Conceptualism is a philosophical theory that a concept (general or abstract idea) is a mental object, and only that. A concept (idea of pink, red) is distinct from the things to which it can apply (a concrete red rose), which opposes conceptualism to theories called realism (realism of ideas or universals) such as Platonism. A concept is also distinct from the words (“pink“, “red“) which signify this concept, which separates conceptualism from nominalism.
In other words, general ideas do not exist in an absolute way, in particular they do not exist prior to things and are not their essence. They are constructions of the mind. Yet these are not only sounds, names, because they have a mental, intellectual reality.
Origin of ontological conceptualism
“Conceptualist ontology is an intermediate position between nominalism and Platonic realism: it grants a reality to Ideas and refuses to reduce them to words (as nominalists do), but it does not grant them any substantial reality apart from the sensible and considers that the transcendence of Ideas is an illusion which disappears when one explains the hypostases which the disciples of Plato carry out. In this primary sense, Aristotle, Saint Thomas and Leibniz, are conceptualist philosophers. (…) Aristotle considers that there is a reality of the species just as there is a reality of sensitive qualities (which the Platonists mistakenly confuse with substances).”
– Joseph Vidal-Rosset
Aristotle makes from the universal a concept “posterior to things in the order of being”, released from the sensible by a process of induction which abstracts, and not, like Plato, a separate Form, an Idea, a thing existing in itself, above and outside of individuals.
The quarrel between universals and ontological conceptualism
The starting point is this text from Porphyry of Tire, around 268:
“First of all, with regard to genera and species, the question is whether they are realities in themselves or only mere conceptions of the mind, and, admitting that they are substantial realities, if they are tangible or intangible, if, finally, they are separated or only subsist in sensitive things and according to them. I will avoid talking about it. This is a very deep problem and one which requires quite different and more extensive research. “(Porphyry, Isagoge, I, 9-12).
In the famous quarrel between universals, a philosophical dispute of the Middle Ages (from the 11th to the 14th centuries), conceptualism is opposed to nominalism and realism as regards the status of universals (genres, species, universal concepts); on the other hand, as nominism, on the level of language, it opposes reism. Conceptualism says that universals are constructions of the mind, they are neither ideal things (realism of universals) nor pure voices (nominalism). Nominism says that universal concepts express things, without (reism) being things, realities.
1) Nominalism reduces general ideas to words, it holds universals for simple voice fluctuations (flatus vocis) (vocalist thesis), because it affirms that only individuals exist (particularist thesis, empiricist). For example, when we say the word “Man”, a general term, we have only one word in mind, since there are, in reality, only particular men.
2) Realism of universals (reism) supports this: general ideas have an existence in themselves, a “substantial reality”, they exist independently of the things in which they manifest themselves, like the Ideas of Plato (Platoist thesis). And the names have a reality (reist thesis). For example, there is a human species, which constitutes the common essence of men, who differ only in their accidents, their occasional properties.
3) Conceptualism admits that all the characters of a species exist, but as a mental concept, formed from experience, while expressing the essence of real things and making it possible to know them. According to conceptualism, names refer to things, the concept expresses the thing (nominist thesis) without being a thing, a substance, a reality, and universals are mental constructions, logical instruments (constructivist thesis). “For Abélard, there is nothing universal in reality: universality is the fruit of a mental operation which takes into consideration the aspects or status in which individual things are grouped by similarities, disregarding ( abstrahendo) different aspects. The universal is therefore a vox significativa or sermo, a mental representation, charged with meaning, aimed at external reality.”
“Conceptualism is sometimes understood as the doctrine according to which Ideas are the product of the activity of the mind (Kant), or even simple subjective representations (Locke), we will call epistemological conceptualism this second position” (Joseph Vidal -Rosset). John Locke supports his conception in his Essay on Human Understanding (1690) (Book III, Chapter 3):
“Since all things that exist are only particulars, how come we by general terms; or where find we those general natures they are supposed to stand for? Words become general by being made the signs of general ideas: and ideas become general, by separating from them the circumstances of time and place, and any other ideas that may determine them to this or that particular existence”
According to Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781),
”Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts. But all thought must, directly or indirectly, by way of certain characters, relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us”
The concept is this consciousness one which unites in a representation the various perceived successively and then reproduced … Philosophical knowledge is rational knowledge by concepts and mathematical knowledge is rational knowledge by construction of concepts. is to represent a priori the intuition which corresponds to it … I will recall the definition of the categories [unity, plurality, totality; reality, negation, limitation; substance, causality, reciprocal action; possibility, existence, necessity]. concepts of an object in general.
The concepts are constructed. Kant distinguishes between the pure concepts of reason (the three transcendental ideas (the soul, the world, God) and the empirical concepts (for example, the concept of change is an empirical concept, formed from the intuitions of various particular changes ).