Concepts and categorization: do philosophers and psychologists theorize about different things?

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I use capital letters to denote concepts, single quotation marks to denote words and italics for emphasis and to denote properties.

  2. 2.

    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).

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    In the following I use a deliberately simplified version of prototype theory. I want to show that even this simple version (e.g., Rosch 1983) is immune to the common objections often raised against it. Updated versions can be found in Hampton (2000, 2006), Rosch (2011) or Del Pinal (2016).

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    This constraint, too, has been challenged for instance by Prinz (2012).

  8. 8.

    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).

  9. 9.

    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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

Funding

This publication is funded by the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg “Situated Cognition”, GRK-2185/1.

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Correspondence to Guido Löhr.

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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

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Keywords

  • Concepts
  • Categorization
  • Prototype theory
  • Contextualism
  • Semantic externalism
  • Compositionality
  • Meta-philosophy