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Concepts in the Semantic Triangle

Hampton, J. A. ORCID: 0000-0002-0363-8232 (2015). Concepts in the Semantic Triangle. In: Margolis, E. & Laurence, S. (Eds.), The Conceptual Mind: New Directions in the Study of Concepts. (pp. 655-676). Massachussets, USA: MIT Press.


Looking at the range and variety of contributions to this volume it is evident that “concept” is a term that means many things to many people, a fact that has been widely acknowledged (Dove, 2009; Machery, 2009; Weiskopf, 2009). Probably the most central issue of all, the one over which there is least agreement, is how to explain or describe the meaning or content of concepts. What information do they carry and how do they do so?

The aim of this chapter will be to describe three different ways in which it has proved useful to talk about the meaning or content of concepts. The first comes primarily from philosophy and uses the notion of reference. When we think a thought, or utter a statement, the words that we use refer to particular things in the world. Each concept term has its denotation, the class of things to which it refers. A second way to think about conceptual meaning is by looking at language use. When we use a word we can do so either appropriately in a way that others will readily understand, or inappropriately in a way that others will object to. For this approach, meaning is a matter of social convention or practice. The third way to look at meaning is to ask what information is represented in a person’s mind at the time that they have a thought or express an idea. As well as asking what a concept refers to, and what the appropriate use of the term in language might be, we can also ask how an individual mind achieves this result. What must we assume about the representation of information in the mind that enables a possessor of a concept to use it in these ways?

These three approaches to concepts and meaning lead to very different accounts of what a concept is. While not promising to unravel the tangled knot of how the accounts relate to each other, I hope at least to lay out some of the issues involved.

Publication Type: Book Section
Additional Information: Published as Margolis, Eric and Stephen Laurence (Eds.), The Conceptual Mind: New Directions in the Study of Concepts, ©2015 MIT, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, (pp. 655-676).
Publisher Keywords: Philosophy
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
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