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For the postmodern art movement, see conceptual art.

Conceptualism is a philosophical theory that explains universality of particulars as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind.[1] Intermediate between nominalism and realism, the conceptualist view approaches the metaphysical concept of universals from a perspective that denies their presence in particulars outside the mind's perception of them.[2]

Conceptualism in scholasticism

The evolution of late scholastic terminology has led to the emergence of Conceptualism, which stemmed from doctrines that were previously considered to be nominalistic. The terminological distinction was made in order to stress the difference between the claim that universal mental acts correspond with universal intentional objects and the perspective that dismissed the existence of universals outside of the mind. The former perspective of rejection of objective universality was distinctly defined as Conceptualism.

Peter Abélard was a medieval thinker whose work is currently classified as having the most potential in representing the roots of conceptualism. Abélard’s view denied the existence of determinate universals within things, proposing the claim that meaning is constructed solely by the virtue of conception.[3] William of Ockham was another famous late medieval thinker who had a strictly conceptualist solution to the metaphysical problem of universals. He argued that abstract concepts have no fundamentum outside the mind, and that the purpose they serve is the construction of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world.[4]

In the 17th century conceptualism gained favour for some decades especially among the Jesuits: Hurtado de Mendoza, Rodrigo de Arriaga and Francisco Oviedo are the main figures. Although the order soon returned to the more realist philosophy of Francisco Suárez, the ideas of these Jesuits had a great impact on the contemporary early modern thinkers.

Modern conceptualism

Conceptualism was either explicitly or implicitly embraced by most of the early modern thinkers like René Descartes, John Locke or Gottfried Leibniz – often in a quite simplified form if compared with the elaborate Scholastic theories. Sometimes the term is applied even to the radically different philosophy of Kant, who holds that universals have no connection with external things because they are exclusively produced by our a priori mental structures and functions.[5] However, this application of the term "conceptualism" is not very usual, since the problem of universals can, strictly speaking, be meaningfully raised only within the framework of the traditional, pre-Kantian epistemology.[citation needed]

Conceptualism and perceptual experience

Though separate from the historical debate regarding the status of universals, there has been significant debate regarding the conceptual character of experience since the release of Mind and World by John McDowell in 1994.[6] McDowell's touchstone is the famous refutation that Wilfrid Sellars provided for what he called the "Myth of the Given"—the notion that all empirical knowledge is based on certain assumed or 'given' items, such as sense data.[7] Thus, in rejecting the Myth of the Given, McDowell argues that perceptual content is conceptual "from the ground up", that is, all perceptual experience is a form of conceptual experience. Put differently, there are no "bare" or "naked" sense data that serve as a foundation for all empirical knowledge—McDowell is not a foundationalist about perceptual knowledge.

A clear motivation of conceptualism, in this sense, is that the kind of perception that rational creatures like humans enjoy is unique in the fact that it has conceptual character. McDowell explains his position in a recent paper as:

I have urged that our perceptual relation to the world is conceptual all the way out to the world’s impacts on our receptive capacities. The idea of the conceptual that I mean to be invoking is to be understood in close connection with the idea of rationality, in the sense that is in play in the traditional separation of mature human beings, as rational animals, from the rest of the animal kingdom. Conceptual capacities are capacities that belong to their subject’s rationality. So another way of putting my claim is to say that our perceptual experience is permeated with rationality. I have also suggested, in passing, that something parallel should be said about our agency.[8]

McDowell's conceptualism, though rather distinct (philosophically and historically) from conceptualism's genesis, shares the view that universals are not "given" in perception from outside of the sphere of reason. Particular objects are perceived, as it were, already infused with conceptuality stemming the spontaneity of the rational subject herself.

See also


  1. See articles in Strawson, P. F. and Arindam Chakrabarti (eds.), Universals, concepts and qualities: new essays on the meaning of predicates. Ashgate Publishing, 2006.
  2. "Conceptualism." The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. 8 April 2008.
  3. "Aune, Bruce. "Conceptualism." Metaphysics: the elements. U of Minnesota Press, 1985. 54.
  4. "Turner, W. "William of Ockham." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 27 Oct. 2011
  5. "De Wulf, Maurice. "Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 27 Oct. 2011
  6. McDowell, John (1994). Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-57610-0. 
  7. "Wilfrid Sellars". Retrieved 2013-05-24. 
  8. McDowell, J. (2007). "What Myth?". Inquiry. 50 (4): 338–351. doi:10.1080/00201740701489211.