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Conclusion II: Implications for a Theory of


Concepts

The previous chapters have sketched a theory of the origin of concepts.


Building a theory of concept acquisition and a theory of concepts that fits
with it is a single project. In this concluding chapter I ask you to accept,
for the moment, my account of concept acquisition and consider where
it leads in terms of a theory of concepts.

Beginning Assumptions

Concepts are mental symbols, and so a theory of concepts is part of a


representational theory of mind. At least in principle, the theory must fit
into a picture of what makes mental symbols represent—that is, what
connects mental representations to the entities they refer to. It must also
fit into a picture of how concepts function in thought. Mental repre-
sentations enter into a variety of computational processes. They play a
role in the inferences we draw, the predictions we make, and the
explanations we build, so a theory of them must fit into an account of
how it is they function. Finally, because concepts are merely a subset of
all mental representations, the analysis must fit into an account of how to
distinguish conceptual representations from nonconceptual ones.
First, some terminology. “Reference” is a relation between a symbol
(e.g., the word “dog” or the concept dog) and the entities it symbolizes
(i.e., Rover, Lassie, and the like); the referents of a symbol are the entities
in the world it represents. “Conceptual content” is a philosopher’s term
of art that I will not try to explain here. My only claim is that the content
of a concept is what it contributes to the meaning of the thought in
which it figures. For example, the concept dog contributes to the

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488 The Origin of Concepts

meaning of the thought John owns a vicious dog. As I use the term,
“content” is roughly synonymous with “meaning.” Of course, different
theories of concepts give different answers to the question of what
determines the content of a concept, what the relations are between
content and reference, and how concepts are to be individuated—what
determines whether two symbols express the same concept or different
ones. To explore how the theory of concept acquisition offered in these
pages bears on adjudicating among theories of concepts, we need a better
picture of the players. Therefore, I begin by providing a map, in very
broad strokes indeed, of the lay of the land.
To get my work off the ground, I assumed that two types of pro-
cesses figure in a theory of all mental representations, including con-
ceptual ones: (1) causal processes that mediate between entities in the
world and mental representations, at least partially determining what
mental symbols refer to; and (2) internal computational processes defined
over mental representations that explain their role in thought. The latter
constitute what is called “conceptual role” or “inferential role.”
Some have argued that conceptual role has three parts to play in a full
account of concepts: a part in determining reference, a part in deter-
mining conceptual content, and, as its primary function, a part in
determining the concept’s contribution to thought. So far, separating the
work of conceptual role into these distinct functions has not mattered.
Rather, I have appealed to conceptual role as part of my evidence of
which concepts monkeys, infants, and young children have. For example,
that infants and monkeys use analog magnitude representations to sup-
port addition and the calculation of ratios provides evidence that these are
number representations (chapter 4). Or, for another example, the ways
that infants take into account the causally relevant properties of the
participants in events in their representation of these events provides
evidence that they are making causal attributions (chapter 6). Using
inferential role in this way is surely justified, given the work concepts do
in the computational processes that are thought, no matter what work
conceptual role does in concept individuation and content determina-
tion. But for present purposes, specifying how, if at all, conceptual
role plays a part in content determination matters very much, for it
separates many philosophical theories of concepts (e.g., Dretske, 1981;
Fodor, 1998; Kripke, 1972/1980; Putnam; 1975) from most theories
Conclusion II: Implications for a Theory of Concepts 489

psychologists and linguists are drawn to (e.g., Smith & Medin, 1981;
Murphy, 2002).

What Phenomena a Theory of Concepts Is Responsible for

Many apparent disagreements about the nature of concepts are really


disagreements about the central phenomena that will constrain a theory
of them. Whenever I teach a class on concepts, I begin by asking students
to say what phenomena—what data—a theory of concepts must be
responsible for. The psychology students usually come up with three
types: (1) data concerning categorization behavior, including the well-
attested effects of prototypicality on ease of categorization; (2) data
concerning inferential role; and (3) data concerning concept acquisition.
Sometimes they also mention the phenomenon of conceptual combi-
nation—if concepts are the units of thought, the elements of beliefs, then
a theory of concepts must be able to account for the construction of
beliefs from concepts and for the productivity of thought.
The philosophy students, like the psychologists, also are concerned
with understanding how concepts serve the productivity of thought and
the role that concepts play in inference. But what always strikes me from
this exercise is that psychology students almost never mention the phe-
nomena that philosophers often take as the central challenges to a theory
of concepts: (1) accounting for reference; (2) distinguishing concepts of
entities in the world from beliefs about those entities (sometimes called
distinguishing concepts from conceptions [e.g., Rey, 1983]); and (3)
accounting for epistemological warrant. What role does a theory of
concepts play in understanding the justification of belief? Analyticity
(truth by virtue of meaning) is central to the epistemological project. If
there are thoughts that are true in virtue of the concepts that compose
them, a theory of concepts should allow us to understand why.
The second of these concerns, distinguishing concepts from beliefs
(or distinguishing concepts from conceptions), bears further comment.
On some theories of conceptual content, such as holistic versions infer-
ential role semantics, everything we believe about the entities in a
concept’s extension contributes to the meaning of that concept. These
theories have undesirable consequences (to say the least; see Fodor &
Lepore, 1992). To mention just one obvious one, consider the intuition
490 The Origin of Concepts

