I'm looking to find some resources to read about the following:
When we talk about a general concept (the word pencil in "a pencil is made of wood"), we actually have a mental image of a particular object in our mind (a particular pencil with a particular color in the example).

I'm looking to read about this and similar issues. I don't even know what topic to look into. I've looked a bit on Frege's work but I didn't find what I was looking for. I'd appreciate suggestions.


If you say "picture a pencil" you have a picture of a particular pencil.

If I say "Let's talk about pencils..." you may at various points in the conversation picture a pencil (as my pencil-claims inspire pencil-thoughts) but these will not all be of the same pencil, and indeed it isn't necessarily true that any of them are a picture of a particular pencil, because you may not be picturing the same pencil from moment to moment (for example, if as I describe a particular pencil what you are imagining changes in ways incompatible with what you had pictured a moment before).

Furthermore, even in the case of a single discrete reference like A pencil is made of wood you may not be thinking very clearly about the pencil; like if I say "Does the pencil you pictured have a brand marked on it?" you may say yes, or you may say no, but most likely the answer is "I hadn't thought about it". Or if I say "Is the pencil you're picturing sharpened to a point or has someone been using it?" - "I hadn't thought about it." If you get good at conceptual analysis then you start to deliberately ignore things that no one has stipulated - is the pencil painted yellow or red, made out of hard wood or soft, does it have an eraser, has it been sharpened yet, what color is the lead - because subsequent logical tactics may turn on details that do not hold for the "representative" pencil (i.e., the modal pencil: yellow, pink eraser, sharp but not perfectly so...)

For something recent Peacocke's A study of concepts is pretty good. For general issues pertaining to mental representation and linguistic reference, you can't beat Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. The specific issue you're referring to hasn't been central to philosophy since the 18th century; you might want to check out Rousseau's "Essay on Language" for a quick glance to see if you're interested (you can also find the same idea in the Supplementary Notes to the Second Discourse, or in Emile or Confessions, but you'll need to look for it), and if you like that you can read Condillac (or do the whole Descartes-to-Hegel thing). Aristotle's De Anima (On the soul) is also relevant.

In the long run if the relationship between language, general concepts, and particular objects continues to interest you keep the names Brandom and Millikan in the back of your mind; they did the most interesting 20th century work on the topic, although it's not introductory work.


When you talk about a pencil, a generalized image pops in your head just because you have been using it for a long term now. when you try out the options the generalized image will start to vanish as soon as more no of things you start for writing. more options you try more will be the exposure, only then you will see what is best for you. The pencil is just a random thing we use but the above theory applies to all the things we use on daily basis.


How about this, when we think of a general concept a particular image pops into our mind because we use particulars to abstract into generalities. For instance, Hume, being an empiricist, argues that Ideas(i.e. abstractions) are us just thinking about a particular Impression[1].

However, it is not entirely true that when we envision an abstract object we tend to a particular Image. For instance, in mathematic, especially in proofs, we seldom appeal to particulars. But, In most cases it is true that we envision a particular in order to understand abstracts.

So, In essence it boils down to a person/philosopher's epistemological outlook. Empiricists tend to argue experiences are fundamental, and therefore abstractions being a derivative of it, are secondary. Rationalists, on the contrary, would argue, since rationality is the source of knowledge, abstraction, then, are fundamental [2].

References & Further Readings

[1]. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by Hume

[2]. Stanford Plato (Empiricism vs Rationalism, by numerous authors

[3]. Critique of Pure Reason, by Kant

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