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Concepts

Edited by Daniel Weiskopf (Georgia State University)
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Summary Concepts are the basic elements of thought. One of their primary functions is to connect the mind to the world; thus, to have a concept is to have available a way of thinking about something. There are concepts of particular individuals, general categories, natural kinds and artifacts, properties and relations, actions and events, and so forth. Concepts are also used in formulating beliefs, desires, plans, and other complex thoughts and judgments. They therefore play an important role in explaining cognitive processes such as categorization, inductive inference, causal reasoning, and decision making.
Key works A collection of influential readings that makes a good starting point in getting acquainted with how theories of concepts have been handled in modern cognitive science is Margolis & Laurence 1999. An overview of the key phenomena that theories of concepts aim to cover, as well as the major theories themselves, can be found in the opening chapters of Prinz 2002. Fodor 1998 presents a critique of the major assumptions lying behind these theories.
Introductions General reviews of the subject may be found in Laurence & Margolis 1999 and Weiskopf 2013.
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Subcategories:See also:History/traditions: Concepts
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  1. Harold J. Allen (forthcoming). PW Bridgman and BF Skinner on Private Experience. Behaviorism.
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  2. Corinne L. Bloch (2011). Edouard Machery, Doing Without Concepts. Pragmatics and Cognition 19 (1):133-140.
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  3. Andrew Brook (2003). Kant and Cognitive Science. Teleskop.
    Some of Kant's ideas about the mind have had a huge influence on cognitive science, in particular his view that sensory input has to be worked up using concepts or concept-like states and his conception of the mind as a system of cognitive functions. We explore these influences in the first part of the paper. Other ideas of Kant's about the mind have not been assimilated into cognitive science, including important ideas about processes of synthesis, mental unity, and consciousness and (...)
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  4. R. J. C. Burgener (1957). Price's Theory of the Concept. Review of Metaphysics 11 (1):143 - 159.
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  5. Quassim Cassam (2003). A Priori Concepts. In Hans-Johann Glock (ed.), Strawson and Kant. Clarendon Press.
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  6. Victor F. Lenzen (1949). Concepts and Reality in Quantum Mechanics. Philosophy of Science 16 (4):279-286.
    A physical theory is a construction of thought which is founded on experience so as to constitute knowledge of the natural world. Propositions in physics are constituted of concepts which express the properties and processes of the physical world. For purposes of record and communication concepts are designated by the terms of a language, such as mathematical symbols, and philosophical discussion may be based on linguistic forms. In this essay, however, the element of discussion will be the concept as a (...)
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Perception-Based Theories of Concepts
  1. Murat Aydede (1999). What Makes Perceptual Symbols Perceptual? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (4):610-611.
    It is argued that three major attempts by Barsalou to specify what makes a perceptual symbol perceptual fail. It is suggested that one way to give such an account is to employ the symbols.
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  2. Lawrence W. Barsalou (1999). Perceptual Symbol Systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (4):577-660.
    Prior to the twentieth century, theories of knowledge were inherently perceptual. Since then, developments in logic, statis- tics, and programming languages have inspired amodal theories that rest on principles fundamentally different from those underlying perception. In addition, perceptual approaches have become widely viewed as untenable because they are assumed to implement record- ing systems, not conceptual systems. A perceptual theory of knowledge is developed here in the context of current cognitive science and neuroscience. During perceptual experience, association areas in the (...)
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  3. Robert Briscoe (2014). Review of Christopher Gauker, Words and Images: An Essay on the Origin of Ideas, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [REVIEW] Mind 123 (491):902-096.
  4. Xiang Chen (2001). Perceptual Symbols and Taxonomy Comparison. Philosophy of Science 3 (September):S200-S212.
    Many recent cognitive studies reveal that human cognition is inherently perceptual, sharing systems with perception at both the conceptual and the neural levels. This paper introduces Barsalou's theory of perceptual symbols and explores its implications for philosophy of science. If perceptual symbols lie in the heart of conceptual processing, the process of attribute selection during concept representation, which is critical for defining similarity and thus for comparing taxonomies, can no longer be determined solely by background beliefs. The analogous nature of (...)
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  5. Andy Clark & Jesse J. Prinz (2004). Putting Concepts to Work: Some Thoughts for the Twenty-First Century. Mind and Language 19 (1):57-69.
  6. Annalisa Coliva (2004). I concetti: Teorie ed esercizi. Carocci.
  7. Adrian Cussins (1992). Content, Embodiment, and Objectivity: The Theory of Cognitive Trails. Mind 101 (404):651-88.
  8. Antonio R. Damasio (1989). Concepts in the Brain. Mind and Language 4 (1-2):24-28.
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  9. Raffaella de Rosa (2005). Prinz's Problematic Proxytypes. Philosophical Quarterly 55 (221):594-606.
