views updated May 18 2018


A concept is a representation that the mind forms within itself, in which it simply apprehends the nature of something without affirming or denying anything of it. Aristotle called this mental entity by several names, each highlighting a different aspect of it. He most frequently called it a "thought" (νόημα, Interp. 16a 10) because it was produced by thinking; a "word" (λόγος, Eth. Nic. 1096b 21) because it was a mental expression of meaning; occasionally an "idea" (ε[symbol omitted]δος, Anim. 429a 28) because the intellect "sees" by means of it; "receptions of the soul" (παθήματα τ[symbol omitted]ς ψυχ[symbol omitted]ς, Interp. 16a 3) to emphasize the intellect's initial passivity; at times a "conception" ([symbol omitted]πόληψις, Topica 114a 18) because of the many similarities between mental and physical conception.

St. thomas aquinas latinized most of the above and added "intention" (intentio, C. gent. 1.53) because through it the intellect "tends" to the thing; "species" (ibid. ) from the little-used verb specere, "to see"; "notion" (notio, In Heb. 1.1) for the mind knows by this means; "reason" (ratio, Summa Theologiae 1a, 44.3), because concepts are the material for reasoning. But most frequently the Angelic Doctor employs "concept" or "conception" (conceptus, conceptio, In 1 perih. 2.3). The same similarity between intellectual and physical conception that the Greek verb λαμβάνω expressed, St. Thomas found in the Latin concipere. He explained the comparison as follows: "That which is thus comprehended by the intellect, existing as it does within the intellect, is conformed both to the moving intelligible object, of which it is a certain likeness, and to the quasi-passive intellect, which confers on it intelligible existence. Hence what is comprehended by the intellect is not unfittingly called the conception of the intellect. Therefor[a-z], [a-z]hen the intellect understands something other than itself, the thing understood is, so to speak, the father of the word conceived in the intellect, and the intellect itself resembles rather a mother, whose function is such that conception takes place in her" (Comp. theol. 1.3839).

Nature and Kinds of Concept. These various expressions emphasize the basic Aristotelian-Thomistic position that concepts (and universals) exist formally in the mind but fundamentally in things themselves. The concept has been formed under the influence of the thing (so it resembles and represents the thing), but it exists as such only in the mind. In this way thomism steers a middle path between ultrarealism, which ascribes too much reality to the concept (i.e., it exists as such outside the mind), and nominalism, which ascribes too little reality to it (i.e., there are no universal concepts, only general names). The moderate realism of St. Thomas recognizes that things can be and are known by the human intellect as these things exist really and in themselves. But it also recognizes that for such real things to be known, they must be brought before the mind as objects, "for knowledge occurs according as the known is in the knower" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 12.4).

The concept is both knowledge and the means by which knowledge is attained (see knowledge, process of); "it is not only 'that which' is understood, but also that 'by which' the thing is understood" (De ver. 4.2 ad3). The Thomistic commentators signified these two values of the concept as "formal" and "objective." Tommaso de Vio cajetan explained: "In order to understand the terms involved, note that the term 'concept' has a two-fold meaning: formal and objective. The formal concept is a certain image which the possible intellect forms in itself as objectively representative of the thing known: it is called an intention or concept by philosophers and a word by theologians. But the objective concept is the thing represented by the formal concept as terminating the act of understanding. For example, the formal concept of a lion is that image of a lion which the possible intellect forms of the quiddity of a lion when it wishes to understand it; the objective concept is the very leonine nature represented and understood. Nor should it be thought that when it is said that a name signifies a concept that it signifies one or the other only; for it is a sign of the formal concept as a means or a quo, and it is a sign of the objective concept as an ultimate, or quod " (In de ente 1.14).

It is only the formal concept that is properly a concept, an intellectual offspring that bears a resemblance to both father and mother. It alone is a real entity, an entitative modification of the intellect. Yet clarity requires distinctions. For just as one can view a statue materially as a piece of marble, and formally as an image that signifies some personage, so one must distinguish between the concept as an entity and its formal or intentional function. This could be set forth as follows:

  • 1. Materially or entitatively considered, the concept pertains to the category of quality, and thus differs from the external thing, which can pertain to any category (see categories of being).
  • 2. Formally or intentionally considered, the concept is similar to the external thing:
  • a. As an essence, representative of the external thing, it is identical with the essence of that thing; yet
  • b As existent intentionally in the mind, it differs in not having the natural mode of existence of the thing.

