Empiricism regained (comments on Prinz's Furnishing the Mind)

Metascience 12 (2003)
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 is prepared to accept that there are innate concepts and/or knowledge, denies that what a concept means consists in the experiences that prompt us to use or create it, implies that cognitive architecture is not associationist, and offers no opinion on whether all knowledge claims must be justified by sensory experience. Those who await a full resurrection will have to wait a little longer – but in the meantime, Prinz’s reconstructive surgery will tide you over. Although it falls short of miraculous, it is still pretty impressive. Prinz has brought a vast knowledge of the literature to bear on his project, from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. In fact, this book would serve as an excellent entrée for the philosopher into the scientific aspects of concept research, or for the scientist into philosophical concerns. Prinz writes with exemplary clarity, and wields his theory with aplomb in answering the many objections that have been raised against imagism. To take just one example, anyone who doubts that imagism can accommodate the large scope of human concepts would be well advised to read Chapter 7, which contains a wealth of ingenious suggestions for how imagism might handle difficult cases, including lofty concepts such as cause and truth. His discussions of nativism (Chapter 8) and compositionality are also particularly illuminating. The central theoretical construct in Prinz’s theory of concepts is the “proxytype,” a group of imagistic/perceptual representations..
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