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  10. David DeMoss (2004). Hunting Fat Gnu: How to Identify a Proxytype. Essays in Philosophy 5 (1):1-10.
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  11. Daniel C. Dennett & Christopher D. Viger (1999). Sort-of Symbols? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (4):613-613.
    Barsalou's elision of the personal and sub-personal levels tends to conceal the fact that he is, at best, providing the “specs” but not yet a model for his hypothesized perceptual symbols.
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  12. Jerry A. Fodor (2000). Replies to Critics. Mind and Language 15 (2-3):350-374.
  13. Dr Liane M. Gabora, Dr Eleanor Rosch & Dr Diederik Aerts (forthcoming). Toward an Ecological Theory of Concepts. Philosophical Explorations.
    Psychology has had difficulty accounting for the creative, context-sensitive manner in which concepts are used. We believe this stems from the view of concepts as identifiers rather than bridges between mind and world that participate in the generation of meaning. This paper summarizes the history and current status of concepts research, and provides a non-technical summary of work toward an ecological approach to concepts. We outline the rationale for applying generalizations of formalisms originally developed for use in quantum mechanics to (...)
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  14. Vittorio Gallese & George Lakoff, The Brain's Concepts: The Role of the Sensory-Motor System in Conceptual Knowledge.
    Concepts are the elementary units of reason and linguistic meaning. They are conventional and relatively stable. As such, they must somehow be the result of neural activity in the brain. The questions are: Where? and How? A common philosophical position is that all concepts—even concepts about action and perception—are symbolic and abstract, and therefore must be implemented outside the brain’s sensory-motor system. We will argue against this position using (1) neuroscientific evidence; (2) results from neural computation; and (3) results about (...)
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  15. Albert A. Johnstone (1999). The Relevance of Nonsymbolic Cognition to Husserl's Fifth Meditation. Philosophy Today 43 (supplement):88-98.
  16. Stephen Laurence & Eric Margolis (2012). Abstraction and the Origin of General Ideas. Philosophers' Imprint 12 (19):1-22.
    Philosophers have often claimed that general ideas or representations have their origin in abstraction, but it remains unclear exactly what abstraction as a psychological process consists in. We argue that the Lockean aspiration of using abstraction to explain the origins of all general representations cannot work and that at least some general representations have to be innate. We then offer an explicit framework for understanding abstraction, one that treats abstraction as a computational process that operates over an innate quality space (...)
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  17. Edouard Machery (2006). Concept Empiricism: A Methodological Critique. Cognition 104 (1):19-46.
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  18. Jean M. Mandler (2008). On the Birth and Growth of Concepts. Philosophical Psychology 21 (2):207 – 230.
    This article describes what the earliest concepts are like and presents a theory of the spatial primitives from which they are formed. The earliest concepts tend to be global, like animal and container, and it is hypothesized that they consist of simplified redescriptions of innately salient spatial information. These redescriptions become associated with sensory and other bodily experiences that are not themselves redescribed, but that enrich conceptual thought. The initial conceptual base becomes expanded through subdivision, sometimes aided by language that (...)
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  19. A. Markman & H. C. Stilwell (2004). Concepts a la Modal: An Extended Review of Prinz's Furnishing the Mind. [REVIEW] Philosophical Psychology 17 (3):391-401.
    In Furnishing the mind, Prinz defends a view of concept representation that assumes all representations are rooted in perception. This view is attractive, because it makes clear how concepts could be learned from experience in the world. In this paper, we discuss three limitations of the view espoused by Prinz. First, the central proposal requires more detail in order to support the claim that all representations are modal. Second, it is not clear that a theory of concepts must make a (...)
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  20. Mohan Matthen (2008). Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Précis. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 76 (2):392–399.
    An outline of Seeing, Doing, and Knowing (Oxford, 2005).
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  21. Marco Mazzone & Elisabetta Lalumera (2010). Concepts: Stored or Created? [REVIEW] Minds and Machines 20 (1):47-68.
    Are concepts stable entities, unchanged from context to context? Or rather are they context-dependent structures, created on the fly? We argue that this does not constitute a genuine dilemma. Our main thesis is that the more a pattern of features is general and shared, the more it qualifies as a concept. Contextualists have not shown that conceptual structures lack a stable, general core, acting as an attractor on idiosyncratic information. What they have done instead is to give a contribution to (...)
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  22. David Pereplyotchik (2011). Why Believe in Demonstrative Concepts? Consciousness and Cognition 21 (2):636-638.
    I examine two arguments for the existence of demonstrative concepts—one due to Chuard (2006) and another due to Brewer (1999). I point out some important difficulties in each. I hope to show that much more work must be done to legitimize positing demonstrative concepts.
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  23. Jesse J. Prinz (2005). The Return of Concept Empiricism. In H. Cohen & C. Leferbvre (eds.), Categorization and Cognitive Science. Elsevier.
    In this chapter, I outline and defend a version of concept empiricism. The theory has four central tenets: Concepts represent categories by reliable causal relations to category instances; conceptual representations of category vary from occasion to occasion; these representations are perceptually based; and these representations are all learned, not innate. The last two tenets on this list have been central to empiricism historically, and the first two have been developed in more recent years. I look at each in turn, and (...)
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  24. Jesse J. Prinz (2004). Sensible Ideas: A Reply to Markman and Stilwell and Sarnecki. Philosophical Psychology 17:419-30.
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  25. Jesse J. Prinz (2004). Sensible Ideas: A Reply to Sarnecki and Markman and Stilwell. Philosophical Psychology 17 (3):419-430.
    In Furnishing the mind, I argued that concepts are couched in representational formats that are indigenous to sensory systems. I called this thesis "concept empiricism," because I think it is was a central tenet of the philosophical program defended by classical British empiricists, such as Locke and Hume. I still think that concept empiricism is true, and more empirical evidence has accrued since the book went to press. That's the good news. The bad news is that able critics have marshaled (...)
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  26. Jesse J. Prinz (2002). Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and Their Perceptual Basis. MIT Press.
    In Furnishing the Mind, Jesse Prinz attempts to swing the pendulum back toward empiricism.
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  27. Jesse J. Prinz & A. Clark (2004). Putting Concepts to Work: Some Thoughts for the Twenty First Century. Mind and Language 19 (1):57-69.
    Fodor’s theory makes thinking prior to doing. It allows for an inactive agent or pure reflector, and for agents whose actions in various ways seem to float free of their own conceptual repertoires. We show that naturally evolved creatures are not like that. In the real world, thinking is always and everywhere about doing. The point of having a brain is to guide the actions of embodied beings in a complex material world. Some of those actions are, to be sure, (...)
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  28. Dan Ryder (2003). Empiricism Regained (Comments on Prinz's Furnishing the Mind). Metascience 12.
    In this wide-ranging book, Jesse Prinz attempts to resuscitate a strand of empiricism continuous with the classical thesis that all Ideas are imagistic. His name for this strand is “concept empiricism,” and he formulates it as follows: “all (human) concepts are copies or combinations of copies of perceptual representations” (p. 108). In the process of defending concept empiricism, Prinz is careful not to commit himself to a number of other theses commonly associated with empiricism more broadly construed. For example, he (...)
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  29. John Sarnecki (2004). The Multimedia Mnd: An Analysis of Prinz on Concepts. Philosophical Psychology 17 (3):403-18.
    In his new book, Furnishing the mind, Jesse Prinz argues that a new form of empiricism can break the logjam that currently frustrates attempts to develop a theory of concepts. I argue that Prinz's new way with empiricism is ultimately unsuccessful. In maintaining that all cognition is reducible to perceptual constructs, Prinz is unable to provide an effective model of the nature of individual concepts or their role in thought. Three major problems are addressed in reverse order. Prinz does not (...)
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  30. Mark Siebel (1999). Truth and Intra-Personal Concept Stability. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (4):632-633.
    I criticize three claims concerning simulators: (1) That a simulator provides the best-fitting simulation of the perceptual impression one has of an object does not guarantee, pace Barsalou, that the object belongs to the simulator's category. (2) The people described by Barsalou do not acquire a concept of truth because they are not sensitive about the potential inadequacy of their sense impressions. (3) Simulator update prevents Barsalou's way of individuating concepts (i.e., identifying them with simulators) from solving the problem of (...)
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  31. Susanna Siegel (2013). Reply to Prinz. Philosophical Studies 163 (3).
    Reply to Jesse Prinz's contribution to a symposium on *The Contents of Visual Experience*.
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  32. Nathan Stemmer (1989). Empiricist Versus Prototype Theories of Language Acquisition. Mind and Language 4 (3):201-221.
  33. Pär Sundström (2011). On Imagism About Phenomenal Thought. Philosophical Review 120 (1):43-95.
    Imagism about Phenomenal Thought is (roughly) the view that there is some concept *Q* (for some sensory quality Q) that we can employ only while we experience the quality Q. I believe this view is theoretically significant, is or can be made intuitively appealing, and is explicitly or implicitly accepted by many contemporary philosophers However, there is no good reason to accept it. Or so I argue.
