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Metaphysics / Philosophy

Words and Concepts

In a previous series, I showed that words are about concepts. Concepts are either about things or about other words. Issues with differing languages can come into the picture and mess things up though. It is there that the distinction between a word and a concept really starts. Words are always in a particular language, even if two different words express the same concept. Words and concepts are different: words always express concepts and concepts are always expressed by words.

There are many different words that can express the same concept, and sometimes different concepts are expressed by the same word. For example, “kai” and “and” both express the concept and. The only difference is that one is Greek and the other is English. Nor are other languages the only place to find this. “Clear” and “brighten” both have the same meaning, but are both different words in English. “Clear” itself can express many concepts: to remove or take away, to acquire, to take out, to authorize, etc. So words and concepts are different things.

However, every use of a word also uses and concept and every concept is expressed by a word. We may think of inexpressible situations, but they do not amount to an exception. The inexpressible is not ordinary and would require someone who is adept at speaking in order to express the situation to others. It may even require such an adept that almost no one is capable of doing so accurately. However, this only means that no one have the ability to use our currently available public words in order to accurately express the concepts that have been gained from the situation. While words that refer to other words may not appear to have concepts, their concepts are simply their effect in language. Otherwise, we could not teach others the grammar of English unless they already knew English.

A word is not simply an arrangement of letters. “lijesfe” is not a word. Generally, we all understand that words have a meaning. So claiming that all words express concepts simply follows from the definition of what a word is. But words do not have to contain any letters at all. When spoken, words are formed from sounds rather than letters. Sign language uses finger position rather than sounds or letters. So generally speaking, a word is a sign or set of signs that express a concept. This is the definition of what words are. By this meaning, a red traffic light is a word that expresses the meaning “stop”.

Concepts are either about things or about words. Concepts about things are either demonstrative or conceptual. A demonstrative concept is the weakest form of a concept. It is the equivalent of pointing. Since we can point at anything, whether a thing or a word, a demonstrative concept is the weakest form of concept there is. So if there were such a thing as a concept that could not be expressed by any words, then we could not form any concept of it. If we could, then merely by indicating that it could not be expressed by a word we would have succeeded in pointing at it. Yet whenever someone claims to have a mystical experience that they cannot express in words, everyone knows that they are referring to their mystical experience! Therefore, there is a sense in which every concept can be expressed in words.

Why do particular words express the concepts they do though?

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