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Library: The Structure of the Concept
Title:      The Structure of the Concept
Categories:      Philosophy
BookID:      4
Authors:      Kevin Wall, O.P.
ISBN-10(13):      0000000004
Publisher:      The Thomist Press
Publication date:      1955
Number of pages:      14
Language:      Not specified
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Picture:      cover

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Title: The Structure of the Concept
Author: Kevin Wall, O.P.
Previously published in The Thomist XVIII, 1955.
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SINCE Locke wrote his Essay Concerning Human Under-
standing philosophers have struggled with the problem of
conceptual structure. Does the concept have a structure?
And if it does what are the parts involved and how are they
derived? What is the cause of their union in knowledge, and
the plan according to which they combine? To resolve these
questions is to determine the limits of human knowledge and
the extent to which it attains the real.
Locke was led to pose the problem by a suggestion of
Des-cartes: " The second (rule) was to divide each of the
difficul-ties which I examined into as many small parts as possible and
as would be required the better to resolve them." 1 A problem
may be looked upon as a whole containing many parts. The
first step toward its solution is the division of the whole into
its parts. Once these elements of the problem are known the
whole can be understood by reconstruction. The whole is
intel-ligible in the architecture of the parts.
If division is taken in the logical sense, the resolution into
genus and species, then this suggestion cannot be considered a
new idea. Philosophers had, from time immemorial, known and
used it. Classical logic had fully unfolded its nature and
func-tion. But Descartes did not have this logical division in mind.
He intended to translate into the framework of philosophical
thought the methodical division of mathematical analysis. The
geometrician sometimes proves a property of a figure in virtue
of the knowledge of its essence. This supposes the division of
the figure into genus and species to form the definition. But
the analytical geometrician (to whose method of procedure
Descartes contributed the fundamental concept) begins by
dividing the figure into quantitative parts and then proceeds
to define the object as the sum of those parts. A curved line
I Discourse On Method, Part Two.
may be considered in its genus and species, or it may be divided
up into indefinitely many small parts whose addition
recon-stitutes the original figure. It was this second method of
pro-ceeding which Descartes proposed for philosophy. He wished
to resolve the object of philosophical thought not into genus
and species but into " integral components."
The analogy between the method of geometrical analysis
and the philosopher's way of division was vague in the thought
of Descartes. He did not advance it substantially beyond the
initial intuition nor purify it of its mathematical point of origin.
But it was sufficiently suggestive to the mind of Locke to lead
him to apply it to the problem of the concept.
It occurred to Locke that no thinker of the past had applied
Cartesian analysis to human concepts. Philosophers had always
divided the concept into genus and species as a prelude to
definition. And from the definition of the object they had
pro-ceeded to deduce its properties. But they had never thought
to dismember the concept in the image of the geometrician
dividing the mathematical figure thereby the better to know it.
The undivided figure is a puzzle to his mind. But when he has
reduced it to its fundamental parts and rebuilt it out of them,
it is totally intelligible to him in their relations. Just as the
intricate works, of a watch are a mystery to the layman until he
has taken it apart and successfully reconstructed it, so it is
with all intued wholes. So it may very well be with concepts.
Locke, just as Descartes before him, was acutely aware of the
vast confusion of contradictory philosophical opinions. It now
seemed to him that their resolution might fundamentally hinge
upon the application of this new analysis to conception.
