Concepts in theoretical thought: an introductory essay

In S. Watanabe (ed.), CARLS Series of Advanced Study of Logic and Sensibility, Volume 3. Keio University Press (2010)
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(First paragraphs.) The idea that our language somehow influences our thought can be found in philosophical and scientific traditions of different continents and with different roots and objectives. Yet, beyond the mere theoretical, explorations of the idea are relatively scarce, and are mostly limited to relations between very concrete conceptual categories and subjective experiencing and remembering – to some kind of ‘psychologies of folk-ontology’. Thought as process, reasoning or ‘thinking’, and the role of more complex or abstract concepts in (such) thought tend to be mostly ignored in psychology and philosophy. Conceptual and intellectual history, on the other hand, cannot be accused of such neglect, but the common lack of a comparative perspective in those fields precludes any generalized inference. Furthermore, while a comparative study on the role of complex or abstract concepts in thought as process and its products (the aggregate ‘thought’ of schools, ages, and regions) could result in a considerable enrichment of our understanding of the relationships between language and thought, it would not necessarily be recognized as such because of a fundamental difference in the nature of the concepts involved, affecting the boundary of ‘language’ in the pair ‘language and thought’. More concretely, while the concepts of the ‘psychologies of folk-ontology’ are rather concrete categories of ‘things’ or aspects of experienced reality (hence, ‘folk-ontology’), the abstract concepts of (comparative) conceptual history, such as ‘society’ or ‘reason’, are categories of ideas. Consequently, conceptual history is inseparably tied to the history of ideas, and there is no strict boundary line between concepts, theories, ideas, and aggregate thought in general. It could, therefore, be argued that a comparative conceptual history would be a study of the influence of ideas on thought, rather than of language on thought. That argument, however, would either void language of content, or make the dubious claim that folk-ontology is a fundamentally different type of content than theoretical content. The ‘psychologies of folk-ontology’ study the influence of folk-ontological categories on folk-ontological thought (experiencing and remembering), and a comparative conceptual history would study the influence of theoretical categories (or conceptualized ideas) on theoretical thought (thinking, reasoning, etc.), and there does not seem to be a good reason to exclude either type of categories from ‘language’. Perhaps it should be argued instead that the ambiguous term ‘language’ in the pair ‘language and thought’ would better be replaced with ‘concepts’ or ‘categories’.
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