A concept (or notion, understood as a fundamental cognition) is, in a broad sense, an abstract and general idea that is expressed in a definite way by a process that collects and aggregates (“concept” from the Latin concipĕre = cum-capĕre, comprehendĕre) particular sensible aspects that a multiplicity of objects have in common.

Idea realized by the mind in the act of thinking. This general definition is enriched when we distinguish between the two main strands of interpretation of the concept that have opposed and intersected in the history of philosophy. For Socrates, the concept is the essence, that is, the set of constitutive determinations of an aspect of reality; for Stoicism, the concept is a sign of things: it is thus a tool that serves man to organize things.

The Socratic interpretation prevails in classical, medieval and modern philosophy; the Stoic interpretation characterizes empiricism and is widespread in contemporary thought. For the Socratic interpretation, the concept is what the thing really is, and it is primarily given in reality: it is the task of scientific and philosophical research to arrive at the precise definition of the concept of each thing. This approach characterizes both Plato’s and Aristotle’s research; however, they diverge with regard to the ontological status of concepts, which for the former are independent essences endowed with ideal reality, while for the latter they are determinations of things, given in the human mind insofar as it understands them: in this sense, Aristotle said that “the soul is, in a certain sense, all things,” because the essence of all things is potentially given in the soul.

The debate between these two ways of understanding the reality of the concept continued into the Middle Ages and is an aspect of the well-known “dispute about universals”, in which the Stoic interpretation is also present, according to which concepts are linguistic terms instituted for the purpose of signifying a plurality of things in what they have in common. This position, held by, among others, William of Occam, is called “nominalism” and is opposed to realism, which identifies concepts with the actual essence of things. In modern philosophy, the Socratic position was maintained with absolute consistency within absolute rationalism by Spinoza, for whom the thing and its essence or idea are the same concept in two different aspects.

Following the same line of thought, for Hegel the concept is not the essence of the thing, which the intellect derives through a process of abstraction, but rather the thing itself, as it is given to itself in the system of its constitutive relations: self-conscious reality. In this sense, for the German philosopher, there are no concepts proper, but there is the concept, which is the totality of the real in its self-consciousness. The proponents of Stoic interpretation expressed themselves quite differently from medieval nominalism. For classical empiricism, the concept is an intellectual tool for organizing reality and is induced in the human mind by things themselves, by sensation.

Since Hume, one of the main problems of empiricist philosophies is to explain the formation of concepts from sensations. For many contemporary schools of thought (pragmatism, behaviorism, neoempiricism), the concept is a rule or set of rules for the correct use of a linguistic sign (e.g., a word). This position suspends judgment on the formation of concepts and looks at their function within a language or human behavior: and function is generally to perform determinate operations on other signs and/or objects of experience.

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