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  34. Daniel A. Weiskopf (2008). First Thoughts. Philosophical Psychology 21 (2):251 – 268.
    Jean Mandler proposes an original and richly detailed theory of how concepts relate to sensory and motor capacities. I focus on her claims about conceptual representations and the processes that produce them. On her view, concepts are declarative representations of object kind information. First, I argue that since sensorimotor representations may be declarative, there is no bar to percepts being constituents of concepts. Second, I suggest that concepts track kinds and other categories not by representing kind information per se, but (...)
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  35. Daniel A. Weiskopf (2007). Concept Empiricism and the Vehicles of Thought. Journal of Consciousness Studies 14 (s 9-10):156-183.
    Concept empiricists are committed to the claim that the vehicles of thought are re-activated perceptual representations. Evidence for empiricism comes from a range of neuroscientific studies showing that perceptual regions of the brain are employed during cognitive tasks such as categorization and inference. I examine the extant neuroscientific evidence and argue that it falls short of establishing this core empiricist claim. During conceptual tasks, the causal structure of the brain produces widespread activity in both perceptual and non-perceptual systems. I lay (...)
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Inferential Theories of Concepts
  1. Jose Luis Bermudez (1999). Naturalism and Conceptual Norms. Philosophical Quarterly 50 (194):77-85.
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  2. Ingo Brigandt (2011). Natural Kinds and Concepts: A Pragmatist and Methodologically Naturalistic Account. In Jonathan Knowles & Henrik Rydenfelt (eds.), Pragmatism, Science and Naturalism. Peter Lang Publishing.
    The central aim of this essay is to put forward a notion of naturalism that broadly aligns with pragmatism. I do so by outlining my views on natural kinds and my account of concepts, which I have defended in recent publications (Brigandt 2009, in press-b). Philosophical accounts of both natural kinds and concepts are usually taken to be metaphysical endeavours, which attempt to develop a theory of the nature of natural kinds (as objectively existing entities of the world) or of (...)
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  3. Ingo Brigandt (2006). A Theory of Conceptual Advance: Explaining Conceptual Change in Evolutionary, Molecular, and Evolutionary Developmental Biology. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh
    The theory of concepts advanced in the dissertation aims at accounting for a) how a concept makes successful practice possible, and b) how a scientific concept can be subject to rational change in the course of history. Traditional accounts in the philosophy of science have usually studied concepts in terms only of their reference; their concern is to establish a stability of reference in order to address the incommensurability problem. My discussion, in contrast, suggests that each scientific concept consists of (...)
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  4. Harold I. Brown, Conceptual Comparison and Conceptual Innovation.
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  5. Harold I. Brown (1986). Sellars, Concepts, and Conceptual Change. Synthese 68 (August):275-307.
    A major theme of recent philosophy of science has been the rejection of the empiricist thesis that, with the exception of terms which play a purely formal role, the language of science derives its meaning from some, possibly quite indirect, correlation with experience. The alternative that has been proposed is that meaning is internal to each conceptual system, that terms derive their meaning from the role they play in a language, and that something akin to "meaning" flows from conceptual framework (...)
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  6. Andy Clark & Jesse J. Prinz (2004). Putting Concepts to Work: Some Thoughts for the Twenty-First Century. Mind and Language 19 (1):57-69.
  7. Annalisa Coliva (2004). I concetti: Teorie ed esercizi. Carocci.
  8. Wayne A. Davis (2005). Concepts and Epistemic Individuation (Christopher Peacocke). Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2):290-325.
    Christopher Peacocke has presented an original version of the perennial philosophical thesis that we can gain substantive metaphysical and epistemological insight from an analysis of our concepts. Peacocke's innovation is to look at how concepts are individuated by their possession conditions, which he believes can be specified in terms of conditions in which certain propositions containing those concepts are accepted. The ability to provide such insight is one of Peacocke's major arguments for his theory of concepts. I will critically examine (...)
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  9. Wayne A. Davis (2005). Concepts and Epistemic Individuation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2):290-325.
    Christopher Peacocke has presented an original version of the perennial philosophical thesis that we can gain substantive metaphysical and epistemological insight from an analysis of our concepts. Peacocke's innovation is to look at how concepts are individuated by their possession conditions, which he believes can be specified in terms of conditions in which certain propositions containing those concepts are accepted. The ability to provide such insight is one of Peacocke's major arguments for his theory of concepts. I will critically examine (...)
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