If we approach this problem with Locke's conviction that
conception has a structure we are naturally led to seek
con-firmation of our belief in the finding of likely parts. This is not
a difficult task. For the qualities of external things presented to
us by our senses seem clearly to act as the passive elements of
combination and the relations of the mind seem to play the role
of the principle of union. This initial solution (an intuitive
one) is both suggestive and fruitful. It suggests that all of our
concepts, if properly dissected, reveal a union of sensible
ele-ments through mental relations. And the endeavor to analyze
particular concepts—the fundamental notions of substance,
cause and effect and the rest—meets with success confirming
the primary intuition. In the Essay Concerning Human
Under-standing Locke endeavored to analyze thege fundamental
con-cepts of human thought and found in all of them the anticipated
structure. Nowhere was there conflict with the initial intuition
of conceptual composition. He concluded, then, that he had
made a fundamental discovery. From that time forward it
would be possible to dismantle the scaffolding of human science,
as a watchmaker takes apart a clock, and consciously to
re-construct it. Philosophers would thereby have a tool of
incal-culable worth and a method of procedure which would stimulate
creative speculation.
For I thought that the first step towards satisfying several inquiries
the mind of man was very apt to run into was to take a survey of
our own understanding, examine our powers, and see to what things
they were adapted. Till that was done, I suspected we began at
the wrong end. . . .2
Once this analysis has been achieved, there must be the
sub-sequent process of reconstruction, rebuilding the complexity of
rational thought out of the elements of sensible qualities.
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we may say, white paper,
void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be
furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy
and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost
end-less variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and
knowl-edge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience; in that is
all our knowledge founded, and from that it ultimately derives
By this process it seemed to Locke that human knowledge
could be completely defined and its limits clearly determined.
2 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, chap. I, Introduction.
Ibid., Book II, chap. I.
But not everyone agreed. For there were philosophers who
found the presuppositions of the method of Locke fallacious.
Human knowledge could not be divided in the way that Locke
proposed and consequently his pretensions were vain. Knowing
is a vital operation which, like every living thing, if divided into
parts, is destroyed. A line may be divided into segments and
then reunited to restore the original whole. But if a plant be
resolved into its chemical components no combination of those
elements will bring back the living whole. So it is with thought.
For in breaking it down into parts, as Locke pretended to do,
it is destroyed. The living thought is more than the
combina-tion of the components which issue from the intentional
analy-sis. The most that we can conclude of a plant after breaking it
down into elements is that it is such an organism as to yield
the discovered components upon application of the specific
analytical method. We cannot pretend adequately to define the
original in terms of the quantitative addition of the residual
parts. The most we can conclude of human conception, after
applying the analysis of Locke, is that it is such an object of
thought as to yield the elements which he discovered. We
cannot conclude that it is essentially no more than the additive
integration of those elemeftts. It is therefore impossible to
re-construct the original content in terms of the discovered parts
or adequately to define the, original in function of the parts.
Serious as this objection undoubtedly is, it is clear that it
concerns not the general possibility of applying an analysis to
thought but the interpretation of the results of a particular
method. It objects to definition of conception in terms of
elements discovered by segmentation. The objection would
dis-solve if it were possible to discover a method of analysis by
which the unity of consciousness would yield the secret of its
inner composition without the need of segmentation. In such
an analysis the structure would reveal itself without destroying
itself. The purposes of Locke would be achieved without the
limitations of his method. Kant thought that he had found
the necessary way in his " transcendental analysis."
In his novel approach to this problem Kant did not attempt
to separate the object into " integral parts " but rather to
isolate the elements by a sort of indirect abstraction. He did
not pretend that at the end of the division the parts would
subsist as isolated objects of contemplation. On the contrary, he
concluded that the parts could not truly exist in a state of
separation. The elements of the combination would then lack
objective character and the principles of the unity of
conscious-ness would have no content. But nevertheless, he maintained
that they could be detected by their effect upon the conscious
whole. To see them through the visible effects is effectively to
separate them in the mind without damaging the living unity
of the concept. In the light of this discovery Kant tried to
achieve the goal which Locke had proposed: to take a survey
of understanding, examine the powers of the human mind and
see to what things it was adapted, to determine to what extent
it assimilates the real.
