MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Immaculate Conceptions

Part D: Classifying

Concept Classes

Broadly, concepts refer to things in reality, to existents. What things?

We can easily identify four classes of concepts: those pertaining to objects ("chair", "ocean", "star"), phenomena ("climate", "gravity", "time"), qualities ("blue", "hot", "fast") and actions ("flying", "burning", "asking"). Not coincidentally, these correspond to the major types of words: objects and phenomena to nouns, qualities to adjectives and adverbs, and actions to verbs. The direct experiences of consciousness, such as "emotion", "pain", "giddiness" and "consciousness" itself, are phenomena.

Even these broad classes of concepts have a hierarchy, in which objects are primary. This is because there is no such thing as a "disembodied" phenomenon, quality or action: any such notion is just a floating abstraction. In reality, every concept pertaining to these derives from the observation of objects possessing, causing, doing or affected by them. There is no "gravity" independent of material objects, no "fast" in the absence of things moving rapidly. All phenomena are caused by and/or emergent properties of something, all qualities are of something, and all actions are by something.

Exceptionally Grey

A concept subsumes all examples of it, and therefore all qualities of those examples, not only the uniting and distinguishing qualities which define the concept. Concepts are identified by similarity and defined by essentials, but the things in reality have many qualities and are not identical. Thus it is in the nature of concepts that there will be grey areas and exceptions.

"Grey areas" are cases in which it is hard to tell which of two similar concepts a given thing belongs to. "Exceptions" are things which seem to belong to a concept, but which don't fit the deductive definition – such as a human being with severe brain damage or insanity, who therefore lacks the power of reason.

However, these do not weaken the power or validity of concepts. Indeed, the very meaning of "exception" implies that the concept is valid in general (else "exception" is a stolen concept!)

A particular case might indeed imply an error or incompleteness in our concepts. Perhaps there is a grey area because we need a new concept to cover it. Perhaps the exception indicates an error in our definition – or in our identification of the thing as an instance of the concept.

On the other hand, there might be a grey area simply because in reality there is a continuous scale. While we identify "orange" as the colour between red and yellow, where does orange end and red begin? The same applies – even more so – to living species, which can vary enormously over space or time as they evolve from one form into another (where did "reptile" end and "bird" begin, for example?) The decision of what do do in such cases is a matter of importance and context. Eskimos have many words for snow and ice, reflecting their needs in the environment in which they live, and artists and printers distinguish many named shades of colour. This is an origin of professional jargon: specialists often find a need for much finer identifications than laymen.

Similarly, an exception may simply be a consequence of that same variability (a variability recognised and reflected in measurement-omission itself). For example, when is intelligence so low that "rationality" is no longer possible? But fundamentally, exceptions derive from the fact that we can have different criteria for our concepts depending on context. For example, that a person is human in the biological sense – being born of another human – does not mean that they must be human in the philosophical or functional sense – possessing the power of thought. Such exceptions simply mean that the thing fits a concept by one definition but not by another. Which definition we should use depends on the context involved.

The nature of concepts includes the recognition that things in reality are different. It recognises that fundamentally a thing is itself, defined by what it is, not by what similar things are. It recognises that concepts are valid because things do have fundamental qualities in common: but that the things in reality vary, sometimes along a continuum, and vary in all their qualities likewise. Because they vary in all their qualities, a particular thing may fit a concept by one set of qualities, but not others.

What to do about exceptions and grey areas is, as usual, the task of reason to decide. Which means, we must work out what the exception means: is it proof that our concept is invalid, or just a reflection of the variability of the natural world, which we must be aware of, but which doesn't affect the general applicability of our concept? For example, that some biological humans have no power of reason does not alter the fact that the survival of human beings in general – including those ones! – depends on rationality, and therefore on allowing the reasoning mind to function.

As proof that exceptions do not invalidate concepts: we have a conceptual consciousness, yet we handle exceptions quite well! When faced with an exception, our brains don't collapse into "sheer blank system error". If we are rational, we follow the process above, work out what it means, and integrate this new knowledge without contradiction into all the rest of our knowledge. This is reflected in how science progresses, for example: exceptions to current theories are studied and the theories improved or replaced so as to fit known reality.


At the base of all our knowledge is concept-formation: mental abstractions from things in reality, which unite multiple things into single concepts based on essential similarities. This is a recursive process – concepts can be formed from other concepts – allowing any level of abstraction.

Concept-formation is necessary for rationality per se, as any thought beyond the perceptual level requires abstraction. Concept-formation is valid, because it reflects the nature of reality: things do in fact share fundamental qualities. Ultimately, concepts are valid because of the law of identity.

Because concepts are mental constructs, they can be in error. Since the validity of concepts rests on the actual fundamental similarities of things in reality, to be valid a concept must ultimately be derived from reality and correctly identify essential qualities. Valid concepts are neither intrinsic (known by some kind of mystical revelation) nor subjective (arbitrary): they are objective, arising from the process of reason applied to the perceptions of our senses.

Our ancestors lived in jungles and caves, at the mercy of the random events of nature. The power of recursive abstraction of concepts derived objectively from reality is what has raised us to mastery of the earth and the beginnings of travel to other worlds. There is no limit to this nor to the potential improvements in human life and happiness – so long as the mind is left free to think and men are left free to achieve.

© 2002 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.