Monday, April 22, 2013

The shared character of concepts



The research mentioned in my last blog on the mental representation of dreams is an important step forward in brain research. It is in line with research results that I have discussed before in my blogs. The essence is that they show that objects in the world around us but also our virtual images are represented in our brain in some way. As such it is no surprise, but there is a difference between supposing how things are and seeing a supposition substantiated. We are still far away from really knowing how objects – real or virtual – are represented in the brain, but this type of research helps us understand how the brain is structured and maybe also how we think.
But does this imply that the concepts that refer to such representations – or “forms” in the Platonic sense – are also in the head? Without a doubt concepts have a place in the brain. Many studies have shown that brain damages can lead to serious damages of our conceptualizations or even can make that we fail to remember certain concepts that we did have before the brain damage happened. Nevertheless this doesn’t mean that concepts exist only in the brain. Concepts are constructions of how the objects in the world are like, of personal histories and of how other people see the objects. The latter makes concepts intrinsically socially determined. Instances that show it abound. Take for example this. Once in Germany I was walking in a kind of nature park with a paper with questions in my hand. Somewhere I saw bird in a cage and the question was: What kind of bird is this? Since the answer needed only to be general my answer was “It’s an owl”. It appeared to be wrong. The right answer was that it was not an “Eule” but a “Kauz”. This made me realize that the birds that in Latin terminology are called Strigidae and in English are called owls (and in Dutch uilen) in German common parlance are divided into two groups: Eule and Kauze, a distinction that exists only in German and not in other languages. The first group refers to Strigidae that have a more or less slender appearance, while the Kauze are stockier and rounder. Moreover, Germans feel also that they are two kinds of birds. For them they are two general forms of birds corresponding to two general concepts, while for Dutchmen, Britons, Americans etc. there is only one general form and one general concept.
What this instance illustrates is that concepts are not simply private ideas but that they are intrinsically shared with other people. This is not mere coincidence but it is the way concepts are formed. So, even if the forms of objects in the head are private, the concepts that refer to these forms have a social dimension. In this way, they exist not only in a single brain but are the property of all of people that participate in its production and reproduction.

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