How to Define an Idea. All I know is What I have Concepts for.

All I Know is What I have Concepts for

In this article, we will use the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure¹, as a medium for exploring the notion of the idea as a concept.

If you’d like to start from the beginning of this series, please read the introduction.

“Psychologically our thought — apart from its expression in words — is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. Without language, a thought is a vague uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language².”

Saussure, a linguistic theorist, was interested in language, (and anything we can call a semantic system), as a structure which makes meaning possible.

We use language to define and give meaning to our ideas and perceptions, even within our imagination. When our minds make sense of what we conceive or perceive, it’s parameters of definition are bound by our concepts. If the brain has no idea that maps adequately to experience, the knowledge or perception will be incoherent or inconsistent.

Saussure believed that if we had no language, our thoughts could only be a shapeless and distinct mass and that language gives us the very structure by which we think.

Whether a concept or a word comes first is a scientific and philosophical debate that’s outside of the scope of this article. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, notes that people can form certain concepts before knowing the word³. However, no concept can be established or known without language. The language of thought hypothesis⁴(LOTH) describes the nature of thought as possessing “language-like” or compositional structure, sometimes referred to as mentalese. Thoughts consist of simple conceptual tokens combined in a systematic syntax akin to the way words work in language according to rules of grammar. So Wittgenstein is still right in a sense, and we could rewrite his 2nd sentence to read “all I know is what I have words or tokens for.” Babies for example would form concepts using mentalese⁵, and non-human animals presumably may have more straightforward but similar dialects.

LOTH proposes that On this view, simple concepts combine in systematic ways (akin to the rules of grammar in language) to build thoughts. In its most basic form, the theory states that thought, like language, has syntax. So Wittgenstein is still right in a sense, and we could rewrite his 2nd sentence to read “all I know is what I have words or tokens for.”

People seem to be able to formulate novel concepts which are left to be named later; the concept comes first, the name second⁶ . Lewis Carroll was able to get away with all of these “portmanteaus” and “factitious” words because, while Alice didn’t know the words, she was able to grasp their underlying concepts. The author created the words to name mixed feelings and creatures that he created in his mind.

According to Ayn Rand⁷ definitions state the meaning of concepts, not words. A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol (sound image) used to represent a concept, having no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes.

So if we can know without words, we can form concepts without them. However, there is no knowledge without concepts hence the proposition “All I know is what I have concepts for.”

While Saussure was preoccupied with the representation of concepts with words as a sound image, the notion that there is no knowledge without concepts also applies to other forms of perception including sound, vision, and even emotions. Sensory experiences would be incoherent or inconsistent without concepts.

There is evidence that, until modern times, humans didn’t see the color “blue” as blue because they didn’t have a concept for it⁸. In the language of the Himba tribe from Namibia, there is no word for blue and no real distinction between green and blue. In tests conducted by Davidoff⁹, he showed members of the tribe a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square. The Himba tribe struggled to see any difference in the 12 squares.

According to Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Red” is not a color contained in an object. It is an experience involving reflected light, a human eye, and a human brain. For the brain to convert a visual sensation into the experience of red, it must possess the concept “Red.” Without this concept, the human mind would experience the apple differently.” For instance, to the westerner, apples reflecting light at 600 nanometers is experienced as red, but the Berinmo people of Papua New Guinea experience it as brownish because their concepts for color divide up the continuous spectrum differently¹¹.

Concepts are a primary tool for the brain to analyze the meaning of incoming sensory inputs¹³. If I’d asked the following question; “If there’s a cooked steak in the kitchen, and no one eats It, does it make a taste”? It would be easier to say of course not. We know that there is no taste without the experience of the perceiver doing the tasting. Sound, however, operates on the same principle. Feldman Barrett goes on to say, “Concepts give meaning to changes in sound pressure, so you hear them as words or music instead of random noise. A falling tree itself makes no sound. Its descent merely creates vibrations in the air and the ground. These vibrations become sound only if something special is present to receive and translate them: say, an ear connected to a brain.”

In Western culture, an octave divided into twelve equally spaced pitches¹³ is the basis for most music, while with Indonesian gamelan music has seven pitches per octave with varied tunings. To Westerners listening for the first time, gamelan music is more likely to sound like noise. The western brain accustomed to listening to twelve-tone scales doesn’t have a concept for gamelan music¹⁴.

Professor Barrett tells us that we need emotion concepts to experience or perceive the associated emotion; “We cannot experience sadness with all of its cultural meaning unless you have the concept “Sadness.” Feldman Barrett goes on to emphasize that any healthy human can experience low-arousal, unpleasant affect, but cannot experience sadness with all of its cultural meaning without the concept “Sadness.” Without the concept “Sadness” to categorize with, there is no emotion, only a pattern of sensory signals¹⁵.

We can form concepts without words but we need language, or instead, we need a linguistic system. Albert Einstein, presented complex ideas, not with words but with the precise syntax of mathematics. If you’ve ever had a thought on the tip of your tongue, or an idea or feeling that words could not express, perhaps these concepts were stuck in the language of mentalese.

The next part of the series will continue our exploration of structuralism, specifically Saussure’s concept of the linguistic sign and what he referred to as its “arbitrariness.” We will delve into the proposition that ideas are social constructs and not objective universals.

If you are interested in the complete series, the table of contents is as follows:

  1. Challenging the Existence of our Most Fundamental Beliefs.
  2. All I know is What I have Concepts for.
  3. The Architecture of Meaning: Part 1
  4. The Architecture of Meaning: Part 2

Cecil (CJ) John is an architect, technologist and innovator and has worked with some of the largest companies in the world including the IMF, US Federal Government and some of the top 5 consulting companies. If you like what you have read, you can follow me on Medium for more great content. You can also sign up for my newsletter or contact me by email, Linkedin or Twitter.


  1. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) was a Swiss linguist and semiotician. Source: Robins, R. H. (1979). “A Short History of Linguistics, 2nd Edition.”
  2. Ferdinand de Saussure, Ferdinand de, (1959). “Course in General Linguistics.”
  3. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, (2017). “How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain.”
  4. Stanford University, (2010). “Language of Thought Hypotheses.”
  5. Alduais, Ahmed M. S. (2015). “Mentalese, the Conflict between Language and Thought.”
  6. Stanford University, (2011). “Concepts.”
  7. Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). “Ayn Rand Lexicon from A to Z.
  8. Macdonald, Fiona, (2018). “There’s Evidence Humans Didn’t Actually See Blue Until Modern Times.
  9. Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University of London.
  10. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, (2017). “How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain.”
  11. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, (2017). “How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain.”
  12. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, (2017). “How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain.”
  13. The equal-tempered scale codified by Johann Sebastian Bach in the seventeenth century.
  14. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, (2017). “How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain.”
  15. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, (2017). “How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain.”

Author - The Social Currency (Blockchain/FinTech) | CEO, LLC a Microsoft Managed Partner. Blockchain | Azure Cloud | Records Management .

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