Ideas, Concepts, and Reality

Ideas, Concepts, and Reality

John W. Burbidge
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Ideas, Concepts, and Reality
    Book Description:

    Do concepts exist independently of the mind? Where does objective reality diverge from subjective experience? John Burbidge calls upon the work of some of the foremost thinkers in philosophy to address these questions, developing a nuanced account of the relationship between the mind and the external world. In Ideas, Concepts, and Reality John Burbidge adopts, as a starting point, Gottlob Frege's distinction between "ideas," which are subjective recollections of past sensations, and "concepts," which are shared by many and make communication possible. Engaging with Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and many others, the book argues that concepts are not eternal and unchanging, as Frege suggested, but open to revision. We can move from ideas to thoughts, Burbidge suggests, that can be refined to the point where they acquire independent and objective status as concepts. At the same time, they are radically connected to other concepts which either complement or are differentiated from them. Ideas, Concepts, and Reality offers a fresh perspective on the ways in which rigorous thought differs from other operations of the mind. Daringly inventive and accessibly written, the book will appeal to philosophers at all levels of interest.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8831-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-2)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. 3-10)

    WHEN WE APPROACH THE STUDY of logic for the first time, we encounter a strange paradox. The Oxford Concise Dictionary¹ defines logic as the “science of reasoning, proof, thinking, or inference; … [a] chain of reasoning, correct or incorrect use of reasoning, ability in reasoning.” The gerunds² in the definition – “reasoning” and “thinking” – suggest the study of certain activities that the intellect or mind performs. But the sophisticated discipline designated by this definition makes no mention of mental operations, nor does it nurture skills that would make thinking more effective. Rather, it defines a number of symbols, stipulates how to...

    • 1 Frege and Psychologism
      (pp. 13-19)

      WE START WITH GOTTLOB FREGE, who originally identified the fallacy of psychologism. What does he mean by the term? And what reasons does he give for labelling it a fallacy? Any solution to those questions can come only from a careful examination of his arguments.

      Taking his stand against the introspective psychology of the nineteenth century exemplified by Mill and Husserl, Frege distinguishes “between image and concept, between imagination and thought.”¹ As a general term for image and imagination, as well as “sensations” and “mental pictures, formed from the amalgamated traces of earlier sense impressions,”² Frege adopts the term Vorstellung,...

    • 2 From Sensations to Ideas: The Empiricists
      (pp. 20-30)

      THE BEST PLACE TO START EXPLORING what happens when we entertain ideas, or Vorstellungen, is with the British empiricists John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. For they explicitly define ideas as retained images.

      The seventeenth century saw vicious wars of religion. In Europe, the Thirty Years War set Protestants against Catholics. In Britain, the Civil War pitted High Church Anglican Royalists against Presbyterian and Independent Parliamentarians. These were conflicts not simply about power or control of land, but also about ideas and what people held to be true. Not surprising, then, the century also witnessed an interest in how...

    • 3 How Ideas Emerge: Hegel
      (pp. 31-38)

      WHAT INTELLECTUAL OPERATIONS are involved in formulating ideas? What happens as we develop internal images from immediate sensations to the point of using language? In the psychology of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, I found a fairly detailed analysis of that process – one more plausible than the empiricists’. By using his text as a guide,¹ one can develop a narrative describing how distinct intellectual functions emerge, each building on the one that precedes, and setting the context for what follows. As each one surfaces in the story, I highlight it, using italics.

      We can start from what Hume calls the impressions...

    • 4 Language
      (pp. 39-47)

      LANGUAGE IS A COMMUNAL, not an individual, accomplishment. Each person is not alone in recollecting images out of the dark pit of the subconscious, in using them to represent shared features, in finding the mind wandering along the pathways of association, in generating metaphors and fantasies, and in creating signs to stand for particular resemblances and meanings. We are born into a community that already gives voice to its thoughts and understands what others say. In one sense, each sign is arbitrary, since no idea requires a particular set of sounds as its sign. None the less we do not...

    • 5 From Retentive to Mechanical Memory
      (pp. 48-56)

      IN THE CHAPTER ON “IMAGINATION” IN HIS Principles of Psychology, William James cites research by Sir Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century. Exploring “the illumination, definition, and coloring” of mental images, Galton wrote a number of scientists, asking them to think of the breakfast table they had sat at that morning and describe the images in their mind.

      To my astonishment I found that, the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words...

    • 6 Thoughts and Descartes’s Rules
      (pp. 57-63)

      IF HEGEL’S SUGGESTION IS CORRECT, memory can wean our minds from the influence of personal interests and limited perspectives. We no longer need retained images and recollections to represent our meanings, for, through reproductive memory, words perform the task more effectively and precisely. Mechanical memory goes further; for it abandons personal meaning itself and lets words simply function on their own. The mind is free to focus on them in a disinterested way. It pays attention to the import that they have acquired in our culture over the years. To be sure, we have made our own small contribution to...

    • 7 Second Rule: Analysis and Definition
      (pp. 64-73)

      TO MOVE OUR THOUGHTS AWAY from vague ambiguity to some measure of precision, we need to identify their core significance. This involves focusing on each one and distinguishing within it those features that are distinctive, while setting aside related aspects that are not relevant. In other words, we follow Descartes’s second rule: “to divide each of the difficulties I examined into as many parts as possible and as may be required in order to resolve them better.”

      But what are the “parts” of a thought? A sense or meaning is not like a watch or car, where we can take...

