Many theories in developmental psychology and anthropology assume that it makes sense to talk about a concept's changing over time. Similar appeals are often made in the history of science. For example, we may speak of changes in a child's concept of living things, a culture's concept of the afterlife, or the concept of energy in physics. Theories of conceptual change aim to explain what it means to speak of changes in a concept, to specify the sorts of processes by which concepts change, and to elucidate the ways in which the same concept can persist through change.
Susan Carey’s account of bootstrapping aims to explain how important new concepts are learned. After arguing that Carey’s own formulations of bootstrapping fail in this aim, I critically evaluate three reformulations of bootstrapping that may have a better chance at success.
The theory of concepts advanced in the present discussion 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. To this end, I suggest that each scientific concept consists of three components of content: 1) the concept.
The paper discusses reference determination from the point of view of conceptual change in science. The first part of the discussion uses the homology concept, a natural kind term from biology, as an example. It is argued that the causal theory of reference gives an incomplete account of reference determination even in the case of natural kind terms. Moreover, even if descriptions of the referent are taken into account, this does not yield a satisfactory account of reference in the case (...) of the homology concept. I suggest that in addition to the factors that standard theories of reference invoke the scientific use of concepts and the epistemic interests pursued with concepts are important factors in determining the reference of scientific concepts. In the second part, I argue for a moderate holism about reference determination according to which the set of conditions that determine the reference of a concept is relatively open and different conditions may be reference fixing depending on the context in which this concept is used. It is also suggested that which features are reference determining in a particular case may depend on the philosophical interests that underlie reference ascription and the study of conceptual change. (shrink)
The present paper discusses Kitcher’s framework for studying conceptual change and progress. Kitcher’s core notion of reference potential is hard to apply to concrete cases. In addition, an account of conceptual change as change in reference potential misses some important aspects of conceptual change and conceptual progress. I propose an alternative framework that focuses on the inferences and explanations supported by scientific concepts. The application of my approach to the history of the gene concept offers a better account of the (...) conceptual progress that occurred in the transition from the Mendelian to the molecular gene than Kitcher’s theory. (shrink)
The present paper gives a philosophical analysis of the conceptual variation in the homology concept. It is argued that different homology concepts are used in evolutionary and comparative biology, in evolutionary developmental biology, and in molecular biology. The study uses conceptual role semantics, focusing on the inferences and explanations supported by concepts, as a heuristic tool to explain conceptual change. The differences between homology concepts are due to the fact that these concepts play different theoretical roles for different biological fields. (...) The specific theoretical needs and explanatory interests of different research approaches lead to different homology concepts. (shrink)
The philosophy of science that grew out of logical positivism construed scientific knowledge in terms of set of interconnected beliefs about the world, such as theories and observation statements. Nowadays science is also conceived of as a dynamic process based on the various practices of individual scientists and the institutional settings of science. Two features particularly influence the dynamics of scientific knowledge: epistemic standards and aims (e.g., assumptions about what issues are currently in need of scientific study and explanation). While (...) scientific beliefs are representations of the world, scientific standards and aims are epistemic values. The relevance of epistemic aims and values for belief change has been previously recognized. My paper makes a similar point for scientific concepts, both by studying how an individual concept changes (in its semantic properties) and by viewing epistemic aims and values tied to individual concepts. (shrink)
Whereas an inference (deductive as well as inductive) is usually viewed as being valid in virtue of its argument form, the present paper argues that scientific reasoning is material inference, i.e., justified in virtue of its content. A material inference is licensed by the empirical content embodied in the concepts contained in the premises and conclusion. Understanding scientific reasoning as material inference has the advantage of combining different aspects of scientific reasoning, such as confirmation, discovery, and explanation. This approach explains (...) why these different aspects (including discovery) can be rational without conforming to formal schemes, and why scientific reasoning is local, i.e., justified only in certain domains and contingent on particular empirical facts. The notion of material inference also fruitfully interacts with accounts of conceptual change and psychological theories of concepts. (shrink)
