What Concepts Are First Level?

(A fairly unnecessary blog post.)

A while ago I wrote a blog post called A Weird Confusion About Concept Formation (a blog post that shouldn’t be necessary, except for the fact that someone was confused about it). Someone claimed that only concepts of entities are “first level” concepts, and that concepts of attributes, motions and relationships must be “higher level” concepts. (He even invoked Ayn Rand’s authority for this view, but that was based on a misreading of her.) But in fact, a first level concept is simply one that can be formed from direct sense experience, and that is certainly the case of many concepts of attributes, motions and relationships as well.

To repeat this point with slightly different words, a simple way to determine whether a concept is first level or higher level is to ask oneself: can the concept be defined ostensively, i.e. by simply pointing to an instance of the concept?

Certainly, simple concepts like “table”, “chair”, “bed”, etc. can be defined ostensively, while “furniture” or “object” cannot. (For simplicity’s sake I am using Ayn Rand’s own examples, but you can make up your own examples, if you like.)

But this is as true about simple attributes as about simple entities or objects. “Red” can be ostensively defined simply by pointing at a red object, and “blue” by pointing to a cloudless sky. And simply by listening to a dog barking, one can ostensively define the sound concept “barking”. Same with motions: “walking”, “running” etc. are ostensively defined simply by observing someone walking or running (do I need to repeat the “etcetera”?). Same with relationships: one can ostensively define what is meant by “above”, “below”, “to the right/left of” and many others.

True, those concepts can also be given a formal, genus-differentia definition. For example, Ayn Rand herself writes:

An adult definition of “table” would be: “A man-made object consisting of a flat, level surface and support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects”. (ITOE, P. 12.)

But this adult definition is certainly not needed to understand what a table is! Furthermore, the definition contains a couple of concepts that cannot be first level: “object” and “man-made”.

The same is true of “red” and other color concepts. “Red” can be formally defined as:

Any of a group of colors that may vary in lightness and saturation whose hue resembles that of blood.


The hue of the long wave-end of the spectrum.


One of the psychological primary hues, evoked in the normal observer by the long-wave end of the spectrum. (The American Heritage Dictionary.)

But nobody needs those definitions to grasp the concept “red”! (Well, except if one is blind.) And you certainly do not need to study optics and learn what is meant by “the long-wave end of the spectrum” to form the concept “red”; quite the opposite: you have to know the colors before you can even begin to learn what a spectrum is and what it has to do with wave-lengths.

The same holds true for simple concepts of consciousness that have to be formed by a process of introspection. If you have ever been thinking about something, you know what a thought is. If you have ever experienced an emotion – anger, or joy, or even boredom – you know what anger, joy and boredom are. And if you have ever made a choice or a decision, you know what they are. (The same, of course, is true about sensations, like “pain” or “tooth-ache”. Or about sexual satisfaction. How would you know anything about this without having experienced it?)

All this is virtually self-evident. So why do I even have to write about it? Well, take it as an exercise in conceptual entertainment.

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It may sometimes be hard to determine whether a concept is first level or not. Take the concept “coin”. A child may observe two coins and see that they are similar: they are round, flat and fairly small objects. But how does he distinguish a coin from a button? Well, the coin has engravings on it; but how then can he distinguish a coin from a medal? To understand what a coin is, the child will also have to know its function: that it can be exchanged for an ice-cream or some other good. Is seeing an exchange take place also first level? I’m not sure. I think the child’s parents have to explain to him what “buying” and “exchange” are. And for that to take place, the child would have to already have advanced a bit in his conceptual development.

More on concept formation another time.


6 Responses to What Concepts Are First Level?

  1. Gustav Ros says:

    I just had a small thought: under a pure gold standard, a coin would be a first level concept. It would be an object of a certain material of a certain shape – like a glass. No higher level concepts such as exchange, government or value would be needed to differentiate it from other objects.

    • No, I don’t think so. The child wouldn’t be able to distinguish a gold coin from a gold medal. For that to happen, the child would also have to know the coin’s function in exchange.

    • PS. My point is that the function of a coin is not given in sense perception. For other of those very simple concepts, their function, too, is given in sense perception. One can see that a table is used to put smaller objects on; a chair is used to sit in, a bed to lie on, a bookshelf for storing books, etc.

    • And the simplest things are sometimes the hardest to explain. 😉

  2. Gustav Ros says:

    I see your point. My argument was based on the fact that a gold medal and a coin specifically made for exchange (with a standard wheight and shape), would both serve the purpose of medium of exchange under a gold standard. There would be no essential difference. The concept would however be ‘small gold object’ and not ‘small gold object made specifically to serve as a unit of payment in exchange’.

  3. Gustav Ros says:

    A specific type of coin, such as ‘femkrona’ or ‘gold eagle’ would be a first level concept, as weight, feel and visual apperance would exclude all objects not belonging to the group. But to include ‘femkrona’ and ‘gold eagle’ but not a medal would require the purpose, and therefore ‘coin’ is not a first level concept.

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