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.