This post is part of the series Words and Concepts
Other posts in this series:
In my last post on this series, I explained that thoughts are formed by having one part of our experiences represent other parts. This means that thoughts are just like words. In a different post I claimed that perception is not enough on its own to generate concepts. I also claimed that merely pointing out one particular feature counted as having a concept of that feature. Gaining a new concept is simply identical with recognition of a particular feature as such.
When we recognize a particular feature there are two ways that we could recognize it. The first way is when that feature is the cause of our action. The second way is when that feature is represented in some way by another feature. This distinction explains the difference between concept formation and the appearance of concept formation.
When a feature is the cause of our action but that feature is not represented by any element of our experience, we call the action an act of instinct. For example, shining a bright light into our eyes causes us to move away from the light. If we hear a very sudden, loud noise, we might jump out of our seats. In either case, we do not have to point out the feature in order for the action to occur. This sort of thing is an example of natural intentionality. Since one thing reliably occurs after another regardless of whether or not one represents the other, this is natural rather than rational intentionality.
When we recognize a feature by giving that feature a name – or merely by pointing at the feature – we have acquired a concept of that feature. We begin this process by sensing the feature. If the feature is a sound, then we hear it and if it is a sight, we see it. It is the same with all of our senses. Next, we distinguish between that feature and all of the other features. This is required so that we point out one feature and only that feature. While we could point at the color blue and the number one, there is no single concept that covers both because they are different things. What we are pointing at must be one thing.
This last point is a key to distinguishing concepts from mere associations. We might associate a sound with being fed by repeatedly having one occur before the other. This is known as Pavlov’s effect. In order for an actual concept to be formed, the thing pointed out must be recognized as one thing. If the thing is an individual, then it is one thing. If the thing is a feature of an individual, then is one thing provided that the feature is just one feature of that individual. Pointing out that a dog is big and hairy is pointing out two things about the dog. If someone lacks the ability to reliably distinguish in that way, then they lack the ability to form concepts. This does not require that the person recognize how they are forming concepts. As long as it works, then they are actually doing so. They need not recognize their recognition of ‘one feature’ provided that they reliably do so.
Concepts are formed when we recognize a single feature by distinguishing it from all other features known to the individual at that time.