The discussion presents a framework of concepts that is intended to account for the rationality of semantic change and variation, suggesting that each scientific concept consists of three components of content: 1) reference, 2) inferential role, and 3) the epistemic goal pursued with the concept’s use. I argue that in the course of history a concept can change in any of these components, and that change in the concept’s inferential role and reference can be accounted for as being rational relative (...) to the third component, the concept’s epistemic goal. This framework is illustrated and defended by application to the history of the gene concept. It is explained how the molecular gene concept grew rationally out of the classical gene concept despite a change in reference, and why the use and reference of the contemporary molecular gene concept may legitimately vary from context to context. (shrink)
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 (...) three components of content: 1) reference, 2) inferential role, and 3) the epistemic goal pursued with the concept's use. I argue that in the course of history a concept can change in any of these three components, and that change in one component—including change of reference—can be accounted for as being rational relative to other components, in particular a concept's epistemic goal. This semantic framework is applied to two cases from the history of biology: the homology concept as used in 19th and 20th century biology, and the gene concept as used in different parts of the 20th century. The homology case study argues that the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, despite introducing a new definition of homology, did not bring about a new homology concept (distinct from the pre-Darwinian concept) in the 19th century. Nowadays, however, distinct homology concepts are used in systematics/evolutionary biology, in evolutionary developmental biology, and in molecular biology. The emergence of these different homology concepts is explained as occurring in a rational fashion. The gene case study argues that conceptual progress occurred with the transition from the classical to the molecular gene concept, despite a change in reference. In the last two decades, change occurred internal to the molecular gene concept, so that nowadays this concept's usage and reference varies from context to context. I argue that this situation emerged rationally and that the current variation in usage and reference is conducive to biological practice. The dissertation uses ideas and methodological tools from the philosophy of mind and language, the philosophy of science, the history of science, and the psychology of concepts. (shrink)
This paper uses an example from biology, the homology concept, to argue that current versions of the causal theory of reference give an incomplete account of reference determination. It is suggested that in addition to samples and stereotypical properties, the scientific use of concepts and the epistemic interests pursued with concepts are important factors in determining the reference of natural kind terms.
The purpose of the paper is twofold. I first outline a philosophical theory of concepts based on conceptual role semantics. This approach is explicitly intended as a framework for the study and explanation of conceptual change in science. Then I point to the close similarities between this philosophical framework and the theory theory of concepts, suggesting that a convergence between psychological and philosophical approaches to concepts is possible. An underlying theme is to stress that using a non-atomist account of concepts (...) is crucial for the successful study of conceptual development and change. (shrink)
The paper discusses concept individuation in the context of scientific concepts and conceptual change in science. It is argued that some concepts can be individuated in different ways. A particular term may be viewed as corresponding to a single concept (which is ascribed to every person from a whole scientific field). But at the same time, we can legitimately individuate in a more fine grained manner, i.e., this term can also be considered as corresponding to two or several concepts (so (...) that each of these concepts is attributed to a smaller group of persons only). The reason is that there are different philosophical and explanatory interests that underlie a particular study of the change of a scientific term. These interests determine how a concept is to be individuated; and as the same term can be subject to different philosophical studies and interests, its content can be individuated in different ways. (shrink)
The present paper analyzes the use and understanding of the homology concept across different biological disciplines. It is argued that in its history, the homology concept underwent a sort of adaptive radiation. Once it migrated from comparative anatomy into new biological fields, the homology concept changed in accordance with the theoretical aims and interests of these disciplines. The paper gives a case study of the theoretical role that homology plays in comparative and evolutionary biology, in molecular biology, and in evolutionary (...) developmental biology. It is shown that the concept or variant of homology preferred by a particular biological field is used to bring about items of biological knowledge that are characteristic for this field. A particular branch of biology uses its homology concept to pursue its specific theoretical goals. (shrink)
