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There are two phrases that I had often seen in books but now after giving a deeper thought, I'm unable to wrap my head around them. These phrases are 'abstract concept' and 'concrete concept'.

The word 'abstract' is an adjective that in itself means existing as a concept. When we say 'abstract concept' aren't we saying something like 'conceptual concept'? Isn't that a tautology?

The word 'concrete' in itself means something that is perceivable by senses and doesn't exist as a mere concept. So isn't the phrase 'concrete concept' a bit contradictory? Aren't we saying something like 'non-conceptual concept'? Isn't that contradictory?

What exactly do we mean by abstract concepts and concrete concepts?

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    There are two different uses of "abstract/concrete" adjectives that lead to this confusion. The way they are used in philosophy, all concepts are abstract, as you say, and only particular objects/entities can be concrete, see SEP, Abstract Objects.
    – Conifold
    Apr 8, 2023 at 12:44
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    The abstract/concrete concepts are used in psychology, where the difference is defined as:"Concrete concepts are those whose referents can be experienced through sensation/perception, such as dog or pond or tree, whereas abstract concepts are those whose referents lack this attribute, such as love or truth", see Nedjadrasul, Abstract and Concrete Concepts, p.1.
    – Conifold
    Apr 8, 2023 at 12:45
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    The TLDR is that they're technical terms in 2nd generation cognitive science. See frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00757/full#KC3
    – J D
    Apr 8, 2023 at 23:51
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    Attention is all that matters, in this subtle and multi-faceted distinction. Roughly non-technically speaking you pay attention to your external objective reality for concrete concepts such as tables and chairs, while attend to your introspective subjective mind for abstract concepts such as potential energy in an invisible electric vector E field or scalar U field... Apr 9, 2023 at 5:24
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    The terms abstract concept and concrete concept have created for you a confusion that would have been avoided if they'd instead had the names concept of abstract referent(s) and concept of concrete referent(s). (Which referents are abstract as opposed to concrete is a much more involved question. People might say e.g. "abstract referents aren't real", but not everyone takes real to be synonymous with concrete.)
    – J.G.
    Apr 9, 2023 at 14:34

5 Answers 5

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No, you are confusing yourself. You can have an idea about a real object, such as your laptop. You can also have an idea about something that is not real, such as justice. Both are ideas, but one is a about an object and one is about an idea. Ideas can be nested. You can have an idea about Kant's ideas about the idea of ethics, for example. So an abstract concept simply means an idea about something that is not real- the word abstract refers to the subject of the concept, not to the concept itself, so it is not tautologous. A concrete concept means a concept about something that is concrete- the adjective concrete refers to the subject of the concept, not to the concept itself, so it is not a contradiction.

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Maybe "concept" is not to be taken too strongly here. If you were to express "abstract something" and "concrete something", maybe you could use "idea" for "something", or "thing", or ... "concept"? Maybe I would go with "idea" here rather than "concept" though, as indeed, it's hard to see how a concept would be concrete. Or maybe it's a shorthand for "a concept that describes an abstract idea", and "a concept that describes a concrete thing".

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    These are presumably technical terms he's talking about, not just normal English. Answers that explain what you would say in normal English, having no familiarity with the technical terminology, aren't helpful. It's like someone in a physics group asking what energy is, and you answer by saying "It's when you feel active". Apr 8, 2023 at 20:35
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    @DavidGudeman If you know so much, can you explain the technical terminology? Conifold is the only one who show technical terminology in psyhchology, not in philosophy. Besides, without more context, it's hard to tell whether an informal or a technical definition would be more appropriate here. The OP doesn't really give any clue that he found those terms in highly technical contexts.
    – Frank
    Apr 8, 2023 at 23:22
  • They're technical terms in embodied cognition. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00757/full#KC3
    – J D
    Apr 8, 2023 at 23:41
  • We can also go high-brow, and distinguish concept from conception and invent some other ception. Maybe talk of abstract conception as opposed to abstract concept and absception. Would sound like French intellectuals from the 60's and 70's if we pushed that game.
    – Frank
    Apr 8, 2023 at 23:46
  • @JD The link to those "technical terms" doesn't really seem to show that they have a special meaning so divorced from their usual, informal meaning, in my opinion.
    – Frank
    Apr 8, 2023 at 23:48
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One recent development in the philosophy of mind is exploiting cognitive science in a naturalistic epistemology. Early cognitive science overlapped nicely with philosophical and scientific developments from the late 70's and 80's stemming from a variety of fields such as linguistics, AI, psychology, etc. By the 1990's there was a split in the community with early cognitive science growing out of [cognitive psychology], and later cognitive science, what Lakoff refers to as 2nd-generation cognitive science rejecting some of the core tenets of 1st-generation thinking and striking out into concepts like embodied and extended cognition.

