Concepts of Concept: Perspectives across Languages, Cultures and Disciplines

Workshop, September 10–11, 2014


Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Behr, Dr. Henning Trüper, and Dr. Ralph Weber


URPP Asia and Europe


University of Zurich, Room KAB G-01, Kantonsschulstrasse 3, 8001 Zürich


Registration required:


The workshop addresses two fundamental gaps in research on concepts that are plainly evident at the beginning of the 21st century. The first gap is between two groups of disciplines, which—at least in their more radical positions—disagree considerably not only about the relevant research questions but also about the nature and use of concepts. Cognitive science, psychology and parts of analytic philosophy focus on concepts as mental representations and offer theories as to their acquisition, possession and use. In other parts of analytic philosophy, concepts are conceived either as abstract objects or as abstractions of the uses of words, whereas history and philology often take concepts to be fundamentally related to text. Linguists, it seems, may fall on either side of the divide. The gap between the extreme positions of this spectrum appears so wide that it is questionable whether each respective research approach can be understood as being about concepts in a similar sense.

Against this background, the workshop seeks to cover new territory and to extend the existing discussions of the concept of concept (and their respective implications) to various strands of linguistics and philology. The reasoning behind this is the following: if the gap between concepts as mental representations and concepts rooted in texts might be bridged at all, then the role of language is key and must be clarified. To the extent that language (and translation) is considered important in concept research, there is another gap in contemporary research on concepts, which regards natural languages. The second gap is best illustrated by considering which natural languages come to serve as examples in the existing research literature. These are almost exclusively Standard Average European (SAE) languages. It is at this juncture that the workshop hopes to contribute some new perspective to the existing discussions, by way of offering challenging cases from other languages (African, Chinese, Indian and Semitic languages, but also Old Irish), with a, presumably, different imagery.

The workshop will therefore bring together linguists, philosophers, and historians and scholars working in respective academic disciplines, particularly also in African, Chinese, Indian, Japanese or Islamic Studies. A discussion across languages and disciplines is urgently needed since research has been moving towards understandings of concepts so different as to frustrate any common debate. It thus becomes increasingly difficult to draw on each other’s research or to contribute and formulate challenges that do not misfire from the beginning due to different conceptual premises. The goal of the workshop is to bring the different groups to the table and initiate a debate on how the different research efforts on concepts interlink or may be profitably juxtaposed to be mutually informing or challenging – while it is of course no less desirable to demarcate the limits of such common debate as precisely as possible.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014
09:00–09:30Exposition of workshop topic, Ralph Weber
09:30–12:30Panel I: The Concept of Concept
09:30–10:20Hans-Johann Glock (Philosophy, University of Zurich)
What are concepts? What distinguishes them? And how can they change?
10:20–10:50Coffee Break
10:50–11:40Asifa Majid, (Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Radboud University Nijmegen)
The relationship between words and concepts
11:40–12:30Kees Versteegh, (Islamic Studies, Emeritus Radboud University Nijmegen)
The illusion of concepts: From Skinner to Dennett
12:30–14:30Lunch (by invitation only)
14:30–17:30Panel II: ‘Other’ Concepts
14:30–15:20Christoph Harbsmeier, (Sinology, University of Oslo)
Words, terminologies, and concepts in ancient China: the origins of stipulative definition
15:20–16:10Patrick McAllister (Indology, Heidelberg University)
Conceptual cognition in Buddhist epistemology
16:10–16:40Coffee Break
16:40–17:30Bruce B. Janz (Philosophy, University of Central Florida)
Creating Concepts: The Case of African Philosophy
17:30–18:00Discussion of first day
19:00Workshop dinner (by invitation only)


Thursday, 11 September 2014
09:00–12:00Panel III: The Imagery of Concepts
09:00–09:50Wolfgang Behr (Sinology, University of Zurich)
‘I have heard of speech that is not spoken, but I have never tried to speak about it’: on the lexical fields ‘sound/speech/word/name’ in Classical Chinese and beyond
09:50–10:20Coffee Break
10:20–11:10Erich Poppe (Celtic Studies, University of Marburg)
‘Concepts’, ‘Definitions’, and ‘Words’ in Medieval Irish Learning
11:10–12:00Iwona Kraska-Szlenk, (African Studies, University of Warsaw)
The concept of location expressed by the suffix -ni and other spatial constructions in Swahili
12:00–14:00Lunch (by invitation only)
14:00–16:10 Panel IV: The Historicity of Concepts
14:00–14:50Sinai Rusinek (History, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute)
A Positively Bewildering Mess: Conceptual History’s Concept of Concept
14:50–15:20Coffee Break
15:20–16:10Henning Trüper (History, EHESS, Paris)
Concepts, Objects, Names: Histories of Imprecision
16:15–17:00Final discussion on workshop results