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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

e 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.