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Concepts. The Philosophy Portal.











Concepts


Concepts are the constituents of thoughts. Consequently, they are crucial to such psychological processes as categorization, inference, memory, learning, and decision-making. This much is relatively uncontroversial. But the nature of concepts—the kind of things concepts are—and the constraints that govern a theory of concepts have been the subject of much debate. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that disputes about concepts often reflect deeply opposing approaches to the study of the mind, to language, and even to philosophy itself. In this entry, we provide an overview of theories of concepts, and outline some of the disputes that have shaped debates surrounding the nature of concepts. The entry is organized around five significant issues that are focal points for many theories of concepts. Not every theory of concepts takes a stand on each of the five, but viewed collectively these issues show why the theory of concepts has been such a rich and lively topic in recent years. The five issues are: (1) the ontology of concepts, (2) the structure of concepts, (3) empiricism and nativism about concepts, (4) concepts and natural language, and (5) concepts and conceptual analysis.

Concepts are of central importance to an overall theory of cognition and the mind. Our thoughts, especially those that express or involve propositions, are analyzed and distinguished from one another by appeal to various facts involving concepts and our grasp of them. Similarly, our linguistic utterances that express propositions also express concepts, since concepts are normally thought to be closely related to, or even identified with, the meanings of entities like predicates, adjectives, and the like. Our understanding and interaction with the world also involves concepts and our grasp of them. Our understanding that a given thing is a member of a given category is at least partly in virtue of our grasp of concepts, and so are our acts of categorizing. Such capacities involve our knowledge in an essential way, and thus such philosophical issues regarding our epistemic capacities are tied to issues about concepts and their nature. There may be some features and capacities of the mind that do not involve concepts, but certainly the vast number of them do, and thus the task of identifying the correct general theory of concepts is significant to the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, cognitive science, and psychology.

Philosophy means "love of wisdom." It is made up of two Greek words, philo, meaning love, and sophos, meaning wisdom. Philosophy helps teachers to reflect on key issues and concepts in education, usually through such questions as: What is being educated? What is the good life? What is knowledge? What is the nature of learning? And What is teaching? Philosophers think about the meaning of things and interpretation of that meaning. Even simple statements, such as "What should be learned? Or What is adolescence?" set up raging debates that can have major implications. For example, what happens if an adolescent commits a serious crime? One interpretation may hide another. If such a young person is treated as an adult criminal, what does it say about justice, childhood, and the like? Or if the adolescent is treated as a child, what does it say about society's views on crime?

Zhang Dainian is one of the best-known scholars of Chinese philosophy working in China. Although it is understandable that many students of Chinese philosophy in the West have not heard about Zhang, it would be unthinkable if such a student in China had not read Zhang’s works. Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, like An Outline of Chinese Philosophy (Chinese Social Science Press, 1982), is among Zhang’s best writings on Chinese philosophy. Zhang belongs to the older generation of scholars, who are extremely well founded in classical Chinese language, literature, and history. A very good command of Chinese classics and a lifelong devotion to Chinese philosophy have made it possible for Zhang to produce a work that provides readers with comprehensive and systematic expositions of key concepts and categories in Chinese philosophy. Unlike many other recent books that discuss only a particular period or school, Zhang’s book covers important concepts in Chinese philosophy that run through pre-Qin to the Qing Dynasty.

The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war.