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 (...) to experience. Much contemporary debate on the nature of conceptual change is a direct outgrowth of this holistic view of concepts, and much of the inconclusiveness of that debate derives from the lack of any clear understanding of what a conceptual system is, or of how conceptual systems confer meaning on their terms. (shrink)
Only human beings have a rich conceptual repertoire with concepts like tort, entropy, Abelian group, mannerism, icon and deconstruction. How have humans constructed these concepts? And once they have been constructed by adults, how do children acquire them? While primarily focusing on the second question, in The Origin of Concepts , Susan Carey shows that the answers to both overlap substantially. Carey begins by characterizing the innate starting point for conceptual development, namely systems of core cognition. Representations of core cognition (...) are the output of dedicated input analyzers, as with perceptual representations, but these core representations differ from perceptual representations in having more abstract contents and richer functional roles. Carey argues that the key to understanding cognitive development lies in recognizing conceptual discontinuities in which new representational systems emerge that have more expressive power than core cognition and are also incommensurate with core cognition and other earlier representational systems. Finally, Carey fleshes out Quinian bootstrapping, a learning mechanism that has been repeatedly sketched in the literature on the history and philosophy of science. She demonstrates that Quinian bootstrapping is a major mechanism in the construction of new representational resources over the course of childrens cognitive development. Carey shows how developmental cognitive science resolves aspects of long-standing philosophical debates about the existence, nature, content, and format of innate knowledge. She also shows that understanding the processes of conceptual development in children illuminates the historical process by which concepts are constructed, and transforms the way we think about philosophical problems about the nature of concepts and the relations between language and thought. (shrink)
The purpose of this paper is to present two kinds of analogical representational change, both occurring early in the analogy-making process, and then, using these two kinds of change, to present a model unifying one sort of analogy-making and categorization. The proposed unification rests on three key claims: (1) a certain type of rapid representational abstraction is crucial to making the relevant analogies (this is the first kind of representational change; a computer model is presented that demonstrates this kind of (...) abstraction), (2) rapid abstractions are induced by retrieval across large psychological distances, and (3) both categorizations and analogies supply understandings of perceptual input via construing, which is a proposed type of categorization (this is the second kind of representational change). It is construing that finalizes the unification. (shrink)
Analogical reminding in humans and machines is a great source for chance discoveries because analogical reminding can produce representational change and thereby produce insights. Here, we present a new kind of representational change associated with analogical reminding called packing. We derived the algorithm in part from human data we have on packing. Here, we explain packing and its role in analogy making, and then present a computer model of packing in a micro-domain. We conclude that packing is likely used in (...) human chance discoveries, and is needed if our machines are to make their own chance discoveries. (shrink)
Much debate has surrounded "switching" scenarios in which a subject's reasoning is said to exhibit the fallacy of equivocation ( Burge 1988 ; Boghossian 1992, 1994 ). Peter Ludlow has argued that such scenarios are "epistemically prevalent" and, therefore, epistemically relevant alternatives ( Ludlow 1995a ). Since a distinctive feature of the cases in question is that the subject blamelessly engages in conceptual equivocation, we may label them 'equivocational switching cases'. Ludlow's influential argument occurs in a discussion about compatibilism with (...) regards to anti-individualism (or content externalism) and self-knowledge. However, the issue has wide-reaching consequences for many areas of epistemology. Arguably, the claim that equivocational switching cases are epistemically relevant may bear on the epistemology of inference, testimony, memory, group rationality and belief revision. Ludlow's argument proceeds from a now well-known "down to Earth" switching-case of a subject, Biff, who travels between the US and the UK. I argue that Ludlow's case-based argument fails to support the general claim that conceptual equivocational switching cases are prevalent and epistemically relevant. Thus, the discussion addresses the basis of some poorly understood issues regarding the epistemological consequences of anti-individualism. Simultaneously, the discussion is broadened from the narrow focus on self-knowledge. Finally, the critical discussion serves as the basis for some general reflections on epistemic relevance and the epistemic risks associated with conceptual equivocation. Specifically, I suggest that philosophy is an area where the risk of conceptual equivocation is extraordinarily high. (shrink)