The history of modern philosophy shows the need for such careful distinction. In descartes the intentional function disappears, and the concept is treated as a portrait for whose validity divine veracity is needed. Consequently berkeley saw no need for keeping the external thing as a double of the idea. Kant admitted, with Descartes, a thing hidden behind the object. But because he regarded the object as constructed by the mind according to its a priori laws, he made the thing-in-itself unknowable. Neorealists, such as Perry and Montague, by disregarding the distinction between thing and object, somehow made the extramental thing itself immanent to thought. Phenomenologists and the critical realists stop knowledge at an object, which is no longer a product of the mind, but some irreducible datum, still separate from the extramental thing.

Concepts and Intentionality. The Thomistic theory of knowledge constantly bears on the real; intentional ity is of its essence. A thing first exists in itself, then it impresses itself upon the knower. Consequently those characteristics that belong to a thing in its first state, i.e., as it exists in itselfthat man is an animalare called first intentions. Those formalities that belong to a thing in its second state, i.e., as it exists in knowledgebeing universal, being a species, being a subjectare called second intentions (John of St. Thomas, Cursus phil. 1:290293). In both first and second intentions there is need to distinguish again between the formal and the objective, between the sign and the signified. While formal first intentions or concepts are modifications of the intellect, their objective intentions are realized extramentally. On the other hand, the formal second intention is likewise a real modification of the intellect, while the objective second intention is a relation of the object known precisely as it is known. This relation is produced by thought, exists only in thought and only as long as thought of.

Extension and Comprehension. In objective first intentionsessences of real thingstwo different features can be considered: their comprehension or intension and their extension. A concept's comprehension consists in the intelligible aspects or elements necessarily included in its structure; it is what must be "comprehended" to have an accurate notion of the thing. The extension of a concept is its breadth in relation to the individuals in which it is realized, and which it groups into a unity. Thus the one concept "animal" extends to all sentient beings. Since each additional note added to the comprehension restricts its applicability, the general rule has been formulated: as the extension of concepts increases, their comprehension decreases, and vice versa.

Care must be taken to avoid the error of nominalism in understanding comprehension. Following nominalist theory, the concept contains only what man puts into it; accordingly it does not grasp essences or natures as these are in themselves, independent of the manner of apprehending them. Consequently nominalists understand the comprehension of a concept only in a subjective sense; they consider it as merely a group of notes that have been collected and that, given man's present state of knowledge, constitute the concept for him. But, on the contrary, if it be true that essences or natures are real, and that concepts grasp them to some degree, then comprehension must be understood in an objective sense. In other words, the comprehension of a concept is in effect the sum of all the notes that constitute the objective concept itself.

Much of modern logic, especially symbolic or mathematical logic, in its quest for "pure form" has concentrated exclusively on extension and ignored comprehension (see logic, symbolic). Boolean algebra treats of the relations between classes wholly in extension (membership of the classes), and not in intension (meaning of the classes). Nominalistic tendencies are also evident in many semanticists, such as Tarski and Carnap, who are concerned with the relations between the sign and the designatum (i.e., the external thing). They lose sight of the capital distinction between thing and object, and the mediatorial function of concept between language and the extramental thing (see semantics). St. Thomas made no such leap: "Words immediately signify conceptions of the intellect, and by means of them things" (In 1 perih. 2.5).

Categories and Predication. Since first intentions are perfections characteristic of things as they exist out-side the mind, Aristotle enumerated ten basic modes of real (finite) being, and called them the categories. For the Aristotelian tradition these categories are completely different from Kantian a priori mental forms; they are real modes of finite being. Since they form ten supreme genera, they serve as the starting point for an orderly classification of all essential predicates attributed to an individual. Such a procedure is exemplified for the category of substance by the famous porphyrian tree.

When the mind ponders how two concepts are related to each other, it discovers that there are five and only five ways in which a predicate can be attributed to a subject. These are the five predicables: genus, specific difference, species, property, and accident. Since it is only in the mind that concepts are so related, the predicables are clearly second intentions.

