Difference between concepts and words

Gem asked:

What are examples of concepts and words? How do they differ from each other?

Answer by Helier Robinson

I begin by giving you the viewpoint called conceptualism. A concept is a bonding together of an abstract idea and a word. Not to be confused with a bonding of a concrete idea and a word. The concrete is any quality received through the senses, such as sounds, colours, and tactile qualities. The abstract is anything not concrete, such as relations and properties of relations. The imagination is concrete: it operates with concrete images or memories of concrete sensations. Thought is abstract: it operates with abstract ideas. Both imagination and thought are aided, and communicated, by language. So thought may be pure thought (abstract ideas alone) or normal thought (by means of concepts) or nominal thought (by words alone). For example, you might have an abstract idea of triangle, but no word for it; or you might have the concept of triangle — the abstract idea bonded to the word triangle — or you might know the word triangle without knowing what it means.

Conceptualism is one answer to the question of what the meanings of universal words are. Another answer in nominalism, in which it is claimed that there are no such things as abstract ideas: all thought is silent speech, words are the counters of the mind, there is no thought without language.

If you can discover abstract ideas in your mind you will be a conceptualist; if not, you will be a nominalist.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This looks at first like a trick question. How do you ‘give an example’ of a concept without giving a word? The concept of justice, for example. We have (it is alleged) a concept of justice. And we have a word for it. The word is, ‘justice’. Duh!

And yet we do, in ordinary speech, distinguish between something that is ‘just a word’ and something that is a genuine concept. The word ‘cool’, for example, as used in the statement, ‘I think your hat is cool.’ I don’t mean, ‘I think that your hat would be good for protecting your head from the heat of the sun.’ Is there a concept of ‘cool’? Books could be (and probably have been) written about this.

In his ‘Epistle to the Reader’ at the beginning of the Essay on Human Understanding, Locke talks about the need to be clear about which ‘ideas’ (concepts) our words relate to, and the need for an account of how these ideas arise. Initially, this isn’t a problem of epistemology or metaphysics so much as a problem of communication: establishing some kind of methodology for resolving disputes that arise because of the misuse, or misunderstanding, of words and how they relate to ideas or concepts.

Some words clearly denote entirely different concepts, like the English word ‘bank’ which can refer to the side of a river, or a place which looks after your money. Possibly, there is an etymological link between these two usages (you’d have to look this up). But, at least potentially, when you count concept words and count concepts, you are not necessarily going to get the same number, because the same word can be used for different concepts (i.e. with different ‘meanings’), and the same concept can be referred to by means of different words. (I’ll leave you to think of an example of this.)

So, maybe, this is all the question is really asking: Give examples of how the same word can refer to different concepts, or the same concept can be referred to by means of different words. That’s not a philosophical question, only a linguistic one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.