Experimental philosophy of science gathers empirical data on how key scientific concepts are understood by particular scientific communities. In this paper we briefly describe two recent studies in experimental philosophy of biology, one investigating the concept of the gene, the other the concept of innateness. The use of experimental methods reveals facts about these concepts that would not be accessible using the traditional method of intuitions about possible cases. It also contributes to the study of conceptual change in science, which (...) we understand as the result of a form of conceptual ecology, in which concepts become adapted to specific epistemic niches. (shrink)
This paper presents the lineaments of a new account of concepts. The foundations of the account are four ideas taken from recent cognitive science, though most of them have important philosophical precursors. The first is the idea that human conceptuality shares important continuities with psychological faculties of other animals, and indeed that there is a well-distinguished hierarchy of such faculties that extend up and down the phylogenetic scale. While it would very likely be a mistake to look at some conglomeration (...) of these simpler abilities and assert that we have produced a reductive account of human conceptuality, an examination of these will lend insights into essential features of human conceptuality in a non-reductive, non-exhaustive manner. The second idea is that an important function of both human concepts and of their protoconceptual ancestors in the animal kingdom is to make distinctions or discriminations. We shall thus look at the human conceptual apparatus as being, in large part, a discrimination engine. How are these discriminations realized in humans and other beings? Presumably, some discriminative mechanisms are innate, while others are acquired through learning. But how is learning accomplished? The third idea from cognitive science is that adaptive discrimination is realized through neural networks, and that the properties of this realizing system explains familiar features of human thought that seem puzzling when viewed through other lenses, such as the logical analysis of language. The fourth and. (shrink)
Quinian bootstrapping is Susan Carey's solution to Fodor’s paradox of concept learning. Carey claims that contrary to Fodor’s view, not all learning amounts to hypothesis testing, and that there are ways in which even primitive concepts can be learned. Recently Georges Rey has argued that Carey’s attempt to refute radical concept nativism is unsuccessful. First it cannot explain how the expressive power of mental representational systems could increase due to learning. Second, both Fodorian circularity charges and Goodmanian problems of indeterminacy (...) apply to Carey’s examples of Quinian bootstrapping. I argue that Carey’s examples of bootstrapping can be amended to escape Fodorian and Goodmanian objections. I suggest some ways to improve on our models of concept learning to this end. I also argue that skill learning is the way for mental representational systems to increase their own expressive power, that is, to enrich their conceptual repertoire beyond what compositionality alone affords. (shrink)
Philosophers and historians of science have made the claim that successive scientific theories are incommensurable, that is, that many or all of their concepts fail to coincide. This claim has been echoed by cognitive psychologists who have applied it to the successive conceptual schemes of young children, or of children and adults. This paper examines the psychological evidence for the claim and proposes ways of reinterpreting it which do not involve imputing incommensurability. An alternative approach to understanding conceptual change is (...) suggested, according to which novel concepts are introduced against a background of shared concepts, rather than as part of incommensurable conceptual schemes. (shrink)
Strong nativist views about numerical concepts claim that human beings have at least some innate precise numerical representations. Weak nativist views claim only that humans, like other animals, possess an innate system for representing approximate numerical quantity. We present a new strong nativist model of the origins of numerical concepts and defend the strong nativist approach against recent cross-cultural studies that have been interpreted to show that precise numerical concepts are dependent on language and that they are restricted to speakers (...) of languages with the right kind of structure. (shrink)
One of the most important abilities we have as humans is the ability to think about number. In this chapter, we examine the question of whether there is an essential connection between language and number. We provide a careful examination of two prominent theories according to which concepts of the positive integers are dependent on language. The first of these claims that language creates the positive integers on the basis of an innate capacity to represent real numbers. The second claims (...) that language’s function is to integrate contents from modules that humans share with other animals. We argue that neither model is successful. (shrink)
