Rethinking the Ontology of Concepts

In my most recent post, I argued for the coherence of analyticity by proposing that concepts are things that exist out there in the real world (i.e. are mind independent). I’ve come to rethink this ontology of concepts.

I said yesterday:

What this means is that, analytic propositions do not just define language, since the language itself must conform to the real world. We define “bachelor” to name the concept of unmarried man, we do not define it to name the words “unmarried man.” Saying “all bachelors are unmarried men” is not the same as “all bachelors are bachelors” because in the first the word “bachelor” is a name which, in isolation, has as its referent the word “bachelor,” which has only the word “bachelor” in all its forms (spoken, written, thought, etc.) as its extension, whereas “unmarried man” is a name whose referent is the concept unmarried men, which has extensionality ranging over all men who are unmarried. Thus, while the actual words uttered (or written, or thought, etc.) are criterial, they must conform to some symptom of reality: if I ask how many wudjadoos are in this article, there is no way to know what I mean unless the criterial definition of “wudjadoos” is applied to some concept which exists in the world.

However, as I continue studying Wittgenstein, I’m becoming convinced that there is a social ontological aspect to all concepts. I’ve created the following table to outline the sorts of concepts I think are available:

Concept Table

The way the categories here are setup is that, on the left side, obligatory concepts are those that are grounded in something outside our control, whereas voluntary concepts, while not strictly under any particular individual’s control, are under control of society; in addition, voluntary concepts can be disobeyed.

With obligatory concepts, there is a sense of direction to it, whereas voluntary concepts lack direction. What I mean by this is that obligatory concepts can build on one another. If we look at the obligatory concepts that also fall under subjective/social concepts, we see that these are constructvist sorts of concepts. These include something like language: you learn words that refer to objects and actions, and you do not (generally speaking) unlearn these words, but in fact you build on that by learning to put those words together in sentences. Then you learn new words and therefore build on the older words you learned to construct more different types of sentences. Another sort of concept that might fall under this are social/cultural expectations, of which gender roles/behaviors is a paradigm example: these sorts of expectations arise in every culture all over the world and all throughout history. Even if the particular expectations differ, the fact that there are different expectations is a constant (and, in most cases, it is undesirable to completely jettison the existence of different expectations), and therefore obligatory. In both cases – with language and with social/cultural expectations (as with other sorts of concepts that fall under this category) – there is a grounding in our biology. Language acquisition is not something that has to be explicitly taught to children, they just naturally pick it up, since being language users is an inherent part of our human biology; social/cultural expectations are grounded in biological differences between people.

Voluntary subjective/social concepts are those things we learn from society, but are not grounded in reality. Think of something like grammar: these are rules for how to speak and write, yet they are easily broken. The rules themselves are only rules because everyone agrees on them; if people ceased to agree on these rules, or they altered them in some way, then the rules would change. This is also seen in something like commerce: the value of money only exists because it is agreed upon by (enough) people that money has value – that it is the case that money has value to people (that p) is justified only by the fact that money has value to people (p itself) in a self-referential loop. Because these rules can be broken, and because they evolve in a directionless manner (changing from one currency system to another, or from one set of grammar rules to another, is a lateral move), this falls under voluntary concepts.

Ethics, on a side note, might straddle the line between being obligatory and being voluntary. Surely, humankind has evolved to be empathetic and to naturally hold intuitions about what is right and wrong to do (i.e. we have a conscience). However, ethics also sort of belongs in the voluntary category because being an ethical person is not strictly obligatory, nor anywhere near universal (people have different ethical standards for those closer to them than for someone on the other side of the planet or to members of cultures viewed as alien). Also, certain things might be considered under the umbrella of ethics that aren’t strictly ethics: for instance, manners (e.g. saying “please” and “thank you”) and certain taboos (e.g. not eating pork) that don’t have any rigid ethical value.

On the right side, under object concepts, we first have the obligatory concepts. These would be the sorts of concepts that are able to be studied by science. They are not the objects themselves, but the models and theories we use to understand and explain objects and use to make predictions about the nature and behavior of those objects. Things like the theory of evolution by natural selection and the theory of general relativity are good examples. There is not some physical “thing” that causes evolution and speciation, it is a process, and we use the model of evolution by natural selection to conceptualize this process. Same with general relativity: ideas like the “fabric of spacetime” that can bend in the presence of mass is a conceptual way for us to understand things, but it is not necessarily exactly the way things are in the physical reality. Both of these theories – evolution and relativity (as well as any other models used to explain physical phenomena) – are subject to their own conceptual evolution: new phenomena can be discovered that either requires an expansion of the theory to describe and explain the phenomena, or the theory must be replaced by a different explanatory model that better fits the data. Thus, there is a directional evolution to these concepts: acquiring more data allows us to improve the theories (such as genetics with evolution) or to replace them with better theories (such as relativity did to Newtonian gravity).

Voluntary object concepts is mainly categorization. It falls under object because it is about the real world – they are ways to divide up the world into sets of those things that are members of some set C and those that are not members of some set C – and they are voluntary because the sets are somewhat arbitrary. For instance, we say that a particular, actual horse x is a member of the set C that we call horses; but, we could also that that x is also a member of the set F that we call female, or the set B that we call brown, or the set L that we call large, or the set S that we call swift, and so forth. The set of horses, C, could also be broken up into further categories, like thoroughbred and Clydesdale and Belgian and so forth. We can even divide it further into the set of horses owned by ranch A and the set of horses owned by ranch D. We could then even focus in further and say that this one particular horse x1 is the set of all horses that have x1‘s exact DNA sequence, making it a set with one member. The point is, there isn’t necessarily any ontological necessity to where the borders for these categories belong, making it voluntary; but, these categories are ascribed to things that exist in the real world, so they are object concepts. In fact, these are the types of concepts that are paradigmatic predicates in logic – x is a horse – with the predicate “is a horse” being the assignment of some category to an object x, where the proposition is true if the ‘horseness’ of x has been established. Whether there is some essence of ‘horseness’ that exists independently of our even knowing that horses exist is a matter for another time.

Another interesting thing about this way of thinking about our concepts, dividing them into four types, is wondering what level of consciousness and/or intelligence each one requires. For instance, I would say that some higher animals besides humans possess some rudimentary form of obligatory object concepts. Animals know not run off a cliff, for instance, which indicates at least some rudimentary concept of gravity. Some animals may also have voluntary object concepts, at least insofar as they can identify members of their own species as different from members of other species; they may also have some rudimentary concept of “those animals which desire to harm me” and “those animals that are food for me” and “those members of my species with whom I desire to mate” and so forth. Some animals, particularly social ones, may also have some obligatory subjective/social concepts, for instance about how to treat other members of their social group, and how the hierarchy of the social group works. The voluntary subjective/social concepts, however, may be limited to humans and just a handful of other species (great apes, porpoises, maybe elephants).