, Volume 193, Issue 9, pp 2899–2927 | Cite as

Prototypes as compositional components of concepts



The aim of this paper is to reconcile two claims that have long been thought to be incompatible: (a) that we compositionally determine the meaning of complex expressions from the meaning of their parts, and (b) that prototypes are components of the meaning of lexical terms such as fish, red, and gun. Hypotheses (a) and (b) are independently plausible, but most researchers think that reconciling them is a difficult, if not hopeless task. In particular, most linguists and philosophers agree that (a) is not negotiable; so they tend to reject (b). Recently, there have been some attempts to reconcile these claims (Prinz, Furnishing the mind: concepts and their perceptual basis 2002; The Oxford handbook of compositionality 2012; Jönsson and Hampton, Cognition 106:913–923, 2008; Hampton and Jönsson, The Oxford handbook of compositionality 2012; Schurz, The Oxford handbook of compositionality 2012), but they all adopt an implausibly weak notion of compositionality. Furthermore, parties to this debate tend to fall into a problematic way of individuating prototypes that is too externalistic. In contrast, I propose that we can reconcile (a) and (b) if we adopt, instead, an internalist and pluralist conception of prototypes and a context-sensitive but strong notion of compositionality. I argue that each of this proposals is independently plausible, and that, when taken together, provide the basis for a satisfactory account of prototype compositionality.


Prototypes Concepts Meaning Compositionality Emergent features 



For helpful comments and discussions of earlier drafts of this paper, I am grateful to Luca Barlassina, Akeel Bilgrami, Brian H. Kim, Karen S. Lewis, Eleonore Neufeld, Daniel Rothschild, and Achille Varzi. I am also extremely grateful to two anonymous referees whose excellent comments led to substantial improvements of the paper. This work was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and by BMBG Grant No. 01UG1411.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for General Linguistics (ZAS)BerlinGermany

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