    • 8 Third Rule: Synthesis and Unity
      (pp. 74-80)

      THROUGH ANALYSIS, we identify the components of individual thoughts – various levels of genera and a range of specific differences. Thoughts, however, can also be complex, integrating a large number of disparate elements. If we want to understand what the phrase “exchange rate” involves, for example, we start by focusing on the relationship of national currencies to each other. But when we explore further, we find that this thought relates to more far-reaching aspects of our political economy: the monetary policy of central banks, government fiscal policy, international trade, the efficiency of the manufacturing sector, the ease of developing natural resources...

    • 9 Fourth Rule: Comprehensiveness
      (pp. 81-89)

      IN OUR INVESTIGATION OF THE WAY we clarify thoughts, we have discussed two operations traditionally associated with human reasoning: analysis and synthesis. We take thoughts and break them up into their components; and we combine elements into larger, integrated wholes. In both processes, however, the intellect works with its own products. It views thoughts as functioning in an independent realm, where they develop on their own. But thinking is an activity of beings living in a natural and social world. As such it informs and responds to their interaction with that environment.

      To be sure, in our story so far...

    • 10 Conceiving
      (pp. 90-96)

      WE CAN NOW RETURN TO FREGE’S sharp distinction between ideas and concepts. Concepts, he says, are permanent and independent of the thinking of any one individual. They are objective, and our task is to discover, not generate, them. They thus subsist in some kind of Platonic heaven and are generically different from ideas, which emerge from our experience in response to images and interests that reflect our peculiar circumstances.

      To avoid prejudging this claim, I have avoided using the language of concepts in talking about the realm of pure thoughts, for in our story these have emerged out of the...

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 97-98)

      IN PART II, I EXPAND ON SOME THEMES that I have adumbrated in part I of this book. Of critical importance is the role of what I have called ‘tendrils.’ That metaphor suggests, but does not explain and clarify, what is involved: it remains in the realm of ideas. To explore their role in a fully satisfactory way is, at the present time, beyond my capacities. But I can develop some themes that may give it more plausibility and provide the basis for further investigation.

      One particular path I shall not follow. In our discussion of comprehensiveness, I talked about...

    • 11 Hegel’s Logic
      (pp. 99-106)

      AS FAR AS I KNOW, Hegel is the only philosopher who has systematically examined what happens when we conceive in a disciplined way. In his Science of Logic, he traces a series of successive intellectual operations that lead on from one to another. That narrative does not follow a phenomenal history, describing events in some stream of consciousness, but rather lays out the sequence of concepts that emerge as we thinking beings, nurtured by the wisdom of the ages and our experience of the world, follow tendrils of thought. It recounts what happens within the objective realm of concepts, yet...

    • 12 Syllogisms
      (pp. 107-112)

      ARISTOTLE WAS THE FIRST PHILOSOPHER to examine how we move from one thought to another. Reasoning, he said, involves a pattern through which two sentences lead on to a third. By classifying sentences into four types, he identified a number of possible structures, of which, it turns out, only a handful involve a legitimate inference. By identifying the constraints that limit the number of possible transitions within his logical schema, we may throw more light on the tendrils that connect concept to concept.

      Aristotle starts by linking concepts together into judgments; and he reduces all judgments to one basic form...

    • 13 Modus ponens et al.
      (pp. 113-123)

      THE ONLY MAJOR CHANGE IN THE logic of inference after Aristotle came from the stoics. They took conditionals, such as “If it is raining, then the streets are wet,” or disjunctions, such as “Either she stayed home, or she went to the store,” and used them as the first premises of inference. In a second premise, one could affirm the antecedent of the conditional (“It is raining”) and conclude, “The streets are wet.” Or one could deny the consequent (“The streets are not wet”), leading to “It is not raining.” Starting from a disjunction, the strongest inference was from the...

    • 14 Arguments from Analogy
      (pp. 124-135)

      IN TEXTBOOKS ON LOGIC, arguments from analogy are the poor cousins. They do not provide the strict necessity that occurs in syllogisms or modus ponens; there are no methods to ensure reliability as exist for inductive generalizations; they frequently lead people astray. Yet they are in wide use, even by the people who worry most about logical rigour; they turn out to be indispensable for establishing the plausibility of claims.

      One of Francis Bacon’s arguments for an empirical science, for example, goes like this: “The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the...

    • 15 Linguistic Variations
      (pp. 136-146)

      IN OUR DISCUSSION OF LANGUAGE IN CHAPTER 4, we took no notice of words’ relationships with each other. Arguments from analogy, however, have introduced us to the way tendrils reach out from a central verb to the other components of a sentence. These connections, whether with nouns, adverbs, clauses, or phrases, create a network of interrelations. So it is not only the basic meaning of our terms that needs refining if we are to communicate effectively with our fellows, but also the way they link together into a meaningful complex. If we heard only a sequence of sounds, each with...

    • 16 Ideas and Concepts
      (pp. 147-153)

      WE STARTED THIS PILGRIMAGE with Frege’s sharp separation between ideas and concepts. Ideas are the product of the subjective experiences of the people who have them. They trace their sense back to some particular sensation; they have links with other ideas in an individual’s history; they absorb emotional flavour from the contexts in which they have emerged. Concepts, in contrast, are objective and independent of what any one person happens to think. They enable genuine communication, for several people can be thinking the same concept, even though those intellectual acts are in different bodies and occur within different streams of...

  6. Epilogue
    (pp. 154-164)

    THE LIFE OF MIND IS A DYNAMIC FIELD OF FORCES that intersect with and affect each other. We have been looking at a part of this rich complex – the tension between what Frege called “ideas” and “concepts.” Since our thinking always takes place within our bodies – in a specific place and at a specific time – its stimulus inevitably comes from individual and particular interests and experiences. Yet we have seen how the mind transforms such subjective content, through the operation of a number of functions, into something more objective and universal. Our thinking can aspire towards a fully comprehensive understanding...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 165-166)
  8. Index
    (pp. 167-169)