* *
When one considers the energy expended on this problem
by men of great intelligence, and the predominant position it
has occupied through all of modern thought, it seems a hardy
thing to reject it all as futile. Can it be that so many minds
of such clearly outstanding intelligence could have labored in
vain? Do we render this world of thought sufficient justice in
simply pointing out its obvious defects? Is there not, perhaps,
a more positive approach from the interior of the doctrine of
the Schools itself by which a reason can be given for these
speculations of the modern mind and the results which have
followed from them? Many cogent reasons impel the mind to
make a deeper search in this direction.
There is this, first of all, to consider: within the limited range
of the data involved the theories of Locke and Kant have a
certain verisimilitude. By that I mean that there is an
appear-ance of compounding in conception such that sensation presents
the matter for the relations of the intellect. However
inade-quate this might be for a final decision concerning the nature
of conception its apparent justice within the boundaries of the
problem as Kant and Locke posed it is in need of explanation.
How can these theories at all seem right and command the
ad-herence of intellects of the first order if they are totally wrong?
This is surely a question which we must answer from within the
framework of Thomistic thought.
Nothing, of course, is more distasteful to coherent thought
than a debilitating eclecticism which juxtaposes doctrines
with-out any organic principle of union. We cannot seek to answer
the problem of modern thought by so combining the more
recent speculations with the doctrine of the Angel of the Schools.
We cannot conceive of St. Thomas as simply approaching the
subject from a different point of view so that his doctrine forms
another aspect of the total truth. The doctrines are in
con-tradiction. Philosophy does not grow, as does mathematics, by
pushing back indefinitely the genus of the subject, taking an
ever broader but not contradictory view, but rather it goes to
the ultimate subject immediately. In the fundamentals, it
can-not expand by generalization for divergency of opinion on
fundamentals is irresolvable contradiction. Whatever
recon-ciliation is to be made must be produced in the heart of a
system.' The doctrine of St. Thomas must from its own inner
resources render reason for the speculations of the modern mind.
There is an interesting analogy from the methodology of
mathematical physics which advances this thought. In the
in-vestigations of experimental science one sometimes induces an
equation which, within the limits of the tests, closely
approxi-mates the quantitative facts of the object of the experiment.
The equation is then tentatively posed as universally valid for
the object even beyond the boundaries of the test. Subsequent
investigations in the more extended field reveal that there the
equation does not hold exactly. It is then so modified as to
yield the same results within the original field and conform
closely to the newly observed phenomena. For example, the
equations of Newtonian dynamics were derived from observa-
tion of macroscopic bodies moving at a slow speed relative to
the speed of light. It was found, at the advent of atomic and
subatomic physics in more recent times, that the simple appli-
cation of these rules without any modification would not
accur-ately predict the movements of atomic particles moving near
the speed of light. The equations were then so modified as to
break down into the equations of Newton, under the conditions
of his observations, but accurately to predict the movements
of atomic particles under the conditions of great speed and
energy. The modified equations constitute the theory of
rela-tivity of Einstein.
By analogy, then, we might say that the theories of Locke
and Kant closely approximate the appearances within the range
of observations from which they arise. But, beyond that field,
they are inaccurate and must be replaced by a theory which
corrects their defects. The full and correct theory of the
con-cept, then, would be such a theory as to yield the results of
Locke and Kant within the restricted field of their data but
at the same time yield the results of Thomistic thought in the
completely expanded field. It would offer a cogent explanation
of why the modern speculations, though fundamentally
de-fective, seem at all to meet the demands of truth. Of course,
the analogy limps and it is not possible to make a simple
transfer of mathematico-physical notions into the realm of
metaphysical speculations. But it is suggestive even in its lack
of precision. Let us follow up the idea by tentatively
de-veloping a general theory of the structure of the concept.
The concept, according to the postulates of our procedure,
must be such as to verify the tenets of Thomistic thought
com-pletely. It must conform to a moderate realism and must not
be a product of the thinking mind but of the world outside.
Moreover it must be such as submitted to the methods of
analysis of Locke and Kant to reveal a structure, not to be a
simple intentional content. Let us proceed, as in mathematical
physics, from the restricted case outward.
