Chapter 3 – Understanding Concepts

“A concept is not an unclassifiable mental construction, it can be decomposed taxonomically. It is not just an attribute of some phenomenon that cannot in itself be decoupled.  It does not only refer to a variable.  It is not without meaning, a concept is meaning-laden, not meaningless.” –    Chimezie A.B. Osigweh

LOGO FINALQuality IS… an abstract concept.

Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experiences?

If the meaning of concepts is understood, the meaning of quality will follow.


Our world, our professions, our schools, and our working environments are all conceptually constructed. Gregory L. Murphy (Professor of Psychology at New York University) contends that “concepts are a kind of mental glue that secures our past experience to our present interactions with the world and relationships, because concepts are connected to our larger knowledge structures.”

Concepts play a critical role in the transmission of ideas. How many of us have been mistaken when ideas have been transmitted without clarification regarding the concepts that were used to convey the idea?  Or, the concepts are emotionally defined to conceal a hidden agenda.

Richard Paul (Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking) and Linda Elder (an educational psychologist) assert that concepts are one of the basic fundamentals of human thinking.  “We cannot think and consequently communicate without them.  They form the classifications, and implicitly express the theories through which we comprehend and interpret and what we see, taste, hear, smell, and touch.”

A concept is typically labeled with a word. To be more specific, a concept is typically a noun. Nouns come in different forms; concrete nouns refer to physical entities that can be observed by at least one of the senses; tree, orange, rock or molecule. Abstract nouns refer to abstract objects: that is, ideas or concepts, such as democracy or goodness.  Nouns have meaning. But, is this just another way of saying that nouns can be defined? The dictionary or the lexical definition of a noun is the “meaning” in common usage. The common usage definition is intended to appeal to the widest audience; it is intentionally kept brief, uncomplicated, and may be expressed in different ways in the variety of dictionaries that are available. Concept nouns are also defined by other or allied concept nouns.

More on Nouns and Definitions in my next post. – it will get you thinking!

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Concept Definitions and Semantics

LOGO FINALQuality IS… an abstract concept.

Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experiences?

If the meaning of concepts is understood, the meaning of quality will follow.


Robert Harris, retired Professor of English at Vanguard University, addresses some of the pitfalls of the reliance on definitions to communicate the meaning of a concept in his blog Virtual Salt, Semantics2 –  posted in June of 2000.

Sometimes nouns have more than one meaning. A noun’s denotation is its literal meaning, the way it would be defined in a dictionary. A noun’s connotation is its implied meaning, such as the emotions or images the word evokes. Denotation is the specific, literal image, idea, concept, or object that a noun refers to in context. Connotations may be (1) private and personal, the result of individual experiences (2) group (national, linguistic, racial) or (3) general or universal, held by all or most men. The scientist and philosopher attempt to hold words to their denotative meaning; the literary artist or management guru rely on connotations to carry their deepest meanings. We might say that a noun’s connotation is the emotional meaning not typically found in a dictionary.

To complicate things, nouns may have four different kinds of definitions: Descriptive, Stipulative, Normative and Persuasive.

The Descriptive definition is, the kind that tells what a thing is or is like, the kind usually found in the dictionary.

The Stipulative is a special definition offered by a writer or organization for convenience of understanding.  This is a mutually agreed upon special, specific meaning of a term that ordinarily has another meaning, or a similar but vague meaning.

The Normative definition is intended to set a standard or even a goal for something rather than to describe the thing as it really is. The confusing aspect of normative and descriptive definitions is a common source of misunderstanding.

The Persuasive definition is designed to persuade the reader or hearer of the worth of the defined term.

Clearly then, how we decide to  “define” our concept nouns depends, in part, on the purpose of what we are trying to convey to the reader or to society in general.  Far too often we are turning to the connotative, stipulative, normative and persuasive definitions of our concept nouns because they can generate more emotion or promote an agenda. A critical step toward developing a deep understanding of a concept starts with the realization that the noun in question is a concept and we need to be careful how we define them.

Some experts take issue with the act of simply defining concepts – next post.

Concepts – What Do the Experts Have to Say?

LOGO FINALQuality IS… an abstract concept.

Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experiences?

If the meaning of concepts is understood, the meaning of quality will follow.


Richard Paul, Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical thinking, and Linda Elder an educational psychologist for the Foundation for Critical Thinking and  authors of Critical Thinking inform us that we must distinguish the concepts implicit in the English language from the psychological associations surrounding that concept in a given social group or culture.  The failure to develop this ability is a major cause of uncritical thought and selfish critical thought.  Paul and Elder closely associate critical thinking with our choices for defining concepts.

John Wilson (lecturer in Educational Studies, Oxford University) declares that “concepts are concerned with the uses of words and with the criteria or principles by which those uses are determined.” Furthermore Wilson adds:

“In questions of concept we are not concerned with the meaning of a word.  Words do not have only one meaning: indeed, in a sense they do not have only one meaning in their own right at all, but only in so far as people use them in different ways.  It is better to say that we are concerned with actual and possible uses of words. That is why it is no use to look a word up in a dictionary, it will not help. When we ask ’What do you mean, a good book?’ What we are really saying is ‘What counts as a good book to you?’ or ‘What are your criteria for a good book?’  The definition of concepts like ‘science’ or ‘democracy’ is unclear; or we might rather say that they do not have definitions, but only uses.”