Simple apprehension seeks a clear and distinct knowledge of objective concepts by an explicit grasp of their comprehensive notes and extensive parts (see apprehension, simple). The act whereby the intellect explicitly expresses the comprehension of a concept is the act of defining that concept. The act of definition produces a complex concept that shows what the thing defined has in common with other things and in what it differs from them. The act whereby the intellect explicitly expresses the distribution of a concept into its subjective parts or components is the act of logically dividing that concept. The act of division likewise produces a complex concept or imperfect discourse that shows the distribution of a concept into its subjective parts.

In every phase of its analysis of the concept, Thomism shows a consistent moderate realism that makes due allowance for both the immanence and the tran scendence of thought.

See Also: knowledge, theories of; term (logic); word.

Bibliography: j. maritain, Distinguish to Unite, or the Degrees of Knowledge, tr. g. b. phelan from 4th French ed. (New York 1959); Formal Logic, tr. i. choquette (New York 1946). j.f. peifer, The Concept in Thomism (New York 1952). b. j. f. lonergan, "The Concept of Verbum in the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas," Theological Studies 7 (1946) 349392; 8 (1947) 3579, 404444; 10 (1949) 340, 359393. g. rabeau, Species, Verbum: L'activité intellectuelle élémentaire selon s. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris 1938). e. gilson, Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (Paris 1938).

[j. f. peifer]


views updated Jun 08 2018


For Wilfred Bion, conception is the result of coupling a pre-conception, an innate a priori idea, and a realization, elements of the real that are provided by external-sensory or internal-emotional experience. The concept is derived from conception through abstraction and generalization. Language and the attribution of a name to a concept unite preconception and realization, preventing any loss of experience in the process. In Bion's grid conception appears in row E, below the pre-conceptions (row D). The transition from D to E occurs when a pre-conception (for example, the infant's innate expectation of the breast) encounters a negative realization (absence of the real breast).

In a key article on the theory of thought, presented during the International Congress of Psychoanalysis held in Edinburgh in 1961, Bion appears to contradict himself when discussing his theory of conceptions. In one paragraph he says that the union of the preconception (innate expectation of the breast) with the realization ("the breast itself") gives rise to a conception, associated with an experience of satisfaction. In the following paragraph he writes that it is only when the pre-conception is joined with frustration that a conception (thought) is produced.

There is a problem with Bion's first statement. For if there is no internal object because that object has not been thought, it is difficult to justify how the "breast itself" could make contact with the pre-conception. Bion's second statement leads us to believe that the sensation of hunger (emotion), combined with the frustration (absence of the breast), will create the conception of "no breast," a "non-object," which then, through contact with the mother and the intervention of the container-contained mechanism, , will be able to become a "good breast." The presence of two innate pre-conceptions, present at the start of life: "bad" and "good" breasts, which are coupled with the realizations concerning the "absent breast" and the nourishing breast also need to be recognized. This will be the basis of the first internal object. Additionally, it is the infant's constitution, which enables him or her to tolerate the frustration of hunger, of the "absent breast," while preventing it from becoming prematurely the "bad breast" whose fate is then to be evacuated in the same way as feces, tears, et cetera (beta-elements).

Bion considers the concept a conception that has been assigned a name. The concept signifies a growth of the abstraction that enables us to expand the generalization of psychoanalytic theories, which, as a whole are judged to be too descriptive, too concrete. Concepts can be articulated in a deductive scientific system that functions like an Ars combinatoria .

Pedro Luzes

See also: Grid; Breast, good/bad object; Preconception; Realization; Thought.


Bion, Wilfred. (1962a). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann; New York: Basic Books.

. (1967). A theory of thinking. In Second thoughts. London: Heinemann. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 4-5.)

. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann.


views updated Jun 11 2018

con·cept / ˈkänˌsept/ • n. an abstract idea; a general notion: the concept of justice. ∎  a plan or intention; a conception: the center has kept firmly to its original concept. ∎  an idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity: a new concept in corporate hospitality. ∎ Philos. an idea or mental picture of a group or class of objects formed by combining all their aspects. ∎  [as adj.] (of a car or other vehicle) produced as an experimental model to test the viability of new design features.