The theory of Locke states that conception is a compound
of sensation and relations added by the thinking mind. The
world, as presented to us by the senses, is a complex amalgam
of multiple qualities. The mind, in bringing this vastness under
the order of reason, removes the sensible qualities from the
chaos of sense presentation by relating them in the unity of one
consciousness so that they form an intelligible unity in reason.
Such a process of binding together the manifold of sensation
in the unity of rational consciousness is radically subjective.
The relating is not something of the world, but rather of the
thinker. The combination of the external qualities and the
relating activity of the thinker results in the ordered cosmos
which we call nature.
Now it is clear that there is an appearance of verisimilitude
in this position. It is the intellect which seizes upon the
rela-tions of things, not the senses. Reason is distinguished from
sensation by the fact that it apprehends relations. Relations,
then, seem to be the peculiar contribution of intellection to
knowledge. And the totality of knowledge seems to be an
inte-gration of sensation and the relations so contributed by the
Moreover, proceeding according to the more sophisticated
theory of Kant, it would seem that knowledge properly consists
in the unification of the manifold of sense qualities by the
cate-gories of the intellectual order. Sensation, organized by the
sensible forms of space and time, acts as a matter for the
appli-cation of the a priori forms of the understanding. A
remark-ably detailed correlation can be found between the sensible
matter, the possibilities of combination on the intellectual level,
and the factual distinctions of human conceptions. All of these
appearances confirm the initial intuition that Locke proposed.
But there is also a serious defect. Both theories, which are
sub-stantially the same, proceeding as they do from a common
inspiration and tending to a common goal, reject the
objec-tivity of the intellectual relating act. This is a consistent
inference in the writings of Locke and a clearly stated
convic-tion in the writings of Kant. The modified theory must begin
by correcting this point. Let us say, then, that the
relation-principle is not, as they suppose, something from the mind but
something derived from the external world. The relations exist
in reality and are received into the mind from the world just
as are the sense qualities. This correction moves the theory
closer to an acceptable Thomist position. But we must be
careful to see that it still maintains the analytical results of
the investigations of Locke and Kant.
It is clear that there is one interpretation of the situation
which will not meet this requirement. If we conceive the mind
to apprehend terms and relations a pari (that is to say, that
some of the objects perceived are non-relational and some are
relational and that there is no priority or order in this
percep-tion) , then the analytical methods of Locke and Kant will yield
the anticipated results in their application to the relational
contents but not in their application to the non-relational
contents. In the latter case it will not be possible to find a
structure. This would be contrary to the position of Locke and
Kant according to which all of the basic concepts of thought
reveal structure.
But there is another interpretation which avoids this
diffi-culty. Let us suppose that the mind perceives first of all
rela-tions and through them related things. This is not to pretend
to a grasp of the relational without the related terms, but
merely to affirm that the apprehension of relation is prior in
nature, that the term is apprehended only qua term, qua
re-lated. Then, because of this priority, relation and the relational
structure will run through all of thought and every concept of
the mind will be found to have an analyzable structure. If we
posit this interpretation, then we meet the demands of moderate
realism since the relations are supposed to be basically real.
And we meet the analytical requirements of the investigations
of Locke and Kant. Because of the basically relational
con-stitution of human thought it will always reveal the presence
of parts to the searching mind.
Moreover, this corrected theory seems to offer an intuitive
explanation of two serious difficulties for modern thinkers: the
universality of conceptions and the reality of the categories of
Aristotelian logic. With respect to the universality of concepts:
there is something leculiar about the relational which separates
it from other modes of being, and ties it to the property of
universality. Of all modes of existence it seems most strangely
to escape the limitation of singularity. It is not an absolute
modification of the receiving subject but projects it outside of
itself to what is other. In this intuitive sense it seems to escape
from the singularity of both of the terms it binds and recede
into the non-individualized or universal, and thus, taking
rela-tion as the heart of conception, to render an explanation for
the universality of human conception.
