Question: "What is conceptualism?"

Answer: Conceptualism is a philosophical theory that supposes universals, that is, qualities, relationships, and numbers, exist only within the mind. Conceptualists insist that the reality of abstract concepts is limited within a mental framework. Outside of the mind, these universals, principles, and concepts are unsubstantial.

For illustrative purposes, let us examine the question, “What is art?” For most, the word art conjures mental images of paintings, sculptures, and museum galleries. A gifted artist is one who is presumably skilled with brushes, pencils, or chisels. Those who appreciate art would list ink, paint, clay, and marble as art media. A dozen black plastic garbage bags, filled with waste and debris, piled in a back alley, and awaiting collection by municipal sanitation workers, would not be considered art, but if these same bags of trash were displayed in a posh, uptown gallery, some would argue this is conceptual art. The philosophical reasoning is this: “art” is a universal that exists solely within the mind. When taken from a back alley and situated within a prestigious gallery, the heap of black plastic trash bags becomes art.

What about such matters as sin, morality, righteousness, evil, justice, and good? Do these “universals” exist only within the framework of human thinking? Adherents of conceptualism would argue that right and wrong or good and evil are abstract concepts that have no reality outside of human thinking.

How does this translate to the societal perception of morality? Prior to the Civil War, slavery was justified on the basis that persons of African descent were inferior and fit only for menial tasks. During the 1930s, the German government began purging its Jewish population based on an official determination that such persons were “subhuman.” If, as proponents of conceptualism contend, universals such as “right and wrong” exist solely within the framework of collective human thought, then “right and wrong” are perpetually subject to change. In other words, matters of morality stand on the shifting sands of popular opinion or whatever climate of thought is currently in vogue. The adherence to such a belief is undeniably consequential, for, if the majority of people believe slavery is justified or Jewish persecution is warranted, slavery becomes an acceptable institution and Jewish persecution is deemed appropriate.

Is stealing wrong because human legislators enacted laws stating stealing is wrong, or is stealing wrong because God says it is wrong to steal (Exodus 20:15)? If stealing was decriminalized, would burglars and bank robbers suddenly become pillars of the business community? In truth, conceptualism runs counter to a proper Christian worldview, for believers look to the Bible as their ultimate source of authority (Psalm 119:105; 1 Samuel 15:22–23; John 14:15; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). Stealing is wrong because it goes against God’s nature and violates His Word. Man’s laws and customs do not negate what the Lord God has decreed.

Do “universals” exist only within the framework of human thought? No. Abstract concepts such as righteousness, justice, equity, truth, honor, and good are more than mere human ideas, for these principles existed first in God. The laws of man can never override the immutable laws of God. Furthermore, no manmade law can transform evil into good. A strict and unwavering obedience to God’s Word is our rightful duty.

What are we to make of political leaders whose conceptions of good and evil run contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible? The prophet Jeremiah warned, “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold” (Jeremiah 50:6, ESV). Just as wandering sheep are a wolf pack’s easy prey, a nation that has strayed from God will find itself under the dominion of Satan.