In this article we focus on the concept of concept in conceptual change. We argue that (1) theories of higher learning must often employ two different notions of concept that should not be conflated: psychological and scientific concepts. The usages for these two notions are partly distinct and thus straightforward identification between them is unwarranted. Hence, the strong analogy between scientific theory change and individual learning should be approached with caution. In addition, we argue that (2) research in psychology and cognitive science provides a promising theoretical basis for developing explanatory mechanistic models of conceptual change. Moreover, we argue that (3) arguments against deeper integration between the fields of psychology and conceptual change are not convincing, and that recent theoretical developments in the cognitive sciences might prove indispensable in filling in the details in mechanisms of conceptual change.
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See also Lappi (2011) for a similar analysis.
Since the rejection of the classical view of concepts in the 1970s, there have been three main approaches to concepts; the prototype view, the exemplar view, and the theory theory view of concepts. According to the prototype theory, concepts have a probabilistic structure. A concept of a class of objects is a prototype, a representation that contains statistical information about the properties possessed by (most of) the members of the class. On the contrary, the exemplar view considers concepts as representations of specific members of a category. These exemplars are thought to stand for the whole category. According to the theory–theory view, mental representations are similar to scientific theories and mental cognitive processes are analogical to scientific reasoning. Concepts are considered as embedded in theories about certain domains, as bodies of knowledge that contain causal, nomological, and functional generalizations about the corresponding categories (cf. Murphy 2004).
Depending on the theory, the units of conceptual change differ. For example, in diSessas account the units of conceptual change are the coordination classes that organize information at the sub-conceptual level (diSessa and Sherin 1998, diSessa 1988, 1993). In Frank Keil’s (1994) theory a similar role is played by modes of construal, and Stella Vosniadou (1992) employs the term ‘framework.’
Curiously, a very similar view of nature was characteristic of classic Aristotelian and scholastic science. It was thought that all entities in reality had a place in a grand hierarchy of things called the tree of porphyry, and that it was the aim of science to uncover this true order of nature. In ninetieth century post-Darwinian biology, and consequently in other fields of science, the rise of population thinking lead to permanent abandonment of this essentialist view of nature, as it turned out that phenomena in nature could not be organized into such a hierarchical system (Hacking 2006). This suggests that Chi’s early hierarchical ontologies cannot present a generally accurate view of the functioning of scientific concepts.
Susan Carey’s (2009) work is one of the few examples of conceptual change research that explicitly aims to uncover the psychological mechanisms underlying conceptual change.
It is not completely clear, how to define the notion of “cognitive mechanism” (see Lappi and Rusanen 2011). Lappi and Rusanen suggest that in some cases explanatory models in cognitive science may contain non-implemented, abstract mechanisms.
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We thank Otto Lappi, Petri Ylikoski and the anonymous referees for useful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
Both authors contributed equally to this work.
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Rusanen, A., Pöyhönen, S. Concepts in Change. Sci & Educ 22, 1389–1403 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-012-9489-x
- Cognitive Science
- Conceptual Change
- Scientific Concept
- Cognitive Mechanism
- Cognitive Architecture