I discuss Edouard Machery’s claim that philosophers and psychologists when using the term ‘concept’ are really theorizing about different things. This view is not new, but it has never been developed or defended in detail. Once spelled out, we can see that Machery is right that the psychological literature uses a different notion of concept. However, Machery fails to acknowledge that the two notions are not only compatible but complementary. This fits more with the traditional view according to which philosophers and psychologists are merely interested in different aspects of the same kind. The main aim of this paper is then to show how precisely the two notions of ‘concept’ relate. Distinguishing them resolves the long-standing debate on whether concepts can be prototypes and allows me to formulate success conditions of a theory of categorization that are independent of the success conditions of a theory of concepts.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
I use capital letters to denote concepts, single quotation marks to denote words and italics for emphasis and to denote properties.
I call this view “categorization invariantism” in order to distinguish it from a different theory in philosophy of language called “semantic minimalism” or “invariantism” (e.g., Borg 2012). Similarly, I speak of “categorization contextualism” in order to distinguish contextualists about categorization devices like Barsalou (1987) or Prinz (2002) from semantic contextualists like Travis (2008) or Recanati (2010).
However, what is stored in a categorization device may contribute to or even explain the intuitive truth conditions of a sentence (see Del Pinal 2016 for what I take to be a similar claim).
Although such an argument can be made of course. Del Pinal (2015), for instance, argues that epistemic content (what he calls c-structure) does not need to determine a concepts’ reference.
I focus on a very strict understanding of these requirements (as demanded by Fodor 1998 for instance) in order to show that even they are compatible with the more relaxed requirements of a theory of categorization devices. I do not want to rule out that the many attempts to show how context-dependence is compatible with the idea of compositionality (e.g., by Hampton and Jönsson 2012; Del Pinal 2015 or Recanati 2010) have been successful. However, I would like to add that most of these attempts aim to explain the compositionality of linguistic expressions and not necessarily of concepts. Moreover, at least Del Pinal seems to discuss the compositionality of his notion of a c-structure, which does not determine the reference of an expression. Arguably this notion is very similar to my notion of categorization device. So, one might argue that the compositionality of the c-structure of an expression only needs to meet the success conditions for a theory of categorization devices and not of concepts.
This constraint, too, has been challenged for instance by Prinz (2012).
Again, this notion of categorization compositionality has little to do with the notion of compositionality in philosophy of language and mind. For the more common notion of compositionality see for instance Szabó (2012).
It may be that categorization is not explained in terms of beliefs and that categorization devices do not contain them. In this case categorization devices do not consist of concepts, but for instance of non-conceptual perceptual representations. I do not want to rule this out. My argument is merely that often psychologists explain categorization by attributing beliefs to people even if these beliefs are presented in terms of lists of features. Only in such cases is the relation between concepts and categorization devices as argued here.
Barsalou, L. W. (1987). The instability of graded structure: Implications for the nature of concepts. In U. Neisser (Ed.), Concepts and conceptual development: Ecological and intellectual factors in categorization (pp. 101–140). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Barsalou, L. W. (2012). The human conceptual system. In M. Spivey, K. McRae, & M. Joanisse (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of psycholinguistics (pp. 239–258). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Borg, E. (2012). Pursuing meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Burge, T. (1979). Individualism and the mental. Midwest studies in philosophy,4(1), 73–121.
Carey, S. (2009). The origin of concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cruse, A. (1999). Meaning in language: An introduction to semantics and pragmatics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Del Pinal, G. (2015). Dual content semantics, privative adjectives and dynamic compositionality. Semantics & Pragmatics,8(7), 1–53.
Del Pinal, G. (2016). Prototypes as compositional components of concepts. Synthese,193(9), 2899–2927.
Edwards, K. (2010). Unity amidst heterogeneity in theories of concepts. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,33(2–3), 210–211.
Fodor, J. A. (1989). Why there still has to be a language of thought. In P. Slezak, & W. R. Albury (Eds.), Computers, brains and minds (pp. 23–46). Dordrecht: Springer.
Fodor, J. A. (1998). Concepts: Where cognitive science went wrong. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fodor, J. (2004). Having concepts: A brief refutation of the twentieth century. Mind and Language,19(1), 29–47.
Frege, G. (1948). Sense and reference. The Philosophical Review,57(3), 209–230.
Hampton, J. A. (2000). Concepts and prototypes. Mind and Language,15(2–3), 299–307.
Hampton, J. A. (2006). Concepts as prototypes. Psychology of Learning and Motivation,46, 79–113.
Hampton, J. A., & Jönsson, M. L. (2012). Typicality and composition a lity: The logic of combining vague concepts. In M. Werning, W. Hinzen, & E. Machery (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of compositionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kripke, S. A. (1972). Naming and necessity. In D. Davidson & G. Harman (Eds.), Semantics of natural language (pp. 253–355). Dordrecht: Springer.
Lalumera, E. (2010). Concepts are a functional kind. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,33(2–3), 217–218.