Radical concept nativism is the thesis that virtually all lexical concepts are innate. Notoriously endorsed by Jerry Fodor (1975, 1981), radical concept nativism has had few supporters. However, it has proven difficult to say exactly what’s wrong with Fodor’s argument. We show that previous responses are inadequate on a number of grounds. Chief among these is that they typically do not achieve sufficient distance from Fodor’s dialectic, and, as a result, they do not illuminate the central question of how new (...) primitive concepts are acquired. To achieve a fully satisfactory response to Fodor’s argument, one has to juxtapose questions about conceptual content with questions about cognitive development. To this end, we formulate a general schema for thinking about how concepts are acquired and then present a detailed illustration. (shrink)
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 (...) points up these divisions or suggests new spatial analyses, and by the analogical extension of spatially derived concepts to nonspatial domains. This formulation is contrasted with Fodor's (1998) metaphysical theory of concept formation. (shrink)
In this paper, I develop a novel account of concept acquisition for an atomistic theory of concepts. Conceptual atomism is rarely explored in cognitive science because of the feeling that atomistic treatments of concepts are inherently nativistic. My model illustrates, on the contrary, that atomism does not preclude the learning of a concept.
This article is a commentary on Carey (2009) The Origin of Concepts. Carey rightly rejects the building blocks model of concept acquisition on the grounds that new primitive concepts can be learned via the process of bootstrapping. But new primitives can be learned by other acquisition processes that do not involve bootstrapping, and bootstrapping itself is not a unitary process. Nonetheless, the processes associated with bootstrapping provide important insights into conceptual change.
This entry provides an overview of theories of concepts that is organized around five philosophical issues: (1) the ontology of concepts, (2) the structure of concepts, (3) empiricism and nativism about concepts, (4) concepts and natural language, and (5) concepts and conceptual analysis.
In LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited, Jerry Fodor argues that concept learning of any kind—even for complex concepts—is simply impossible. In order to avoid the conclusion that all concepts, primitive and complex, are innate, he argues that concept acquisition depends on purely noncognitive biological processes. In this paper, we show (1) that Fodor fails to establish that concept learning is impossible, (2) that his own biological account of concept acquisition is unworkable, and (3) that there are in fact (...) many promising general models for explaining how concepts are learned. (shrink)
Pierre Jacob's book, What Minds Can Do , is mainly concerned with intentionality. Jacob's primary goal is to explain both how it is possible for a physical system to have intentional mental states and how the intentional content of such mental states can play a role in the causal explanation of behaviour. Yet, he also tackles the issue of the nature of conscious experience. I shall focus here on a claim he makes in connection with this latter topic. The claim (...) (made at the very end of Chapter 2, p. 77) is that in order to undergo states of consciousness a creature must have concept-forming abilities. At first sight, this contention seems implausibly strong. Although our intuitions in such matters may not be very reliable, I think many people would be willing to attribute to members of certain animal species a capacity to enjoy conscious experiences, while being reluctant to grant them concept forming abilities. The plausibility or implausibility of Jacob's claim depends in a large part on how one construes the notion of a conscious experience, as well as on what one considers concept-forming abilities to be. Since the topic of consciousness is rather peripheral in Jacob's book, the rejection of this claim would not directly affect his more central theses. Yet, examining it gives us an opportunity to scrutinize a distinction that plays a central role in Dretske's work and that Jacob endorses, namely, the distinction between analogical and digital coding of information. Since this distinction underlies in turn the distinction between sensory content and conceptual content and since the latter distinction is at the core of informational semantics, this discussion may have at least indirect implications for some other problems discussed by Jacob in his book. (shrink)
Fodor argues that our minds must have epistemic limitations because there must be endogenous constraints on the class of concepts we can acquire. However, his argument for the existence of these endogenous constraints is falsified by the phenomenon of the deferential acquisition of concepts. If we allow for the acquisition of concepts through deferring to experts and scientific instruments, then our conceptual capacity will be without endogenous constraints, and there will be no reason to think that our minds are epistemically (...) bounded. (shrink)
First I should clarify my thesis. When I say the mind starts off as a blank slate, I’m saying that it’s devoid of substantive concepts or ideas, that is non-logical concepts or ideas. Some examples of substantive concepts are: the concept of a cat, the concept of a quark, the concept of being square, and the concept of heaviness.
