Italian schrijver en semiotic. The trangle shown is from Segno, 1973, translated into German as Zeichen. Einführung in einen Begriff und seine Geschichte.

[3] 1999 by Acco ISBN 90-334-4285-X. Translation into English by myself.