that I can disagree with people whose knowledge of tigers is vastly dif-
ferent from mine, including my past selves. You and I might disagree on
whether wild tigers are to be found in China, for example, or on whether
there are white tigers. If I now say that some tigers are white, how can I
be disagreeing with myself of 10 years ago, when I thought all tigers were
orange with dark stripes (or with you, if you believe the same)? If you
share the intuition that people can disagree, then it cannot be that all of
our beliefs play an essential role in determining content; if they did, we’d
be talking past each other, meaning different things by both “tiger” and
“white,” rather than disagreeing about a given proposition (namely, that I
take “tigers are white” to be true whereas you take it to be false). The
challenge for a theory of concepts, then, becomes determining what, if
not one’s beliefs about the entities in the extension of a concept, does
determine the concept’s content.
In chapters 8 to 11, I argued that conceptual change is a real (indeed,
common) phenomenon, so I am committed to the possibility that you
and I might have different concepts (of matter, of weight, of heat, of
number . . . ). Any developmental psychologist, anthropologist, or intel-
lectual historian who seeks to understand the historical development of
concepts faces two urgent problems of concept individuation. When I say
that you and I have different concepts of weight, there must be some way
of picking out mental representations with enough overlap that they both
express some concept we would both agree are candidates for being the
same concept. And then, we must say why, nonetheless, these repre-
sentations express different concepts. For example, one concept is really
weight and the other is an undifferentiated weight/density concept. That is,
I accept the urgency of distinguishing conceptual change from belief
revision. In some cases of knowledge acquisition we merely change our
beliefs about the world; in others we change the concepts in terms of
which those beliefs are composed. If the arguments in chapters 8 through
11 are correct, then our theory of concepts had better allow us to dis-
tinguish concepts from beliefs, and concepts from conceptions.
The first phenomenon on a psychologist’s list—categorization
behavior—often does not even make it onto a philosopher’s list at all.
Philosophers do not deny the interest of the scientific project of
understanding what leads to categorization decisions. These decisions are
likely to draw upon all of what one knows about the entities one is
Conclusion II: Implications for a Theory of Concepts 491

categorizing, one’s conceptions of and beliefs about those entities, as well


as the concepts themselves, plus quick and dirty recognition routines
developed to exploit statistically diagnostic and readily available evidence;
and it is a wonderful project to figure out how this works. But under-
standing categorization behavior is unlikely to give us much purchase on
the rest of the work we’d like a theory of concepts to do for us.
The list of phenomena that includes both the philosophers’ and the
psychologists’ desiderata seems a good place to start as we think about a
theory of concepts; and, indeed, the first worked-out theory of concepts
—that of the British empiricists—sought to account for the whole set.
There is no way of saying at the outset of theory building which phe-
nomena will turn out to be in the domain of a worked-out theory. One
way of looking at the history of the field, both within psychology and
within philosophy, is that the search for a single theory of concepts that
handles all of these phenomena has been fruitless. Still, as we review some
of the moves that have been made, we should keep firmly in mind which
phenomena are motivating them and which phenomena have been
abandoned, at least for the moment, as we try to provide an explanatory
account of the nature of concepts and how they function in mental life.

The Empiricists’ Theory

For good reasons, discussions of concepts often begin with the British
empiricists’ theory. The empiricists’ theory was extremely influential,
directly impacting later philosophical work (e.g., the logical positivists of
the Vienna circle [e.g., Carnap, 1932/1980] and the reactions against
them, [e.g., Quine, 1953/1980; Wittgenstein, 1953/1958; Putnam, 1962;
Kripke, 1972/1980]), as well as directly impacting the first systematic
psychological work on concepts (e.g.., Vygotsky, 1934/1962; Bruner,
Goodnow, & Austin, 1956). Creating the first important worked-out
theory of concepts, the empiricists attempted to account for the whole
range of both the psychologists’ and the philosophers’ phenomena listed
above. Important for my project, the empiricists took concept acquisition
to be an important source of constraint in theorizing about the nature of
human concepts.
The philosophers Steven Laurence and Eric Margolis (1999) provide
an excellent and psychology-friendly exposition of the empiricist theory