Laurence, S., & Margolis, E. (1999). Concepts and cognitive science. In S. Laurence & E. Margolis (Eds.), Concepts: Core readings (pp. 3–81). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lewis, D. (1970). General semantics. Synthese,22, 18–67.
Löhr, G. (2017). Abstract concepts, compositionality, and the contextualism-invariantism debate. Philosophical Psychology,30(6), 689–710.
Machery, E. (2005). Concepts are not a natural kind. Philosophy of Science,72(3), 444–467.
Machery, E. (2009). Doing without concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Machery, E. (2010a). Précis of doing without concepts. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,33(2–3), 195–206.
Machery, E. (2010b). Replies to my critics. Philosophical Studies,149(3), 429–436.
Machery, E. (2015). By default: Concepts are accessed in a context-independent manner. In L. Margolis & S. Laurence (Eds.), The conceptual mind: New directions in the study of concepts. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Machery, E. (2017). Philosophy within its proper bounds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Machery, E., & Lederer, L. (2012). Simple heuristics for concept combination. In M. Werning, W. Hinzen, & E. Machery (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of compositionality (pp. 81–106). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Margolis, E. (1998). How to acquire a concept. Mind and Language,13(3), 347–369.
Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (2010). Concepts and theoretical unification. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,33(2–3), 219–220.
Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (2011). Learning matters: The role of learning in concept acquisition. Mind and Language, 26(5), 507–539.
Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (2014). Concepts. The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/concepts/>.
Mazzone, M., & Lalumera, E. (2010). Concepts: Stored or created? Minds and Machines,20, 47–68.
Michael, J. (2017). Putting unicepts to work: A teleosemantic perspective on the infant mindreading puzzle. Synthese, 194(11), 4365–4388.
Millikan, R. G. (1998). A common structure for concepts of individuals, stuffs, and real kinds: More Mama, more milk, and more mouse. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,21(01), 55–65.
Murphy, G. (2002). The big book of concepts. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Pagin, P. (2012). Communication and the complexity of semantics. In M. Werning, W. Hinzen, & E. Machery (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of compositionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Peacocke, C. (1992). A study of concepts. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Prinz, J. (2002). Furnishing the mind: Concepts and their perceptual basis. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Prinz, J. J. (2012). Regaining composure: A defense of prototype compositionality. In M. Werning, W. Hinzen, & E. Machery (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of compositionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prinz, J., & Clark, A. (2004). Putting concepts to work: Some thoughts for the 21st century. Mind and Language,19(1), 57–69.
Putnam, H. (1973). Meaning and reference. The Journal of Philosophy,70(19), 699–711.
Recanati, F. (2010). Truth-conditional pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rey, G. (1983). Concepts and stereotypes. Cognition,15(1), 237–262.
Rey, G. (1985). Concepts and conceptions: A reply to Smith, Medin and Rips. Cognition,19(3), 297–303.
Rey, G. (2009). Review of E. Machery, doing without concepts. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. (Online journal. Epub: 2009.07.15.) Available at https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/doing-without-concepts/.
Rey, G. (2010). Concepts versus conceptions (again). Behavioral and Brain Sciences,33(2–3), 221–222.
Rosch, E. (1978). Principles of categorization. In E. Rosch & B. B. Lloyd (Eds.), Cognition and categorization. Hillsdale: Erlbaum. Reprinted in: Margolis, E. and Laurence, S. (Eds.) (1999). Concepts: Core readings. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Rosch, E. H. (2011). Slow lettuce: Categories, concepts, fuzzy sets, and logical deduction. In R. Belohlavek & G. Klir (Eds.), Concepts and fuzzy logic (pp. 89–120). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Smith, E. E., Medin, D. L., & Rips, L. J. (1984). A psychological approach to concepts: Comments on Rey’s “concepts and stereotypes”. Cognition,17(3), 265–274.
Szabó, Z. (2012). The case for compositionality. In Markus Werning, Wofram Hinzen, & Edouard Machery (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of compositionality (pp. 64–80). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Travis, C. (2008). Occasion-sensitivity: Selected essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Werning, M. (2005). Right and wrong reasons for compositionality. In M. Werning, E. Machery, & G. Schurz (Eds.). The compositionality of meaning and content (Vol. 1, pp. 285–309). Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.
Wynne, C. D. (2001). Animal cognition: The mental lives of animals. New York: Macmillan.
Yli-Vakkuri, J. (2018). Semantic externalism without thought experiments. Analysis,78(1), 81–89.
I thank Dimitri Mollo, Edouard Machery, Geert Keil, Juan Loaiza, Markus Werning, François Recanati, Michael Pauen, Richard Moore, Matthias Unterhuber and both anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.
This publication is funded by the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg “Situated Cognition”, GRK-2185/1.
About this article
Cite this article
Löhr, G. Concepts and categorization: do philosophers and psychologists theorize about different things?. Synthese 197, 2171–2191 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1798-4
- Prototype theory
- Semantic externalism