The Problem of Definition

Part of the SpringerBriefs in Psychology book series (BRIEFSPSYCHOL)


The chapter deals with the problem of differentiating concrete and abstract concepts and words. We propose that abstract concepts and words differ from concrete ones because: (a) they are differently grounded; (b) they are more complex, since they typically do not refer to single objects but rather to relations; (c) their meaning is more variable, both within and across subjects. We distinguish abstract concepts from superordinate level concepts, clarifying that the focus on the book is on the first ones, i.e. on abstractness and not on abstraction. The rest of the chapter is mostly dedicated to the analysis of how psycholinguistic research has dealt with the problem of defining abstract concepts and words: we described the criteria proposed to identify abstract words (concreteness, imageability, contextual availability, perceptual strength), and then we discussed whether and to what extent emotional terms can be considered as abstract. This analysis revealed that there is not a criterion which has been consistently used to select abstract concepts. This reflects the complexity of the topic but also invites us to a great caution in analyzing experimental results. The difficulty of definition depends also on the fact that the domain of abstract concepts is not unitary and cohesive. This renders it difficult, to accept the idea that concrete and abstract concepts can be considered as dichotomically opposed. We therefore favor the idea that concrete and abstract concepts are arranged along a continuum and we argue that more fine-grained analyses of sub-sets of concepts differing in degree of abstractness are necessary.


Abstract concepts Abstract words Categorization Concreteness effect Imageability Abstractness Concreteness Perceptual strength Contextual dependency Hierarchical levels 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.PsychologyUniversity of BolognaBolognaItaly
  2. 2.Institute of Cognitive Sciences and TechnologiesItalian National Research CouncilRomeItaly
  3. 3.RWTH Aachen UniversityAachenGermany

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