Conceiving Concepts

Not long ago I had a discussion with a gentleman concerning the nature of our linguistic capacities, of language that is, and how we accord meaning to sounds, symbols, gestures, etc., the many things that we employ when speaking or writing in a language. When we got to explaining meaning, the semantics of our words and statements, we hit a hidden rock for he was adamant that meanings are found in concepts but when asked to explain what he took concepts to be he indicated they were what he termed “linguistic entities.” I demurred, saying that entities are things we come into sensory contact with in the world. They have physical form, observable presence. And here our discussion foundered for he was absolute on this point, that concepts were, indeed, entities albeit of a non-physical sort.

I agreed that one can use terms in various stipulative ways and so he could stipulate that the term “entity” need not be used only for physically determined things. One could adopt a platonic picture of reality and claim all sorts of existents beyond what is observable through the senses but I pointed out that doing so introduced confusion because, when we normally speak of entities, we speak of physical phenomena whether directly observable or indirectly so. How, I asked, can we observe the “linguistic entities” he asserted concepts must be? His view, finally, seemed to boil down to the claim that concepts must be understood as abstractions, but abstract entities, like numbers are sometimes taken to be, and that “linguistic entity” basically serves a purpose by delineating, and so creating, a referent we can talk about. Deploying a nominative then, a naming word, serves to create the thing named.

The problem with this, however, is that it doesn’t matter whether we call concepts a kind of entity if, by using that term, we still can’t get any closer to what we’re trying to denote by that word. And denote the word must do for that is the point of using words to pick things out, to refer. How, after all, does “linguistic entity” make what we mean when we speak of concepts any clearer, especially if we can’t then conjure up a picture of what it is we’re talking about when we use the term he appeared to have coined? If concepts are abstractions then is it even meaningful to confuse the issue by speaking of them as entities? What, after all, is an abstract entity but another word for a concept? Nothing is clarified by this move. Well, one could say it’s just the way we use words, right? This is observable and describable and it does provide us some way to reduce our Xs (concepts) to Ys (how we speak). But again, nothing is really gained by way of an explanation with this move to a focus on activity except a welcome abandonment of the picture of a non-physical phenomenon existing in some otherworldly (non-physical) realm in a way that parallels how physical things exist.

So, is it even important to look for a way of making sense of the concept of a concept then? We certainly speak and understand other speakers, and are often understood by them, so why isn’t that enough?

Well, we talk of meanings and it seems we cannot simply abandon that idea, that concept, if we’re to explain our words to one another when explanations are sought (as they often are). So, are meanings our concepts? But the meaning of a word is no easier to pin down than is the concept it supposedly expresses or refers to. Meanings, as found in dictionaries or explanations, are open-ended, involving recognition of and the reporting on how speakers of a given language use their words. Some dictionaries are better, more exhaustive or more precise or clearer, than others. Some explanations of what we mean, given when asked, are better, too. But as Wittgenstein pointed out, the meaning of our words is generally detected in their use, in what we employ the word to do for us in discourse with other speakers. On this view there is no separate phenomenon behind a word that counts as its meaning. There is just activity. And there is no concept that constitutes the meaning either.

Yet we speak of concepts and meanings easily and without much concern and our interlocutors generally get the point. They know what we mean when we speak of a word’s meaning or the concept in which it partakes. Can we dispense with these two words then and just speak of the activities that are observable in a word’s use? It seems these are words we cannot just dispense with, but then what do they mean? Is there, in fact, a rarified realm in which such abstractions exist, parallel with the world we can observe through our senses? One other issue that divided me from my interlocutor in this matter of what concepts are was his view that philosophy must be no more than, and perhaps no less than, conceptual analysis, the examination and unpacking of the concepts that we have in mind when we use words meaningfully. But if philosophy just is conceptual analysis, it follows that there must be concepts in reality to be analyzed. Linguistic entities then?

Perhaps there is a better way to see this though, one that involves looking more closely at language and semantics, words and their meanings, to get a better handle on what these phenomena of human activity really are. Perhaps the issue is not to ascertain what concepts are per se but what conceptual analysis is. That notion initially leads us to the idea that some task is being performed on some thing, but perhaps we are conceiving of this relation wrongly.

To understand this we must go back to the idea of the concept and revisit the notion of entityhood. Perhaps concepts are not entities at all, contra my interlocutor, but something different? But what then could we suppose them to be? To see this, we must ask about meaning and how words get theirs in the course of linguistic practice. If the meaning is, in Wittgenstein’s famous account, just the way we use the words in question, then we seem to have a behaviorist model without any indication of the mental lives of the speaker and his or her interlocutor. A behaviorist account takes no account of the mental life of its subject. It discounts it for explanatory purposes.

