Why are precise definitions of concepts and ideas important?

Humans think within concepts or ideas. We can never achieve command over our thoughts unless we learn how to achieve command over our concepts or ideas. Thus we must learn how to identify the concepts or ideas we are using, contrast them with alternative concepts or ideas, and clarify what we include and exclude by means of them. For example, most people say they believe strongly in democracy, but few can clarify with examples what that word does and does not imply. Most people confuse the meaning of words with cultural associations, with the result that "democracy" means to people whatever we do in running our government—any country that is different is undemocratic. We must distinguish the concepts implicit in the English language from the psychological associations surrounding that concept in a given social group or culture. The failure to develop this ability is a major cause of uncritical thought and selfish critical thought.

  • Consider alternative concepts
  • Consider that others may be using alternative definitions of concepts
  • Make sure you are using concepts with care and precision
  • If you suspect a difference in definitions betwen you and another person, attempt to clarify each other's meaning

Fundamental Definitions

Argument. An argument is a series of statements that reach a conclusion that is intended to reveal the degree of truth of another statement. Arguments begin with premises (kinds of information) that are related to each other using valid forms of reasoning (a process) to arrive at the logical conclusion, new information. A logical conclusion is a new kind of information that is true in light of premises being true (if the premises are all facts) or seeming to be true (if the premises contain opinions).

Critical thinker. A well-cultivated critical thinker raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely; gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively; comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards; thinks open mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; is committed to overcoming our native confirmation bias, egocentrism, and sociocentrism; and communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems. ( )

Concept. A concept is a generalized idea of a thing or of a class of things that make up the fundamental building blocks of thoughts. Concepts are your brain's representations of past experiences (Barsalou 2003 and 2008). Using concepts, your brain groups some things together and separates others. You can look at three mounds of dirt and perceive two of them as "Hills" and one as a "Mountain," based on your concepts. The dominant psychological/philosophical school of thought known as constructivism assumes that the world like a sheet of pastry and your concepts are cookie cutters that carve boundaries, not because the boundaries are natural, but because they're useful or desirable. These boundaries have physical limitations of course; you'd never perceive a mountain as a lake (Boghossian 2006).

Empirical. Relying on or derived from experiment, observation, or experience as opposed to conceptual or evaluative.

Idea. An idea is anything existing in the mind as an object of knowledge or thought based on concepts regarding particular instances of a class of things. The word specifically refers to something conceived in the mind or imagined. An idea can be specific whereas concepts are generalized.

Thought refers to any idea, whether or not expressed, that occurs to the mind in reasoning or contemplation.

Additional Definitions

For additional definitions of the objects of mind and parts of thinking, I suggest this glossary: