Systematic Philosophy

to know what can be known

What Are Concepts And Propositions?

We can divide all representations into two types: propositions and concepts. What is a proposition? What is a concept?

Definition by paradigm cases

We will define both “concept” and “proposition” by means of paradigm cases. A “concept” is any of the examples we give in the “paradigm cases of concepts” section below or any representations that are relevantly similar. A “proposition” is any of the examples we give in the “paradigm cases of propositions” section below or any representations that are relevantly similar.

Paradigm cases of concepts

Each of the following examples is a paradigm case of a concept:

  • <square>
  • <an action being good>
  • <non-red>
  • <a bridge spanning a river>
  • <Socrates being next to Plato>

From this and our definition of “concept”, it follows that these representations are concepts, as are any representations that are relevantly similar to them.

Paradigm cases of propositions

The following examples are paradigm cases of propositions:

  • <I exist>
  • <all bachelors are unmarried>
  • <something exists or nothing exists>
  • <the sun will rise tomorrow>
  • <Socrates is next to Plato>

From this and the definition of “proposition”, it follows that these representations are propositions. Likewise with any representations relevantly similar to them.

The difference between concepts and propositions

We have defined “concept” and “proposition” in terms of representations that are relevantly similar to various paradigm cases. Similar in what regard? One way to indicate the relevant dimension of similarity is to show how concepts and propositions differ from one another. If you know how concepts and propositions differ from one another, then you should be able to reliably distinguish between concepts and propositions and correctly classify any new cases you encounter.

How do concepts and propositions differ? We could point out that words and phrases tend to call concepts to mind, while statements tend to make us think of propositions. But this does not show us the intrinsic difference between concepts and propositions, if there is one. To see the intrinsic difference, it is useful to examine various pairs of representations. Consider the last example of a concept and the last example of a proposition given above. These representations are extremely similar. In fact, it may that the only difference between them is whatever it is that distinguishes concepts from propositions. There are a very large number of pairs of concepts and propositions like this. For example:

  • Concept: <myself existing>
  • Proposition: <I exist>
  • Concept: <an action being good>
  • Proposition: <an action is good>
  • Concept: <something existing or nothing existing>
  • Proposition: <something exists or nothing exists>
  • Concept: <a bridge spanning a river>
  • Proposition: <a bridge spans a river>
  • Concept: <Socrates being next to Plato>
  • Proposition: <Socrates is next to Plato>

Examine pairs of representations like these. This will show you the difference between concepts and propositions.

 

No problem.

Now, having examined the relevant representations, different philosophers have come to different opinions on the difference between concepts and propositions. Some maintain that there is no difference and that the “pairs” are really the same representation expressed in two ways. Others maintain that there is a difference, and that that difference is a matter of representational content. According to these philosophers, there is something in the representational content of a proposition that is not present in the associated concept. Other philosophers maintain that the difference is something else. Whatever the truth is, the above pairs of representations display clearly the difference between concepts and propositions if there is one.

The angle brackets convention

When we mention specific concepts or propositions, we will use angle brackets (< … >). This will allow us to distinguish propositions, which we mark with angle brackets, and statements, which we mark with quotation marks (“ … ”).

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Written by Geoff Anders

May 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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