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Key Concepts

Key Concepts: ideas and terms that are central to the main points of the text.

Critical reading always involves interpreting the author's key concepts, the ideas and terms that are central to the main points of the text. These concepts may be expressed in signal words or phrases. Sometimes the author will define or characterize key concepts. Some concepts must be interpreted from their role in the text.

When an author provides a definition, it is certain that this is an important concept to the text and one for you to make note of. Philosophical texts are not merely sets of instructions or information sheets that you can copy meanings from. They are efforts to express reasoned approaches to complex problems. Accordingly, be prepared to work at identifying and explaining key concepts.

Consider two examples that may help to point out ways that concepts can be identified and clarified from texts. Below are brief passages taken from two sources: one by Edward I. Koch, former mayor of New York City, and one from Stephan Nathanson, philosopher. Note that these are very brief excerpts provided for examples only. In context of the whole text there will be much more evidence to work from.

"[Concerning the objection that] an innocent person might be executed by mistake....If government functioned only when the possibility of error didn't exist, government wouldn't function at all. Human life deserves special protection, and one of the best ways to guarantee that protection is to assure that convicted murderers do not kill again. Only the death penalty can accomplish this end." Edward I. Koch, Death and Justice: How Capital Punishment Affirms Life, The New republic, 1985.

"It would be immoral for us to adopt the death penalty if we could predict that some innocent people would be executed and if we knew that alternative policies could save lives equally well." (Stephan Nathanson, What if the Death Penalty Did Save Lives? from An Eye for an Eye? The Morality of Punishing by Death (1987).

From these passages we can identify some key concepts that we need to get clear on in order to give an accurate account of each author's meaning:

Death penalty: Clearly this involves executing criminals. But which ones? In the United States people have been executed under various local or federal statutes for treason, sleeping on duty, and stealing horses. In some countries the death penalty is exercised for drunk driving, writing blasphemous literature, and adultery. Plainly, to make sense of either of the above passages we will have to determine how they intend to constrain the definition of this key concept. Otherwise, they might be talking about completely different practices. Developing alternate accounts of a concepts meaning can be very useful in building your interpretation.

Murder: Koch clearly distinguishes the death penalty from murder, since he says that the death penalty prevents murder. It is thus important to clarify the concept of murder as it is used here. One account might be that murder is the premeditated killing of one person by another. On that account, the death penalty would be a form of murder, too. Koch must mean something else by murder. Be prepared to use the entire text and even other relevant texts (e.g. writing by the same author) to build your interpretation.

Innocent: This word has different senses. On one sense, a person is innocent if they have not broken any law. On another sense, a person is innocent if they have not done anything morally wrong. On yet another sense, a person is presumed innocent unless found guilty by a court of law. On this last sense, no innocent people are ever executed by the US government, since the death penalty is carried out against those who are judged guilty. Whether they are innocent in the other senses is left open. You will need to study texts carefully to tell how a certain term it is being used. Don't suppose that your first impression or some common meaning is the whole story.

Deterrent: This term is not used in either passage, but it may be the best way to signify what Koch means by "protection" and what Nathanson means by "saving lives." Even from these brief passages, however, it is obvious that they are not talking about the same concept at all. Koch explicitly regards the death penalty as the only way to deter murders from killing again. Nahanson seems to have a broader notion of preventing murders from happening in the first place. Similar concepts may be expressed through different words. You may need to bring those different words together in a new account to make your interpretation clear.

Note that dictionary definitions will not suffice as accounts of how an author uses a concept. This is especially clear where different authors use the concepts in different ways. In that case, a single definition from a third source (dictionary) is irrelevant to the conflict. A dictionary is merely another text. In using a dictionary you must apply the same analysis and reasoning as you would with any sources.

Here are some steps you can take in your efforts to identify and clarify key concepts from a text:

Develop alternate accounts of a concept's meaning.
Look for concepts used in the text that are opposite in meaning and import.
Look for concepts used in the text that are synonymous in meaning and import.
Look for ways that the concept used in examples.
Consider how the examples be used to develop a definition of the concept.
Look to see other key concepts in the author's main claims.
Determine how the concepts relate to one another in the key claims.

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