The acquisition of concepts has proven especially difficult for philosophers and psychologists to explain. In this paper, I examine Jerry Fodor’s most recent attempt to explain the acquisition of concepts relative to experiences of their referents. In reevaluating his earlier position, Fodor attempts to co-opt informational semantics into an account of concept acquisition that avoids the radical nativism of his earlier views. I argue that Fodor’s attempts ultimately fail to be persuasive. He must either accept his earlier nativism or adopt (...) a rational causal model of concept acquisition. His animus towards the latter dictates, in my view, a return to the nativism with which he began. (shrink)
This volume brings together a distinguished, international list of scholars to explore the role of the learner's intention in knowledge change. Traditional views of knowledge reconstruction placed the impetus for thought change outside the learner's control. The teacher, instructional methods, materials, and activities were identified as the seat of change. Recent perspectives on learning, however, suggest that the learner can play an active, indeed, intentional role in the process of knowledge restructuring. This volume explores this new, innovative view of conceptual (...) change learning using original contributions drawn from renowned scholars in a variety of disciplines. The volume is intended for scholars or advanced students studying knowledge acquisition and change, including educational psychology, developmental psychology, science education, cognitive science, learning science, instructional psychology, and instructional and curriculum studies. (shrink)
When new theoretical terms are introduced into scientific discourse, prevailing accounts imply, analytic or semantic truths come along with them, by way of either definitions or reference-fixing descriptions. But there appear to be few or no analytic truths in scientific theory, which suggests that the prevailing accounts are mistaken. This paper looks to research on the psychology of natural kind concepts to suggest a new account of the introduction of theoretical terms that avoids both definition and reference-fixing description. At the (...) core of the account is a novel psychological process that I call introjection. (shrink)
This paper argues that questions concerning the nature of concepts that are central in cognitive psychology are also important to epistemology and that there is more to conceptual change than mere belief revision. Understanding of epistemic change requires appreciation of the complex ways in which concepts are structured and organized and of how this organization can affect belief revision. Following a brief summary of the psychological functions of concepts and a discussion of some recent accounts of what concepts are, I (...) propose a view of concepts as complex computational structures. This account suggests that conceptual change can come in varying degrees, with the most extreme consisting of fundamental conceptual reorganizations. These degrees of conceptual change are illustrated by the development of the concept of an acid. (shrink)
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 (...) rather by being subject to the appropriate sort of inferential dispositions. These dispositions themselves may apply equally to perceptual and non-perceptual representations. Third, I argue that Mandler's proposed redescriptive mechanism for producing conceptual primitives can be viewed as a kind of Fodorian triggering device. Hence there may be less distance between her view and Fodor's than either one has supposed. I suggest that redescription needs to be supplemented with several other kinds of more flexible and open-ended concept learning mechanisms. Finally, I briefly sketch the view of conceptual development that results from adopting these proposals and contrast it with Mandler's. (shrink)
Certain of our concepts are innate, but many others are learned. Despite the plausibility of this claim, some have argued that the very idea of concept learning is incoherent. I present a conception of learning that sidesteps the arguments against the possibility of concept learning, and sketch several mechanisms that result in the generation of new primitive concepts. Given the rational considerations that motivate their deployment, I argue that these deserve to be called learning mechanisms. I conclude by replying to (...) the objections that these mechanisms cannot produce genuinely new content and cannot be part of genuinely cognitive explanations. (shrink)