What is a Concept?

I have been surprised to occasionally see some philosophers on Twitter denying that there is such a thing as non-conceptual experience — what I might like to call “raw” experience. But at some point I realized that I don’t really know what they mean by “concept” (words like “representation” and “idea” are similarly vague and troubling).

Here’s a dictionary definition of concept:

1. “something conceived in the mind”

2. “an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances”


The first isn’t so helpful since we then have to define “conceive” and we’re almost back where we started. The second gives us a little more to work with, if we pretend for a moment that we know what an idea is. A concept is something that is generalized from experience.

With this in mind, maybe it’s not so helpful to think of experience as either being conceptual or non-conceptual — a binary distinction — but instead as a continuum. More experience breeds more abstraction, which leads to richer predictions and expectations about the world.

Looking at it this way, I think we can say that a newborn baby has experience that is very low on the conceptual continuum even if we don’t want to say it is non-conceptual. The baby has some innate expectations, but those aren’t built out of experience (at least, not their own experience). It may be that some states induced by meditation or psychedelics can cause the conceptual content of experience to decrease as well, suppressing or mitigating some of our expectations and predictions about the world.

My earlier incredulity about some philosphers denying the possibility of non-conceptual experience may have been because I had my own ideas about “concept” being closely tied to logic and language. Viewing a concept as an abstraction built out of experience is clarifying for me.

(image source: Bridget Coila, Flickr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)