A Notion of Concept

Copyright 1994 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

JUL 25, 1994

Why do general semanticists object to 'concept' but not to 'notion'?

I remember hearing Kendig offer the term 'notion' as an acceptable substitute for the term 'concept'. She offered this term in direct response to a question about 'concept'. Since then I have heard both Charlotte Read and Bob Pula use as well as discuss the term. The suggestion, both explicit and implicit, seems to be that the use of 'notion' is acceptable within the general semantics community while the use of 'concept' is eschewed.

My Random House Dictionary (RHD) offers the following formulation as its exposition for the term 'concept':

con-cept (kon'sept) n.

  1. a general notion or idea; conception.
  2. an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars; a construct. [A construct differs from a concept in that a construct is generally "a complex one formed from a number of simpler elements".]
  3. a directly conceived or intuited object of thought.
  4. a theme or image, esp. as embodied in the design or execution of something.

[1550-60; < L conceptum something conceived, orig. neut. of conceptus, ptp. of concipere; see CONCEIVE]

For the term 'notion' it offers:

no-tion (nO'shuhn) n.

  1. a general, vague, or imperfect conception or idea.
  2. an opinion, view, or belief.
  3. a conception or idea: his notion of democracy.
  4. a fanciful or foolish idea; whim.

[1560-70; < L notio examination, idea = no-, base of noscere to come to know (see NOTIFY) + -tio - TION]

It seems to me that differences between these two lie in the realms of abstractness and origin. The term 'concept' is used to describe a more well formed idea that a person creates in the cognitive processes, while the term 'notion' is used to describe a less well formed idea that the person comes to know. In the scheme of general semantics we would also describe "notions" as particular responses of persons, still subject to great variation and interpretation, perhaps at a lower level of abstraction -- multi-meaning at the level of the same dictionary definition in the same context, but in different persons. "Concepts", on the other hand, should be articulated with a high degree of commonality from person to person and be more in the realm of multi-meaning at the level of the same dictionary definition in the same context. The suggestion implicit in this, it seems to me, is that general semantics would tend to reserve the term 'concept' for ideas that have been articulated and to which there is some degree of agreement. But, when this situation occurs, it seems to me, we general semanticists prefer to use the term 'formulation'.

A little additional search on 'conceive' and 'tion' yields some more interesting relations. On 'conceive' RHD yields:

[1250-1300; ME < AF, OF conceive < L concipere to take fully, take in = con- CON - + -cipere, comb. form of capere to take]

The suffix 'tion' comes from the latin and changes a word from a verb to a noun.

'Notion' is the noun name for that formed as a result of one having "been notified" or of one "coming to know" -- literally, something [tion] one knows [no-]. 'Concept' is the noun name for that formed as a result of one conceiving, and to conceive is based upon "taking". This sense is still with us in the form of the expression 'taking it all in'. Forming a conception or a concept seems to connote an element of creating that which we take away from our experience. The emphasis in general semantics is rather more on abstracting from our experiences than on creating.

So, we general semanticists, upon abstracting from what we "take in", form a [vague] notion; we abstract further into verbal level formulations. We are doubly reinforced in this tendency by the general semantics belief that "meaning" lies in people rather than in words. -- We ask, "What do you mean?", rather than ask, "What does it mean?". Moreover, "concepts" are more abstract than notions, and general semantics encourages "extensional orientation" -- being less abstract.

One other maxim of general semantics seems appropriate. What we mean by any particular "concept" is usually not limited to a particular formulation. A concept is a meaning of the kind that people can share as opposed to a meaning of the kind that people cannot share, and, being a meaning, is capable of being expressed by different formulations. However, being meanings, concepts have no extensional existence. They can never be directly examined. We can examine concepts only through the formulational maps we draw of them. But general semantics does not distinguish between meanings internal to people that can be shared and meanings internal to people that are individualized. General semantics offers multi-meaning in three level.

  1. Different dictionary definitions.
  2. The same dictionary definition, but in different contexts.
  3. The same dictionary definition in the same contexts, but in different heads.

Philosophy, on the other hand, offers Frege's "sense" of a term, which I understand as a shared or a common meaning. The paradigm case example involves solving the difficulty which could be paraphrased, "When is the morning star not the evening star, and when are they the same?". The "meaning" for the term 'morning star' when it is not the same as the evening star is clearly not to be found in that to which the term refers, nor in the term itself; but there is very definitely a commonality to the meaning in question, and we could easily apply the term 'concept'.

Alas, general semantics has no place for the concept in its notion of what is going on. Differences in meaning, according to general semantics, can be found in dictionaries, in contexts and in people. Sameness of meaning can be found in all three but not in different people.


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

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