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The concept in analytic philosophy

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In the twentieth century, Frege and Carnap, opposed to “psychologism”, preferred to consider concepts as abstract entities.

It is not obvious, however, that a concept is identified with the meaning of a term, the sense of intension or denotation: Hilary Putnam considers indeed, in his experience of the Twin Earth, this as doubtful. According to Putnam, the concept of “beech” and “elm” does not depend only on the meaning I give it (these two trees can be indistinguishable to me), but what they denote, regardless of my subjective meaning: there is a “linguistic division of labor” essential to the concept, which makes a ranger know very well what is denoted when I say “beech”.

A proper name can be considered, according to certain philosophical theories, as expressing the concept of an individual.

The cognitive sciences develop a notion of concept by using psychological experimentation, and thus enter into dialogue with philosophy. For example, they analyze the categorization process in children.

The so-called “classical” theory

The “classical” theory of meaning states that a concept is defined by a set of conditions that an object must satisfy to fall under that concept. To possess a concept would be to know the definition. This approach is now called “inferentialist” when it makes the meaning of a concept depend on the inferences with which it is associated.

The psychologist Eleanor Rosch has developed, under the name of “prototype theory”, a similar approach according to which a concept is mentally represented by a prototype uniting the most typical properties of the objects to which the concept refers. The belonging of an object to a concept is then a function of its degree of resemblance to the prototype.

The causal theory

Classical theory opposes the causal conception of the meaning according to which the world plays a constitutive role in the formation and diversification of concepts. It has been developed by Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, and Tyler Burge, who point out that the meaning of many concepts depends at least in part on the causal relationships an individual has with his or her physical or sociolinguistic environment. This theory is based on the fact that we can not characterize the content of certain concepts without referring to the environment. These concepts would have an indexical component in the sense that their content depends partly on the context of their enunciation. Thus, the concept “gold coin” in the proposition “this is a gold coin” implies a reference to a particular object and causally depends on the existence of that object in a context relative to the speaker of the proposition.


Teleosemantics is a contemporary approach to concept theory developed by Ruth Millikan, David Papineau and Fred Dretske. It argues that some concepts have a natural function. This means that teleosemantics explains the formation of concepts from the role they play in our cognitive apparatus, the “function” they fulfill. According to Claude Panaccio, teleosemantics introduces teleological or finalist notions into cognition, against mechanistic philosophies of the seventeenth century in contemporary times.

Teleosemantics is inspired by the biological paradigm to explain concepts. Indeed, according to Panaccio, biology studies the function of organs, just as teleosemantics studies the function of concepts. Similarly, animal ecology studies the behavior of species from the function they perform, such as “capture prey”, “avoid predators” and “seduce sexual partners”.

Mechanical causality is not enough, according to proponents of the teleosemantic approach, to explain the functioning of an organism. To understand the “possible dysfunctions” and the “possibility of diseases”, argues Panaccio, it must be maintained that in these cases “the normal biological functions are poorly assumed”. The use of standards to understand an organism is irreducible to a mechanistic approach.

Two trends emerge in teleosemantic, which define the notion of function differently. The first, supported by Robert Cummins in “Functional Analysis” (1975), is a “systemic” approach. It consists in explaining the function in a system that encompasses it. The heart, for example, is a function that is part of the total physiological system, and its action is to be understood from the state of health of this system.

The second trend is Ruth Millikan’s “evolutionist” approach. It consists in explaining the function from its history, the role it has played in the past of the species. The evolutionary approach emphasizes that function has passed the natural selection test successfully, and has been retained in the species. The concepts, according to teleosemantics, are to be explained on these models: either from their role in the systemic functioning of cognition, or from their history in the evolution of the species that mentally forms these concepts.

Translated from Wikipedia

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