A concept is a kind of presentation, in which an object is presented to the human mind. More specifically, it is a cognition, a presentation with consciousness, which refers to objects (unlike sensation, which refers only to the mind, insofar as a sensation is a modification of the state of the mind).
Concepts are characterized by contrast to intuitions. There are two differences. First, intuitions are singular. An intuition refers only to a single object. Concepts of the understanding, on the other hand, have an extension or “sphere” of objects to which they refer. Second, an intuition refers to an object immediately, whereas a concept refers to an object through its characteristics. “An intuition refers directly to the object and is singular; a concept refers to the object indirectly by means of a characteristic that may be common to several things“ (A320/B377).
For example, one might have a visual presentation of a house by looking at it. The presentation is of a single object and does not require any kind of characterization. In fact, a human with no experience of houses and hence no concept of a house could still have an intuition of a house. On the other hand, a house may be presented through its characteristics, such as being a place of dwelling. Then a house is thought conceptually as a dwelling-place and hence not immediately. Moreover, being characterized as a dwelling-place does not establish reference to any specific house, as it applies to all houses.
Concepts may be of one of two kinds: empirical or pure (or, a posteriori and a priori, respectively). Empirical concepts are abstractions from empirical intuitions. Pure concepts are generated through the spontaneity of the mind itself, without empirical input. Pure concepts of the understanding are called “categories” of the understanding. Categories of the understanding may originate either wholly from the understanding, in which case they are called “notions,” or they may involve certain images of sensibility that Kant called “schemata.” A concept based on notions that surpasses all possible experience is called an “idea.” Ideas are concepts of reason, rather than of the understanding.
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