The same position seems intuitively to meet the demand of
justifying the system of the categories. For it is only a
basic-ally relational concept that can be organized and arranged in
classes. The relations form the cement and the links in the
network of conception. This would explain why nature takes
on a static quality in human conception as opposed to its
dynamic quality in the external reality. It is not because
con-ception falsifies nature or fails to attain the external reality
but because the world, as it enters the human mind, takes on
the properties and characteristics of that part of reality which
is first apprehension.
It would seem, therefdre, that the position of relation as
fundamental in human thought, in the way we have just
ex-plained, meets the appearances as postulated for an expanded
theory of the concept. So constructed it would meet the
re-quirements of the theories of Locke and Kant, rendering a
reason for the results of their analyses. It would also satisfy
the requirements of moderate realism essential to Thomistic
doctrine. Of course, this mode of argumentation is merely a
first approximation (as the mathematician would say) but
it suggests that the intuitive hypothesis may rest on solidly
scientific grounds. To establish this last possibility we are in
need of a convincing argument beyond the intuitional level.
This is had by a consideration of the essence of human
con-ception as ordered to judgment.
The judgment is basically the attribution of a predicate to
a subject. When we say: A is B, we attribute the predicate
conception B to the subject conception A. Now the fact of
this attribution, if investigated as to its nature and possibility,
indicates that both A and B (the symbolic representation of
any concept whatsoever) have structure. For the judgment
affirms that A is B, that is to say, that A and B are identical.
But it also affirms, by the fact that there is a judgment at all,
that A and B are different. If A and B are not' identical then
the judgment is impossible. It does not simply relate two
dis-tinct entities but poses them as identical, so that any relation
besides that of identity excludes the judgment. If A and B are
not different, on the other hand, then the judgment is likewise
impossible or at least futile by reason of tautology. All that can
be known of an object, is such a case, is sufficiently achieved in
one simple conception of it. It therefore follows, from the
nature of the judgment, that A and B are both identical and
different. How is such a situation possible?
Clearly A and B can be both identical and different only if
they possess composition and a structure. They must
neces-sarily be composed of fundamental parts. In virtue of one part
possessed in common, they are identical. In virtue of another
part different in both, they are distinct one from the other.
The judgmentaffirms the identity of A and B in virtue of the
intued common part, and poses their distinction in virtue of
the intued divergent parts.
That this is necessarily true is brought out by considering
another possible position. A and B are simple contents. If this
be the case, and they are identified in any way, as is essential to
the judgment, then they are totally identified and the
judg-ment is pure tautology. It becomes a useless act of the mind.
In this case, all human knowledge, as the divine or the angelic,
would reduce to the simplicity of fundamentally one conception.
Moreover, if it be true that A and B are " simple " contents,
tacking structure, and that they are different, then it follows
that they totally differ one from the other and can in no way be
identified. One might perhaps say that A and B are simple
totally different mental contents, whose identification in reality
is affirmed in the judgment by reason of a super-conceptual
apprehension of such identification. Thus the identity of A and
B would not be perceived in the contents of these concepts, or
in any act of conception, but would be a peculiarity of the act
of judging itself. The act of judgment would have the property
of reaching out beyond the simplicity of A and B to the reality
in which they are found united. Thus there would be no need
to postulate a structure in either concept in order to explain
the judgment. But, this position implicitly gives back to the
concepts what it intends to remove from them. For it affirms
that the concepts as such are not sufficient for posing an act
of judgment but that the judgment must reach beyond them
to apprehend their convergence upon one identical reality. Only
when this identical element is added to them do they enter into
judgment. But once it is added then they are no longer simple
but rather constructed contents. The elaborate circumvention
of the argument is futile. We are forced again to the conclusion
that the judgment postulates the existence of structure in the
subject and predicate conceptions.
