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The Concept

Fortunately for our thinking, the great external world, with its
millions upon millions of individual objects, is so ordered that these
objects can be grouped into comparatively few great classes; and for
many purposes we can deal with the class as a whole instead of with the
separate individuals of the class. Thus there are an infinite number of
individual objects in the world which are composed of matter. Yet all
these myriads of individuals may be classed under the two great heads of
inanimate and animate. Taking one of these again: all animate forms
may be classed as either plants or animals. And these classes may
again be subdivided indefinitely. Animals include mammals, birds,
reptiles, insects, mollusks, and many other classes besides, each class
of which may be still further separated into its orders, families,
genera, species, and individuals. This arrangement economizes our
thinking by allowing us to think in large terms.

THE CONCEPTS SERVE TO GROUP AND CLASSIFY.--But the somewhat complicated
form of classification just described did not come to man ready-made.
Someone had to see the relationship existing among the myriads of
animals of a certain class, and group these together under the general
term mammals. Likewise with birds, reptiles, insects, and all the
rest. In order to accomplish this, many individuals of each class had to
be observed, the qualities common to all members of the class
discriminated from those not common, and the common qualities retained
as the measure by which to test the admission of other individuals into
this class. The process of classification is made possible by what the
psychologist calls the concept. The concept enables us to think
birds as well as bluebirds, robins, and wrens; it enables us to think
men as well as Tom, Dick, and Harry. In other words, the concept lies
at the bottom of all thinking which rises above the seeing of the
simplest relations between immediately present objects.

GROWTH OF A CONCEPT.--We can perhaps best understand the nature of the
concept if we watch its growth in the thinking of a child. Let us see
how the child forms the concept dog, under which he is able finally to
class the several hundred or the several thousand different dogs with
which his thinking requires him to deal. The child's first acquaintance
with a dog is, let us suppose, with a pet poodle, white in color, and
named Gyp. At this stage in the child's experience, dog and Gyp
are entirely synonymous, including Gyp's color, size, and all other
qualities which the child has discovered. But now let him see another
pet poodle which is like Gyp except that it is black in color. Here
comes the first cleavage between Gyp and dog as synonyms: dog no
longer means white, but may mean black. Next let the child see a brown
spaniel. Not only will white and black now no longer answer to dog,
but the roly-poly poodle form also has been lost; for the spaniel is
more slender. Let the child go on from this until he has seen many
different dogs of all varieties: poodles, bulldogs, setters, shepherds,
cockers, and a host of others. What has happened to his dog, which at
the beginning meant the one particular little individual with which he

Dog is no longer white or black or brown or gray: color is not an
essential quality, so it has dropped out; size is no longer essential
except within very broad limits; shagginess or smoothness of coat is
a very inconstant quality, so this is dropped; form varies so much
from the fat pug to the slender hound that it is discarded, except
within broad limits; good nature, playfulness, friendliness, and a
dozen other qualities are likewise found not to belong in common to
all dogs, and so have had to go; and all that is left to his dog is
four-footedness, and a certain general form, and a few other dog
qualities of habit of life and disposition. As the term dog has been
gaining in extent, that is, as more individuals have been observed and
classed under it, it has correspondingly been losing in content, or it
has been losing in the specific qualities which belong to it. Yet it
must not be thought that the process is altogether one of elimination;
for new qualities which are present in all the individuals of a class,
but at first overlooked, are continually being discovered as experience
grows, and built into the developing concept.

DEFINITION OF CONCEPT.--A concept, then, is our general idea or notion
of a class of individual objects. Its function is to enable us to
classify our knowledge, and thus deal with classes or universals in our
thinking. Often the basis of a concept consists of an image, as when
you get a hazy visual image of a mass of people when I suggest mankind
to you. Yet the core, or the vital, functioning part of a concept is its
meaning. Whether this meaning attaches to an image or a word or stands
relatively or completely independent of either, does not so much matter;
but our meanings must be right, else all our thinking is wrong.

LANGUAGE AND THE CONCEPT.--We think in words. None has failed to watch
the flow of his thought as it is carried along by words like so many
little boats moving along the mental stream, each with its freight of
meaning. And no one has escaped the temporary balking of his thought by
failure to find a suitable word to convey the intended meaning. What
the grammarian calls the common nouns of our language are the words by
which we name our concepts and are able to speak of them to others. We
define a common noun as the name of a class, and we define a concept
as the meaning or idea we have of a class. It is easy to see that when
we have named these class ideas we have our list of common nouns. The
study of the language of a people may therefore reveal much of their
type of thought.

THE NECESSITY FOR GROWING CONCEPTS.--The development of our concepts
constitutes a large part of our education. For it is evident that, since
thinking rests so fundamentally on concepts, progress in our mental life
must depend on a constant growth in the number and character of our
concepts. Not only must we keep on adding new concepts, but the old must
not remain static. When our concepts stop growing, our minds have ceased
to grow--we no longer learn. This arrest of development is often seen in
persons who have settled into a life of narrow routine, where the
demands are few and of a simple nature. Unless they rise above their
routine, they early become old fogies. Their concepts petrify from
lack of use and the constant reconstruction which growth necessitates.

On the other hand, the person who has upon him the constant demand to
meet new situations or do better in old ones will keep on enriching his
old concepts and forming new ones, or else, unable to do this, he will
fail in his position. And the person who keeps on steadily enriching his
concepts has discovered the secret of perpetual youth so far as his
mental life is concerned. For him there is no old age; his thought will
be always fresh, his experience always accumulating, and his knowledge
growing more valuable and usable.

Next: Judgment

Previous: The Mechanism Of Thinking

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