Concepts and Our Understanding of Them -- By: James P. Danaher

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 31:0 (NA 1999)
Article: Concepts and Our Understanding of Them
Author: James P. Danaher


Concepts and Our Understanding of Them

James P. Danaher

Dr. James Danaher is a Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy at Nyack College in Nyack, New York.

It is difficult to say exactly what a concept or mental representation is, but as difficult as it might be to understand such things, their existence is undeniable. To begin with, concepts, for nearly everyone since the time of Aristotle, have been the things to which words refer (Aristotle 16a3-9). Except for proper nouns, words are given meaning or signification as they refer not to things but to concepts. These concepts are general ideas that unite and organize our experience. By grouping our experiences, which are always particular, these concepts allow us to speak and think in ways that would be otherwise impossible.

Among the Ancients and Medievals, most believed that our concepts or mental representations organized our experience into a correct understanding of the world. That is, that just as our perceptions are reliable because God has equipped us with perceivers that accurately reflect His creation, we are also equipped with the ability to conceptualize and group those perceptions correctly as well. Unlike our Ancient and Medieval ancestors who believed that we possessed a God-given ability to correctly conceptualize the world, today maintaining that belief is extremely difficult. Even if one believes that God did originally give us concepts that represented a correct conceptual understanding of the world, the fact seems undeniable that human beings and their language communities can create completely new concepts and refine and change existing ones. The fact that concepts change over time, and from one culture to another, is evidence of the fact that we can conceptualize our experience in a vast variety of ways.

Of course, we do have some sort of mental hardware that allows us to form concepts, and it is very possible that this hardware even universally prevents us from conceiving some things other than we do. Equally, the nature of some experiences may be such that alternative conceptual judgments are not possible. But in spite of all that, we have an enormous freedom in our ability to form concepts.

This freedom can easily be seen in children as they begin to acquire language. Their earliest concepts are often very different from the concepts that their language community associates with a particular signifier or word. The first concept a child might form and identify with the word dog might be a very general notion that includes many kinds of pets, or it may be very narrow

and include characteristics unique to the child’s own dog. It is only as more instanc...

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