One might say: A and B are essentially, .simple contents, but
accidentally structured. This structure, which is added over
and above the heart of the conceptions, is the basis of the
judgment. But this again would be entirely unacceptable.
Human knowledge, in such a position, would be essentially
intuitive, conceptual and simple. In this case, it would be
diffi-cult to explain what is added over and above the essential
knowledge by the accidental. Moreover, as is theoretically
necessary for intuitive intellectual knowledge, the intuition is
basically one. It would be impossible to explain the
multi-plicity of conception around one identical object in such a
supposition. Clearly, then, all of these positions, which deny
structure to human concepts, lead to disagreement with the
observed facts of human thought. It is necessary, therefore, to
hold that human concepts are fundamentally structured.
The medium involved in the foregoing argument is
essen-tially logical. The same conclusion can be reached by a
psy-chological argument. It is a basic tenet of philosophy that all
knowledge arises in the senses. This knowledge, basic and
rudi-mentary, is completed by the knowledge of the intellect which
is coordinated with it. We thus have two orders of knowledge,
specifically distinct, but so focused on one object as to form one
unified consciousness. Is this situation possible in the
suppo-sition of the simplicity of the concept? Clearly it is not, for in
order that there be objective unity in the combined acts of
knowledge there must be some form of objective contact which
is not possible in the case of two intuitive acts of knowing
specifically distinct.
Let us suppose that the act of intellection is intuitive and
simple, as well as the act of the sensation, and endeavor to
ex-plain the fact of their coordination. The unity of consciousness
might be explained by some common formality in the objective
content of both orders of knowing by means of which the two
would fuse. But this is not possible for the specifically distinct
orders of sensation and intellection. Such a position would
re-duce the intellect to a sort of inner sense reflecting upon the
external senses and forming one sensible " consciousness " with
them in virtue of the common formal object of sensibility.
It is possible that the intellect be intuitive, as are the senses,
and that it have, nevertheless, the same object as the latter.
But in this case it could not form one objective unity with them.
The situation would be analogous to that which obtains
be-tween the divine and the human knowledge of Christ. They
may focus upon the same object, but they do not form one
consciousness. The principle of integration is outside the realm
of the intentional in the real order of the supposit. So it would
be in the case of intuitive human knowledge on the conceptual
level combining with sensible knowledge. The principle of union
would lie outside of the intentional in the real—in the supposit.
There would be two, flows of " consciousness." It would be
impossible, then, to explain the teleology of body and soul, the
purpose of the union of an intellectual nature to a body. For
in such a situation the knowledge of the intellect would in no
way depend upon the knowledge of the senses.
To explain, therefore, the coordination and dependence of
these two orders of knowledge it is necessary to pose structure
in the concept. In order that the two may form the unity of
one objective consciousness it is necessary that one be simple
and the other composed, that one be intuitional and the other
relational. The intuitive knowledge presents the terms and the
relational knowledge combines them in one concept. It is here
that we find the point of contact and dependence. Sensation
presents the terms and the intellect unites them in a relational
concept. It is for this reason that the intellect, though
specifi-cally distinct from the senses, depends upon them and forms
one unified consciousness with them. It is for this reason, too,
that the intellect, even though in possession of the species by
means of which it knows, nevertheless can never pose an
objec-tive content without " conversion to the phantasm." Without
the terminal content supplied by the senses, there is no object
for the relational apprehension of the intellect. So, from a
psychological point of view, we are led back to the same
con-clusion. The reason for the appearance of validity in the
specu-lations of the moderns on conception is to be found in the fact
that concepts have a structure. Any discussion of the
proper-ties of conception leads back ultimately to this basic truth.
Perhaps the most lasting contribution of modern thought to
the perennial philosophy will turn out to be just this: there is
an architecture in human conception whose investigation is
fundamental to the understanding of the great edifices erected
by the human mind.
St. Albert's College
Oakland, Calif.






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