What’s the Big Deal about the Word “Concept”? A Big Deal No Longer!



Many years I think I’ve suffered from some order of confusion because I lacked a very helpful word. That word? “Concept.”

In Alfred Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity, he takes a staunch position against using the word “concept.” He doesn’t seem to explain why other than saying he has some sort of gripe against the word for its philosophical baggage. I can only imagine he refers to debates in philosophy about what the word “concept” referred to, debates which were probably excessively confusing and problematic.

On pages lxii-lxiii of the “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Korzybski wrote:

[T]he term ‘concept’ is widely used, and the users are not conscious that this term has elementalistic implications of ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ taken separately, which then becom verbal fictions. The actual facts, however, can be simply expressed with correct structural implications. What is called ‘concept’ amounts to nothing more or less than a verbal formulation, a term which eliminates the false-to-fact implications. Students of general semantics are strongly advised never to use the elementalistic term ‘concept’, but the non-elementalistic ‘formulation’ instead. We could eventually berate and ridicule people for their old neuro-linguistic habits, but in our work we take the neurological attitude and realize the difficulties of linguistic habits and neurological recanalization. From this point of view we only face understandingly the inherent difficulties. I can even now hear the reactions of some of my readers, ‘I fully agree with you, and I believe it is a very fine concept’ ! And so it goes.

I asked Korzybski scholar Bruce Kodish if he had any insights into why Alfred was so against the word “concept.” Bruce is working on a biography of Korzybski and I thought he might have knowledge of some correspondence or lecture I missed explaining why the word “concept” is such a problematic word. Bruce replied via email on February 21st, 2010, in what can only be assumed as an informal, unofficial position:

First of all, I don’t care whether you use the term ‘concept’ or not.

Korzybski objected to it because it, like ‘idea’ had the baggage of years of philosophical discussions where both terms had become disembodied, detached from what he considered the rather important notion that ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ are generated by human nervous systems. The term ‘formulation’ on the other hand seems to imply a formulator. That, in short, constitutes his rationale. The important thing it seems to me is how you use the terms and carefulness with which you avoid possible false-to-fact implications. I admit that ‘concept’ or ‘idea’ sometimes goes a bit more tripplingly from the tongue , than ‘formulation’.

So basically we have in general semantics the belief that the word “concept” is elementalistic, and as a result of being elementalistic, is false-to-facts. Just so you’re not lost, elementalism is merely the splitting verbally of that which cannot be split physically. For example, saying “mind” or “body” when mind and body can’t be separated physically. We might say “mind-body” to be more non-elementalistic.

From what I’m given above, the elementalism involved in the term “concept” is that it somehow ignores the conceptualizer, generating conversation about “mentation” (to use Bruce’s term) as if it exists in some ether independent of the human’s brain’s manufacture, “disembodied.” For Korzybski, it would seem that the word “formulation” doesn’t ignore the formulator and as such is a non-elementalistic term. (You might see here when you disagree. I kinda do. However, “formulation” is formed from a verb while “concept” isn’t, so I might buy the argument that “formulation” invokes a formulator.)

Well then, Alfred.

In my own writing, when I decided to take back the word “concept” and start using it, I found an inexplicably tremendous growth in my writing, not to mention coherence and power. I found that there is something different between a concept and a formulation, that Alfred shouldn’t have confused the two, and confusing the two may have accidentally limited the understanding and growth of general semantics.

That’s a pretty large statement, but it was a pretty expansive liberation I experienced when I got to know the word again. Let’s look at the word “concept” and figure out what it means.

In common parlance, the word “concept” suggests some kind of encompassing. It could be an encompassing idea or an encompassing statement. Let’s focus on statements because they’re easier to measure. Here is a concept: “All dogs are animals.” This statement encompasses dogs and explains they should be treated as animals. Here is a slightly different concept: “Dogs are animals.” Again, it is an encompassing statement, only lacking “all” but pretty much insinuating “all.” It too encompasses dogs. And here is another slightly different concept: “Some dogs are animals.” Encompassing, yes, but just of fewer dogs.

Note what concepts do. They not only explain, but they are also guides for human behavior. If I conceptualize dogs as animals for you, then you will go treat a dog like an animal. If instead I conceptualized dogs for you as friendly family members, you will then go treat my dog as a friendly family member. If instead I conceptualized dogs for you as bloodthirsty killers that will randomly attack people, I’m going to get a completely different kind of behavior from you when you see my dog, probably among the scared variety of behaviors.

Plus, concepts offer the setups for logical thinking. One can easily make deductions on how to behave when taught concepts. “All dogs are animals” allows for deductive reasoning that this dog should be treated like an animal. “Some dogs are animals” insights different deductions but deductions nonetheless. Without a concept, decision making can be difficult or rules and principles can seem haphazardly assembled. In improv, it seems like a whole bunch of rules randomly thrown together, but if you’re taught a concept that explains improv, that concept can bring order to all of those rules and principles, not to mention help the person divine answers to problems she faces when she does improv that aren’t answered with typical rules or principles.

As I wrote my book on improv these last few years, it was the word “concept” I lacked but the word “concept” I so direly needed. Outside of writing the book, I would say things like “I’m trying to wrap my mind around improv,” when I meant merely “I’m trying to conceptualize improv” or “I’m trying to find a concept in order to teach improv.” The word “formulation” didn’t cut it. It sent me on the wrong path. In truth, I had a concept of improv early on that brought together so many of the rules and principles you hear in class, but I didn’t have the word “concept” to describe that concept. I didn’t realize that that was the power of my teaching: that I was able to conceptualize improv in such a way that made learning it easy. Instead, I thought I was formulating improv in a particular way. Formulation is not conceptualization.

You see, it’s much too general, Alfred, to refer to a concept as a formulation. For a comparsion, it would be like referring to a car as a transporter. The description is accurate but it is not very helpful. Nixing the word “car” for “transporter” means the person doesn’t realize it’s something that’s, say, demanding of gas or suited just for the road. Similar non-reactions happen when nixing the word “concept” for “formulation.” Concepts have instructive value; the word “formulation” doesn’t bring instructive value to mind. Instead, it just focused on the configuration of ideas. It notes the “allness” in “All dogs are animals,” the is of identity in the statement, maybe the orders of abstraction. It doesn’t focus on the important mind-framing aspect concepts have.

So I’m bringing back the word “concept.” Korzybski may object, but I’d have a good time trying to convince him to take it back. I feel it’s important in the future growth of general semantics to invite back in the word “concept.” The reason is that we largely lack a concept of general semantics. IGS is currently debating a concept of general semantics. I hope we’ll have something out soon. (We’re referring to it as a definition of general semantics, but a definition is just a concept of a concept, from what I can tell!)

Maybe just one of my immediate friends these days is involved in philosophy. The others wouldn’t have any philosophical issues with the term “concept,” from what I can tell. And I don’t think my philosophy friend would, either. And just because it sounds nice to say, this last paragraph is a concept.

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