The terminology you ask after is employed in embodied cognition (SEP), so to understand it, you have to understand what embodied cognition is:

Embodied Cognition is a wide-ranging research program drawing from and inspiring work in psychology, neuroscience, ethology, philosophy, linguistics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Whereas traditional cognitive science also encompasses these disciplines, it finds common purpose in a conception of mind wedded to computationalism: mental processes are computational processes; the brain, qua computer, is the seat of cognition. In contrast, embodied cognition variously rejects or reformulates the computational commitments of cognitive science, emphasizing the significance of an agent’s physical body in cognitive abilities. Unifying investigators of embodied cognition is the idea that the body or the body’s interactions with the environment constitute or contribute to cognition in ways that require a new framework for its investigation. Mental processes are not, or not only, computational processes. The brain is not a computer, or not the seat of cognition.

The basic gist is that what you refer to as concept is grounded in bodily experience beyond the brain. Thus, there are concepts that are derived from our physical access to the world and that access extends beyond the brain into the CNS and PNS and tissues more generally. Thus, some concepts are rooted in our concrete existence in the physical world. From this article on embodied cognition (frontiers):

Concrete concepts refer to something that is present in the physical world, such as a tree in a forest. This means that these concepts have physical or spatial constraints. A tree can grow in a forest but not on the moon. Concrete concepts include but are not limited to physical objects in the world. Concrete actions, such as kicking or smiling, are also examples of concrete concepts.

We can read this as that concepts such as tree is shaped by how our body interacts with trees. There are limits or constraints on those physical interactions, and those constraints translate into constraints on our conceptual framework. An abstract concept is different:

Abstract concepts refer to entities that have no physical or spatial constraints because they have no direct representation in the physical world. It does not exist at a particular time or place but as a type of thing. Examples of abstract concepts are emotions, metaphors, and abstract actions (e.g., thinking).

So, do the terms sound like oxymorons? Yes. Do they have narrowly prescribed definitions? Yes. Are they meaningful? Well, if you buy into concepts like embodied or extended cognition, yes. These sorts of philosophical ideas are part and parcel of what might be considered a second generation of cognitive science which challenges the presumptions of researchers who presume that the brain is a machine that processes language internally to think. Such a simple analysis can be better understood by reviewing computationalism (SEP) and language of thought (SEP) which are pillars of the original generation of cognitive scientists but are rejected as excessive by the second.

See also cognitive semantics and cognitive linguistics.

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Abstraction is not a binary property ─ it is easy to imagine that each thing is either "abstract" or "not abstract", but this does not accurately describe what abstractness or abstraction means.

Abstractness is a relative property, so a concept can be said to be more or less abstract than another concept. For example, in law the principle of habeas corpus is more abstract than Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights which is a particular statement of this principle enacted in a particular jurisdiction.

Abstraction can also be a relation between concepts, rather than just a scale for comparison. For example, in mathematics, the concept of a variable is an abstraction of the concept of a number, the concept of a function is an abstraction of the concept of a variable, and the concept of a function space is an abstraction of the concept of a function.

There are various ways in which one concept can be an abstraction of another concept, including generalisation, parameterisation, omission of context, symbolisation, or the use of space to represent non-spatial things such as time.

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An abstract concept is an idea that doesn't exist and cannot be implemented in physical reality. Example: Determinism.

A concrete concept is an idea that can be or has been implemented in physical reality. Example: Democracy.

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    Whoever downvoted this, please tell me what is wrong with it, so that I can make the necessary corrections. Apr 9, 2023 at 7:29
  • Abstract ideas are implemented all the time in society. Math is applied, laws are enacted, etc. And a concrete object exists in the physical realm . Your use of the word "implement" is without understanding, as well as your use of "concept". See Answer of ray grant, for clarification.
    – user64825
    Apr 22, 2023 at 23:51
  • The question is about abstract and concrete concepts, not about abstract ideas and concrete objects. So is the answer. You have misunderstood both. Apr 23, 2023 at 3:24
  • "An impossible concept is an idea that doesn't exist and cannot be implemented in physical reality. Example: Determinism. A possible concept is an idea that can be or has been implemented in physical reality. Example: Democracy." That is still wrong, but makes more sense than what you wrote.
    – tkruse
    Apr 24, 2023 at 10:49

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