The SEP entry "Rationalism vs Empiricism" distinguishes between the terms concept and knowledge.

Is there some standard distinction between these two terms that's commonly used by most philosophers? (And is it being used here by this writer?)

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    They don't seem very similar at all to me, can you explain more how you're confused? May 31, 2020 at 13:49
  • In the SEP's entry where concept and knowledge are discussed in the context of two different (not necessarily incompatible) thesis of "rationalism" : Innateness of knowledge and Innateness of concepts. In "modern" phil (Descartes and on) concept (i.e. idea) is a basic term: is the way we organize our knowledge: mind, space, animal, movement. The rationalist thesis is that we cannot (at least some of them) "abstract" them from experience but we have to possess them from the start, as a pre-condition for organizing experince itself. May 31, 2020 at 16:58
  • For interest: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/73399/33787
    – christo183
    Jun 3, 2020 at 8:21

2 Answers 2


Concept is a technical term in many philosophical schools and does mean in Kant something different than, say, in Quine. In the article you mention the term "concept" is used in a loose manner and means something like "distinct idea" or "what we understand of".

The concept of red would be our distinct idea of what red is. The concept of god is what we understand of god.

Concepts are the building blocks of knowledge, as our knowledge comprises of (propositionally) coherent concepts. "Propositionally" means the composition of concepts can be judged as true or false.

In order to know that deers are mammals, I arguably need to have a concept of deer and a concept of mammal. The propositional way these concepts are composed in this example allows us to judge whether it is true or false.

I typical minimal condition in philosophical discourse for person A to know the propositional composition P of concepts is that

  • P expresses something true
  • A believes that P expresses something true
  • A can explain why he/she believes P expresses something true

So, in order for me to know that deers are mammals, I need to believe that deers are mammals, it must be true that deers are mammals and I must be able to explain why (I believe) deers are mammals. This explanation would typically have to involve the concept of deer and the concept of mammal.

  • I think your answer would be a lot better if you didn't get subjective at the end. Why do you NEED TO BELIEVE P is true? Are you indicating that IF you say p is true & don't believe P then P is not true? What exactly happens if you don't believe in P? What exactly happens if you can't explain why P is true? Can there be independent facts even if there were no humans at all? Could the Earth have gravity on the surface if humans did not exist? I highly doubt for you to KNOW deers are mammals you NEED TO BELIEVE they are mammals. They are or they are not with or without you.
    – Logikal
    May 31, 2020 at 13:59
  • The answer is textbook.
    – Mr. White
    May 31, 2020 at 17:12
  • @Logikal That's simply JTB. And most epistemologists agree with JTB insofar as knowledge can be considered a special type of belief and a belief without the ability to justify ('explain') it cannot be considered knowledge (knowledge-that, ie. propositional knowledge) proper. The criticism is hypocritical here IMHO. That being said, JTB (without qualification, ie. not modified) is part of many textbooks, but certainly not the standard definition of knowledge. In fact, it has never been standard at any point in time but was only a strawman of Gettier's.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 1, 2020 at 9:51
  • @PhilipKlöcking "has never been standard" as in "there never was a standard" or "the standard was actually a different one"? I presume you mean the former, but I'd be interested to hear your reasoning for that. Jun 13, 2020 at 20:29
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    @YvenJohannesLeist it is actually the latter, as I mention in a recent answer of mine, with sources: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/72944/17209
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 13, 2020 at 20:32

Short answer. Traditionally, the genus " cognition" ( "cognitio") is divided into species : "apprehension" ( grasping a concept) and judgment ( combining concepts) . Knowledge belongs to the second species ( to know is to judge with certainty).

Note : reasoning was reduced to judgment ( mediate judgment).

  • The context of your question is rationalist inneism, the idea that human soul is not originally a " tabula rasa" ( contrary to what empiricists contend).

  • The point is to distinguish concept inneism and knowledge inneism.

  • Knowledge inneism contends that, as soon as it begins to exist, the human mind already has a certain stock of truths in itself, that is propositionnaly structured states of mind. This is Plato's thesis acccordng to which leaning is nohing else but recollection ( " anamnesis").

  • Now, this thesis is difficult to acccept, because it implies that a three months baby knows unconsciously that , say, the square of the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the two other sides of the triangle. When this baby has grown up, he will come across a demonstration of this theorem; and he will recognize this truth; the truth will not be infused into his mind (by the book he reads of the geometry teacher).

  • Now, if one wants to escape the difficulties of this thesis, one can say that there is , in human mind, some innate cognition that is not propositionally structured. This innate cognition provides only the elements of propositional knowledge and consists in " concepts" or " ideas" .

  • An analogy : a three months baby does not know innately how to walk, but the elementary physiological abilities ( reflexes, muscular connections, equilibrium sensitivity) that he will put in use when he learns how to walk are already there at his birth .

  • According to Leibniz, innate ideas are natural dispositions to grasp fundamental essences or categories such as " substance" or " number( collection of unites) " or " cause/ effect relation". Because the human soul is by nature a substance, because it is one being ( a unity) , because it has an acting will producing effects, and because it is naturally able to reflect on itself, these ideas do not come from outside; they are here in the same way as words already written on the wax of the soul.

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