Wilson mentions the word “sense” or what is considered in some circles “word sense”. This is what Wikipedia has to say about “word sense”.

In linguistics, a word sense is one of the meanings of a word. For example a dictionary may have over 50 different meanings of the word play, each of these having a different meaning based on the context of the word usage in a sentence. For example: We went to see the play Romeo and Juliet at the theater. The children went out to play in the park. In each sentence we associate a different meaning of the word “play” based on hints the rest of the sentence gives us.

This is not entirely true if we had the opportunity to talk to Wilson.  The 50 different meanings referred to by Wikipedia are really 50 different uses. The question then becomes, “Of the 50, which one is the meaning. Which one is the definition? Obviously, context is the key to a words definition and the context suggests meaning. This all makes some sense, no pun intended, but, what if you decided to look up the definition of a word in multiple dictionaries.  Can you combine definitions that have different word senses? The answer is no.

Eric Margolis (Professor of Philosophy. University of British Columbia) and Stephen Laurence (Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University) write: “the Containment Model of Conceptual Structure proposes that a concept is a structured complex of other concepts.” Margolis and Laurence assert that “because of semantic and philosophical difficulties the suspicion in much of cognitive science has come to be that concept definitions are hard to formulate because our concepts lack a definitional structure.”

The approach taken in this book was developed by Jerrold Katz (linguist and philosopher) who explains a model for “defining” concepts via a decomposition process. He used the English noun “chair” as an example and suggested semantic markers in the process for “chair”: object, physical, non-living, artifact, furniture, portable, something with legs, something with a back, and something with a seat, seat for one.  Katz further adds that the semantic marker, or features, requires further analysis.

Katz’s example referred to concrete nouns. Most, if not all, concepts presented herein will be abstract nouns and will, therefore, refer to ideas and/or concepts— which can create problems of their own due to their complex nature.

Clearly, concepts form the very fabric of our ability to comprehend, apply and assimilate knowledge. With poor conceptual understanding, principles have little meaning and the paradigms of the past, present and future just fall apart due to the multiplicity of definition types. For example; what if our founding fathers had different and incompatible definitions or constructs of life, liberty, and happiness when they signed the Declaration of Independence? Or what if they shared concept definitions that were open to interpretation? Perhaps their principles would have carried them down different paths after the signing on that eventful day on July 4, 1776. If our understanding of concepts is so critical, then how do we divorce ourselves from the emotional side and concentrate on the criteria and principles for optimal understanding?

Standby, I will answer that question in my next post!   Hint, I underlined some of the critical points.

Critical Concepts for Concepts

LOGO FINALQuality IS… an abstract concept.

Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experiences?

If the meaning of concepts is understood, the meaning of quality will follow.


If our understanding of concepts is so critical, then how do we divorce ourselves from the emotional side and concentrate on the criteria and principles for optimal understanding?

  • Avoid concept definitions associated with specific organizations because many qualify as social groups, have their own culture and may harbor hidden agendas.
  • Concepts need criteria to make their definitions clear.
  • Be mindful of the various “word senses”.
  • Create a definitional structure by identifying the complex nature of concepts and their association with other concepts.
  • Further develop the decomposition process suggested by Katz.

Thinking is a concept that has been extensively defined.  At the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking in 1987 a “definition” emerged from Michael Scrivner and Richard Paul. The following definition is a good example of an explained abstract concept rather that a defined concept. Many of the adjectives are also forms of nouns and are consequently concepts.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing synthesizing and/or evaluating information from or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning and communication as a guide to belief and action.”

The potential allied concept nouns in this description are: thinking, discipline, skill, process, conceptualize, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, information, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, communication, guide, belief and action.

This is an excellent example of the Containment Model of Conceptual Structure, (concepts are a structured complex of other concepts). If we want to understand Critical Thinking we need to understand the allied concept nouns via a decomposition process that will result in a definitional structure and conceptual patterns. Criteria are needed for the decomposition process.

The following concept map may help to conceptualize my approach.

Next post – summation of Chapter 3


Critical Thinking Definitional Structure

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In Summation: Understanding Concepts

LOGO FINALQuality ISan abstract concept.

Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experience?

If the meaning of concepts is understood the meaning of quality will follow.



 FLASHBACK From Chapter2 two


This brings us to the end of Chapter 3 – Concepts. Like all the chapters, it is abbreviated from my book. Getting back to the question: Why identify the mental glue that secures our past experience?  According to Gregory Murphy: because concepts are connected to our larger knowledge structures. Our knowledge structures contain all of what we have learned, why it is relevant, and how to apply the knowledge. Our knowledge structure contains the components of our own personal theory about life and all of its isolated components. This blog and eventual book shares my knowledge structure about Quality. You either have one now or are working on it. I hope that you, the reader, is starting to realize just how complex the subject of Quality can be. My book presents the structured knowledge to help you understand the meaning of quality from the perspective of concepts, principles, and paradigms. As we move further into the book we will combine the three to formulate a newly introduced construct that I call the ConPriDigm.  But, I can not reveal all — the book will do that.

In Chapter 4 we will put concepts in context and learn how to identify, analyze and write action driven principles.

Enjoy the following concept map of this chapter.



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