Concepts, conceptions and disagreement


This handout is a draft. 

The word ‘concept’ is commonly used in academic writing, but what is a concept?

This is an introductory handout for students and not an in-depth exploration of the issue.


Before presenting an answer to the question, here are some examples of how it might be used in academic contexts:

Children under six months old have the concept of another human being.

Adam Smith introduced a number of concepts into economics.

The author relies on the concept of a moral system, but does not clarify this concept.


Note: sometimes the word ‘concept’ is used to refer to the idea for a product, typically a business product, but this is not its most common use in academic writing, and it is rarely used in this way in philosophy.


Concepts and mental representations

There is an understanding of what concepts are which is often traced back to the writings of Locke and Hume, who used the word ‘idea’ instead.


On this understanding, if I have a thought about the way the world is, in my mind I represent the world as being a certain way. The representation might correctly represent reality or it might incorrectly do so. Concepts are the building blocks from which the representation has been formed.


To illustrate this understanding, suppose that I enter a room where I am teaching and I think to myself that there are only two students in the room. My thought is that there are only two students in the room. That is how I represent the world in my mind. This representation has been formed using certain concepts, such as the concept of a student, the concept of a room and the concept of being in. My thought represents the world in a certain way and concepts are the building blocks from which the representation has been formed.


Concepts, conceptions and disagreement

Sometimes philosophers draw a distinction between concepts and conceptions. This can be confusing, as they sound very similar.


To illustrate the distinction, consider the following dialogue.

A: This is a class. There are students in it waiting to be taught.

B: This is not a class. Some of these people are upper class, some are middle class, and some are working class.


From their opening sentences, it sounds as if these people are disagreeing, but on closer inspection, it does not seem to be a genuine disagreement, just a verbal confusion. They are using the word ‘class’ with different meanings. They are using different concepts of class: the concept of a teaching class and the concept of a socioeconomic class. They are just talking past each other.


On the basis of examples such as this one, you might arrive at the following conclusions:

In order for there to be a genuine disagreement between A and B, there must be a representation of reality which A endorses and B rejects. That representation has to be constructed from the very same concepts when A endorses it and when B rejects it, otherwise it is not really the same representation that they have different responses to.


Consider then the following dialogue:

A: A person is purely a physical body.

B: I disagree. A person is a combination of a physical body and a non-physical soul.


Here it looks like we have a genuine disagreement. There is at least one representation of the world that one speaker endorses but the other rejects. Many philosophers think that we should say that both parties are working with the same concept of a person, otherwise there will be no genuine disagreement. When the first speaker endorses a representation of the world according to which a person is purely a physical body and when the second rejects this representation, unless the concepts involved in the representation are the same, it is not the same representation that one is endorsing and the other is rejecting.


But surely there is some difference between the two speakers regarding how they understand persons. If each is using the same concept of a person, then what is the difference? One might say that they have different theories about what persons are. Most philosophers would agree with this, but some might say that the two speakers have different conceptions of persons. This is another way of putting the same point.


Where there is disagreement over the nature of X, many philosophers say that those involved in the disagreement use the same concept of X, but have different conceptions of X.


Other points to keep in mind

Something to keep in mind is that it is not unusual to see the word ‘concept’ used in academic writing in a way that does not fit that well with what has been said above. But quite often there are questions to be asked about whether that word is the best choice for the author. The word is often misapplied to beliefs and theories, things which are formed using concepts.


Another point to keep in mind is that there are philosophers and others (I have in mind psychologists) who are familiar with all that has been said above, but do not accept some of these claims. There are philosophers who are against modelling concepts as the building blocks from which are thoughts are formed. Probably there are philosophers who reject the conclusions about disagreement presented in the previous section.


For most students, it is not useful to go into these matters, which involve a specialist literature and some very tricky issues. It can often bring clarity to your work to at least provisionally rely on the model of concepts and the distinctions presented in this handout.


(Note: you do not generally need to explain the model and the distinctions when you use the word ‘concept’ or ‘conception’. It is just helpful to keep them in mind for the sake of clarity.)