By “mental life” we just mean the ongoing flow of experiences delivered through the senses and retained and called up in our memories. Some have referred to this as the qualitative aspect of our being in the world, the qualia of awareness, the colors and smells, shapes and tastes and emotions we experience in our lives, but also the recollections we store and call back into consciousness when needed and the sense we have of being who we are, of being particular entities in the world. All of these constitute what may be called the mental part of our lives and it is through this aspect of our existence that the external, the objective part, the shared reality with others that we have, comes into existence as well because it is the subject with its mental life that knows the objective.

There is, thus, a mental life as well as a physical or external kind which we possess and it is in the domain of our mental lives that meaning takes form, that words and statements find their resonance with the other aspects of our experience and so take on significance, meaning.

A rock or other inanimate object may be affected by other things around it but it has no sense of having been affected. Indeed, it has no sense of anything at all. But living creatures like ourselves have such a sense. It is within that sense of being affected by one’s surroundings that meaning happens for we hear and react to, and speak words in response to, what we hear and see, and this all takes place within the mental part of our world, our mental life.

So meaning is not just about activity, behavior constituted by sounds uttered, symbols drawn, signs signified. It’s about what hearing or seeing the physical tokens of language, and having this hearing and seeing, evokes in us. It’s about what other thoughts, connections within a broader framework which we put together in our heads as it were, are triggered by this or that word or phrase heard, uttered or read. We can, after all, read a line of text and get what it’s about while remaining silent and not letting on to others what we take from that text. Meaning may be in the use of words but we need not do anything one way or another vis a vis the particular words heard or read in order to be said to have got the meaning. Meaning can be conveyed in silence as well as through activity.

It is not, contra Wittgenstein, confined entirely to the use of a term “in a great many cases.” It always involves something going on in the comprehender’s mental life as well. The rock doesn’t know it has been pushed or that, placed precariously on a precipice, it is about to tip over and fall into the ravine below. To know anything is to have the potential to understand and understanding requires a mental life.

It also requires a structure, for understanding never stands alone but is always part of a larger web of connected thoughts, beliefs and perceptions. Indeed, the meaning of any word or statement just is the nexus of those connections in which it finds its content. When we hear a word and understand it, what we are doing is connecting it to an entire background of thoughts, explicit and implicit in our minds, thoughts which give it a frame of reference within which it may fit. To get the meaning of a word or phrase then, in this sense, is to find the connections and place it somewhere on a mental map we maintain in our lives, a multi-tiered arrangement of past and present thoughts. No meaning happens alone but only if and when a word or statement is connected to its relations. Meaning is not only use. It’s a family affair and the meaning of any term becomes whatever that term’s expression prompts in us when it is heard or read.

Meaning on this view is a web of connected thoughts, dynamic by nature, because of the constant inflow of new information in the form of perceptions, both raw and framed through the structure language provides, which we are constantly subjected to. Meaning is placement on a mental map and concepts are the loci, the places, where our connections meet in response to or in order to trigger any verbal, gestural or signed expression. Our behavior is connected to what is happening in the realm of our subjective experience, our mental lives.

Here meaning can be seen to be fluid although the ways in which words are used are what dictionaries capture. But dictionaries are secondary artifacts. No native speaker of a natural language needs a dictionary (at least in most cases) to get by in his or her language. What the speaker needs is a mental life that includes a web of associated, or associatable, thoughts which have been gleaned over the speaker’s life, organized in a way that allows new sensory inputs to fit into the already existing web.

Here the speaker grasps and expresses meaning, the concepts behind his or her words being just those loci where the word finds a fit. Language requires meaning and meaning needs a mental life. “Concepts” are what we call the positions on the mappings we have developed and retain and into which our words must fit.

What then is conceptual analysis, the activity to which philosophy is, in some venues, uniquely assigned? It is not, as we are led to think by the application of the apparently referential term, “conceptual analysis,” the practice of looking at and examining some particular mental thing. Rather, we should see it as the practice of exploring the relevant parts of our mental maps which we share with other speakers of our language to varying degrees, maps within which any given word (or thought expressible by words) takes its meaning.

Concepts, however much our terminology may mislead us, are not and should not be imagined to be discrete things but pathways along a nexus of connections, discoverable by following the trails within the maps we hold fast in our heads, maps that lay out our world for us as it seems to be.

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